Centurions Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer pose
Darren England / © Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'An opening partner is a bit like your brother'

Barry Richards, Justin Langer, Graeme Smith and Andrew Strauss on life at the top of the order

Interviews by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

How important is chemistry between openers?
Justin Langer: Matty Hayden is one of my best friends. He is a bit like my brother. I remember Mark Taylor, when he went through that really tough run in 1997, saying to me that he was finding it hard not batting with Michael Slater, who had been dropped. At the time I thought he was just making excuses, because I was one of the guys trying to get into the team. But actually, looking back, it makes so much sense. If you know you are walking out with a partner with whom you have a good affiliation - both personally and professionally - it makes a massive difference.

The first time I met him [Hayden] was a day before a Sheffield Shield game at the Gabba. He was walking across the ground in a pair of shorts and a singlet. A big man, he had a big smile, and I said hello, thinking he was one of the groundsmen. The next day he was one of the opening batsmen walking out.

Not long after, both of us were at a batting seminar at the cricket academy. One evening, when everyone went out to the pub or restaurant, the two of us went to my house in Adelaide and just started talking all manner of things. We stayed up late, talking rubbish. That is where the foundation of our friendship began.

Barry Richards: It works better if you have a slightly older player in conjunction with a slightly younger player. Take Gordon Greenidge. He came to Hampshire in 1970. By then I was an established player. He fed off me and then he had his own growth. I told him, "You can take first ball." But it was always the senior, based on experience, who took the call about who took first strike.

Andrew Strauss: There isn't chemistry to start with. It develops between opening batsmen mainly because it is the one constant in every innings: the two of you walking out together. Over time you get to know each other's game, you get to know what makes each other tick, you get to know what best to say and what best not to say. And also simple things - when you are looking for a single, you have got the opportunity to put the opposition under pressure and surprise them when they are not expecting it.

"In my case, I would look down at the other end and see Matty Hayden - a giant. A real warrior. So it was nice to go into the fight feeling not alone but with a partner" Justin Langer

What does a good opening partnership need?
Graeme Smith: You are looking to play positive. Often when you are positive your feet move better, you run better between the wickets. When your partner is under pressure, when someone is bowling a good spell against your partner and he gets an opportunity to get a single, you need to be really ready for a quick run, to get him off strike.

Strauss: First of all you have both got to be technically good enough to face the new ball and get through that new-ball period. So leaving the ball is very important. I have always felt the best opening partnerships have two different styles of batsmen. Left-hand, right-hand is better but does not have to be. If one batsman is good on the front foot and the other is good on the back foot then it becomes very hard for the opposition to bowl at the pair. That was the case when I was batting with Marcus Trescothick: he was a very strong driver through extra cover while I was stronger off the back foot - cutting and pulling. We forged a very good partnership. Alastair Cook and I were probably too similar to be an ideal opening pair, but we were both quite nuggety and could get through the new-ball period.

Richards: Understanding the conditions. Understanding what would constitute a solid opening partnership for the team. Setting hourly targets based on the degree of difficulty with the pitch and the kind of opposition. Facing some of the West Indian bowlers in the 1970s was very difficult as an opening batsman because they would bowl quite a lot of short-pitched deliveries all the time. You only had two or three balls every over that you could actually score off. And if you got only one or two runs off them, by lunch you would have no momentum at all.

Langer: You've got to respect each other. If I know that the other person works really hard and is really focused and committed to what we are trying to achieve as a partnership then it is much easier to help each other out. In Test cricket you are always under pressure, so it is nice to have someone share that pressure rather than trying to do everything yourself. The second is camaraderie. I always say it is a bit like if your brother is in trouble or if someone is bullying him. You go and stick out for him, don't you?

Andrew Strauss:

Andrew Strauss: "Alastair and I were probably too similar to be an ideal opening pair, but we were both quite nuggety and could get through the new-ball period" © AFP

How important is fearlessness?
Langer: Being fearless matters but there would not be one person who says, "I am not worried about facing fast bowling." In my case, I would look down at the other end and see Matty Hayden - a giant. A real warrior. So it was nice to go into the fight feeling not alone but with a partner. It was not just me but two of us. That gave me confidence.

Smith: Gary Kirsten always used to joke that you have got to be mental to be an opening batsman. Most opening batsmen will agree with that. You are often facing the quickest bowlers in the opposition, bowlers who are fresh; you don't know much about how the wicket is playing or how the ball is moving. The key is to clear one's mind and bat with a lot of courage. There is always a chance that you will fall for a low score, and having the ability to bounce back is hugely important. The crowd generally cheers the loudest in the first ball of the match. So if you can manage your nerves on the first ball, it is often as important as anything else.

You need to have a degree of mental strength because you often start a Test match not knowing what the conditions are. There are times - 20 minutes before lunch, 20 minutes before tea or close - when you need to have the ability to really switch on. You might have been fielding for 100-150 overs at times, but as an opener you just have ten minutes to get yourself changed and get out back in the middle and try and fight.

"If one batsman is good on the front foot and the other is good on the back foot then it becomes very hard for the opposition to bowl at the pair" Andrew Strauss

What about communicating with your partner? Is that how one builds trust?
Langer: By the end of our careers we knew each other's games very well. One of our mantras was to wear down the opposition, so we would always remind each other about that. So Haydos would keep saying to me, "Just keep wearing 'em down, wearing 'em down. It'll get easier." In the 2002 Boxing Day Ashes Test we had a really tough first session. It was unusual because both of us were in good form but we were both battling really hard. We kept hanging in there and reminding ourselves to wear them down. We got to lunch and we thought we had no energy left. We could not let the England bowlers away.

But when we came out for the second session it was unbelievable: Matty Hayden was walking down the pitch and hitting the bowlers over midwicket for fours and sixes. I remember Craig White was bowling and Haydos told me, "Mate, if this was an ODI match I would be hitting him back over his head for six." So I told him, "Just get it out of your system and then we will go back to batting normally." And he just did that, hitting White twice over his head for sixes. That was probably within 20 minutes after lunch on the first day. We had a massive second session when we really took the game away from England.

Richards: Communication is important in Test matches. But in county cricket, with the roles we had, we did what we had to do. The only time we would communicate was if one of us was struggling against a particular bowler and I would ask him to take strike or tell him I would take strike.

Strauss: That just comes with time spent together - knowing each other's games and knowing the danger signs for each of you. Cook and I used to get tempted into playing outside off stump, trying to play cover drives at times. And when one of us did that, invariably the other one would come down the pitch and say, "Mate, this isn't the right wicket to play that kind of a shot or the right time, rein yourself in." We would also talk about what the bowler is trying to do. "He is trying to bowl across us, and then bring one back, just be careful of the straight ball." All those kinds of conversations happen on a daily basis and are a hugely important part of a partnership. As long as you trust the guy at the other end and know that he has got your best interest at heart. That is what matters.

Do not disturb: Matthew Hayden was given to meditating on the pitch the day before a match

Do not disturb: Matthew Hayden was given to meditating on the pitch the day before a match © Getty Images

Smith: It is about building up a rapport, an association around the cricket field and around the change room. I had a really successful opening partnership with Herschelle Gibbs because his strengths matched my weaknesses and my strengths matched his weaknesses - if that makes sense. Bowling to the two of us in a partnership was sometimes very difficult because bowlers had to adapt to our styles, to a left-hand-right-hand combination and the way we scored.

We both wanted to take the game forward so we both tried to build pressure. I always found it difficult to bat with a more conservative opening partner - someone who did not really want to score and allowed the bowlers to settle into a line and length.

Who decided to take the strike?
Smith: Early on in your career those things may be a little bit more important to you. You think that's the way it has worked for you and you want to carry on. But as I went on with my career and I became the more senior and experienced partner, I used to let the newer guy have the choice. Often we would take turns to share the load.

Langer: I always took the first ball. It was just part of my personality. I was always very structured and I felt that if I took the first ball, it would be the best way for me to go. [Hayden] was happy with that.

Richards: I said to Gordon, "We will now share first strike", because the first time I offered it to him he took it. His assumption when he came into the side was that he would not have the choice whether he wanted it or not. It certainly gives the junior partner a certain confidence when the senior player gives the young guy the option. He feels he has got to the big stage. He gets a sense of belonging.

"Gary Kirsten always used to joke that you have got to be mental to be an opening batsman. Most opening batsmen will agree with that" Graeme Smith

Did you analyse bowlers together and share insights and observations?
Langer: We did that individually. We complemented each other very well. I was short, he was very tall. I hit very square of the wicket, he would hit very straight down the ground. So the bowlers had to adjust their lines and lengths. The way I played [Steve] Harmison, [Andrew] Flintoff, [Simon] Jones, [Matthew] Hoggard and [Ashley] Giles was different to the way he did. So it was important that we prepared for the challenge individually. If we were ready individually we could bat for long periods and help each other out.

Richards: Usually it did not matter which bowlers we were facing. At times, based on a pitch, I would check with my partner if he fancied facing a particular bowler but that was rare. Most times you have to bat for time and battle the conditions and try and stay focused. Take Derek Underwood on a wet pitch - neither of us would make runs. You've just got to play time to survive. There will be times when you are out of form and you might want to take it easy. But runs are runs. You can't not make runs because somebody does not want to bat at an end.

I felt offspinners were quite difficult, whereas he played them very, very well - especially with the very strong sweep shot. But generally both of us were quite confident about our games and, regardless of the opposition, we would like to think we had an answer for them.

Barry Richards:

Barry Richards: "In England, with the lower bounce and more movement, you've got to get forward" © PA Photos

What would you do when your partner was struggling?
Richards: I would tell him the normal things: take one ball at a time, bat for time, if you feel uncomfortable bat for half an hour at a time, don't worry about runs and all such things. But good players learn from other players. The whole focus when you are in the middle is on the ball and the match and the match situation. You do not say to the guy, "Your footwork is not right, your hands are not right." Trying to coach a guy during a match situation is dangerous. You do those things after the game, in the nets.

Langer: That is the other thing about knowing your partner well - you know when he is playing at his best and when he is not. So you can just remind him. If I was struggling, Matty Hayden would come up and say, "Your head is falling. Watch the ball out of the bowler's hand. Just be sharp." Those were the three cues for me: head falling in my stance, see the ball out of the bowler's hand, and be nice and sharp. Have lots of energy at the crease. And for him the cue was to just fight. So I would just keep reminding him, "Keep fighting, keep fighting." And that would put him back into rhythm.

Smith: You have to understand each other's games and how they work. Like Alviro [Petersen] used to hit across the front pad, so I used to tell him, "Aim to hit mid-on, aim to hit mid-on." Just try and create good reference points for your partner. You are always looking at little affirmations of the things your partner has been working on, things that are important to him.

"I realised that I am not going to be strong like him. I am not going to muscle it out there. If I tried and played like him, I was doing myself a disservice" Barry Richards on Gordon Greenidge

Was there a time when your partner helped put you back on track?
Smith: I had the tendency to hit the ball square on the leg side. And Herschelle would remind me to hit the ball straight and to watch the ball. The challenging time for an opening batsman is when the ball is nipping around. Or when someone is running in and bowling really quick and you are trying to block and bat for the final seven or eight overs of the day. Ultimately it is the two of you against 11 other players. Rather than the technical stuff, it can just be that the opening partner knows you are with him and you are in the battle jointly.

Langer: Matty Hayden never used to watch the scoreboard, whereas I always watched the scoreboard. He always thought there would be distractions. He was just trying to concentrate on one ball at a time. But there were times where I knew he was getting good momentum and if he was batting in the 90s I would tell him, "Mate, you must concentrate. You are on 98. So make sure you get the 100." I am not sure whether he liked that or not, but it was really important for me as his partner to remind him to not lose concentration.

Richards: When I came to England and played on uncovered and green pitches Roy Marshall [one of his early opening partners at Hampshire] helped me a lot. He said that I was coming from a hot country and so had the tendency to play more on the back foot. In England, with the lower bounce and more movement, you've got to get forward. That was a very good piece of advice in my first year of county cricket.

Graeme Smith:

Graeme Smith: "I had a really successful opening partnership with Herschelle because his strengths matched my weaknesses and my strengths matched his weaknesses" © AFP

Is it useful to have a partner with a complementary batting style and personality?
Richards: I played with Gordon for seven years. He could be brutal in his strokeplay. He was a very strong and muscular type of player. He hit very straight and very hard. He hit many more sixes than me. I worked the ball into gaps and relied on finesse. When the ball hit my bat it would make a willowy sound whereas his was an absolute crack on the bat.

I remember the first match we both opened was against Warwickshire [in 1970]. He was obviously slightly nervous and wanted to prove himself. He absolutely went after their bowling. And he was so good. He got a lot of confidence out of that. He came in and played without fear. And I did not want to change that. I believed that if he is a natural striker then let him play his game even if there was a risk of getting out.

I realised that I am not going to be strong like him. I am not going to muscle it out there. If I tried and played like him I was doing myself a disservice. We had opposite, but successful, styles. In those days opening partnerships would involve one partner who was a blocker, like Boycott, and another who was an aggressor, like Gooch. In our case both Gordon and myself were aggressive. I believe that kind of combination is ideal still.

Langer: It is funny that a lot of people do not believe this: Matty Hayden was very, very serious. It was a bit like Greenidge and Haynes. Greenidge was a serious guy while Haynes was a bit of a joker. I suppose that was the case with Haydos and myself. Before a game I used to like to dance, laugh and joke around, listen to music and be as relaxed as possible. I played my best when I was more relaxed and smiling. But he was like a bit like a gladiator. He wound up the opposition because he was such a serious competitor.

What about the disagreements?
Langer: At one point, during the 2005 Ashes, Hayden and Damien Martyn were getting distracted by a few things. We were at a Starbucks coffee shop one afternoon and I got pretty grumpy with him. I told him you are concentrating on all the wrong things and getting distracted. I was getting upset with him because he was letting little, insignificant things affect him. I actually walked out of the coffee shop. That was the only time I got grumpy in all those years. But these things happen in any long-term relationship.

I remember the lighter moments. Early on in my career David Boon made a funny comment when I was hit on the helmet and got dizzy. I was hit again and couldn't really see. Boon walked up to me and said, "Mate, this is no place for heroes. If you can't see, you're better off having a breather." A bit later in the innings Boon got hit on the elbow. We thought he had broken it. I had this big smile on my face and told him to get off because it was no place for heroes. The funny thing was, during my 100th Test I was hit by Makhaya Ntini first ball. And Matty Hayden said to me: "There are no heroes in Test cricket, son." I retired hurt and didn't bat again [in that match].

Smith: I never really needed to manage Herschelle. My job was to keep him focused and, at times, when the pressure was on, give him good reference points and try and support him. Herschelle was more a flair player than a technical player. Confidence for him was the key. I spent a lot of my time building him up and trying to make sure he was confident about what he wanted to do. It was not so much telling him, "Cover your off stump" or "Move your feet." It was more about just him feeling good about himself. And when he was confident, more than often it transformed into good performances.

"Trying to coach a guy during a match situation is dangerous. You do those things after the game, in the nets" Barry Richards

How would you switch off?
Langer: Between overs or between balls, because we knew each other so well, we would either switch off or have a laugh together and take in what was happening. Playing in front of 120,000 fans in Kolkata or 100,000 at the MCG and reminding each other how much fun it was.

Smith: With the captaincy I did not have much opportunity to play as much golf as the other guys did. But we always enjoyed a meal and beers together, especially at times when we had done well. On the field, it is natural for both batsmen to relax, especially when the partnership is going well and gets over 100. At such times you are both finding a sort of common ground: you have got good scores behind you, the bowlers are getting tired… then your body language changes. Herschelle always wanted to attack and play shots that were very risky. You really want him to concentrate and not take things for granted.

You cannot be selfish, can you?
Langer: If you are batting 20 minutes before stumps, you have to look after each other. You have to run hard between wickets. You cannot be protecting yourself at the expense of your partner. I felt that having a good partner, someone whom I really liked, took a lot of pressure off me. If we were selfish about it then we would not be taking a lot of pride in our partnerships. If I got 20 but we had a partnership of 60 or 70 runs we felt that we had done our job. And hopefully that foundation would be a positive in the selectors' eyes as well.

Richards: You can't say, "I am not going to take a run" or "I am not going to hit a ball." You will only do that to protect tailenders. But as an opening batsman, never.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo