Ask most people about opening the batting and they will tell you about batsmen who can block. Occasionally you get a big hitter.
Yet opening is about more than "seeing off the new ball" in your cricket match. It's a matter of good organisation, and a position that is specialised. The bowlers usually have the upper hand with a new ball and fresh legs. That means you, more than any other position, need to have your cricket wits about you.
So, what really makes a good opening batsman?
There are certain traits a good opener has, or is able to develop.
- An adaptable technique. Although you could have lots of shots, knowing your own game is most important. Playing straight is the cornerstone of your game. You could have the ability to switch gears from disciplined defence to attack depending on the conditions, match situation and bowling.
- A good judge of the off stump. Knowing when to play and when to leave is a great skill for the opener, even in Twenty20 conditions.
- Patience. There will be times when the bowlers make you play and miss. However, the bad ball will come. The ability to stay focused on the next ball will see you through the tough periods all openers experience.
This is often what coaches mean when they talk about seeing off the opening bowlers. Personally, I don't like the phrase. It puts openers into a defensive mindset. Opening the innings is more about having a sound defence and being ready to attack.
Once you have assessed that conditions have are in your favour you can start to think more aggressively. This may be a couple of hours in, or right from the first ball. However, you need to keep a tight defence as a good ball is never far away.
Naturally, these skills are useful anywhere you bat. So the biggest difference for me is the desire to do it.
You have the biggest opportunity as you are on the field from the first delivery. You have to be prepared to make a big score and that takes focus, patience and cricket bravery. Get out early and your side are off to a poor start. Make runs too slowly and the pressure is on. Do well, bulid an innings and pace yourself effectively and the team will come to rely on your solidity at the top. That's a different kind of pressure to batting between three and seven.
There is not much an opener can do differently from any other batsman to prepare. The principles of deliberate practice apply just as much with any position in the batting order.
That said, you will want to focus on two areas in particular:
- Middle cricket practice. Practicing against fresh bowlers with a new ball in simulated match conditions will teach you how to adapt to the mental and tactical side of opening. When you have had a middle practice, sit down with your coach and opening partner (and possible the number three) and discuss how it went, what your tactics were and whether they worked or not.
- Technical development. While you want as many shots as possible, you don't need them. Get the straight shots in order first. Learn to judge whether to play or leave. Have some more attacking options thirdly. This can't be done in standard nets as the bowling is not accurate enough so grab an empty net with your opening partner and give each other some accurate throwdowns or bowling machine drills instead.
I would also strongly recommend learning how to rotate the strike by taking cheeky singles and turning ones into twos. You can score very well without ever hitting booming boundaries.
An opener needs to be a positive player with the ability to leave attack behind for a while if you are up against a good opening bowling attack. Practice to learn this cricketing nous, and you will not go far wrong.