Playing Russian Roulette with the opening slot

The recently concluded Lord's Test was a good one for Pakistan: missing several frontline bowlers, they nevertheless held on for a respectable draw, with their middle order giving an especially good account of themselves. The one area of concern, unfortunately, remained the opening. Osman Samiuddin had highlighted Pakistan's opening malaise in a two-part feature, and Salman Butt and Imran Farhat showed at Lord's that they had no intentions of sealing the spots in a hurry. In the four innings between them, they totalled 61, with their two opening stands being worth 28 and 0. With Taufeeq Umar being called up by the team management as a back-up, it's ensured that neither Butt nor Farhat is a certainty for the second Test.
In the 11-and-a-half-year period from January 1995, Pakistan have already played a staggering 53 different opening combinations in Tests. This should offer an idea of Pakistan's instability at the top: Aamer Sohail, one of their more reliable openers, came out to bat with the following different names during this period - Saeed Anwar, Shakeel Ahmed, Shoaib Mohammad, Saleem Elahi, Rameez Raja, Ijaz Ahmed, Ali Naqvi, Shahid Afridi and Azhar Mahmood.

Just how trigger happy are Pakistan with their openers, as compared to the other teams? The table below answers the question: those 53 different pairs have spanned a total of 104 Tests for Pakistan during this period, which is an extremely healthy lifespan of 1.96 matches per pair. Obviously, variety is the spice of life for Pakistan's selectors, at least when selecting their openers. Their familiarity-breeds-contempt approach has meant that of those 53 pairs, 15 batted together for precisely one innings while for 15 more, the partnership lasted exactly double that period.

Australia are at the other end of the spectrum: they have played 34 more matches than Pakistan during this period, but have only needed 12 different opening combinations to do the job. England and South Africa have also given pretty long runs to their openers, while Sri Lanka have been blessed by the presence of Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya. The only team which gives Pakistan a run for their money in playing Russian Roulette with the openers is India, who have themselves also been struggling to unearth a solid and stable combination at the top - they have tried out 39 different pairs in 108 matches. New Zealand is the only other side with a ratio of less than three Tests per combination.

The next table lists out the best opening combination for each side since 1995 (among pairs who have played at least 15 innings together). It's interesting to note that Pakistan's representative is a pair which might turn out for them in the second Test - Farhat and Umar average an impressive 50.26, with three century stands in 15 innings. Five pairs average more than 50 - with Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith raising the bar to well over 60 - but Hayden and Langer are the only ones to sustain it over more than 50 innings.

While Pakistan have tried out any number of different combinations, they've still managed reasonable success at the top of the order, as the table below indicates. The motley crew of 53 pairs together average 38 runs per dismissal, which is more than what the openers from Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand have put together. In fact, for a team which has traditionally boasted some fine new-ball bowlers, Pakistan's bigger worry, going by the numbers, seems to be those who operate with the new ball, not those who face up to it: teams average 42.38 for the first wicket against Pakistan, which is almost as many as what Zimbabwe concede. Perhaps it's time to turn up the heat on Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, and Co.