– Only 10 English players who have had at least 15 innings batting in the top three during the past two County Championship seasons have averaged at least 40.
– Rory Burns averages 108.8 balls per innings in the Championship since 2017, compared to an average of 59.7 for all openers.
– Five of the players averaging 40 have scored over 60% of their runs in boundaries.
The 2019 County Championship gets underway this week and over the next four months, all eyes will be on players looking to secure places for the opening Ashes Test in August.
Following mixed results over the winter, it remains unclear which eleven will take to the field at Edgbaston, with several batting and bowling places up for grabs, in addition to a three-way fight to keep wicket.
And with ten rounds of Championship fixtures taking place between now and England’s first Test of the summer against Ireland, players outside of the international One-Day set-up have an extended opportunity to stake their claim through weight of runs and wickets.
One of the selectors’ biggest dilemmas is who to pick at the top of the order, with neither of the current incumbents averaging over 35 during the winter. Using data from the last two domestic seasons, we profile the leading county players who will be looking to make a case for selection.
The players averaging 40
With several matches taking place in bowler-friendly conditions at the beginning and end of the domestic season, it may come as no surprise that only 10 English-qualified players who have batted in the top three positions for a minimum of 15 innings during the last two seasons have averaged at least 40.
Neither Bell or Cook will be in contention to open in this year’s Ashes, whilst Denly and Wells struggled last season, averaging 24.86 and 26.39 respectively in Division Two. In terms of run accumulation, Rory Burns and Daryl Mitchell have been the two standout openers, however over half of the Worcestershire veteran’s runs came in the second division. Despite that, it is worth noting he has scored substantially more hundreds than any other player.
Two other potential opening candidates, incumbent Keaton Jennings and Dom Sibley, had contrasting seasons last year. Jennings averaged 47.27 from 16 innings in 2018, which accounted for 18.5% of all his team’s runs, whilst Sibley struggled during the first half of the season, scoring just 247 runs at 20.58, before averaging 58.89 during the second half, with three centuries.
The crease occupiers
Excluding the retired Cook, England’s openers have collectively faced on average 57 balls an innings since the start of the 2017/18 Ashes. In comparison, Australia’s openers (which have comprised of seven different players), have averaged 69.6.
The average per innings for a Championship opener since 2017 is 59.7 and of the players averaging over 40, Rory Burns and Will Rhodes stand out as the two who occupy the crease the longest.
The Surrey captain has displayed remarkable patience and application, averaging 108.8 balls per innings with a strike rate of just over 50.
After batting in the middle order for Yorkshire for two years, Rhodes returned to open after joining Warwickshire last year and although he didn’t bat for as long as Burns (averaging 79.5 balls per innings), he played false shots at just 3.6% of his deliveries, fewer than any other opener.
Rhodes scored slightly faster than Burns, albeit against Division Two attacks, but where the two players differ is in their shot selection. 26% of Burns’ runs are worked and flicked, with only 11% coming from a straight bat. In contrast, Rhodes scored 17.1% of his runs straight and also scored a higher proportion of runs with cuts and pulls square of the wicket. However, as we can see from their spray charts, the end location of their scoring strokes are very similar.
Looking at both players’ dismissals in 2018, Rhodes was out bowled or lbw 14 times, which suggests he may be vulnerable wicket-to-wicket. Burns’ most common dismissal was being caught behind the wicket off seam. Neither player was dismissed more than four times during the opening 20 balls of their innings, which suggests they were not as vulnerable early on as some of the other opening candidates.
In contrast Rhodes’ opening partner at Warwickshire, Sibley, has been dismissed in that early period 11 times over two years, however he does have the distinction of scoring four hundreds in his last four first-class matches.
Sibley is another candidate who is watchful at the crease. His strike rate of 42.8 is lower than Burns and he accumulates a high volume of his runs in singles (33%), more than any other player profiled.
There are five candidates who have scored over 60% of their runs in boundaries during the past two seasons.
Of these candidates only Vince has not opened the batting, with all the runs included in this analysis coming from when he batted at three. He is also the only player who isn’t left-handed.
48% of Vince’s boundary runs came as a result of drives, with Luke Wells (45%) and Ben Slater (41%) also scoring a high proportion of their boundaries off the drive.
As displayed by each player’s spray chart against fast seamers below, while this trio scored heavily through the covers, Jennings and Stoneman scored a higher proportion of boundaries square of the wicket, with the Surrey man also scoring a noticeable proportion of runs on the leg side.
Of these players, Jennings also stands out as he scored the most boundary runs of any player through steering shots (60) and hooks (20), whilst he also scored 32 runs with reverse sweeps against spinners.
The remaining two players averaging over 40, Daryl Mitchell and Joe Denly, would be considered outside bets to open in the Ashes, however there is a chance Denly will bat at three after scoring a half-century from that position in England’s last Test against the West Indies.
Denly is currently away in the IPL with Kolkata Knightriders, which will limit his opportunities to play first-class matches early in the season. He also hasn’t opened since 2015.
However the Kent man stands out as being the player who scores the highest proportion of runs with a straight bat (29%) and the highest proportion of runs scored with the drive (51%) when batting in the top three. However like Rhodes he has a vulnerability to being dismissed lbw or bowled, having been out to wicket-to-wicket deliveries 13 times in 26 innings.
Since 2017 Mitchell is the player with the most innings as an opener in county cricket, coming second only to Burns in runs scored.
Whilst the Worcestershire man has scored 11 hundreds during the last two years, with numbers similar to Alastair Cook in the Championship for strike rate (56.4) dot ball % (72) and balls per boundary (13.3), he is the most vulnerable to being dismissed early. He has been dismissed 17 times in his first 20 deliveries, which is nearly once every three innings, with two thirds of all his dismissals coming against fast seam.
60% of these dismissals were caught behind or in the slips, which suggests he may be vulnerable against the moving ball early on, which would be something an Australia seam attack would look to exploit.
Given the recent lack of English-qualified players averaging 40 at the top of the order in the Championship, especially in Division One, strong performances over the next four months could put several players in the frame for Ashes selection.
During their winter Tests, England selected two left handers in five out of six matches, playing in conditions very different to those at home. However it is worth noting that whilst they were generally watchful, with average strike rates of 43.8 and 22.6 balls for every boundary collectively, they were only averaging 58.3 balls per innings which meant they weren’t scoring quickly whilst failing to consistently bat for long periods.
In the series with India last year, Cook and Jennings were also both noticeably less aggressive in their approach compared to Lokesh Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan.
If England are going to continue to look at picking two openers who naturally want to occupy the crease for long periods, then the two current incumbents may be in a strong position to retain their places, especially if they maintain last year’s domestic form. However if Sibley continues his form from the second half of last season and England wish to switch to a right/left hand combination, he may come under consideration.
Alternatively, if they want to pick at least one opener who looks to score more quickly, early season runs by Vince and Stoneman could bring them back into contention, especially given that Vince has outlined his intention to open for Hampshire.
The other alternative would be to bring in a player from the One-Day set-up, such as Jason Roy, however the Surrey man has only played five first-class matches in two years and not opened in the Championship since 2013.
Another outside name not mentioned in this blog would be Kent’s Zak Crawley. The 21-year old averaged over 50 from nine innings as an opener last season, with a strike rate of 65. Now in Division One, strong performances against top-flight attacks may bring him to the attention of the selectors.
With no-one having nailed down a position in the national side for several years, now would be a convenient time for one of these players to hit form and maintain it for a sustained period.