Perfect temperament for openers

Third Test: With luck Trescothick's bright beginning can prove the solution to problem position for England
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The Independent Online

Marcus Trescothick did pretty well for openers. Maiden Test, a full house, England in a mess, waiting 45 minutes to get off the mark, badly dropped when he was three: these were all reasons for blowing it. He simply rested nonchalantly on his bat, unfazed and unfussed, protected his off stump as if he realised it was the secret of his batting life and built himself the chance to be one of England's openers for years.

Marcus Trescothick did pretty well for openers. Maiden Test, a full house, England in a mess, waiting 45 minutes to get off the mark, badly dropped when he was three: these were all reasons for blowing it. He simply rested nonchalantly on his bat, unfazed and unfussed, protected his off stump as if he realised it was the secret of his batting life and built himself the chance to be one of England's openers for years.

Fortune accompanied him along most steps of the way, but together with skill, talent, flair and application, that is the professional sportsman's biggest pal. If necessary, he would probably betray the others as long as fortune stayed faithful. Sure, he will fail sometimes, maybe as early as his second innings.

His footwork has all the élan of a competitor in a three-legged race, he can play the odd inapposite shot which makes him look clumsy and brightens bowlers' lives. Much more importantly, he has an unfettered audacity and a detached resolution.

If he and Michael Atherton can establish themselves as an opening partnership, the effect on the rest of the order could be significant. How England have craved this. Since Atherton established himself, he has had 13 opening partners. Of those, many have been flirtations; some, like Nick Knight and Mark Butcher, promised long-term, left-handed commitment but failed to provide the adhesiveness necessary in an enduring relationship.

Only Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart lasted the course. Gooch retired, Stewart was needed elsewhere. Since then, the need for a strong, settled first-wicket pairing has grown with each lamentable batting display. It is one of the cornerstones of all great sides, and many indifferent ones. Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Hutton and Washbrook, Boycott and Edrich all provided substantial platforms for England.

The effect cannot be overstated. Numbers three and four cannot expect to be suffering from perpetual pad-rash on the balcony, but they do not want to be incessantly dashing down the pavilion steps to have a new ball winging and swinging their way. When England were 17 for 3 in the 14th over with some shine still left on Friday, perhaps it helped that the incoming batsman, Stewart, had seen before all movements possible in a new ball.

This is not a predicament exclusive to England. West Indies are undoubtedly suffering as well. Much is rightly made of their decline since their quartet of high-octane fast bowlers became a couple with a couple of less explosive sidekicks, but is no coincidence that they have not been the same since the break-up of the legendary Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes combination. Since Greenidge retired, West Indies have tried 23 different pairs involving 18 different batsmen; since Haynes was prematurely discarded those numbers are 21 and 17. They are no further forward in their quest, as demonstrated by a score of 12 for two on Thursday: both openers back whence they came.

The present Australia side are as good as any there can have been, and it is increasingly tempting to suggest they are better even than The Invincibles of 1948. Yet if they have a weakness, it is that they have not replaced Mark Taylor as an opening batsman. Michael Slater is waiting to be a double-act again, waiting for somebody to help him to be a match for Syd Barnes and Arthur Morris, who cut a swathe through England 52 years ago.

South Africa thought they had found an answer in Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs, but that was hardly perfect considering the number of occasions their late middle- order had to dig them out of holes. Since Gibbs' exile the position has not eased. There is not at present an outstanding pair of openers in the world, though the cut of the jib of Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu of Sri Lanka is admirable.

Trescothick's bearing after his first day at the crease in Test cricket was almost as warming as his exemplary conduct with the bat. He was calm. This was not about to go to his head. He had not been bothered about not scoring a run for 45 minutes because he had a game- plan. Sooner or later, he would get something to hit (though that was maybe a shade optimistic considering the way Courtney Walsh was bowling).

It is perhaps this phlegmatic attitude that opening batsmen need most of all. That and the ability to concentrate when it matters. Atherton has these qualities in spades, and Trescothick could learn much of the latter from him. "I didn't feel I had to do much with Alec Stewart at the other end," he said on Friday. "I just want to see the job through." And what, asked a member of the Fourth Estate, was seeing it through? "Batting through to stumps," said Trescothick, matter-of-factly.

The boy from Bristol with the Cornish name is only at the start of his journey. This initial success is by no means conclusive. Other openers have made half-centuries in their first innings without going on. Whither Roger Prideaux (64 v Australia, 1968)? Or Paul Gibb (93, followed by 106 in the second innings, against South Africa in 1938-39)? Or Martyn Moxon, the last debutant opener to make a half-century in his first innings (74 v New Zealand, 1986)?

Perhaps we would do better to recall other names who endured. Hobbs made 83 in his first innings for England in 1908, Sutcliffe hit 64 against South Africa in 1924, Brian Luckhurst, hardly a big name but part of Raymond Illingworth's hard-nosed Ashes-winning side in 1970-71, made 74 in Brisbane.

Only three men have gone in as part of the first-wicket pair for England and made a hundred first time out. Two of them hardly made a ripple thereafter: Billy Griffith (whose maiden hundred it was in the West Indies in 1948) and Arthur Milton (104no v New Zealand, 1958). Then there was a lad who, like Trescothick, came from Bristol, hit 152 opening the batting in his first Test and made something of himself in the game. Name of W G Grace.

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