England need to be open-minded

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The Independent Online

It was fascinating to hear Alastair Cook expound how he intended to combat the threat of Muttiah Muralitharan in this Test series. And when and if he finally stays in long enough to face the new world record holder it will be equally intriguing to discover if his method works.

Poor Cook was always bound to make himself a hostage to fortune. He was duly dismissed early twice in the first Test at Kandy, facing a total of seven balls in the match. Cook's early departures merely exacerbated a worrying recent trend in England's cricket.

Their recent first-wicket partnerships have been more fragile than Elizabeth Taylor's marital ones. Opening stands do not necessarily win Test matches, but they provide solid platforms from which they are won.

England have now gone 14 matches and 27 innings without a century stand for the first wicket and they have won only three of those matches, all against an insipid West Indies. In the 25 matches before that, embracing their six successive series wins which culminated with the 2005 Ashes, they won seven of the matches in which their openers shared partnerships of over a hundred.

Batsmen talk about the need for putting together partnerships almost as often as bowlers talk about putting the ball in the right areas. The template is created by the men who go in first. England have patently failed to do that recently. Largely caused by Andrew Strauss' loss of form, the average first-wicket stand since Strauss and Marcus Trescothick put on 158 against Pakistan at Headingley (England won) is 28. In the 28 matches in which they opened together, Strauss and Trescothick had an average partnership of 52.35, sixth among the 17 pairs who have done the job for England in more than 10 Tests.

It is recognised that the new ball can ensnare anybody, it is the nature of the beast. But sides cannot be perpetually pushing the boulder uphill as England have done lately. As much as fast bowlers have to take new-ball wickets, openers have to prevent them.

In Michael Vaughan and Cook, England have returned to the left-hand, right-hand combination which was so favoured for a few years. The theory is that it can affect bowlers' lines with the new ball, which should have limited merit, considering international bowlers are involved.

It can also falter if one of the new-ball bowlers happens to like bowling at right-handers and the other at left-handers. Chaminda Vaas, for instance, might have lost a touch of pace (well actually a heck of a lot) but his booming away swing with the new ball, allied to ones that straighten, can make it perilous for left-handers as Cook showed in Kandy lbw in the first innings, caught at slip in the second.

Seven of England's top 10 most productive opening partnerships have batted the same way round, six being all right-hand combinations, Trescothick and Strauss being the sinister pair. The three left-right combos are of relatively recent vintage: Geoff Boycott and John Edrich, and Trescothick with both Vaughan and Michael Atherton. The key may be in simply picking the best players. As important as the way round they bat is getting on, trusting each other's approach and complementing it at the same time. It may not be pure coincidence that Strauss' form began to suffer when Trescothick had gone.

Despite his wonderful early record he was the less imposing of the duo and could afford to be. When Trescothick receded into the background because of the stress that international cricket induced, Strauss might have felt obliged as the senior man to take the lead, not protecting Cook, but showing him the way, demonstrating how authority should be stamped. Thus, was he gradually but inexorably debilitated.

This is England's 11th different opening partnership of the millennium involving 10 different players. Australia, too, have just launched a new first-wicket pair, with Phil Jaques replacing Justin Langer as Matthew Hayden's partner.

This continues Australia's all left-hander policy but if a right-hander comes along they will pick him. In Cook's case it may be that he has to come to terms with doing something completely different.

Before Kandy he had never before faced the first ball of an innings for England. Nor has Vaughan and he has been going for a lot longer. Presumably, the captain decided that he was too long in the tooth to change. If and when Strauss gets back into the team, there will be mild curiosity about whether he goes one or two.

Strauss would not have been human if a little of him was not wishing a little failure on the part of either Vaughan or Cook, or both in this series. England need their new openers to succeed and quickly.

It's a big game for Alastair Cook

No cause for alarm but the young Essex opener is finding that Test cricket is tough after all. He took to it as if to the manor born and rode his luck too, but since his sixth hundred early last summer he has scored 247 runs in 10 innings. Still has problems just outside off stump and gets into a tangle with the ball coming in to his pads. Enviably unflappable, needs a score to settle everyone else's nerves.