The toughest venues for openers
South Africa's move to bowl first in the Centurion Test was later explained as being prompted by the past record at the ground. Teams batting first have won only five Tests and lost ten times, but perhaps Smith also figured that bowling first at this venue gave his team a good chance to pick up a few early wickets and put Australia under pressure, instead of being under pressure themselves against Australia's top-class pace attack. This series has already been billed as the battle of the pace bowlers, and it has started at a venue that is one of the toughest for opening batsmen.
Batting at the top of the order remains one of the most difficult jobs in Test cricket in most conditions - though not always in the subcontinent - but at some grounds it is even more challenging than others. The last six opening partnerships in Centurion read thus: 11, 15, 13, 46, 0, 11. In the last 11 Tests played in Centurion (including the ongoing Test), there have been only two century stands for the first wicket, both in the same game, when India toured there in 2010: Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag added 137, while Alviro Petersen and Graeme Smith put together 111.
On the other hand, 15 out of 36 first-wicket partnerships during this period ended in single-digit scores, while 23 of them (64%) didn't touch 20, including the ones in the first innings for Australia and South Africa in the ongoing Test. That's an incredibly high percentage of failures, and indicates just how difficult it is to survive against the new ball at this ground. It's even worse in the first innings of a Test here, when the pitch is at its freshest: in the last 11 such attempts, the highest stand is 48, and the average 18. (Click here for the full list.)
In the last nine years, the average opening stand in a Test in Centurion is 24.41, which is the second-lowest among all venues which have had at least 20 opening stands during this period. The only ground with a worse average is Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, where the opening partnership has averaged 20.39 in 23 attempts, with a highest of 66 between Yasir Hameed and Shoaib Malik in 2005. Fifteen out of 23 opening partnerships there have ended before 20.
Close on the heels of Centurion is another South African venue where openers have struggled: at the Wanderers they've averaged only 26.84 per partnership, with two century stands in 40 attempts. Luckily for the openers from Australia and South Africa, Johannesburg isn't listed as one of the venues for the three-Test series.
A little further down the list is Cape Town as well, making South Africa the only country with three venues among the top ten toughest ones for openers. New Zealand have two, while no other country has more than one.
|Venues||P'ships||Runs||Average||100/ 50 stands|
|Sabina Park, Kingston||23||469||20.39||0/ 3|
|SuperSport Park, Centurion||36||879||24.41||2/ 2|
|Wanderers, Johannesburg||40||1047||26.84||2/ 4|
|Seddon Park, Hamilton||28||729||28.03||0/ 3|
|Harare Sports Club||27||736||28.30||1/ 4|
|P Sara Oval, Colombo||30||892||29.73||1/ 5|
|Brisbane Cricket Ground||33||1015||30.75||1/ 7|
|Trent Bridge, Nottingham||31||973||31.38||2/ 4|
|Newlands, Cape Town||52||1671||32.76||3/ 10|
|Basin Reserve, Wellington||47||1532||34.04||2/ 11|
Centurion is a tough venue for all openers, but even more so for overseas ones. Going back all the way to 2000, overseas opening pairs have averaged 21.57 per completed partnership. In 29 opening stands by overseas batsmen here, there's been only one which has gone on to 50 or beyond, and that was by Gambhir and Sehwag, when they added 137 in India's second innings in 2010. The next-highest is 48, by Imran Farhat and Mohammad Hafeez in 2007. In fact, that pair has three opening partnerships in the 40s in Centurion, which is quite remarkable given that those are the only four instances of 40-plus opening stands in 29 attempts at the SuperSport Park during this period.
There are, though, two other venues where overseas opening pairs have struggled even more. In Jamaica, they've managed only two 40-plus partnerships in 24 attempts, with the average being a miserable 17.82. And the Wanderers has only been slightly kinder to overseas opening pairs: the average partnership there is 20.73, with one huge stand out of 27 - 174 between Phil Hughes and Shane Watson in 2011 - but nothing else beyond 50.
|Venue||P'ships||Runs||Average||100/ 50 stands|
|Sabina Park, Kington||24||410||17.82||0/ 2|
|Wanderers, Johannesburg||27||539||20.73||1/ 0|
|SuperSport Park, Centurion||29||604||21.57||1/ 0|
|Asgiriya Stadium, Kandy||24||540||22.50||0/ 3|
|Sharjah Cricket Stadium||22||569||25.86||1/ 3|
|Brisbane Cricket Ground||28||754||26.92||1/ 2|
|Seddon Park, Hamilton||25||729||31.69||0/ 4|
|Adelaide Oval||27||857||31.74||1/ 3|
|National Stadium, Karachi||16||525||32.81||1/ 3|
|Trent Bridge, Nottingham||26||876||33.69||2/ 4|
From the table above, it's clear that there are six venues where opening pairs have found it particularly difficult to string together partnerships: the average stand for overseas pairs in Jamaica, Johannesburg, Centurion, Kandy, Sharjah and Brisbane are all less than 30 since 2000. That suggests that these are all venues which are tough for openers, and particularly so for touring openers: their average partnership at these grounds during this period is 22.62, with four century stands in 154 innings.
So what are the individual stats of openers who've played at these venues, especially those on tours? The table below lists out the 15 visiting openers who've opened here at least six times, and most of them don't have numbers they can flaunt.
At the bottom of the pile is India's Wasim Jaffer, with scores of 0, 7, 1, 1, 9, 4 - 22 runs from six innings. Pakistan's Mohammad Hafeez isn't a whole lot better - his highest in eight innings at these grounds is 19, and he averages 9.87. Justin Langer has scored only 81 from six innings, while Sehwag has a highest of 63, but has also been dismissed for 0 three times in eight innings.
The only overseas opener with a 50-plus average at these grounds is Matthew Hayden, who has scored 392 runs in seven innings, at an average of 56. (These numbers exclude his stats at the Gabba, since Brisbane is a home venue for him.) Alastair Cook has a fair average too, but that is solely because of one innings - his unbeaten 235 in Brisbane in the 2010 Ashes Test. Excluding that innings, his average drops to 19.69. New Zealand's Mark Richardson, an effective but highly under-rated opener, was a lot more consistent, topping 40 four times in seven innings at these grounds. Chris Gayle has a healthy average too, as does Pakistan's Imran Farhat, who was dismissed under 20 only once in seven innings.
|Matthew Hayden||7||392||56.00||2/ 2|
|Alastair Cook||14||491||37.76||1/ 2|
|Mark Richardson||7||262||37.42||0/ 3|
|Chris Gayle||12||447||37.25||1/ 3|
|Imran Farhat||7||259||37.00||0/ 2|
|Michael Vaughan||8||258||36.85||1/ 1|
|Marcus Trescothick||12||395||35.90||1/ 1|
|Andrew Strauss||14||409||29.21||2/ 0|
|Marvan Atapattu||10||229||22.90||0/ 1|
|Daren Ganga||12||253||21.08||0/ 2|
|Taufeeq Umar||10||188||18.80||0/ 1|
|Virender Sehwag||8||149||18.62||0/ 1|
|Justin Langer||6||81||16.20||0/ 0|
|Mohammad Hafeez||8||79||9.87||0/ 0|
|Wasim Jaffer||6||22||3.67||0/ 0|
If the venues in the tables above are those that openers would like to stay away from, then those in the table below are ones where openers would be queuing up to play on. The Indian venues are to be expected, since facing the new ball is often the best opportunity to score runs in the subcontinent. However, there are a few surprises here, with MCG being high on the list of productive opening partnerships, as also Headingley. (The MCG average is very high because of Australia's openers, who average 54.81 per partnership, but overseas pairs have done well too, averaging a healthy 38.82.) There's a South African venue in the list too, with openers averaging almost 43 in Durban, well clear of the 24.80 in Centurion. And the WACA, with its pace and bounce, has actually helped openers score runs, and score them quickly.
|Venue||P'ships||Runs||Average||100/ 50 stands|
|Punjab CA Stadium, Mohali||24||1322||55.08||4/ 4|
|Bellerive Oval, Hobart||20||943||47.15||2/ 4|
|Eden Gardens, Kolkata||21||980||46.66||1/ 6|
|Melbourne Cricket Ground||33||1537||46.57||4/ 6|
|Headingley, Leeds||26||1156||46.24||3/ 7|
|SSC, Colombo||39||1738||45.73||4/ 11|
|Lord's, London||71||3143||45.55||7/ 12|
|McLean Park, Napier||23||931||44.33||2/ 5|
|WACA, Perth||35||1505||43.00||4/ 4|
|Kingsmead, Durban||30||1245||42.93||2/ 8|
|Bridgetown, Barbados||30||1278||42.60||3/ 4|
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter