Starting trouble in Sri Lanka

The average opening stand in Sri Lanka is more than five runs lower than the average in South Africa ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Historically, conditions outside Asia have been the toughest for opening batsmen; in England, South Africa and New Zealand, the ball swings and seams, while Australian pitches have offered more bounce. Over the last five years, though, opening the batting in Sri Lanka has been more difficult than in any other country.

In 87 innings in Tests since the beginning of 2012, the average opening partnership in Sri Lanka has been 25.82, easily the lowest among all countries with a cut-off of 30 partnerships. (The average in Zimbabwe is 22.19, from 21 opening stands there during this period.) The only century opening partnership in Sri Lanka during this period was more than four years ago, in April 2012, when Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss added 122 in Colombo. There have been only four other 80-plus stands in this period, while 32 times out of 87 - that's 37% of the total innings - the partnership has ended before getting into double digits. That includes the dismal numbers from the ongoing Sri Lanka-Australia Test in Pallekele, when the first wicket in each of the first three innings fell for single-digit scores.

The average opening stand in Sri Lanka during this period is 16% lower than in any other country (with the 30-innings cut-off). The next lowest is in South Africa, which has always been a difficult country for opening batsmen, but even there the average is more than five runs higher than the average in Sri Lanka. In the other Asian countries the averages are much higher - 40.16 in the UAE, 43.47 in India and 45.93 in Bangladesh - confirming that conditions in Asia are quite favourable for batsmen when the ball is new. Except, it would seem, when the country in question is Sri Lanka.

The concept of home advantage for batsmen is a well-entrenched one, but over the last five years it hasn't held true for Sri Lanka's opening pairs. In 44 partnerships at home since the beginning of 2012, they have averaged 27.59, with a highest stand of 93 not out, by Dimuth Karunaratne and Tharanga Paranavitana against New Zealand in Galle in 2012. Their numbers in the last year are especially abysmal: in 13 innings since July 2015, the openers have added more than 15 only once, and have averaged 10.15 per partnership. Their partnerships during this period read thus: 15, 12, 15, 0, 1, 8, 11, 1, 56, 1, 0, 6, 6. In 44 partnerships at home in the last four and a half years, Sri Lanka have had 24 sub-20 stands, and only seven in excess of 50.

They have done much better overseas: in 35 away partnerships during this period, they have scored 248 more runs than they have in 44 home partnerships, and averaged a healthy 40.20. Apart from Australia, where the average has been only 19.16 in six innings, the Sri Lankan openers have done well everywhere, averaging 64.33 in Bangladesh, 52 in the UAE, 41 in New Zealand and South Africa, and 37.70 in England. Compared to 24 sub-20 stands in 44 home innings, in 35 away innings they have had only ten such stands.

That is a huge contrast to the other subcontinent teams, whose opening pairs do much better at home than away. India's openers have averaged 51.68 at home and 25.57 away in the same period. Pakistan have averaged 41.03 in the UAE and 22.18 in other countries, and Bangladesh have averaged 43.68 at home and 27.50 away.

The home and away numbers for Sri Lanka's current opening pair, Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, illustrate just how difficult it has been to play the new ball in Sri Lanka compared to other countries. In 23 overseas partnerships, they have been extremely consistent, going past 30 on 16 occasions. On the recent tour to England, they put together partnerships of 108 and 45, and on the previous tour to England in 2014, they got starts each time, with stands of 54, 25, 37 and 40 in two Tests.

At home, on the other hand, they have had little success to speak of, with only three partnerships of 30 or more in 13 innings. Ten times one of them has been dismissed before the team has reached 20. Silva, especially, has struggled at home, averaging 26.39 from 23 innings, compared to an overseas average of 39.86 in away Tests since the start of 2012.

That, again, is a huge contrast with other opening pairs from the subcontinent. M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, for example, average 65.44 from ten partnerships at home during this period, but outside Asia it drops to 25.14 from 21 partnerships.

Both home and overseas opening pairs have struggled to string together partnerships in Sri Lanka in these last four and a half years. Sri Lanka's openers have done poorly, but overseas teams have fared even worse, averaging 24.04 for the first wicket. When India toured there last year, for example, their opening partnerships aggregated 35 in six innings, an average of 5.83.

Sri Lanka wasn't always so inhospitable to opening pairs. In the five years before 2012, the average stand here was a healthy 38.50, which was higher than the opening stands in South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand. Lately, though, all opening batsmen would probably wish they were elsewhere than in Sri Lanka.