June 1, 2012

Sri Lanka's search for a consistent start

After Jayasuriya and Atapattu they've struggled for a solid opening combination, and have among the worst first-wicket stats in the last six years

When Sri Lanka begin their Test series against Pakistan on June 22, one of the aspects that they'll want to set right is their opening combination. During the days of Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu, there wasn't much to worry about - especially in home Tests - but since their departure things have changed, as Sri Lanka have tried several options without finding a stable replacement. Their star-studded middle order of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera has compensated with some outstanding performances - all three average more than 55 over the last six years. Thanks largely to their contribution, Sri Lanka's overall partnership average for all wickets is the third-best during this period, but that shouldn't hide the fact that their opening act has been one of the worst in world cricket in this time.

In the last six years (since the beginning of May 2006), Sri Lanka's opening pairs - there have been 15 during this period - have averaged a mere 29.83 per completed partnership, with only four century stands in 93 innings. That's a far cry from their record between 2000 and 2004: in those five years, their average opening stand was 43.01, which was the fourth-best average among all teams, next only to South Africa, Australia and England. That was a period dominated by the Jayasuriya-Atapattu pair - they opened in 75 out of 91 innings, and averaged more than 44 per stand. Sri Lanka had nine century stands for the first wicket in those five years, all of them courtesy that pair, which means the two batsmen averaged 8.33 innings per century partnership during that period, and the team had a century stand every 10.11 innings. Also, Sri Lanka's opening pair lasted, on average, 73 deliveries (12.1 overs) during that period.

In the last six years those numbers have dropped drastically. For almost the same number of innings, almost twice as many combinations have been tried, which indicates how unsettled it has been at the top. Those 15 combinations have produced, on average, an opening partnership of 29.83, lasted about 8.5 overs per partnership, and produced a century stand once every 23 innings. Whichever way you look at it, the fall in standards has been quite dramatic.

Sri Lankan opening pairs, then and now
Period Pairs Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands Balls per dism. Inngs/100
Jan 2000-Dec 2004 8 91 3699 43.01 9/ 15 73.15 10.11
Jan 2005-Apr 2006 7 23 657 31.28 1/ 4 54.57 23.00
May 2006 onwards 15 93 2715 29.83 4/ 17 51.56 23.25

Perhaps the biggest concern will be the falling numbers in home conditions. Opening the batting overseas - especially outside the subcontinent - has always been a tough task for subcontinent teams, but the story has generally been different at home. Between 2000 and 2004, Sri Lanka's opening combinations averaged almost 48 in Sri Lanka, with five century stands in 52 innings. The Jayasuriya-Atapattu combination averaged 48.40 in 45 innings.

In the last six years, though, Sri Lanka's home numbers have fallen away considerably, to 31.46, with only two century stands in 45 innings. The comparative averages in overseas and neutral venues are 28.37 in the last six years, and 36.81 between 2000 and 2004. Clearly the greater fall has been in home conditions, which the Sri Lankans will want rectify in the three Tests against Pakistan. In the last two home series, for example, the highest opening stand in eight innings was 81. In the last 35 opening partnerships at home, spreading across seven series, there has been only one century stand, and even that barely made it past 100 - 102, against West Indies in 2010. As you'd expect, in most overseas countries the opening partnerships haven't yielded much except in the West Indies and in India, though Dilshan and Tharanga Paranavitana had a couple of memorable partnerships on the last tour to England in 2011.

Sri Lankan opening partnerships in each country
Host country 2000-04: Inngs Ave stand 100/ 50 stands May 2006 onwards: Inngs Ave stand 100/ 50 stands
Sri Lanka 52 47.69 5/ 12 45 31.46 2/ 10
England 7 42.67 0/ 1 12 32.08 1/ 1
West Indies 4 69.33 1/ 0 4 59.25 1/ 1
India - - - 5 41.80 0/ 2
South Africa 10 13.30 0/ 0 6 23.83 0/ 1
Australia 4 16.50 0/ 0 4 29.00 0/ 1
Bangladesh - - - 4 24.00 0/ 1
UAE - - - 6 13.67 0/ 0
New Zealand - - - 4 18.25 0/ 0
Pakistan 12 26.50 1/ 2 3 7.00 0/ 0
Zimbabwe 2 190.50 2/ 0 - - -

Sri Lanka's overall poor numbers for the first wicket during the last six years mean they're second from bottom in the table of average opening stands during this period - only New Zealand have done worse, with an average of 24.97. Sri Lanka's average is about 20 short of India's, who're on top of the table with an average of 49.80. (India's numbers are a fine example of how they've exploited home conditions - they average 62 at home, and 43 abroad. The surprise packet in terms of away opening stands is Bangladesh - they've had some superb partnerships for the first wicket in England and New Zealand, and average 47.76 overseas, but only 18.64 at home.)

Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka's balls-per-completed-partnership is among the poorest too, at 51.56 - only 0.01 better than New Zealand's.

Opening partnership stats for each team since May 1, 2006
Team Pairs Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands Balls per dism. Inngs/100
India 13 125 5977 49.80 19/ 24 70.96 6.58
Australia 11 114 5384 48.50 12/ 30 81.68 9.50
England 5 135 5797 43.58 15/ 25 83.20 9.00
South Africa 13 100 4222 43.52 8/ 25 76.34 12.50
Zimbabwe 2 8 304 38.00 1/ 2 76.13 8.00
Pakistan 15 91 3092 35.13 7/ 14 72.63 13.00
Bangladesh 5 57 1820 31.92 3/ 7 52.09 19.00
West Indies 19 99 3011 30.72 6/ 15 53.83 16.50
Sri Lanka 15 93 2715 29.83 4/ 17 51.56 23.25
New Zealand 15 81 1998 24.97 3/ 8 51.55 27.00

And now a look at the pairs who have opened for Sri Lanka during this period. There are 15 in all, but seven who've done so at least five times. Among them, the best stats, by a long way, belong to the Dilshan-Paranavitana combination: in 32 innings they average 41.80, with a best of 207 against England at Lord's last year. Since then, though, the pair has slumped, adding only 157 runs in their next ten partnerships, which led to Paranavitana being dropped in favour of Lahiru Thirimanne for the home series against England. In fact, Sri Lanka have tried various combinations among Dilshan, Paranavitana, Thirimanne, Michael Vandort and Malinda Warnapura, but they haven't yet settled on a consistent combination. In terms of batting averages of these openers, Dilshan is the only one with an average of 40. Some of the others have averages in the 30s, but Thirimanne has disappointed so far, averaging 19.84 in 14 innings. A couple of them will probably get more chances against Pakistan - all of Sri Lanka will be hoping they finally get the combination right this time.

Sri Lankan opening pairs since May 2006 (Qual: 5 innings)
Pair Innings Runs Ave stand 100/ 50 stands Run rate Balls per dism.
Dilshan-Paranavitana 32 1296 41.80 2/ 10 3.92 63.94
Vandort-Warnapura 13 359 27.61 1/ 1 3.15 52.46
Paranavitana-Thirimanne 8 184 26.28 0/ 1 1.95 80.57
Paravitana-Warnapura 8 195 24.37 0/ 2 3.83 38.12
Dilshan-Thirimanne 5 118 23.60 0/ 1 4.34 32.60
Tharanga-Vandort 7 114 16.28 0/ 0 3.33 29.29
Jayasuriya-Tharanga 7 107 15.28 0/ 0 5.13 17.86

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dileepa on June 3, 2012, 7:29 GMT

    I think it's high time we look beyond Dilshan & get 2 yougsters for the opening slot. Thirimanne should be given more chances, he is proving to be a gutsy player & playing in the top order in Test cricket will do a world of good to him. Why not try Chandimal? For me, these 2 are the most talented out of the lot & an opportunity to bat together will help them create a bond like Sanga & Mahela. Dilshan can move down the order & he can combat the 2nd new ball when the bowlers are tired & the pitch is old. With a Strong middle order with Sanga, Mahela, Thilan, Dilshan & Angelo/Prasanna, we can look forward for a good 3-4 years.

  • Rajesh on June 2, 2012, 16:21 GMT

    This is the making of SLCB. Somehow down the line they went the BCCI way of get politicised. Marvan was shown the door when he had enough and more years in him. They are yet to recover from Murali's retirement.With Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan on the wrong side of thirties, things dont look too rosy for Lankan Test Cricket.

  • Nadun on June 2, 2012, 14:00 GMT

    Hey yo, why have everybody forgotten how good Upul Tharanga and T.Dilshan were?

  • Dummy4 on June 2, 2012, 9:54 GMT

    Jonothinjosephs: One of the most hilarious suggestions! Sanath is a proper recognized batsman not an outright slogger. He came to SL squad in 1989 Aus tour on the merit of two double hundreds in SL A tour of Pakistan. He made his test debut against NZ in 1990/91 tour because Mahanama got injured in first test and took no further part in that tour. Although Haturu was flown in as replacement opener to make his debut Sri Lanka decided to play an extra batsman and Sanath got opportunity and scored 35 batting at No. 6 ahead of Arjuna who was not well. After that Sanath did score runs but could not find a permanent slot in an established line-up. First attempt to open with him against Pak failed badly and it was only after he opened and scored maiden hundred against Aus in 1996 he started opening regularly. Still on few occasions he was forced to move down the order. So how can Thisara with no real technique succeed as an opener when even a recognized batsman found it difficult in tests?

  • sameera on June 2, 2012, 4:53 GMT

    Chandimal also can be used as an opener.

  • Dummy4 on June 2, 2012, 3:38 GMT

    why we are not trying with bhanuka rajapaksha? Left hander with handy legspiner

  • Johnathon on June 1, 2012, 20:52 GMT

    Thissara Perera needs to open with Dilshan. Remember when Jayasuriya (thought to be a spinner) was promoted from 7th position to opening? Revolutionized Sri Lankan cricket

  • manjula on June 1, 2012, 19:12 GMT

    All of you don't understand...this is not statistcs about SL openers. It is: how bad the SL selection is? Dilshan-Paranavitana has the best record. Why can't they stick with it. Para is getting better at it? SL selection is to blame. Para including Vandort and Warnapura were good. But they never got a good run.

  • Shorjail Ahmad on June 1, 2012, 17:17 GMT

    @kavum if Tamim is that good then why he was dropped for a long time ?? and why Bangladesh isnt at the top of ranking table if he can put 100 Partnership with everyone ?

  • Dummy4 on June 1, 2012, 17:10 GMT

    Lasitha, I agree wth you fully. The senior opener should set the example. Sanath Jayasuriya did have a weakness outside the off stump throughout his career. But he did put his head down in test cricket and played some really long innings. Dilshan is just playing reckless shots and getting out. It is like playing to the gallery. Test cricket is not IPL. Bowlers can afford to have plenty of catchers behind the wicket and risk been hit for few boundaries.He adds value to the team through his outstanding fielding and part time bowling. But that alone cannot keep him in the team. Even Jonty Rhodes could not seal a permanent spot in SA test team because he was not scoring enough runs on a consistent basis. If you are selected to open you should perform that job. We need to find a solid opening pair, even if they are not aggressive it does not matter. Certainly Dilshan is not the answer.

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