As an amateur statistician, I’m as baffled as Mick Newell about why there is an apparent struggle for form in Nottinghamshire’s opening pair.
If you have four potential opening batsmen all with a career batting average in excess of 30, any pairing of them must logically produce an average opening partnership of 60, but one must allow for the vagaries of human nature (the point at which cricket coaches have attained Gradgrind efficiency has not yet been reached), one would expect two mature first-class county batsmen to average 40, when invited to open the innings. But why doesn’t this happen?
I don’t believe I am any more capable of answering the riddle than Mick Newell. All I can offer are the statistics for Nottinghamshire opening batsmen in the past. As space is limited, this piece is confined to our county players since the resumption of Championship matches in 1946 – the tactics for Twenty20 matches are of an entirely different order.
I suppose it’s just as well that memories – well, cricketing memories – have a tendency to replay highs rather than lows. After all people come to watch cricket for enjoyment and that means relishing the good times. The one disadvantage of this is that when matters go awry, one rakes back through the memory bank and somehow believes things have never been so grim.
To cut to the chase, in 2009 our openers managed opening partnerships that averaged out at 24 runs per innings. However one has only to go back to 1999 to find a worse set of figures – anyone remember that? And 1998 was even more dire. In case anyone thinks this is a modern trend, 1977 and 1964 were both worse than last summer.    
Let’s however commence at the beginning, that glorious first season after the Second World War – I was there, the weather wasn’t glorious, but Notts opening pair were. In case you’re thinking it was a batsman’s year, Notts great star Joe Hardstaff didn’t find run getting at all easy. Walter Keeton and Charlie Harris, the legendary opening pair averaged partnerships worth 52 runs apiece. The pair added 2,269 runs in 44 partnerships.
What is rather odd here is that Charlie Harris’s batting average for that season was just 31! So Keeton and Harris appear to be the exception, or rather they prove Mick Newell’s theory that two established batsmen with career records over 30 ought to produce opening partnerships that are worth at least 40 runs.
However Keeton and Harris, by 1946, must have acquired a sixth sense between them. I haven’t any comprehensive stats for other counties, but did any other county pair open the innings so many times. The Notts pair went to the wicket together 433 times putting on a massive 17,000 plus runs and between 1932 and 1950 averaging 41. I can hear the critics now telling me that Trent Bridge was a batsman’s paradise, but I would like to remind those souls that whilst Keeton and Harris were at work – Harris was the man, who arrived at the crease to greet the fielding side with, “Good morning fellow workers.”
The batsmen at the Radcliffe Road end faced a red ball against the red brick of the pavilion, or the darkness of the Long Room windows.
Moving swiftly through the decades, When Harris retired through ill-health, Simpson partnered Keeton for three very productive years. Keeton retired as a regular after 1951 aged 46. Johnnie Clay and Ron Giles were Reg Simpson’s principal associates through the 1950s. Simpson dropped down the order in his final seasons, bringing Norman Hill to the opening spot. Alan Gill and Barrie Whittingham briefly flitted across the scene, before Brian Bolus came from Yorkshire in 1963. He and Hill averaged partnerships in the low 30s and then came Pasty Harris from Middlesex.
In 1970 Bolus and Harris averaged 52, the highest partnership figure for twenty years, but the following season Harris was joined by Graham Frost with Bolus coming in lower down. In 1973 the ex-Middlesex pair of Harris and Bob White averaged 43. Paul Todd then partnered Harris, before Basher Hassan and Todd opened in 1975 and 1976. Hassan went lower down in 1978 and 1979, bringing Harris back to accompany Todd. 1980 saw the arrival of Tim Robinson, who was to act as a regular opener for a decade, first with Todd, then Hassan and in 1984 with Chris Broad. The Robinson and Broad pairing was highly successful and over five years they put on 6,000 runs at an average of over 52, the best record by a pair of openers over such a span of years.
Robinson went lower in the batting in 1989 and Broad for his final four years was partnered mainly by Paul Pollard andMick Newell. Pollard continued to 1996 – in that year he and Robinson averaged 45. Matt Dowman and Guy Welton shared the opening spot with Jason Gallian. Darren Bicknell came in 2000, but it was not until 2003 that he and Gallian acted as Notts regular opening pair and in 2005 had their great summer averaging 56 in 26 partnerships. That more or less brings the story back to the present.
Whoever Mick Newell decides as opening partners (we had no less than seven different pairings in just 27 innings in 2009) it seems impossible to forecast the outcome. Something tells me that Charlie Harris’s style of batting wouldn’t suit the present day, but someone who can stay at the wicket for an hour or two must be useful in four day games.
Peter Wynne-Thomas is Nottinghamshire’s librarian and historian