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Numbers Game

South Africa's opening pairs' struggle against the top pace attacks

South Africa's opening partnership has been a huge concern for them recently, and their numbers look especially poor against high-quality pace attacks

S Rajesh
S Rajesh

ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In their last 12 Test innings, South Africa's opening partnerships have read thus: 18, 21, 18, 18, 10, 12 (in the ongoing series in England), 5, 13, 12, 18, 10, 0 (in New Zealand). That is an aggregate of 155 runs at an average of 12.92 runs per stand.
But before the tour to New Zealand, South Africa's openers were in great form in the home series against Sri Lanka, putting together two century stands in five innings, and averaging 65.8 for the first wicket. However, before that series against Sri Lanka, the opening pair had again been separated pretty quickly on the tour to Australia (average stand 18.20), and in the home series against England (average 23.85).
In these numbers, there is a pattern that has emerged for South Africa's opening stands in the last four and a half years. While their home-and-away stats tell a story too - average partnership of 41.25 at home, and 21.94 away - the other trend that stands out is the tendency of the opening pair to struggle against the top fast-bowling opposition line-ups and score against the lesser attacks. It is obvious that all batsmen will want to cash in against the weaker attacks, knowing that a few low scores could be around the corner against the better bowling sides, but in the case of South Africa's opening stands, the difference is much starker than it is for other teams.
In the period since the start of 2013, the four best fast bowling attacks in the world have belonged to South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand. Home conditions in these countries also favour seam and swing, which has helped in the superior bowling averages for the fast bowlers. In Tests against these opponents, South Africa's openers have struggled, both home and away, averaging only 20.17 per stand. Only once in 35 partnerships have they added 100-plus runs, against New Zealand in Centurion last year; in the remaining 34 stands, their highest is 53, and 19 times they have failed to go past 15.
Contrast that with South Africa's opening partnership stats against the weaker pace attacks in the world: their average against Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe is 46.76, with four hundreds and 11 partnerships of 50 or more in 28 attempts. That is once every 2.54 innings, compared to once every 17.5 innings against the better attacks. (Against Pakistan, the average is somewhere in the middle - 33.50.)
South Africa's average opening stands in Tests since Jan 2013
Versus P'ships Average 100s Inns/50+ Rank*
 Aus, Eng, NZ  35  20.17  1  17.50  10
 Pakistan  8  33.50  0  8.00  5
 Ban, Ind, SL, WI, Zim  28  46.76  4  2.55  1
* Rank in terms of average, among all teams against these oppositions
South Africa's average opening stands v Aus, Eng and NZ since Jan 2013
Versus P'ships Runs Average 100/50 stands
 Australia  11  157  14.27  0/ 0
 England  13  264  20.3  0/ 1
 New Zealand  11  285  25.9  1/ 0
To further highlight the contrast:
  • South Africa's average of 20.17 is the lowest among all teams against the top four sides in terms of pace attacks. Australia average 53.42 against these attacks (versus South Africa, England and New Zealand), while England average 30.01 and New Zealand 29.88.
  • South Africa's average of 46.76 against Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe is the highest among all teams against these sides.
  • South Africa's average of 46.76 against these sides includes the terrible series in India in 2015-16, when a combination of difficult pitches and lack of confidence made run-scoring extremely tough. Spinners regularly opened the bowling in that series and South Africa's opening combination managed 94 runs in seven innings at an average of 13.42. Exclude that series, and South Africa's average against these teams goes up significantly, to 59.05.
  • While Australia, England and New Zealand have always posed bigger challenges for South Africa's opening batsmen, their partnership against these teams wasn't always so poor. In the previous five-year period - from January 2008 to December 2012 - South Africa's opening pair averaged 39.54, which is almost twice as much as their current average, against these teams, with 12 50-plus stands. They were especially effective in England, averaging 60.33 there, with three century stands in 13 innings.
    Overall against these three countries, South Africa's openers averaged a 50-plus stand every four innings, compared to one every 17.5 innings over the last four and a half years. And against the other five teams, they did even better, averaging 61.06, with 17 50-plus stands in 32 innings.
    Among the South African openers, the only one who has stepped up consistently against the top new-ball attacks has been Dean Elgar. He has averaged 42.84 as an opener against Australia, England and New Zealand since the start of 2013. The other South African openers have together averaged 23.23 and scored fewer runs in 43 innings than Elgar has in 27. The batsmen in that list include Stephen Cook (416 runs at 29.71), Alviro Petersen (192 runs at 32), Graeme Smith (100 runs at 12.50), Stiaan van Zyl (69 runs at 13.80), and Heino Kuhn (78 runs at 13).
    That has been the trend in the ongoing series in England as well, where Elgar has been by far South Africa's best batsman, scoring 286 runs at an average of 47.66. His opening partner, Kuhn, has managed 78 runs at an average of 13. Against the teams with the friendlier pace attacks, Elgar's numbers show little change - he averages 43.09 - but the others have done a bit better, averaging 33.54.
    In any team, the opening partnership is only as strong as its weaker link. In South Africa's case, the weaker link has been pretty dismal in the last few years, especially against top-class new-ball attacks.

    S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats