Delivering Test runs at the top of the order in England: is there a tougher job in world cricket at the moment?
A man who knows a thing or two about the role is Sir Alastair Cook, who signed off on his illustrious international career in 2018 with his 33rd and final Test century against India at The Oval in 2018.
But while Cook still managed to average an impressive 40.64 as an opener across his last two home Test summers, the struggles of others have been clear to see. Keaton Jennings averaged 17.72 from 18 innings in England across 2017 and 2018, and Jason Roy couldn’t translate his white-ball excellence to the Test arena in 2019, averaging 8.85 in his seven innings as a Test opener. Those visiting English shores have also endured misery: David Warner mustered just 95 runs from five Tests for Australia during this year’s Ashes series.
Having begun his Test career in 2006, Cook acknowledges that certain factors have emerged over the years to contribute to the plight of opening batters in England.
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“Certainly the pitches in England changed,” Cook told the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast. “Over the last few years the tendency to leave grass on the wicket to keep pace in it, to get the ball moving for our seamers which is our world-class strength – if the ball moved for Jimmy [Anderson] and Stuart Broad they were incredibly hard work.
“Our super-strength as an England bowling side would be how many times we hit that perfect length and it’s probably a lot higher than everyone else. We always got 20 wickets.
“When the ball moved we were guaranteed to take 20 wickets and then it was just a case of just having to score one more run than the opposition, which made for exciting cricket.
“It is hard to have continued success against world-class bowlers with the Dukes ball on those things.
“It has made it tough for guys coming in but it goes in cycles. It’s just what it is, you can’t moan about it.”
“England’s oldest Test ground had never seen a departure, by any cricketer from any country, to match the grandeur of the setting.”@scyldberry in the 2019 @WisdenAlmanack on the unmatched ending to the career of England’s greatest Test run-scorer.https://t.co/Qk74vnhbIC
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In that case, should less be expected from those tasked with facing the new ball for England? Cook doesn’t believe so.
“You always want to set world-class standards,” Cook said. “If you offered that to Rory Burns or Dom Sibley or Zak Crawley, that you’re going to average 30 and face 70 balls, I don’t think they would take that. Your job as an opener is to score hundreds. There’s no doubt about it…It’s never going to be easy.”
Cook’s England career coincided with the proliferation of T20 cricket and while batsmen are now spending less time facing the red ball in the nets, he believes the shorter format has actually managed to give Test cricket a new lease of life.
“When I was growing up all I ever watched was Test cricket,” Cook said. “If you played a T20 game at 13 it was still ‘see off the first seven overs’, and now it’s not. Now you have play all the shots in the book to do it. As a young player coming through you’ve got the excitement of T20 or The Hundred or one-day cricket. And that’s a proper aerial game.”
Rory Burns in this summer’s #Ashes
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4⃣7⃣ & 2⃣0⃣ 👉 The Oval
He averages 39 this series, have you been impressed with him? pic.twitter.com/2EYrfHYx3i
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) September 14, 2019
“If you’re looking at players’ development and players’ practice when they’re 14, 15, 16, 17 – if you took my practice it would predominantly be 90 per cent red-ball stuff. Now, even if you split it 50/50 between red- and white-ball cricket, you are reducing the amount of time you’re hitting red balls and your technique is changing. I personally don’t mind it as much as the next generation back, because Test cricket, in my eyes, has gotten more exciting over the last few years. There are less draws…there are more wins and losses which I think is a good thing.”
An opening batsman who has made a strong impression on Cook is Rory Burns, who was called up to England’s Test side after Cook’s retirement. Burns’ 2019 Test summer began in disappointing fashion with 12 runs from two innings against Ireland, but he bounced back with a maiden Test hundred against Australia at Edgbaston, striking 133, before adding two more 50-plus scores over the course of the series.
“It shows the level between county cricket and international cricket,” Cook said. “He did pretty well in Sri Lanka and West Indies on dodgy wickets. They weren’t fun to bat on…Then he played one Test match against Ireland and gets two low scores. That can happen. That happens to every batter. And suddenly you’re looking on Sky Sports and they’re saying – Nasser, I think, had Opener A and Opener B. Didn’t know who was going to play in the Ashes next week.
“It’s incredibly unfair but that’s the scrutiny you go through as an international player. That’s what you sign up for and it’s about how you deal with it. He dealt with the best way possible, by going out the next time he played – and people thought if he’s not going to score runs against Ireland he’s never going to score runs against Australia – and he played a brilliant innings. He faced a huge amount of balls, he was brave, he was gutsy and so was Joe Denly as well. He’ll grow into that role the more and more he plays.”