Where have all the openers gone?
On Wednesday, Rohit Sharma scored one for his test-cricket career and that tribe called openers. But a swallow doesn’t make a season, and more trials, especially outside India, will determine whether Sharma truly belongs in the longest version of the game and if India have found a fix to their opening woes. It’s not just India. Most sides in test cricket are going through a testing period of trying to find stability and returns in the opening slot.
This is partly framed by the footsteps they follow. When it came to opening pairs, the last decade (2000 to 2009) was exceptional for several sides. Five of the nine prominent test-playing countries put out opening pairs that went on to become the most prolific for their respective nation.
Sri Lanka had Marvin Atapattu-Sanath Jayasuriya (118 innings), England had Andrew Strauss-Alastair Cook (117 innings), Australia had Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer (113 innings), India had Virender Sehwag-Gautam Gambhir (87 innings) and South Africa had Graeme Smith- Herschelle Gibbs (56 innings). Each of these pairs averaged above 40. The hyphen belonged.
Since then, hyphens at the top have been hard to come by. Openers, in general, have had an especially torrid time in the last five years. Australia and England have tried 15 opening combinations, India 13. Only Pakistan has tried more combinations (16) than the Big Three.
The maximum turnout by a pair has been 44 innings by the Sri Lankan pair of Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, and they average a pedestrian 26 runs per innings. The combination of statistics in that one sentence sums up the opening situation in test cricket today: teams are giving a longer rope to their opening pairs, but they are not getting the returns they would like.
A certain churn at the top is expected. That is the nature of the game. Teams tend to run through different pairs before they make a choice for an extended run or find a pair that delivers for a few years. For example, in the decade it found Sehwag-Gambhir, India also tried 27 other opening pairs.
In that sense, the current decade (2010 to 2019) actually presents a better picture than the last decade (2000 to 2009). Other than England, Australia and Sri Lanka, the other teams have fielded fewer pairs. But seeing this in isolation can be misleading.
What also matters is the stability in combination they have provided to their respective side. On average, a team plays 10 tests in a year, a stable opening combination for three years can theoretically give 60 outings. In other words, if a team gets three opening pairs in a decade doing much of the work, it is doing alright.
In the last decade, the share of the top three opening pairs in the total innings played by the team has increased for five of the nine teams, including India. Again, on the face of it, this indicates greater stability.
But it’s actually greater stability without commensurate returns. In the current decade (2010 to 2019), as compared to the last decade (2000 to 2009), seven of the nine prominent test teams have shown a drop in average partnership by opening pairs who have played at least 10 innings. The drop has been especially acute for England (down from 47 to 34) and South Africa (56 to 38). The two who have improved are Bangladesh and New Zealand, and both were ordinary earlier, averaging in their 20s.
The last five years have been especially trying. For six of the nine teams, the last five years have seen them fall below even the average for the entire last decade. This includes England (29) and South Africa (34).
In the last five years, just two sides have seen opening pairs who have been together for more than 10 innings average above 40 runs per innings, as compared to five in the last decade. These are Bangladesh, led by Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes, and Australia, which has seen rotations but also delivered returns.
India averaged a healthy 48 runs in the last decade when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were in their prime. That partnership continued into the present decade when the left-right combination of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay took over. But when they faltered, India’s troubles at the top mounted. That 48 of the last decade became 40 this decade and 36 in the last five years.
India’s most-preferred opening pair in the last five years has been KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, who have averaged just 21 runs in 26 innings. Long rope, but not good enough returns. Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal, India’s latest, have started well. Can they keep it going for 50 innings?
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