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The dismal story of India's opening act

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Manjrekar: Hanuma Vihari should play up the order (4:05)

In light of India's problems at the top of the order, Sanjay Manjrekar weighs up the visitors' opening options ahead of the Boxing Day Test (4:05)

India's last century stand for the first wicket in a Test match in South Africa, England, New Zealand or Australia (SENA, in short) came in Centurion eight years ago, in 2010, when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir put on 137 in India's second innings.

Since that series in South Africa, India's opening pairs have come out to bat 62 times in a Test innings in these four countries, and have passed 50 only seven times, with a highest of 63. Their average partnership during this period: 21.03; the average balls they have survived per partnership: 39 (6.3 overs). In nine series in these countries, only once have they lasted more than 50 balls per partnership, on average, and only once was their average stand more than 30.

Whichever way you look at it, these are damning numbers. During the same period, the opening pairs haven't had too many problems in Asia, averaging 48.27, with eight century partnerships in 75 attempts. Clearly, the challenge of facing up to the new ball in difficult conditions is one that India's openers have consistently failed to tackle in the last seven-and-a-half years. Their average of 21.03 in these countries is lower than it is for all wickets, except the last two.

The scatter diagram of India's 62 opening stands tells the story: only three times have they survived beyond 15 overs. (The graph shows two points because two of the partnerships were exactly the same - 63 in 18.2 overs, between Gautam Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund at Lord's in 2011, and between M Vijay and KL Rahul in Adelaide in the first Test of the ongoing series.)

In 30 of those 62 partnerships, the first wicket has fallen within the first five overs, including nine instances of the first wicket falling in the first over. In fact, only 16 times have the openers survived beyond 10 overs, and only 25 times has the opening partnership touched 20.

Clearly, opening the batting in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa isn't the same as facing the new ball in Asia, where conditions are usually less favourable for seam and swing. Even so, India have an advantage over the other Asian teams, in that they usually tour these countries more often, and play longer series - especially in England and Australia - giving their batsmen more time to acclimatise. In the period since June 2011, India have played 31 Tests in these four countries, compared to 19 by Sri Lanka, 14 by Pakistan, and four by Bangladesh.

Despite that, Sri Lanka have done better in these conditions, averaging 29.31, and lasting 63 balls per dismissal. Pakistan have a marginally lower average, but last much longer - 53 balls, compared to India's 39. Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan have had at least one series in which their opening partnership has averaged more than 45, but India's best in a series during this period has been a meagre 31.

India weren't always so poor, though. Between December 2003 and January 2011, India's average opening stand in these four countries was 43.12, thanks largely to the Jaffer-Karthik, Sehwag-Chopra and Sehwag-Gambhir combinations. In 40 opening stands, there were five century partnerships, including a highest of 153.

India had a 6-6 win-loss record in 20 Tests in the SENA countries in this period, compared to a win-loss of 4-22 in 31 Tests in the current period. While the entire onus of the results can't be attributed to the opening stands - or to any single factor - there's no doubt that the ability of the openers to forge strong partnerships helps the rest of the line-up. Given India's bowling strength currently, a little help from the openers could go a long way in turning some of those defeats into wins.

In those six victories in the earlier period, India's average opening stand was 55, compared to 41.91 in defeats (which is still extremely healthy). In the current period, the average partnership in the four wins has been 32.62, and in the 22 defeats, it is 18.27.

Because of the extremely small sample size for successful partnerships during this period, it is difficult to establish through numbers that India's middle order has done better when the openers have stayed longer: when they have survived more than 10 overs, the average runs per wicket for the other partnerships has been 29.25, compared with 27.25 when the openers are separated within the first 10 overs. That is a small difference, but then 10 overs is a fairly small number for a cut-off, and given that the openers have survived 15-plus overs only three times, that is hardly a significant sample size.

The twin failures in Perth - after a promising 63-run partnership in the second innings in Adelaide - puts the spotlight firmly on the openers again ahead of Boxing Day. Regardless of which two batsmen come out to open, India's middle order, which has done the bulk of the scoring in the series so far, will be hoping for a better platform than has been the norm lately.