“Maybe you’re an international cricketer, you’re playing in a test match, and you’ve been standing in the field for two days, watching your opposition counterparts flourishing in good batting conditions.
What are you thinking? Are you excited? Ready to seize your opportunity to do what you do best? To do what you enjoy? Or maybe you don’t enjoy it? You’re nervous? Worried that you’ll be back in the pavilion just as soon as you’d left it?”
Hannah Newman, a sports psychologist dissects the mindset of a batsman in one of her articles. How well this holds true for an opener in Test cricket! He could ponder on the task at hand a million times and yet mess it up out there in the middle and return to watch the remaining players battle it out from the pavilion.
Cricket is a cruel game for a batsman. Yet, it is often called a batsman’s game. How is it a batsman’s game when one mistake can literally end their role in the game? For an opener, it is even more intimidating. If he gets out early, he has a whole innings to sit and ponder on about his mistake. It is heartless. It is downright cruel.
Now think of a youngster – an opener – immature, new to the International arena and thrown to the deep end in the biggest series in the history of cricket – The Ashes. It is a privilege to even mention that you have been in an Ashes squad forget being in the playing XI.
Yet, when you have to walk out to the middle and fact the first ball in the whole match, it gets a bit jittery, especially when you have played less than 10 games overall for your country.
As Mark Stoneman, 3 Tests old, or Matt Renshaw, 10 Tests old, walk out to open the batting for their country, the whole burden of a nation’s expectation rests on their shoulder. They are both young, partnering senior batsmen at the other end, but eventually, you end up a lonely figure, in a lonely battle, when a James Anderson or a Mitchell Starc runs in from one end.
Both these young openers have had contrasting starts to their Test career. Renshaw, just 20, and pushed into the Australian Test squad after several failures from senior players, had a rather promising start to his career, notching up 623 runs in 10 Tests at an average of 36.64 with one hundred and three fifties. Stoneman, on the other hand, had played just three matches, and has just one half-century to his name.
Yet, Renshaw’s position in the squad is no different from Stoneman’s. Both of them need a great start to the Test series to remain in the playing XI. Despite all his temperament and steadiness at the crease, runs have gone amiss for the young Australian and the hosts may not experiment too much before recalling someone like Shaun Marsh.
Modern day cricket is a fast-moving game. Unlike the age-old adage which states that the “first job of the opening batsmen is to survive”, modern openers are an uber-confident group, who prefer to go on the offensive from the word go and manage to still survive at the end of the day. Whether the quality of bowling has gone down or the pitches have gotten too flat is a debate for another day. The point is that there are very few conventional openers in World cricket.
Yet, this Ashes will witness three of those kinds against one from the current World (we all know who that is). The focus is on two of them – Mark Stoneman and Matt Renshaw.
Digging into the technique of Matt Renshaw
Renshaw is basically a defensive wall. He likes to block deliveries so much so that Cricviz states that 60% of his shots are defensive, making him an absolute disgrace to the T20 world. Yet, in Tests that is exactly what is required.
Renshaw’s game is built around his defensive technique and mindset of leaving balls that aren’t coming to him.
“I generally try and leave well and they get a bit bored and try and attack my stumps”, he had revealed in an interview.
Surely, he has an immaculate game plan then. Apparently not. He has a shoddy drive and is rather reluctant to play on the off-side, something which makes him a really one-dimensional player. Anything on the stumps or the pads and Renshaw is quick to latch onto it with his favorite flick. But even then, he has a weakness against the short ball, which makes his one-dimensional batting look even more restricted.
That said, the newbie knows his limitations and can play some really attractive shots from within his realms. He has a profound likeness to spin, evident by his 50+ average against the slower bowlers as against a mid-30 average against the quicker bowlers.
His limited off-side game also makes him vulnerable to off-spinners who turn the ball away from the southpaw. With his drive out of the equation, seamers also have an option of consistently targetting a fourth stump line to Renshaw and frustrating him into a mistake.
Despite all this, the left-hander does have an appreciable temperament and is rather staid at the crease, with his composure and mindset tailor-made for opening batsmen in Test cricket. England could easily break him but don’t be surprised if he puts them off with his ice steel grit.
The Stoneman that is quite solid
Despite all his heroics in domestic cricket, Mark Stoneman hasn’t quite carried on that form into Test cricket, atleast not so far. He will hope to turn it around in the Ashes but there seems to be an albatross around his neck in achieving his domestic stature in the big league.
The talented southpaw is a wonderful attacking batsman by nature, with a perfect opener’s mindset instilled in him. Yet, in International cricket thus far, Stoneman has been rather sedated, almost pushed to a corner, despite playing his Tests against the Windies.
However, if early signs from the tour are to believed, Stoneman is prepared to move to his natural game in Tests. In the warm-up matches, he played some outstanding shots on the off-side, piercing the gap with his precise cover drives and flat-batted shots on the off-side.
He is particularly strong on the back-foot too, possessing a pretty good pull and cut shot. That he can play spin well too, makes him a really complete player on paper. Interestingly, he plays for Durham in the county circuit and it is one of the most difficult places to play pace in the country. Yet, the southpaw has managed 20 hundreds in First-class cricket and is a real force to reckon with at the top of the order.
After all the rejigging, England may have found the right ally for Alastair Cook, but it remains to be seen how much of his technical perfections he can bring onto the field in the biggest series of the year.