Analysing England's Opening Woes
No opening batsman has scored more Test runs than the 11598 that Alastair Cook has. In fact, he is almost 2000 runs clear of the next most prolific opener- Sunil Gavaskar. Only Gavaskar has scored more Test match hundreds (33) than Cook's 30 at the top of the order. Since he first played for England's in the whites, way back in March 2006, England have played only one Test without him. Alastair Cook, without a doubt, is England's Mr Constant. He was also once their Mr Reliable. Once.
In his 40 Test innings, Cook averages 34 - a number that is mediocre in itself but is further boosted by the only 2 innings of note - a 244* against Australia in Melbourne and a 243 against the West Indies at Birmingham. Neither of the two venues is known for their pace. Remove these two towers and Cook averages 22 in the remaining 38 innings- a far cry from his career average of 45. He, in fact, averaged just 14 in the 10 innings between those 2 double tons.
Each of Cook's last 6 Test hundreds has come in conditions that have overly suited the batsmen. In each of these innings, England have scored 450 or more - a clear indication that the other batsmen to have been largely at ease. To find a Cook century made in conditions where the bowlers had even a whiff, one has to go all the way back to May 2015! Since then, Virat Kohli has scored a century in a team total of less than 450, 5 times. Cook has none.
Despite all his struggles, Cook, rather surprisingly, still comes across as England's first choice as an opener. The reason? England's inability to find a suitable replacement for Cook's former opening partner- Andrew Strauss, who retired 6 years ago! In that period as many as 13 different players have been tried at the top with Cook, with none playing more than 11 Tests at that position. The table below tells you the story.
The only other batsman to average more than 40 at the top of the order in this period is Joe Root, who has made the number 4 spot his own, averaging more than 52 at that position. In other words, England have run out of options to replace Cook and even Jennings- who averages 23 in 10 Tests as an opener to date.
The Lancashire batsman - 13th in a long line of openers tried out post Andrew Strauss' retirement finds himself in troubled waters as well. Jennings began his Test Career with a bang- a fine knock of 112 versus India in Mumbai in the winter of 2016. He also notched a half-century in the next Test at Chennai, finishing the tour of India with 167 runs at an average of almost 42. Since then, his career has spiralled in only one direction- downwards.
In the 14 innings since leaving the Indian shores, Jennings has accumulated 250 runs at an astonishingly abysmal average of 17.86. If his batting average was a person, that person wouldn't be legible to grab a pint of beer in most countries around the world. How much longer a rope is he going to get, given that none of his 12 predecessors played more than 11 Test matches, and the next Test against India at the Rose Bowl would be Jennings' 11th.
While Cook's defence has undone him off late, Jennings has struggled to cope with pace. Any opener worth his salt would prefer to play pace over spin. Hey, aren't they suppose to be the ones who wear out the opposition's opening pace bowlers? While Jennings, averages in excess of 50 against spin, his average dips to teenage lows against the pacers- repeatedly edging them whenever the ball is just outside off.
While England have been chopping and changing, India have had the luxury of having identified men who would bat for them at the top, with 3 men- Vijay, Rahul, and Dhawan having opened at least 38 times each in the same period since Strauss' retirement. For England, the second most after Cook's 140 innings is Alex Hales with 21!
Having not tried too many, India also find themselves with the luxury of having a variety of options to replace Murali Vijay, their senior pro who has been struggling off late. While 18-year-old Prithvi Shaw has been called up for the next two Tests, the likes of Mayank Agarwal, Ravikumar Samarth, Shreyas Iyer, and Abhinav Mukund also provide fallback options. Mayank Agarwal, in fact, has been banging on the selection doors with a hammer.
While Vijay and Cook have strikingly similar numbers over their last 40 innings- both average 34.1, Murali Vijay has cracked six centuries in his last 40 innings, as compared to Cook's two, showing a better tendency to kick on once he is in, and yet, after being dropped from the XI for the Nottingham Test, and from the squad of 18 itself for the next two, question marks hang over his Test Career, while there is little doubt that Alastair Cook will get a much longer rope. That in itself tells you the health of India's and England's opening batsmanship.
There have been rumours that Cook may miss the next Test given that his wife is expecting. I am not sure that that would be the worse thing to happen to England in a while.