No open and shut case at the top of the order

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Durban

WE think we know our opening batsmen. They’re players like Bruce Mitchell, Jimmy Cook, Kepler Wessels, and Andrew Hudson; people whose hearts beat once a week, who subtract from rather than add to their equation of strokes, who can see a stupid thing coming from around the corner and refuse to do it.

“Few quieter or more modest men have played test cricket,” Wisden wrote of Mitchell, whose “perfect sportsmanship on and off the field at all times was living proof that success can be achieved without any compromise of behaviour”.

The rebel in the ranks is Graeme Smith, that gauche galumpher with gazillions of runs. The big left-hander is not Mitchell in any sense, but he can still be squeezed into our mental mould for the making of an opener: he was ready to take on more than his share of responsibility, he didn’t flinch from a fight, he did what it took.    

But sprinkled like stardust in the spectrum of opening batsman that starts with Mitchell and ends with Smith are rarities like Eddie Barlow, Herschelle Gibbs, and Eric Rowan.

“He was small and wiry and cocky and feisty and contemptuous of authority. He was a right-handed bat without much elegance, but with all the strokes. He did not bat either with dignity or precision; he regarded his cricket in most light-hearted style, but his confidence was amazing.”

Could be about Gibbs, couldn’t it? Or Barlow. In fact, its Wisden on Rowan.

Despite the limitations convention imposed, Rowan, Barlow and Gibbs were among the most magnetic players of their generations. They were watched with electric interest. Whatever they might do next, people wanted to see it. 

Their species is neither extinct nor limited to South Africans. Australia’s David Warner is a reasonable facsimile of any of them, sometimes to an unreasonable degree. Until 2013, India’s Virender Sehwag was, too. Before that, Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge didn’t so much step out of the opener’s box as rip it to shreds in those long gone days when West Indies could play cricket.

But the preconception that openers must be as stodgy as they are sturdy, all the better to take the shine off the ball and tire the bowlers and earn the advantage in the timeworn way, persists between the blinkers of respecting tradition.

Cricket keeps telling itself that it is important to maintain this notion because it has always been important to do so. Except that it hasn’t, as the records of Rowan, Barlow, Haynes, Greenidge, Gibbs, Sehwag and Warner attest.

The idea that the art and craft of surviving and then prospering at the top of the order is evolving along with the rest of the game is dangerous to those who prefer their cricketers flannelled and themselves fooled.

But it’s a fact that adds to the pertinence of the question that is being asked amid SA’s and England’s struggles to settle on reliable opening pairs going into the series that started at Kingsmead yesterday – what, besides the obviousness of quality bowlers armed with a new ball on a fresh pitch, makes opening the batting the most difficult job in test cricket?

“You’ve got to go straight in,” Cook, an opener in four of his six test innings and in most of his other 469 trips to the first-class crease, said.

“You may be tired from having been in the field all day and their bowlers have been sitting with their feet up. And, if you’re playing at a high level, if you make a mistake you’re out.

“You’ve got to know what to play and what to leave, and nobody makes a success out of opening the batting over a significant period of time unless they have a rock solid defence.

“It can be a case of the first hour belonging to the bowlers and the rest to you.”

What did Cook think of the glimmering hope that opening could be dragged into the modern age? 

“Guys have become more positive and I can see the merit in that – if that’s your game, if you are an attacking batsman. If you’re a different kind of opening batsman you may see things differently.”

Minds are being bent in that direction, but as a counter to prevailing conditions rather than as a progressive step. 

Temba Bavuma and Moeen Ali are fresh examples of batsmen who would in the past never have batted at the sharp end of a test innings but have recently done exactly that in India and the United Arab Emirates.

However, they are now back where everyone seems to think they belong – including themselves.

I’ll be a bit more comfortable and used to it,” Bavuma said of his return to the middle order after scoring 56 runs and lasting more than four hours in his two innings at the top in Delhi.

“I enjoyed the experience … but the middle order is where I am best suited for the team right now.”

Having scraped together 86 runs in six innings as an opener against Pakistan, Moeen both echoed and challenged Cook’s point about horses for courses.

“I probably got caught in two minds at times whether to attack or not,” Moeen said. “I’m really looking forward to going back to No. 8, playing a few shots and freeing up.”

Wisden readers might understand their reluctance. Rowan would not.

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