England’s opening woes (once more)

Name all of England’s Test opening partners post-Andrew Strauss. Go on. No cheating. If you didn’t miss at least one, you’ve a better memory than me.

From Strauss’s retirement at the end of August 2012, Alastair Cook padded up alongside Compton, Root, Carberry, Robson, Trott, Lyth, Ali, Hales, Duckett, Hameed, Root once more, Jennings, Stoneman and Jennings again. And you can throw in one Ali-Buttler and Hales-Compton partnership apiece to further muddy the picture. Since the departure of the venerable Cook, the feeling of instability has increased. In the one winter since Sir Alastair passed, Jennings, Burns, Denly and Leach have all had a turn in the opening slot – albeit the last of those as nighwatchman – and it would take a brave soul to stake their savings on who will be walking out first for England against Ireland at Lord’s later this summer. 

It is of genuine concern for those who follow England. In terms of results in the post-Strauss era, they have got away with it, just, and won more than they have lost, but an opening partnership average of just 33 has put extra pressure on the number three. [The angst that finding a regular for that slot in this period  – 15 batsmen (only three of those nightwatchmen) garnering an average score lower than that of the number sevens of that time (36 to 37) –  is a story for another day.] Think of any great side – indeed any good side – and they are founded on a strong opening pair: Greenidge & Haynes, Hayden & Langer, Gambhir & Sehwag, Gibbs & Smith, the list could go on. As England found out over the winter just gone, however talented the all-rounders in the lower middle order are, they can’t always be certain to make up for the failings at the top.

The question of why English batsmen appear to find the openers berth so challenging has been taken up by Lawrence Booth, Wisden Editor, in this year’s Almanack. For Booth, “[England’s] openers were once the envy of the world; gutsy, stoical, pragmatic, they may even have embodied a certain Britishness. Now, it’s a pleasant surprise when one survives until lunch.” 

He places the blame for this demise squarely on the nature of the modern County game: “It is not easy to see what can be done while the domestic schedule treats four-day cricket as an inconvenience. And if the bowlers are handed a lively batch of Dukes balls, as they have been over the past two summers, the carnage will continue. In 2018, the average runs per wicket in the County Championship was under 27, the lowest figure of the four-day era. English batsmen used to clamour to go in early. Now they all seek comfort away from the new ball’s glare. Unless the Championship can reclaim the turf of high summer, the flow of hopeful young openers will slow to a trickle.”

He speaks a lot of sense, however I must admit to a certain discomfort with the idea that the current problems are a radical departure from the norm brought on by the character of the 21st Century domestic game. Certainly, England have enjoyed notable periods with stability at the top – Cook & Strauss, Strauss & Trescothick, Boycott & Edrich, Hutton & Washbrook, Hobbs & Sutcliffe, Hobbs & Rhodes – and even amongst the batting collapses of the early 1990s, Gooch & Atherton achieved an average partnership of 56 for the first wicket.

But it was not always thus. The calendar year of 2016 saw seven English men tried at opener; high for recent years but not so unusual looking further back in the post-war era. That number of opening batsmen were also used in 1995, 1986, 1976, 1967, 1965 and 1962. Eight different men came in first-up for England in 1984, 1964, 1959, 1951 and 1948; and in 1963, 1954 and 1955 it was nine.

Indeed, travel back to the early 1960s and the conversations swirling around the England cricket team seem familiar. 1962 saw Barber & Pullar, Pullar & Sheppard, Cowdrey & Sheppard, Pullar & Richardson, Cowdrey & Stewart, Cowdrey & Pullar, Murray & Sheppard, and Barber & Richardson all walk to the middle together to open the innings. It wasn’t all struggles, 100 partnerships were posted three times, but the talk in the media was of problems at the top. 

“Of all the England problems over recent years,” wrote journalist Malcolm Brodie, “the most difficult has been the opening pair. Since Sheppard last played and went in first against West Indies at the Oval in 1957, England have played 43 Test matches and there have been 17 different pairs of opening batsmen.”

The narrative of long-standing difficulties was taken up by ex-England keeper ‘Tiger’ Smith in the Sport Argus: “Since the war England have called on 47 different pairs of first-wicket batsmen. While it has usually been possible to find one good opener, it has been difficult to find him a good partner. How very different from pre-war days.”

Moving into 1963 and the openers’ merry-go-round picked up speed: Edrich & Stewart, Edrich & Bolus, Illingworth & Sheppard, Barrington & Sheppard, Richardson & Stewart, Pullar & Sheppard, Bolus & Stewart, and Cowdrey & Sheppard. This instability came at a cost and the average opening partnership slumped to 22 and a half; a pair passing 50 runs together only three times, and never reaching a combined three figures.

It was all too much for former England and Yorkshire skipper, Norman Yardley. “I make one urgent plea to England’s selectors” he wrote. “It is this – please don’t fall back on the old idea of reshuffling the pack to find the team for the first Test.

“For goodness sake let us see an end to moving Colin Cowdrey up and down the batting order, or of pushing Ken Barrington or Tom Graveney into the opening batting positions. The situation is that with David Sheppard out of big cricket for good and Geoff Pullar out of both form and fitness, England needs two new opening batsmen.

“Right. Let us pick two. And let us give some new blood a chance.”

New blood was found and, in 1964, Geoffrey Boycott was given his chance. His arrival didn’t bring total stability to the top two – names such as Russell, Parfitt and Milburn came and went – but regular partnerships with Bob Barber from 1964 and John Edrich from 1968 brought a much needed mettle to the top order. Boycott and Barber batted together 26 times, averaging a shade under 47; Boycott and Edrich 35 times, with an average partnership of 52.

That the same issues rear their head throughout the history of cricket is no reason for complacency or to not address the weaknesses of and threats to English County Cricket – indeed, Lawrence Booth’s Notes By The Editor are an important clarion call for our times – but a little historical perspective is worthwhile.

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