Ashes 2013: England gamble on Root and Cook setting opening tone

When Geoff Miller and his fellow selectors pulled the plug on Nick Compton's opening alliance with Alastair Cook, they did so on one that had been producing starts that, on average, were in the upper echelons of anything ever produced for England.

Remove from the equation the pre-war phenomenon that was Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, who averaged almost 88 togetherevery time they walked to the crease, only one other pairing that has opened as often as Cook and Compton – Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook, who averaged 60, with eight century stands from 51 innings – can outstrip their 57.93, with three century stands, from 17 innings.

It was a brave judgment to make and a decision the wisdom of which and the thinking behind it, Compton had every right to question. Now we have to ponder what lies ahead. Earlier in the year, during a conversation in Queenstown, before Compton had made his twin hundreds against New Zealand, Graham Gooch expressed the opinion that sooner rather than later Joe Root would open with Cook and produce one of the great partnerships. Gooch, of all people, is in a position to judge that the transition from middle order is a perfectly natural thing to do, having done precisely that himself. Root, of course, has opened the batting all his life, so all he is doing is reverting to the familiar feeling of not walking out to bat alone.

The decision was predicated on two things. First, to which of the two, Compton or Root, would the Australia bowlers least like to bowl. Second, which of a combination of Compton and Root, or Root and Bairstow, would produce the most runs and in the manner best suited to England's needs.

The statistics tell only part of the story, for there has been a feeling that the manner in which Compton had been scoring since his second century in Wellington, in which 54 runs came in six innings and took more than six hours to achieve, placed too much additional pressure on Cook to accelerate the scoreboard when his own game relies on steady accumulation.

This is important because it is the openers who set the tone for a match and often a series. When Michael Slater lacerated Phil DeFreitas' first ball of a series to the Brisbane boundary, it encapsulated what was to come. Recently, Cook hitting Mitchell Starc's first ball of their Champions Trophy match to the fence in such emphatic manner was seen as a pointer for this summer. The groundwork that Cook and Andrew Strauss, out to the third ball of the series, did to revive England in the second innings at the Gabba in the last Ashes, with a stand of 188 when facing the real prospect of defeat, was beyond price in the context of the series.

Equally so, the 159 they put on having seen Australia bowled out for 98 in the decisive match in Melbourne was the most emphatic of statements. So too was the urgency shown by Strauss and Marcus Trescothick at Edgbaston in 2005, when, having been put in, they came out blazing to put on 112 at four and a half runs per over, to avenge a heavy first Test defeat.

The task of finding the successors to Cook and Strauss as an opening pair was never going to be an easy one. No other England pairing, not even Hobbs and Sutcliffe, can approach the 4,711 runs they added together. Only Hobbs and Sutcliffe, with 15, have more than their 12 century stands.

Specifically against Australia (and to remain post-war now) England have used 66 different pairings. From the single occasion at Sydney in 1988 when Chris Broad and Martyn Moxon added 93, thereby attaining a notional highest average, to Sydney again in 1947, when Laurie Fishlock replaced the injured Hutton as Washbrook's partner and was out first ball to Ray Lindwall, the most prolific of the partnerships has been Strauss and Cook once more, with 1,220 runs. Their average of 46.92, of those with a minimum 15 innings together, is exceeded only by Geoff Boycott and John Edrich (59.15), Hutton and Washbrook ( 49.61), and Mike Atherton and Gooch (49.13).

What is undeniable is that a strong opening partnership generally leads to a strong England challenge. Of the top 11 post-war series aggregates at the top of the order, only three – Atherton and Gooch in 1989-90 and 1993; and Hutton and Washbrook in 1946-7 – have resulted in defeat, with seven leading to a series win. The only post-war Ashes wins by England that have not seen a strong performance by the openers were those of 1978-9 when Boycott and Mike Brearley averaged only 16.25 together, and 1981 when Gooch and Boycott averaged 19.25.

Home series tend to reflect the conditions and averages tend to be lower, even for wins. But in 1956 Colin Cowdrey and Peter Richardson averaged 56.87, Boycott and Brearley 55.8 in 1977, Strauss and Trescothick 53.8 in 2005 (their 538 runs in the series the highest at home post-war), and Strauss and Cook 44.55 in 2009.

It is against this background that Root has been chosen as Cook's partner. It is not a decision that will have been taken lightly, although certainly on the agenda during the Headingley Test matchagainst New Zealand and based not just on observation but consultation with a variety of parties.

In their judgment, there is a potential for a symbiosis between the pair that will prove superior to that which existed between Cook and Compton. It is a gamble to some extent but far from a shot in the dark. If the alliance still has the umbilical cord attached by the end of this summer we shall know whether they have given birth to something special. And Ashes-winning.

Powered by article was written by Mike Selvey, for The Guardian on Monday 8th July 2013 23.39 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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