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Why England’s top order frailties in Tests shouldn’t be a surprise anymore

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To say England’s opening order has been in disastrous form in Test cricket of late would be an understatement. After all, it’s been almost seven months and five Tests since an England opening pair has stitched a 100-run partnership. 

While the problem has only come under the scanner recently, the makings of England’s unstable foundation at the top dates back to when a certain Andrew Strauss hung up his boots in 2012. 

Between 2012 to 2018, England tried as many as 12 openers to partner Alastair Cook. Funnily enough, with the team and openers not performing to their usual standard, it was deemed that Cook was the problem. 

However, that myopic view and lack of foresight failed to recognise the fact that many of those 12 players that partnered Cook weren’t even natural openers, including the likes of Moeen Ali and Joe Root

This in turn didn’t just help in players establishing their opening spots, but also impacted Cook’s game who watched new partners at the other come through revolving doors. It hindered Cook’s performances due to the lack of continuity and became a trend that the current team still seems to be repeating.

The return in numbers between Cook and his opening partners was stark to say the least. While Cook scored 5868 Test runs between 2012-2018, the closest any other of his opening partners managed alongside him from the start of that period was Alex Hales’ 573 runs.

Predictably, since Cook’s retirement, the situation has only worsened. Ever since 2019, England’s openers are averaging a mere 27.22 in 39 Tests. Among the Test-playing nations, only the openers from Bangladesh (25.95), Zimbabwe (25.53), West Indies (24.96) and Ireland (11.87) are averaging less than England.

Best opening average in Test since 2019
Team Openers used Matches Runs Average
India 6 29 4099 41.82
Pakistan 7 21 2780 40.88
Sri Lanka 5 21 3176 40.71
New Zealand 5 24 2820 37.60
Australia 8 23 2623 34.51
South Africa 6 22 2465 31.20
Afghanistan 5 5 592 31.15
England 11 39 3833 27.37
Bangladesh 9 16 1557 25.95
Zimbabwe 7 8 766 25.53
West Indies 5 22 2047 24.96
Ireland 3 2 95 11.87

What’s even more startling is the fact that none of England’s opening pairs since 2019 have managed to put on a 200-plus runs partnership. To put things into perspective, Pakistan have done it twice while India have even crossed the 300-run mark.

Highest opening wicket partnership in Test since 2019
Partners Team Opening partnership Opposition
Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma India 317 South Africa
Abid Ali, Shan Masood Pakistan 278 Sri Lanka
Tom Latham, Jeet Raval New Zealand 254 Bangladesh
Abdullah Shafique, Imam-ul-Haq Pakistan 252* Australia
Joe Burns, David Warner Australia 222 Pakistan

In fact, in those 39 matches over the span of three and a half years, the England openers stitched a 100-run stand on a mere four occasions. Furthermore, of the 11 openers England have tried since 2019, only two of them have combined for a total of five centuries, with the highest individual score being that of Dom Sibley’s unbeaten 133 against South Africa in 2020.

Highest opening wicket partnership in Test since 2019 for England
Partners Opening partnership Opposition
Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed 135 India
Rory Burns, Dom Sibley 114 West Indies
Zak Crawley, Dom Sibley 107 South Africa
Rory Burns, Haseeb Hameed 100 India
Rory Burns, Dom Sibley 92 South Africa

A comparison is extremely necessary to know the gravity of the situation. Take the Indian cricket team for example. Since 2019, India have played six openers in Test cricket and three of them have collectively hit 11 centuries. Meanwhile, as many as four Pakistan openers have played their role in 10 centuries.

Number of centuries by openers in Test since 2019
Team Players 100s
India 3 11
Pakistan 4 10
New Zealand 4 7
Sri Lanka 3 8
Australia 2 4
England 2 5
South Africa 3 4
Bangladesh 2 2
West Indies 1 1

England’s top order’s fall from grace may look surprising for some, but the early warning signs of potential downfall were evident for all to see since 2012. 

Their top order’s - specifically the openers - recent 0-4 Ashes humiliation and all too familiar capitulation in the first innings of their opening 2022 Test against West Indies are just the latest symptoms of a chronic issue that’s deteriorated the state of English Test cricket over the past decade.

While it’s still not too late to turn things around, it is imperative that the team recognises and acknowledges these shortcomings. Or else they risk repeating the cycle and same mistakes for the better part of another decade.

Featured photo: AFP / Paul Ellis

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