Who would want to be an opening batsman? There’s no need to set an alarm on day one of the game: nerves will wake you up. It is not knowing what lies in store. If you are playing well, there is a thrill of anticipation. If you are battling with your form, you may already be sensing the disappointment an early mistake can bring. Trivialities such as breakfast are over-analysed.
Nerves often ensure not much is eaten, which you can regret later, when hunger gnaws. Nerves continue well into the warm-up. You monitor your condition. Do your legs feel heavy, your arms loose? The toss is the tipping point. Some days, you watch the coin being flung in the air, keen to see the reaction of the captains; other days, you wait for the murmur to filter through the group, half hoping for good news, which may not be quite what outsiders imagine.
I have always loved being sent in. They will be coming at you, maybe too hard; they will feel the pressure as much as you do. Reaching lunch, even with only 20 to your name, leaves the feeling of a job well done. A flat wicket, by contrast, can be strangely daunting, because you know how deflating it is to miss out. I have never felt more nervous than at Adelaide Oval against South Africa in November 2012. It was the Test after I had scored my maiden hundred, at the Gabba. Conditions were perfect. But, when Michael Clarke won the toss and elected to bat, my first reaction was to lie down on the field and throw up. The crowd was building, and many would have seen me lying in a crucifix position, as though I were sunbathing. In the Ashes Test there two years earlier, Australia had batted on a similarly glorious morning, and immediately lost three wickets for two runs; I dreaded being part of a repeat.
If you’re in first, the routine is fairly rigid. A catch to warm up the eyes, a dash to the nets, perhaps a quick shower, a last read of your notes; time to get a song in your head to distract your conscious mind. Nerves tend to have settled. You know what lies in wait, and you can start to visualise yourself out there, playing with fluency. You can be an emotional wreck one minute, and possess a calm clarity the next – but this is the advantage of opening the batting. Eleven o’clock is your hour. No sitting down. No waiting. You can time your run to the minute.
It can get tricky if you are fortunate enough to play Test cricket, and they squeeze in a national anthem. Andrew Strauss wrote how “it was impossible not to become emotional when singing ‘God Save the Queen’” before the 2010-11 Brisbane Test. He went on, “now, for rugby players and footballers that’s a great thing – to get your emotions stirred and steel yourself for the fight ahead – but as an opening batsman it’s not what you want. When you go out to bat, you need to be cool, calm, if anything emotionless, or as emotionless as you can be.” Keyed up, he flailed the third ball of the Ashes to gully. “These things happen in cricket,” he noted – even to the best.
If you’re fielding, the anthem can be belted out. If you’re not, it’s best to detach yourself, and stare off above the grandstand. Worse still is a minute’s silence. How I felt for Chris Rogers and David Warner in the preamble to the Adelaide Test in December, overshadowed by the commemoration of Phillip Hughes. Opening the batting, because of its exact timing, is as much about controlling your emotions as about crisp, decisive footwork.
You have the honour of marking the game’s first guard – everyone from then on will take your cue. In your state of heightened awareness it’s also a reconnaissance. As soon as your boot sprig touches the clay under the grass, you get more information than any pitch inspection could ever provide. A tough scrape through a dry surface is a reassuring feeling. A soft sensation, like a knife though butter, revealing a dark black soil, and you can expect a tougher morning. When things are going well, to see the wicket change over the course of the day – with the consistent reference point of marking guard – is a small pleasure within the greater game.
Look around, and it’s a familiar scene: the majority of fieldsmen are 20 metres behind the bat, and they’re all waiting for your mistake. You’re outnumbered, and – against the fastest, freshest, most skilled bowlers, armed with a new ball on a new wicket – you’re in danger of being outgunned. It is a stroke to the ego every time one of these fielders is moved to a more defensive position. It means you are playing well; little gains count for a lot when the odds are stacked against you.
You have one ally, though. Your partner may be on his own journey, but you are in it together. You will be judged as a pair, as much as individuals. Chemistry is everything, but there is no formula. That’s partly because opening batsmen approach their task so differently. We are a mob who have traditionally been drawn to the job because of our ability to resist; yet some of our most valued comrades have a natural aggression that brings fear and destruction. It takes all sorts – from the bromance of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, to the Ranji Trophy partnership of Aakash Chopra and Shikhar Dhawan, who piled on the runs for Delhi, despite not being on speaking terms. Chris Broad and Tim Robinson, too, pillaged attacks for Nottinghamshire without ever seeing eye to eye. They were rivals too, competing for the same spot in the English Test team, the success of one a setback for the other – though perhaps this was a motivating force.
My favourite over the years has been Greg Mail, of Sydney University and New South Wales, who took a cocksure youth under his wing and – like an older brother – doled out some tough love. It’s wonderful that I now have that relationship, in reverse, with the talented Jordan Silk at Tasmania.
We do not, of course, choose our partners. We are like children forced to join in at an adult party. In my experience, trust is the main ingredient of any successful opening partnership – trust that your partner is reading your body language, as he chastises you for departing from your game plan, or pumps you up after a cracking shot ends a period of struggle. As in any relationship, this trust is not something that simply appears: it is cultivated over months and years, like a happy travelling companion. We are a team within a team, playing, training and planning together, contemplating how the opposition will attack us and how we will respond, helping each other play naturally.
At Perth in January 2012, when Warner turned it on against India, I urged him to keep going. In little moments of doubt, after a swing and a miss, or a lob over the infield, he would look up for reassurance. I tried to keep the message positive: “You’re having a day out, mate. Keep swinging.” At Mohali in March 2013, he kept me conservative. We had spent countless hours throwing off-spin to each other, scheming how best to play Ravichandran Ashwin, and adopted an expression. Every time he thought me a little loose, it would be: “C’mon, mate, keep swimming between the flags.” It was a term Ricky Ponting had used to describe the dangers of trying too much in foreign conditions – a reminder to keep it simple, to stick to the formula. If you grow up in Australia, the analogy resonates. Warner and I put on 139. So you had me urging him to play his shots in one Test, and him urging me to play prudently in another: counterintuitive, perhaps, but true.
Ours was an interesting relationship. We had known each other for nearly 20 years before opening together for Australia, but had never been close. I had thrown balls to him out the back of Waverley Oval in Sydney as our brothers played out in the middle, but I didn’t feel part of his experience until we were international colleagues. There was no more competing against each other, because there was no need. Off the field, we led different lives, but the harmony we found on it taught me a lot about the value of letting your guard down in the search for improvement and synergy. We gave ourselves to each other as partners, and reaped the rewards.
Both of us, of course, also opened with Phillip Hughes and, in losing him, lost part of our batting selves. For that is what you see when you look up from your newly marked crease. More than just a partner, you see a mentor, a mentee, a psychologist, a video analyst and, if it’s a successful symbiosis, you see him looking back in the same manner. You are connected.
That trust is most essential between the wickets. The quick single is the opening batsman’s best friend. When a pair are in harmony, the strike is turned over with a look, a nod and a step. Nothing annoys the bowler more than having to plan all over again. Some fast men even prefer being hit for a boundary. A superb cover-drive is usually met with a wry grin; a rock-solid forward defensive and a hustled single with a grunt of frustration. It is a small but important prize, a breather from the cauldron of intense concentration. Your partner knew what you were thinking: he is off, and you are away. His turn now – which means it is your turn to stay on call.
Lunch is the first target. Teams are not meant to be none down. Often the work done by the openers goes unnoticed. The scoreboard suggests runs are the currency of a batsman’s output. Yet dressing-rooms care about minutes and balls too. If you negotiate the opening session, it feels like a milestone in itself – and the opposition have their heads down, knowing you hold the advantage. In one sense, your job is done: those middle-order strokemakers can play naturally, without having to worry about the hard yards.
Who would want to be an opening batsman? I would.
This article appeared in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2015. You can buy it here.