September 25, 2015

Tough times for opening pairs

In the last five years, most teams have struggled to unearth stable and successful opening combinations, the one exception being Australia

Chris Rogers and David Warner are the one opening pair with runs in all conditions over the last five years © Getty Images

Over the last few years, most teams have been struggling to put together a stable opening combination. Australia have been the exception, with Chris Rogers and David Warner holding firm and contributing through thick and thin. That was the one aspect of Australia's batting that didn't attract criticism through the failed Ashes campaign in England, with their opening partnerships far outdoing that of the home team. However, with Rogers having announced his retirement after that series, Australia no longer have a stable pair either.

For most of the other teams, finding a consistent opening pair has been among the biggest issues. England won the Ashes despite Adam Lyth's feeble performances as opener, South Africa are searching for replacements for Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen, India are not sure if Shikhar Dhawan is a reliable partner for M Vijay outside the subcontinent, New Zealand's Martin Guptill and Hamish Rutherford have both disappointed in recent Tests, Pakistan can't quite decide if Mohammad Hafeez fits in at the top, while Sri Lanka are hoping that Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva are the answers to their top-order problems.

India had a peculiar problem in Sri Lanka recently, in that even though three of their openers got hundreds - their first such instance in a series - and the combined batting average for their openers was a healthy 46.81, their average opening partnership was an abysmal 5.83. In six innings they managed a total of 35 partnership runs, their worst in a series with a six-innings cut-off.

Overall, these have been rough times for opening pairs. Since the beginning of 2011, the average opening partnership in all Tests has dropped to 35.06, which is a 15% fall from the average between 2006 and 2010. In the same comparison across all wickets - and not just the first - the drop in average partnership is only around 5% (from 35.60 between 2006 to 2010, to 33.67 since the start of 2011), which indicates this fall isn't just the result of overall lowering of batting averages.

The average partnerships have gone back to the levels that were prevalent in the 1990s, when most teams had strong new-ball attacks, from Allan Donald-Shaun Pollock to Wasim Akram-Waqar Younis to Curtly Ambrose-Courtney Walsh to Craig McDermott and Glenn McGrath. The frequency of century stands has reduced too, from one every ten innings between 2001 and 2005, to one every 14 innings in the last five years.

Opening partnerships and openers since 1991
Period Inns Ave stand 100 p'ships Inngs/100 Openers' ave
 2011-2015  723  35.06  51  14.2  35.03
 2006-2010  765  41.12  69  11.1  37.93
 2001-2005  922  41.56  93  9.9  38.82
 1996-2000  747  33.23  49  15.2  32.94
 1991-1995  580  37.84  50  11.6  35.57

Of the ten opening combinations that have batted together at least 20 times in the last five years, only two of them - Rogers-Warner and Vijay-Dhawan - have averaged more than 50 runs per partnership. The Rogers-Warner pair has consistently got Australia off to fine starts both home and away, putting together nine centuries in 41 innings, including seven from 23 partnerships in away Tests. That includes four century stands in England, two in South Africa and one in Dubai. In fact, they averaged more in away Tests (55.36) than at home (46.38). Clearly, Rogers' retirement will be a huge blow for Australia, not just in terms of the number of runs he scored himself, but in terms of those scored by the team while he was batting.

On the other hand, the Vijay-Dhawan combination has scored most of their partnership runs in two huge double-century stands - 289 against Australia in Mohali in 2013, and 283 against Bangladesh in Fatullah in 2015 - but little else in between. Excluding those two stands, their average partnership drops from 50.20 to 28.77. Unlike Rogers-Warner, who have seven century stands in 23 overseas partnerships, Vijay-Dhawan have one from 21 away innings, and even that was in Bangladesh. Outside the subcontinent, they have averaged 25.70 runs per partnership. Vijay has been terrific with his technique and temperament, but Dhawan's frailty outside off has been a weakness that opposition bowlers have ruthlessly exploited. The overall numbers look good for them, but a little exploring reveals major cracks.

Dhawan and Vijay's numbers are inflated by the two double-century partnerships they had © Getty Images

Apart from Warner and Ed Cowan, who average 44.85, all the other pairs in the list below average less than 40, including Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, who, during this period, averaged only 33 from 31 partnerships. The pair that looks promising for England was Cook and Nick Compton - they averaged 57.93 from 17 partnerships - but it does appear that England aren't even considering Compton anymore, despite Lyth's Ashes failure. Sri Lanka's Karunaratne and Silva had a consistent 2014 and averaged 45 after 20 partnerships, but a poor series against India has pulled the average back to 36.61 in 26 partnerships. However, with the Sri Lankan middle order in a rebuilding phase, it's likely that the selectors will stick with this opening pair, given that they showed plenty of encouraging signs in 2014.

In terms of team-wise stats too, Australia's numbers stand out. They are the only team with an average opening partnership of more than 40, largely thanks to Rogers and Warner.

Opening pairs since Jan 2011 (Min 20 inngs)
Partners Inns Runs Ave stand 100 p'ships
 Chris Rogers, David Warner  41  2053  51.32  9
 Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay  24  1205  50.20  2
 Ed Cowan, David Warner  28  1256  44.85  3
 Alvirio Petersen, Graeme Smith  38  1354  37.61  4
 Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva  26  952  36.61  2
 Mohammad Hafeez, Taufeeq Umar  31  1018  35.10  3
 Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag  26  907  34.88  1
 Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss  31  1033  33.32  2
 Peter Fulton, Hamish Rutherford  21  697  33.19  1
 Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum  21  605  28.80  2
Team-wise stats for opening stands in Tests since Jan 2011
Team Inns Runs Ave stand 100 p'ships
 Australia  97  4391  45.73  14
 South Africa  60  2252  39.50  5
 Bangladesh  48  1663  35.38  2
 England  99  3408  34.77  7
 India  81  2708  33.43  4
 Sri Lanka  86  2748  33.10  3
 Pakistan  74  2329  32.80  6
 West Indies  77  2360  31.89  5
 New Zealand  73  2321  31.79  4
 Zimbabwe  28  643  22.96  1

Between 2006 and 2010, out of eight opening pairs who batted together 20 or more times, seven had average partnerships of more than 40, including two who averaged more than 60. A couple of pairs are in both tables, but achieved far more success during the 2006-2010 period. India's Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag averaged 62.57 from 42 innings, and were particularly successful in Asia, averaging 65.54 in 35 partnerships. From 2011, when India played overseas more often, the pair struggled, averaging 15.16 from 12 stands overseas, though they continued to flourish at home, averaging 51.78 in 14 partnerships. The other pair which features on both tables is the Cook-Strauss combination; their average drops by about ten runs in the period after 2011.

The team stats show that four teams had averaging opening partnerships of more than 40, compared to just one since 2011. The period between 2001 and 2010 was clearly a prolific one for opening pairs. Now, the bowlers are hitting back.

Opening pairs between Jan 2006 and Dec 2010 (Min 20 inngs)
Partners Inns Runs Ave stand 100 p'ships
 Neil McKenzie, Graeme Smith  27  1664  66.56  5
 Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag  42  2503  62.57  8
 Simon Katich, Shane Watson  28  1523  54.39  3
 Daren Ganga, Chris Gayle  28  1197  44.33  3
 Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss  86  3678  43.78  10
 Imrul Kayes, Tamim Iqbal  26  1053  40.50  2
 Wasim Jaffer, Virender Sehwag  24  962  40.08  3
 Imran Farhat, Salman Butt  22  842  38.27  3
Team-wise stats for opening stands in Tests between 2006-10
Team Inns Runs Ave stand 100 p'ships
 India  107  5874  58.15  20
 Australia  99  4671  49.16  10
 England  116  5132  45.01  13
 South Africa  94  3928  42.69  8
 West Indies  74  2763  37.84  5
 Pakistan  75  2680  36.21  5
 Bangladesh  55  1821  33.10  3
 Sri Lanka  73  2161  30.43  4
 New Zealand  72  1610  23.00  1

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