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New Zealand v Australia 2024

Garry Sobers, Steve Smith and more – 15 short-lived opening experiments in Test cricket

Opening experiments that did not work in Test cricket
Abhishek Mukherjee by Abhishek Mukherjee
@ovshake42 5 minute read

Steve Smith opening the batting is yet to yield sustained success. If the move does not come off, Smith will join a long list of failed opening experiments.

Smith opened batting for the first time against the West Indies in January after 105 Tests, 9,514 runs, 32 hundreds, and Australia chair of selectors George Bailey assured that this was not a “stop gap arrangement”.

Smith has opened batting in three Tests since then, for 151 runs at 37.75. It does not make terrible reading, but that average has been buoyed by an unbeaten 91 in the fourth innings of his second outing at the top against the West Indies. It is also a steep drop from his 58.01 average in the middle order.

If Australia eventually abandon the plan, Smith will join a list of illustrious names who have been used at the top at some point of their careers, but have not made the move a success.

Garry Sobers

Sobers came into the Test side as a bowler who batted in the bottom half, but found himself opening batting in his fourth game, against Australia at Bridgetown in 1955. By 1957, he had opened seven times without a fifty as the West Indies struggled to to find successors of Allan Rae and Jeffrey Stollmeyer. He opened the batting once more, the following year – and made 125, immediately after he made his world record 365 not out. His growing workload meant that the experiment was not repeated.

Rohan Kanhai

Like his contemporary, Sobers, Kanhai was used as an opener in the same period. He reached fifty only once in 11 innings before the team management realised he was utilised better in the middle order.

Zaheer Abbas

After the first Test match of the 1972/73 tour of New Zealand, Pakistan dropped Talat Ali from the XI and pushed Zaheer Abbas to the top. It backfired: Zaheer made 15, 10, and 0. He would open batting once more in his Test career – and fail again.

Dilip Vengsarkar

Vengsarkar’s talent was obvious at an early age; there was no space in the middle order; and India needed an opening partner for Sunil Gavaskar. All of that forced them to use him as an opener from his Test debut – a role he could not adjust to. The arrival of Chetan Chauhan helped him drop down the order. Vengsarkar the opener did not reach fifty in 13 innings, including two in the early 1980s.

Mike Gatting

Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch were banned. Graeme Fowler, Chris Tavare, and Bill Athey were not available. So England used Gatting at the top on the Pakistan tour of 1983/84, and he made 105 runs at 26.25. His career would peak later that year, when he would embark upon a three-year, 28-Test phase over which he would average 62 – but all that would be in the middle order.

Richie Richardson

Richardson opened sporadically in emergencies a few times early in his career, but the surprise promotion came in 1994. With Gordon Greenidge gone and Desmond Haynes on his way out, captain Richardson promoted himself against England in 1994 and against Australia in 1995, both at home. He made 347 runs at 34.70 – finally embracing the helmet.

Carl Hooper

Richardson moved back to the middle order in his final series, on the England tour of 1995. Hooper opened batting instead. He fell first ball in his first innings, but followed that with 73 not out, 40, 14, 40, and 16. Despite that, he did bat at the top again.

Mark Ramprakash

England tried Ramprakash at the top in the summer of 2000. He made 15, 56, and four in the first leg, against Zimbabwe, but after 20 runs in four innings (including two ducks) in the middle order, he returned to the familiarity of the middle order.

AB de Villiers

Over time, the ODI philosophy of using non-specialists to open the batting found popularity in Test cricket as well. De Villiers opened on Test debut, and was kept oscillating between the top and six (or even lower) even four years into his career. It was not until 2008/09 that he cemented a place at five. As opener, he averaged 36.14 across 35 innings – though he reached fifty in nine of these.

Shoaib Malik

Pakistan used Malik as opener for the first time in 2005. He got a couple of fifties in six Test matches, but they retained him – and demoted him only after he made 148 to save a Test match at the SSC. Exactly why they abandoned the idea when he seemed to have found his mojo remains unclear.

Kamran Akmal

Pakistan added to Kamran’s wicketkeeping duties by using him as opener for six Test matches in 2006/07. His 322 runs came at 35.77, but there was a neat split. At home, he got 78, 42, 52, 71; away, the numbers read 33, 24, 4, 4, 14.

Joe Root

Root was one of several opening partners England found for Alastair Cook after Andrew Strauss retired. He opened in the 2013 Ashes, less than a year into his Test career, and made 339 runs including a 180 at Lord’s, but has reprised the role only once more until now.

Jonathan Trott

Trott had opened batting only once, in Mirpur early in his career, until he left Australia mid-series in 2013/14. He returned for the West Indies tour of 2015 as Cook’s opening partner, made a 59, failed to reach double-figures five times, and did not play Test cricket again.

Moeen Ali

Paired with Cook for the 2015/16 series against Pakistan in the UAE, a series where he was expected to bowl a lot, Moeen made 84 runs in six innings, and that was that.

Matthew Wade

With David Warner ruled out, Australia got Wade to open batting with Joe Burns at Adelaide and Melbourne against India in 2020/21. He reached 30 thrice in four innings, but Australia dropped him to the middle order once Warner returned, and from the side after the series.

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