Cape Town – There are just three current specialist openers in the top 10 of the ICC Test batting rankings.
One of them, the disgraced David Warner of Australia, is now out of the picture for the next year … and at very least, considering strong suggestions the stormy petrel may never wear the Baggy Green cap again.
The other two are both of South Africa’s budding pairing: Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram.
Elgar lies eighth as things stand, whilst the still fresh-faced Markram has entered the radar at nine, and after only 10 personal Test appearances.
Just in itself, that’s a fairly compelling case for saying the Proteas boast the best first-wicket firm in the Test business, and one that should only blossom further over the next few years.
They certainly look the most stable unit on paper of all the front-end national pairings on the “big four” international scene, widely accepted to also feature India, England and the Australians.
Before we even examine more thoroughly the Elgar-Markram alliance -- showing encouraging signs of developing into the sort of productive combination that marked the Graeme Smith-Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten-Gibbs earlier eras – it is worth considering the pickle a couple of South Africa’s main adversaries find themselves in for trusty duos at the top of the order.
As if their overall batting wasn’t vulnerable enough, series-long, in this country over the last few weeks, Australia will feel tremulous aftershocks from the mandatory break-up for some time of their full opening combo: Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
Whilst the latter couldn’t exactly be described as part of the furniture yet in his own berth (his Ashes series turned innocuous after an 82 not out at Brisbane), he had knuckled down commendably enough in South Africa before his sensational, ball-tampering bust and, at 25, still has promise somewhere down the line.
But if Warner’s banishment does, indeed, turn permanent, the Aussies are in a fair old pickle both in the short- and longer-term to find someone to match his belligerent effectiveness at the Test crease, where he has notched 6,363 runs at an average of 48.20.
The hastily-cobbled Matt Renshaw-Joe Burns alliance didn’t exactly take the closing encounter at the Wanderers by storm, although their lack of acclimatisation must be taken into account.
England? Well, their big problem is that massively experienced senior opener Alastair Cook, albeit now freed of captaincy pressures, has stayed glaringly inconsistent at the crease in recent times.
His last 18 Test innings since mid-August last year, for example, have seen him “bailed out”, in many senses, by two whopping double centuries: 244 not out against Australia at Melbourne earlier this year, and 243 against mediocre West Indies at Birmingham several months earlier.
Between those vigils, however, the 33-year-old’s returns have been near-pitiful, with a top score of 39 in the other 16 innings (and six of those in single figures).
Nor is Mark Stoneman an irresistible presence yet as his ally up front – not with a tenuous Test average of 30 after 10 appearances, albeit that he played resolutely in the latest mini-series loss in New Zealand, notching a half-century in each of the two clashes.
As for India, the fact that their best opening stand in the 2-1 series loss in South Africa was 30 tells you everything you need to know about their ongoing struggle to get off to solid starts in more seam-friendly conditions away from the Subcontinent.
Senior figure Murali Vijay – not exactly in imperious touch himself with no half-century from his last seven Test innings – found himself with three different partners during the series against the Proteas: Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Parthiv Patel.
All of that evidence puts into pleasingly contrasting perspective just how enriched the Proteas have been by the establishment of the Elgar-Markram combination this season.
So far, since put in tandem from Markram’s debut against Bangladesh at Potchefstroom in early summer onward, the pair have amassed 928 runs together in 18 Proteas innings, for an average stand of 51.5.
That is pretty reassuring if you are a No 3 or No 4 batsman hoping that your openers will take a decent amount of shine off the new ball, even if it must be acknowledged that their beefiest stands have been against the minnows of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Subsequently, there have been fewer really large partnerships between them against stronger nations India and Australia, although as individuals both have come to light several times in a major way, which must bode well for the likelihood that they will really cash in as a pairing against the fellow-juggernaut countries going forward, too.
Successive half-century stands in the cherry-on-top triumph over the Aussies at the Wanderers over the last few days serve as a promising indicator of that.
Both were very influential in the 3-1, lengthy drought-breaking triumph over the Baggy Greens, Markram averaging 60 in the series and Elgar 47.
They are the perfect foil for each other as a left-and-right combo, and Markram (overall Test strike rate 64.55) is also ideal for the more patient, conscientious Elgar (45.33) as the greater aggressor much of the time.
Markram’s last batting contribution to the series was to advance to exactly 1,000 Test runs in his 18th innings, making him joint-13th fastest to the landmark in history, and second only among compatriots to Graeme Smith (17 knocks).
A video comparison on SuperSport, once the dust settled over the Bullring, of Markram’s set-up at the crease showed how he had tightened his technique against the Aussies, after having a tendency against India to waft fatally at deliveries outside off-stump that he could have left alone.
The footage showed how much more he was covering his “off-peg” in bodily terms against the Baggy Greens’ seam attack, as well as the top point of his back-lift being much straighter, instead of his blade pointing toward third slip or gully.
Clearly a very willing and intelligent learner …
All the Test opening stands thus far between Elgar (49 Tests, 3,194 runs in total at 42.58) and Markram (10 Tests, 1000 runs in total at 55.55):
Bangladesh, Potchefstroom: 196 (Elgar eventual score 199, Markram 97) & 30 (Elgar 18, Markram 15)
Bangladesh, Bloemfontein: 243 (Markram 143, Elgar 113)
Zimbabwe, Port Elizabeth: 72 (Markram 125, Elgar 31)
India, Cape Town: 0 (Markram 5, Elgar 0) & 52 (Markram 34, Elgar 25)
India, Centurion: 85 (Markram 94, Elgar 31) & 1 (Elgar 61, Markram 1)
India, Johannesburg: 3 (Elgar 4, Markram 2) & 5 (Elgar 86*, Markram 4)
Australia, Durban: 27 (Markram 32, Elgar 7) & 29 (Markram 143, Elgar 9)
Australia, Port Elizabeth: 22 (Elgar 57, Markram 11) & 22 (Markram 21, Elgar 5)
Australia, Cape Town: 6 (Elgar 141*, Markram 0) & 28 (Markram 84, Elgar 14)
Australia, Johannesburg: 53 (Markram 152, Elgar 19) & 54 (Elgar 81, Markram 37)
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