According to a popular saying, a good beginning is half the job done. In cricket too, a good start with both the bat and the ball can make a big difference. That is probably the reason, why most teams that dominated the world had solid opening batsmen. Whether it was Sir Don Bradman’s “Invincibles”, the West Indian team of 80’s or Steve Waugh’s Australia, every champion team had dependable batsmen at the top.
India has rarely produced good test openers. They have come few and far between. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, trying new combinations and failing was almost a routine for the Indian team. Australia on the other hand, produced good openers with ease. From Arthur Morris during the Bradman era to Matthew Hayden few years ago, there have been some very capable openers who have donned the baggy green.
In the 60’s, Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson together established one of the best opening partnerships Australia has ever had. Averaging close to 59, they still have the record of Australia’s highest opening stand of a mammoth 382. Then came, Geoff Marsh who may not have staggering figures to boost, but he was mighty useful as both batsman and wicket-keeper. Over the 7 years that Marsh played for the kangaroos, he gelled up well with David Boon and then Mark Taylor.
Mark Taylor, the southpaw from New South Wales, was a fine opener with 19 centuries to his name at an average of over 43. One of the rarely noticed statistics about him is that his average in all 4 innings does not deviate much from 43. Consistent.
Taylor’s superb tactical moves as skipper often made people forget his efforts as an opener. His record with Marsh was good, but with Michael Slater it was even better. The pair averaged 51 and scored 10 centuries and 16 fifties in 78 innings.
Slater who was a part of Steve Waugh’s team which won 16 consecutive test matches, was also a key member for Australia. Apart from 14 centuries, he also has nine 90’s to his name. In 1999, when Taylor decided to hang his boots up, options were aplenty. Two players who had been around for a while were Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden.
Slater continued opening the batting with Hayden till 2001 when he was dropped due to lack of form. On Australia’s tour to India in 2001, Hayden performed exceptionally well in both the ODIs and Tests and securing his place in the side. In years to come, Hayden and Langer together formed a formidable opening stand which lasted various Tests. The pair piled up over 6000 (5655 in 113 innings as openers) runs between them in 122 innings.
The dynamic duo have the third highest partnership runs for any pair of batsmen in Test cricket, 2nd highest as openers after the legendary Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. Langer and Hayden were different in approach from each other. Hayden was a dominating force who would attack the opposition from the go. The tall left-hander handled spin well using sweeps and good use of the feet.
Langer, the less attacking partner was often left in the shadow of Hayden, Ricky Ponting, and the Waughs. However, he was highly valued by the team since his own captain Steve Waugh once said that Langer was the best batsman in the world. Not the most powerful, Langer was consistent and smart accumulator of runs. Not only has he scored 14 centuries in partnership with Hayden, but he has a mindboggling record with Ponting too. The Langer-Ponting pair scored more 3400 runs with 14 centuries at 82 runs per partnership.
With the departure of Justin Langer from the international scene after Ashes 2007, Simon Katich was Hayden’s new partner. Katich was unorthodox with his shuffling stance, yet mighty effective. Skipper of New South Wales piled up close to 3000 runs opening the batting at a healthy average of 50. Later, with Hayden retired, Shane Watson stepped up and the Watson-Katich combo piled up over 1500 runs at an average of 55 per partnership.
Initially, Watson did not seem to fit the bill as far as Tests were concerned. But since 2009, when he moved up the order, he has scored at 43 per innings with 2 centuries and 14 half-centuries. Even with ball, he has been fairly good with wickets at regular intervals. Unfortunately for Katich and Australia, Andrew Hilditch stepped in and decided to drop ‘aging’ Katich. Since then, Australia have stuck with Phil Hughes to accompany Watson.
Hughes had shown great promise from the young age of 19. The ugly truth though, is that Hughes has never quite been able to adapt to playing at the highest level. He may have 3 test centuries to his name, but watching him walk out to open the innings hardly gives any confidence to Aussie supporters. Australia sure need him to fire and give much needed solidarity to the current batting line-up.
The Hughes-Watson combo averages a mere 28 in the last 12 months with a highest of 62. Surely, there is a large scope of improvement. To fill in the boots of Hayden and Langer was never going to be easy. Of course the out-of-sorts middle order is only adding insult to injury. Even if Aussies cannot find Hayden-Langer type combination, they must find a steady opening pair like Sehwag-Gambhir or Cook-Strauss. Of course, there are many other exciting players like Shaun Marsh and David Warner. Marsh has already featured in a few Test matches and batted well at number 3. With lots of shots and good temperament, he is the most likely candidate to open, if and when Hughes is dropped.
Extravagant Warner is an attacking batsman and brilliantly quick fielder. In the 10 first-class matches he has played, Warner has scored 3 centuries at an average of close to 60. If he gets a go, it will be fun to watch for sure as he plays some unconventional strokes.
The top three teams in Test cricket currently are South Africa, England and India. All these teams have steady openers which yet again shows the importance of a consistent opening pair. Kangaroos may never be able to replicate Hayden-Langer or Taylor-Slater, but finding a pair to give them a good platform on a consistent basis is a must if they wish to cover up on lost ground.