Opening batsmen: the divergence of ODI and Test players

Before the Ashes Gio Colussi of The Cricket Academy analysed the two batting lineups and pointed out the White Ball bias in the England camp – they had picked batsmen who were stronger ODI players. He did not expect this to work out well for England. He was right.

Wind the clock back. The good old days. Specifically the noughties (or 2000s, or whatever). An opening batsman fulfilled the same role in Tests or ODIs. Hence their ODI and Test averages were similar, and you could use one to predict the other with a fair degree of confidence.

Fig 1 – Averages of openers to have played >20 innings in Tests and ODIs from 2000-2009

The correlation is so good that the names get all jumbled up on the straight line running from (20,20) to (50,50). Yes, there’s some Test specialists there (Cook, Strauss) but most of the 23 players that meet the criteria for inclusion behave as expected.

That correlation has broken down now.

Fig 2 – Averages of openers to have played >20 innings in Tests and ODIs from 2012-2019. Note the same axes as Fig 1.

There are three distinct types of player, reflected in the clustering in the chart:

  • Versatile elite batsmen (Warner, Iqbal) – just as good in either format, average over 40 in both.
  • Test specialists (Latham, Azhar Ali) – who are/were good enough to play in ODI Cricket, but averaged at least five lower in ODIs
  • ODI specialists (Hales, Guptill) – averaging under 30 in Tests.

I’m reminded of the film Titanic (1997) explaining the captain’s complacency: “26 years of experience working against him”. That line stuck with me – it’s easy to assume past trends will continue, and that you can use opening the batting in ODIs as a pathway into opening in Tests.

Not any more. Unless the player is good. And I mean really good, the best predictor I can see for successfully opening the batting in Tests is successfully opening the batting in red ball Cricket. Think about Jason Roy – ODI Average 43 as an opener, Test Average 19. I don’t think anyone is now expecting him to average 35 in Tests as an opener. Yet someone must have thought he could, else he wouldn’t have been picked. – closing the stable door after the horse has bolted!

PS. This piece serves as another reminder to me to continually check that the trends I’ve seen still hold – else one day I could be the mug taking Fig.1 to a meeting, persuading everyone to pick the best ODI openers to open the batting in Tests.

Sibley or Roy?

Sibley or Roy

For the third Test I’d like to see Dominic Sibley open the batting. To subscribe to this line of reasoning, you’ll need to be persuaded of two things: firstly, it is not necessary to gain experience in “lesser” Test series to ensure peak performance in the Ashes. Secondly, that Sibley is one of the two best opening batsmen England have available.

Opening Up

There’s a school of thought that new players need to be “blooded” to succeed without first playing against weaker teams in the Test format. The data indicates that this is a fallacy.

The 96 openers to make their debut since 2005 scored at an average of 32. That is poor when compared to the average for all openers (36). However, that’s not the right comparative. Weaker players will play fewer Tests, so debutants are of lower ability than the average Test player.

A better way of assessing openers on debut is to compare performance with that player’s career average, adjusted for whether the debut was at home or away. Looking at it that way, players on debut scored three runs more per match than expected.

Why should openers do well on debut?

This is unexpected – often players will debut before their peak, their average will improve as they get better with age. It’s possible that openers are not thrown in at such a young age as middle order batsmen (because it’s a specialist position and no one wants to be 0-1).

Another option is that batsmen had an advantage when the bowler has to played against them before, and is yet to develop a plan. This may have been the case last decade, but is unlikely in modern cricket.

Note that debuts were evenly spread across opponents- it’s not like selectors wait for the weaker opponents before trying new players.

Sibley the Best?

Before the summer, I rated Dominic Sibley as a decent opening batsmen, impressive for a 23 year old, but some way short of Test standard. His expected 2019 First Class average (based on Championship and 2nd XI matches from 2016-18) was 36. That made him at best seventh on the list of possible Test openers. For fans of lists, Burns (51), Stoneman (44), Jennings (42), Mitchell (40), Hales (39) were ahead of him on merit, and Hameed (expected average 36) was also ahead because of his fame.

Fast forward to August 2019. Reflecting Sibley’s spring/summer return of 940 runs in my ratings, his expected Division 1 average jumps to 42. Tied for second place with Stoneman.

Adjusting for age, Sibley would expect to average 34 in Tests.

If one limits the search to red ball cricketers, there could be few complaints with Sibley opening the batting for England.

However, there’s this Roy chap. Top ODI player- averages 43. Can he make it as a Test opener? Leaving his white ball record to one side (because I’ve not looked at the predictive power of white ball results on red ball expectations), in First Class Cricket he averages 38. He has performed better recently: averaging 43 in Division 1 over the last three seasons. However, in those three-and-a-half-seasons he barely played: 32 completed Test/Championship/2nd XI innings while Sibley has 73. Roy didn’t open in either of his games last year.


Don’t be afraid to give an opener a debut if their record says they are capable.

A reasonable scenario is that Denly (expected Test average 31) picks up 60-80 runs over the course of the Lord’s Test this week, and is dropped on the back of averaging 24 after ten innings.

Sibley to open, Roy slots in at four? Could work.