In Test cricket, opening batters are like those soldiers who are first to face the opposition’s most lethal attacks. They bear the brunt of the opposition’s attack when they are fresh and raring to go and take numerous blows to ensure that the people coming after them have a relatively easier attack to face.
In the Test arena, opening the batting is perhaps the toughest place to bat. With a brand-new ball and a fresh pitch, the bowlers are at an advantage at least in the initial 15 overs of the game. The red new ball can get the extra bounce, move more in the air, and have a bit of extra movement off the pitch as compared to a softer, older ball. Hence, it can get challenging for the opening batters to negotiate all these factors by protecting their wicket and score runs at the same time. The longer the opening batters bat and occupy the crease, the easier it gets for the incoming middle-order batters to bat.
Despite this, not all countries throw the same kind of challenges to the opening batters. Some places like India, UAE, and the subcontinental countries, in general, are relatively easier for the opening batters as compared to England, South Africa and New Zealand. In the subcontinent, usually, there is no extra bounce off the pitch and lateral movement of the ball – both in the air and off the pitch – is marginal. In conditions like England and New Zealand, the ball swings a lot more in the air whereas, in South Africa, the pitches provide extra bounce to the bowlers and also aid generous seam movement off the pitch.
Opening partnerships in each country
From 2016 till the start of the Pataudi Trophy 2021, the overall average for opening partnerships across the world was 31.43 runs per wicket. Any place with an average more than that can be considered as relatively easier conditions for the openers to bat in, whereas an average below 31.59 would mean that the conditions are more challenging for the opening batters.
According to the data, the United Arab Emirates, with an average of 37.60 for the opening partnership, is by far the best place to bat for the openers, followed by Australia (36.02) and Sri Lanka (35.19). Pitches in UAE are very flat for almost four days of the Test match, hence, provide no real assistance for bowlers, be it pacers or spinners. This makes life easier for the openers as the pitch offers true bounce and almost negligible lateral movement.
In Australia, the drop-in pitches are usually made for a Test match to last five days and the pitch can be very flat for the first two or three days. The Kookaburra ball doesn’t generate extravagant seam movement and warm weather conditions rule out the possibility of any swing in the air. Pitches in Sri Lanka are usually made in a way that batting in the first two or three days is relatively easier and the pitch starts assisting the spinners from the fourth day.
The most challenging country for openers to bat in has been Bangladesh. On average, the openers in Bangladesh manage to score only 22.41 runs before either of them are dismissed. It is closely followed by the West Indies (23.16) and England (23.6).
The reasons for such a low batting average for openers in Bangladesh and the other two countries are chalk and cheese. In Bangladesh, the pitches often start assisting the spin bowlers right from the first day. A brand-new ball on a dry and rough pitch can cause a lot more damage to batters than an old ball. The hardness of the new ball enables it to grip the surface a lot more and also provides some variable bounce, making a batters’ stay uncomfortable.
England and West Indies, along with Ireland, are the only countries that use the ‘Dukes’ ball in Test cricket. The Dukes ball is an entirely hand-stitched ball with a prominent seam and the lush green outfield in England and West Indies to an extent, allows the ball to retain its shine for longer periods. Aided by all these conditions, the pace bowlers can generate more swing and seam on the ball, especially with a new ball, thus making it a difficult task for the openers to negotiate.
Opening partnerships for the first two innings
These statistics also consider the third and fourth innings of the Test match, when batting usually gets difficult, irrespective of the country the match is being played in. To get a fair idea of the batting average of opening batters when the conditions haven’t deteriorated and are almost natural conditions of the respective host countries, we look into the performances of opening batters in the first and second innings of the Test match.
In the first two innings of a Test match, the overall batting average for the openers is 32.68. The best country to bat for the openers is again the United Arab Emirates, with an average of 49.08 runs for the first wicket. The next teams on the list are Sri Lanka (38.12), South Africa (37.6) and Australia (37.01).
The countries where opening the batting is most difficult in the first two innings are Bangladesh (17.07), England (21.95) and West Indies (25.37). Incidentally, Bangladesh is the only country to not have a single hundred-run partnership for the first wicket, with the highest partnership being 72 runs in 28 innings and only one other fifty-run opening partnership.
Team performance analysis
In the same period, the team with the lowest batting average for the opening partnership is England, with an average of just 23.60 runs before they lose their first wicket. After England, teams with poor opening partnerships are Bangladesh and West Indies, both with an identical batting average of 27.09. The best opening team in the world is New Zealand. New Zealand’s openers average 41.41 in the first two innings of the test match. They are closely followed by Australia, with an average of 40.14.
One of the key findings of this is that England, the second toughest place in the world for the opening batters, is also the ‘home’ for the England Cricket Team. This means that despite being acclimatized to the conditions, England’s openers face these challenging conditions more often than any other team. That can have a huge impact on the outcome of their openers.
Another pertinent issue with the England team’s lack of fruitful results is the constant changing of the opening batters. Although India and Sri Lanka have used the same number of players in the opening spot as England (12), they have made the changes for various reasons – players retiring, getting injured – whereas England have not been patient with the players who have failed to provide instant results.
New Zealand is a big example of showing faith in players and getting good results. New Zealand have used just six different openers in the five-year period, and this has resulted in them averaging the most for an opening pair. This also shows that a team needs to back their players and give them a longer rope, especially when the conditions they play in are unfavourable and constantly challenging them.
Since the opening batters can often end up setting the tone of the innings and subsequently the match, teams must find the right personnel for one of the most difficult jobs in Test cricket. The teams must stick with players who show potential and give them enough time and confidence to perform to the best of their abilities.