Numbers Game July 11, 2014

India's opening conundrum

In the last three-and-half-years, India's opening combinations have averaged 18 per partnership overseas, with only one 50-plus stand in 35 attempts

Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have put together prolific partnerships in home Tests, but their highest in nine stands overseas is 41 © Getty Images

Murali Vijay's patient and well-constructed century was a huge plus for India on the first day of their England tour, but one of the disappointments was Shikhar Dhawan's failure. He fell for 12, and the first-wicket partnership ended at 33, extending India's poor run at the top of their innings in overseas Tests. The last time India's openers put together a century stand in a Test match that wasn't on home soil was in the second innings of the Centurion Test in December 2010, when Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag added 137. Since then, it's been a study in contrast for India's opening partnerships in Tests: when playing at home, they've been prolific, putting together huge stands and doing the groundwork for tall scores; when touring, they've invariably flopped.

Since the Boxing Day Test of 2010, India's opening pairs have, in 24 innings at home, had 11 fifty-plus stands, including three which went past 100. The average stand during this period: 58.45. Their current opening pair of Vijay and Dhawan have batted together only three times at home, but have added 408 in those innings, at an average of 136.

Overseas, it's been a completely different story: in 35 innings during this period, they've averaged 18.22, with only one stand of more than 50. That 50-plus stand was worth 63, between Gautam Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund at Lord's in 2011. By the end of the second day at Trent Bridge, India's last-wicket pair had done better, adding 111. (During the same period, India's tenth-wicket pair has averaged 12.12 per completed partnership, compared to 18.22 for the openers.)

Vijay and Dhawan have been hugely successful at home, but in nine partnerships overseas they've averaged only 19, with a highest of 41. Their aggregate partnership of 171 in these nine innings is well below their highest at home, of 289. The opening partnership numbers is one of the reasons India have a 11-2 win-loss record at home, and 2-10 overseas.

Indian opening stands, home and away, since Dec 26, 2010
  Innings Runs Ave stand Run rate 100/ 50 stands
Home 24 1403 58.45 4.69 3/ 8
Away 35 638 18.22 3.12 0/ 1

Opening the batting outside the subcontinent isn't easy, but India have struggled far more than most other teams during this period. Australia, South Africa and England are on top of the table, which isn't surprising given that they've generally produced solid openers recently, and that they would also be more familiar with conditions in these countries, but even Sri Lanka have done much better than India. In 22 innings, they've averaged a respectable 35.27 per opening partnership, with one double-century stand, and three others of more than 50.

India, on the other hand, are eighth out of nine teams, with only Pakistan doing worse: in 14 innings they have one 50-plus stand, and average 15.76, with ten of those 14 stands being worth 10 or fewer runs.

India's openers have scored four centuries during this period - two by Rahul Dravid, and one each by Vijay and Dhawan - but the problem has also been that both openers haven't got starts in the same innings. For instance, when Dhawan got his hundred in Auckland earlier this year, Vijay was out for 13, and the first wicket fell at 36; in the innings that Dravid made his hundreds, his opening partners made 8 (Sehwag) and 0 (Mukund), and the first wicket fell in the first over on each occasion.

Opening p'ship stats for each team in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA and WI, in Tests since Dec 26, 2010
Team Inngs Runs Ave stand Run rate 100/ 50 stands
Australia 60 2620 43.66 3.86 7/ 12
South Africa 47 1771 39.35 3.40 5/ 6
England 56 2041 36.44 2.80 3/ 8
Sri Lanka 22 776 35.27 3.13 1/ 3
West Indies 40 1169 29.97 3.07 1/ 6
New Zealand 47 1385 29.46 2.81 3/ 6
Zimbabwe 6 125 20.83 3.42 0/ 0
India 35 638 18.22 3.12 0/ 1
Pakistan 14 205 15.76 2.71 0/ 1

Going back a few more years, the opening partnership stats for India in overseas Tests seems to follow a cyclical pattern. In the period between 2003 and 2010, they averaged almost 47 per partnership in Tests outside the subcontinent (excluding Zimbabwe). While they've had only one 50-plus stand in the last 35 innings, in 43 stands during that period there were 14 stands of 50 or more, including seven which exceeded 100. Virender Sehwag was involved in five of the seven century stands, and Wasim Jaffer in four. Aakash Chopra and Dinesh Karthik were the other openers who played key roles during that period.

Also, India's average opening stand was among the highest in these countries during this eight-year period: only South Africa (51.33) and Australia (49.21) did better. Among the other subcontinent sides, Bangladesh did well at the top of the order (average 38.63 in 30 innings), but Pakistan (31.57) and Sri Lanka (29.67) weren't as impressive, though they were still better than India's openers have been over the last three-and-a-half years.

However, in the seven-year period before 2003, they were again pretty abysmal, averaging 17.24 in 50 stands, with only four 50-plus partnerships during this period. India tried 19 pairs in these seven years between 1996 and 2002, but with little success. During this period, they were right at the bottom of the pile in terms of average opening partnership in these five countries. And again between 1990 and 1995, they did better, averaging 35.25, which was fourth among all teams.

Indian opening stands in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA and WI over the years
Period Inngs Runs Ave stand 100/ 50 stands
Since Dec 26, 2010 35 638 18.22 0/ 1
Jan 2003 to Dec 25, 2010 43 1964 46.76 7/ 7
Jan 1996 to Dec 2002 50 862 17.24 0/ 4
Jan 1990 to Dec 1995 28 952 35.25 2/ 5

In the all-time list of Indian opening pairs, there's still only one, of Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan, with more than 1000 partnership runs in these five countries - they scored 1198 runs in 25 stands, at an average of 47.92, with four century partnerships, including 213 at The Oval in 1979. The next-best in terms of aggregate is the Sehwag-Jaffer pair, though they averaged only 35.72 in 18 innings; Gavaskar also enjoyed considerable success with K Srikkanth, averaging 56.50 in ten partnerships in 1985-86.

Among the other notable pairings abroad are Jaffer-Karthik and Sehwag-Aakash Chopra: the first averaged an impressive 67.85 from seven innings in South Africa and England, while Sehwag and Chopra averaged 57.37 in eight partnerships. Both did much better abroad than the Sehwag-Gambhir pair, which averaged only 27.47 in 19 innings outside the subcontinent. Both Jaffer-Karthik and Sehwag-Chopra played during the 2003-2010 period, when India did much better overseas than they have done over the last three years. During that eight year period, India had a 6-6 win-loss record in 22 Tests, and one of the factors that helped considerably was the performance of their opening pairs. If India find a similar solid combination over the course of this England series, they'll be well served, especially given that another tough tour of Australia is coming up later this year.

Most runs by Indian opening pairs in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA and WI
Pair Inngs Runs Ave stand 100/ 50 stands
Chetan Chauhan-Sunil Gavaskar 25 1198 47.92 4/ 3
Wasim Jaffer-Virender Sehwag 18 643 35.72 2/ 4
Vijay Merchant-Mushtaq Ali 7 584 83.42 2/ 3
Sunil Gavaskar-Kris Srikkanth 10 565 56.50 1/ 4
Gautam Gambhir-Virender Sehwag 19 522 27.47 1/ 1
Wasim Jaffer-Dinesh Karthik 7 475 67.85 2/ 1
Aakash Chopra-Virender Sehwag 8 459 57.37 2/ 2
Sunil Gavaskar-Ashok Mankad 12 430 39.09 1/ 3
Abid Ali-Farokh Engineer 12 400 33.33 0/ 3

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