Golden Era of Defiant Opening Batsmen

By Bill Ricquier - July 7, 2020

Opening batsmen are different; there are no two ways about it.

It is obvious why they are different. Opening the batting presents very particular challenges. Part of the appeal of sport is it’s unpredictability. That unpredictability is at its height at the start of an innings, particularly the first innings of the match, but to some extent any innings. The ball is new.

At the start of the match the nature of the wicket is bound to some extent to be a matter of conjecture. The bowlers are fresh. Obviously this can be a double-edged sword. Length and direction might be, if not inaccessible, then at least difficult to locate.

Of course the batsman is as fresh as the bowler. Getting those feet moving can be a real problem when you first come in. But that is the same for all batsmen, not just openers. But at the beginning of an innings there are two batsmen in the same position. Obviously this can happen at other points in an innings. If two middle order batsmen are in together and both on nought there is usually a crisis. But for openers, that’s normal.

Again as with middle-order batsmen openers face a wide range of situations, even though they invariably start the innings off. This is most obvious in a Test or first-class match because, apart from the first innings itself openers have no better idea than anyone else exactly when they will be batting. It might be twenty minutes before close of play, or an interval; then you’re really on a hiding to nothing.

Whatever the challenges, openers generally don’t like batting anywhere else. Usually, like so much else in cricket, it’s a mental thing. Some batsmen hate waiting to go in.

Sometimes personal circumstances, the interests of the team, or the exigencies of the moment, require a change. The Little Master, Hanif Mohammed, broke many records in Test and first-class cricket as an opener , but by the mid-60s he had dropped down to bolster the middle order.

From there he scored his appropriately masterly 187 against England at Lord’s in 1967. By the time of the Karachi Test against New Zealand in 1969-70, he was opening again, with his brother Sadiq (Mushtaq was at four). It was Sadiq’s first Test, and Hanif’s last.

Graham Gooch was one of England’s finest openers. His innings of 154 not out against the West Indies at Headingley in 1991 was surely one of the greatest played by an opener. Gooch started his career with Essex as a middle order batsman, and it was in that capacity that he made his England debut, against Australia at Edgbaston in 1975, when he bagged a pair. On his recall, against Pakistan in 1978, he opened, but he was back down the order for a few games in 1978-79 in Australia. There followed more than a decade of high achievement as an opener. But at the end of his career, in Australia in 1994-95, he slipped down the order again, to allow Alec Stewart to open with Michael Atherton.

That is the thing about openers, as mentioned earlier; they come in pairs. Which has been Test cricket’s best opening pair?

It is notoriously difficult to make comparisons across cricketing generations but there is little doubt about the two greatest pairs in the “modern” era – from 1980 on.

They are Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes of the West Indies and Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer of Australia. It is no coincidence that most judges will say that the three greatest Test teams of all time were Don Bradman’s Invincibles of 1948 (a one-off for these purposes), the West Indies teams led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, and the Australian teams led by Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh.

In terms of longevity they outstrip all rivals. Both pairs opened the innings together on over a hundred occasions in Tests – for Greenidge and Haynes the number was 148. The only other opening pairs to have achieved this are Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook of England, and Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu.

Greenidge and Haynes have been the most prolific pair, scoring 6482 runs together at an average of 47.31. Greenidge was the senior partner, establishing himself with brilliant performances as Roy Fredericks’ opening partner in England in 1976.

At his best Greenidge was a magnificent player, sound in technique but with blistering power, both straight and square of the wicket. His most memorable innings was surely his 214 not out to win the Lord’s Test of 1984. With Haynes he shared 16 century stands, the highest being 298 against England in Antigua in 1989-90, which led to an innings victory when England could still have levelled the series.

Haynes, “less intense but more passionate” than his fellow Bajan partner, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins put it, was the perfect foil. Solid and muscular, and a less complex character, on the face of it, than Greenidge, Haynes was also more consistent. Three times he carried his bat through a completed Test innings. Greenidge never managed that. Only one other player has.

While Greenidge and Haynes were both right-handers, Hayden and Langer were both left-handers. Greenidge and Haynes seemed to ease into position in that great West Indian side quite naturally. For both Hayden and Langer, finding a way into the hugely talented Australian eleven was a struggle. But once they got their positions, nobody was going to replace them. The Hayden- Langer combination was a key aspect of Waugh’s ruthless re-writing of the rules of Test cricket, which involved, among other things, domination with the bat from the very start of the innings.

Hayden, in particular, was crucial to this strategy. Tall and powerfully built, he was a domineering, almost bullying, presence at the crease. Lacerating drives and pulls could often put the opposition on the defensive. Thirty Test hundreds and an average of 50.73 is an indication of real quality.

Langer, “one of nature’s second fiddles”, as Gideon Haigh called him , was different. He was a nudger and a nutdler, with immense courage and determination. Langer started in the middle order and moved up to open with Hayden in the Oval Test of 2001, when they put on 158. They never looked back, finishing with 5655 runs at an average of 51.38. Even though their average is higher, it would be a brave judge who ranked them higher than Greenidge and Haynes.

Averages cannot be ignored of course. Greenidge and Haynes have been the most prolific opening pair in Test history, but of course they played a lot of matches together. The pair with the highest average are streets ahead of all rivals; the English pair of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe opened the batting together in 38 innings and scored 3249 runs together at the remarkable average of 87.81. Those 38 combinations included 15 century stands and ten of fifty or more.

Hobbs was indisputably one of the greatest of all batsmen. Sutcliffe had a Test average of 60.73, second only to Bradman and Steve Smith of those who have played at least 50 Tests. They played for England together between 1924 and 1930, when Hobbs retired, and although England were not as dominant as the West Indies of the 1980s or the Australians of the 2000s, they were pretty good, winning successive Ashes series in 1926 and 1928-29. At The Oval in 1926, in the decisive match of the series, they shared one of the great opening partnerships of Test history, in extremely difficult conditions, putting on 172 (Hobbs 100, Sutcliffe 161).

Only three other combinations who have opened the innings at least 35 times together have averaged 60 or more. The first were Hobbs, again, and Wilfred Rhodes, who opened the batting together for England 38 times between 1910 and 1921 and averaged 61.31. Most informed judges, including the man himself, thought Hobbs was a better batsman before the First World War than after. The revelation was Rhodes, who spent the early part of his career as a left-arm spinner who batted at number eleven.

Together they played a pivotal role in one of England’s greatest ever Ashes victories, in Australia in 1911-12. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground they put on 323 ( Hobbs 178, Rhodes 179) , then a world record, and England’s highest until it was broken by Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook, who put on 359 against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1948-49.

Hutton and Washbrook averaged exactly 60 in 51 outings together between 1946 and 1951. Hutton and Denis Compton were the stars of English batsmanship at that time, Washbrook and Bill Edrich their determined and resourceful sidekicks. In three successive Ashes series Hutton and Washbrook had to combat one of the game’s greatest fast bowling combinations, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. None of our other opening pairs faced quite such a daunting challenge.

The final pairing is Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry of Australia, who opened together 63 times between 1961 and 1968 and averaged 60.94. They would not strike fear in the hearts and minds of opponents in the way Greenidge and Haynes could, or Hayden and Langer, but goodness, they got the job done. Although they were the only pair of this five to feature a left-hander and a right-hander, Simpson and Lawry were perhaps just a little too similar, too intent on grinding the opposition down.

Are we in a post-great opening pair world? It does seem to be getting more difficult. Maybe not as much time is spent honing technical, defensive skills as used to be the case. But I mentioned that Haynes is one of only two men to have carried his bat through a completed Test innings three times. The other is Dean Elgar of South Africa.

By Bill Ricquier

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