Sri Lanka's search for a consistent start
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.
|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.
|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|
|South Africa||10||13.30||0/ 0||6||23.83||0/ 1|
|Australia||4||16.50||0/ 0||4||29.00||0/ 1|
|New Zealand||-||-||-||4||18.25||0/ 0|
|Pakistan||12||26.50||1/ 2||3||7.00||0/ 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.
|Team||Pairs||Innings||Runs||Average||100/ 50 stands||Balls per dism.||Inngs/100|
|South Africa||13||100||4222||43.52||8/ 25||76.34||12.50|
|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.
|Pair||Innings||Runs||Ave stand||100/ 50 stands||Run rate||Balls per dism.|
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter