Anxiety, collapses, swing bowlers, off-spinners, tea, and opening batsmen, especially opening batsmen. They’ve been part of the character of English cricket since the beginning – staunch, and stoical, as anyone who faces up to the new ball on a green pitch needs to be. Grace and Stoddart, Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Hutton and Washbrook. There was an interregnum then. Until, on 4 June 1964, Geoff Boycott came along. He made his debut in the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge (c Bob Simpson b Grahame Corling, 48), with Hutton’s blessing. “Very much the sort of player who could become a class opening batsman,” Hutton wrote. “He shows the sort of qualities we associate with the outstanding batsmen of the past.”
Boycott missed the next Test at Lord’s because he had chipped a bone in a finger. “I noticed that England opened with Ted Dexter rather than picking a specialist opening batsman in my place,” Boycott remembered later. “That seemed significant, my place was being kept open.” He was right. He had won the spot. It was the first link in a chain that spanned the best part of the next six decades. From then on, England would seldom be stuck for an opener.
Eighteen years later, Boycott opened in his 108th and last Test, against India in what was then Calcutta (lbw Madan Lal, 6). His partner was Graham Gooch. Thirteen years later, in February 1995, Gooch played his 118th and last Test, (c&b Craig McDermott, 4). He was opening, now with Mike Atherton. Six years after that, in 2001, Atherton finished his 115th and last Test (c Shane Warne b Glenn McGrath, 9). He was partnering Marcus Trescothick. Five years on, Trescothick played his 76th and final Test (c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif, 4) with Andrew Strauss. And Strauss finished his 100th Test in 2012 (lbw Vernon Philander, 1) partnering Alastair Cook.
Those six – 678 Tests, 126 centuries, and 50,076 runs between them – were the ravens in the Tower. Oh, there were plenty of others among them, spanning the gaps caused by injuries, withdrawals and suspensions. John Edrich did it brilliantly for a decade, on and off; Dennis Amiss had a fine five-year run in the mid-70s; Graeme Fowler, Chris Broad, Chris Tavaré and Tim Robinson all had their moments in the 1980s; Alec Stewart and Michael Vaughan were as good as any till they moved down the order. But when Cook finished his 161st Test, (c Rishabh Pant b Hanuma Vihari, 147), he was the last in the line of the stalwarts.
For the first time in 54 years, both the opener’s positions were open. In all, 234 men have opened the batting for England, 20 of them in these past eight years since Strauss finished. There was Nick Compton, struck down by a sort of creeping paralysis that left him, in the end, almost entirely strokeless; Joe Root and Moeen Ali, who both bobbed up top, out of position, and dropped back down again; Jonathan Trott, who tried it for three sorry Tests when he had already spent everything he had to give as a Test cricketer; and Michael Carberry, dropped too soon after being made to suffer that one god-awful Ashes tour.
There were Sam Robson and Adam Lyth, mayflies whose Test careers lasted just a single summer. There was Haseeb Hameed, who seemed, briefly, like the solution, and Ben Duckett, exposed by India’s spinners that same winter. There was Keaton Jennings and Mark Stoneman, who nearly made it but never quite did. Joe Denly had a go. And then there were the dashers, Jason Roy and Alex Hales, as England chased after their own David Warner. Which brings us right around to this winter, when Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, and Zak Crawley have split the job between them. It seems Jennings will get another run in Sri Lanka, too, as a subcontinental specialist.
There are a lot of reasons why the merry-go-round has been spinning like this – technical flaws in some cases, the selectors’ impatience in others. There are parallels with that spell before Boycott came along. Hutton had retired in 1955. England got through 20 different openers in a nine-year stretch, Peter Richardson the best of them, many of the rest middle-order players, all‑rounders and wicketkeepers pressed into emergency service. “It seems to be that you either have opening batsmen or you don’t,” wrote Alan Ross in the Observer. “Usually there’s been one who’s picked himself, but now we have none.”
The difference this time is everything has been muddled by all the confusion about the way England ought to be playing their Test cricket in the T20 era, and exactly what an opener’s job ought to be. Trevor Bayliss wanted two attacking batsmen among the top three. “If you’ve got guys who can play their strokes and get on with the game, if you lose a couple before lunch you’re 80, 90 or 100.” His thinking was if you plod along you end up two down for spit after two hours’ batting, and the upshot was, often as not, the team ended up three down for it in half the time. They abandoned the very first principle, which is that the opener has to blunt the new ball.
How satisfying, then, to see Sibley go about his work in South Africa these last few days: 495 minutes, 311 balls, 133 runs. And while we have to be cautious, since Robson, Lyth, Compton and Jennings all made centuries, too, there’s an undeniable feeling that, in Sibley and Burns – just as soon as he gets back from injury – England may just have found a partnership at last, where, even in this day and age, the old ways still work.