Opening the batting is usually easier in Asia than in other parts of the world: the pitches and the conditions normally don't offer as much by way of pace, bounce, seam and swing as they do elsewhere. However, Sri Lanka is one country that has consistently bucked that trend. The overhead conditions there have often been more favourable for swing, while the pitches too have had a bit by the way of pace and bounce. As a result, bowling with the new ball has usually been profitable, while openers have struggled.
In the six-year period between 2011 and 2016, the average opening stand in Tests in Sri Lanka was 25.11, the lowest among all countries. From 107 partnerships, there was precisely one century stand - 122, between Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss at the P Sara Oval in Colombo in 2012. There were a couple of other unbeaten partnerships which were within ten runs of a century, but on the other hand, there were a whopping 44 completed opening stands worth fewer than 10, including 12 that didn't even get off the mark. The period between July 2015 and August 2016 was particularly wretched: in 34 successive opening partnerships, there were 22 single-digit partnerships and only one that went past 50, and the average stand was a miserable 9.44.
Over the entire six-year stretch, the pairs from the home team struggled as much as the overseas ones during this period, averaging 25.96 per partnership compared to the overseas average of 24.28.
Also, the numbers for the other Asian countries clearly supported the commonly held belief that conditions there are good for openers. The average opening stands in India (43.46), Bangladesh (41.64) and the UAE (38.69) were the highest among all countries. In Sri Lanka, the opening combination passed 50 once every six tries, on average; in India it happened once every 3.3 innings; and in the UAE, once in four innings. The median indicates instances where the average stand might have been propped up by a few very high partnerships. The average in India is more than five runs higher than in Australia, even though the median is the same. Also, the median in the West Indies is slightly lower than in Sri Lanka, even though the average in the West Indies is higher.
However, after being in the doldrums for so long, it looks like the opening partnership in Sri Lanka might be headed for a revival in 2017. The sample size, admittedly, is small - only three Test matches - but in these 12 innings, there have already been more 50-plus opening stands than there were in 59 opening partnerships in the three previous years (2014-16).
The Bangladesh pair of Tamim Iqbal and Soumya Sarkar got the season off to a fantastic start for openers, adding 118 and 67 in the Galle Test in March. Their century stand happened to be the first one for the opening wicket in 92 innings; the last had been made in the 2012 Colombo Test mentioned earlier. The same pair also added 95 in the next Test in Colombo, while the home team's opening combination of Dimuth Karunaratne and Upul Tharanga have had some success as well, going past 50 four times in six innings.
As a result of these prolific partnerships, the average opening stand in Sri Lanka in 2017 so far is 52.91, a far cry from the pathetic average of 15.48 from 43 innings in 2015 and 2016. The sample size is obviously small, and the bowling attacks that have played these games have been far from fierce, but even so, these numbers should encourage openers, especially given the stats they had racked up in the preceding years.
In fact, the opening stats in Sri Lanka weren't always so dire. In the period between 2006 and 2010, the average stand was 39.54, with eight century partnerships in 84 innings. They were still third from the bottom in this period, but the average was within touching distance of most other countries, and several opening pairs did well in Sri Lanka in these five years. Over the next six years, even the home pairs found runs tough to come by.
The last time India toured Sri Lanka, in 2015, the opening pairs from both teams had an almighty struggle: the home team managed 36 partnership runs in six innings, while India managed 35. The highest stand in 12 innings was 15. Given the recent numbers from the opening pairs in Sri Lanka in 2017, both teams will be hoping for better returns this time around.