Their consistency has been astonishing

TED CORBETT

Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer... opening pair par excellence.-AFP

Just as it is impossible to find general rules about the way a cricket team unite so it is difficult to generalise about what makes the ideal opening partnership.

Yet down all the years their value to a side has been important not just to get the team's runs on the board but to set up a good position for the middle order. ''Your best batsman goes in at No.3,'' said Don Bradman shrewdly. But he could have added: ''He will be much more effective if he has watched the openers put on 100 first.''

W.G. Grace knew the worth of a good opening batsman more than a century ago. Asked to pick a side to beat the best in the world, he replied simply: "Give me Arthur.''

He meant Arthur Shrewsbury of Nottinghamshire, an opening bat who knew how to survive on the tricky, rough pitches of the day against the old heads bowling four-ball overs. They made a fair opening pair themselves too.

As for the rest they are a mixed bag.

Let's take Richard Barlow and ''Monkey'' Hornby those early exponents of the art from Lancashire back in the 1880s when Test cricket was not even a name and when the game was still mainly the preserve of gentlemen. The professionals did the bowling and kept in their place, either in their separate dressing room or out in the middle where they ate their lunch and tea.

This Red Rose pair are immortalised in the Francis Thompson's poem "At Lord's" which reminds us in perhaps the most often quoted of all cricket verse:

"As the run stealers flicker to and fro, My Hornby and my Barlow long ago."

Hornby was a tyrant who once threatened that unless a local reporter's stories were more to his liking he would horsewhip him in front of the Old Trafford pavilion; and Barlow, a professional, a gentle soul who was popular with everyone.

Or what about the social ambitions between the most famous England pairing of Jack Hobbs, a Cambridge lad always willing to accede to the whims of the aristocracy and Herbert Sutcliffe, a Yorkshire boy who aspired to be posh and who was furious that Hobbs would not take the captaincy of England when it was offered.

No pair have ever run together with more daring nor more effectively. They, like the best of openers, were mentally as close as husband and wife; anticipating one's another's every move, seeing how the other would want to play, admiring each other but rarely letting the rest of the world into their secrets.

Hobbs had begun with another Yorkshire partner. He and Wilfred Rhodes, a man so taciturn that some thought him deaf and dumb — until he went blind and started telling everyone all his stories — were regularly together and formed the opening stand in the 1920-21 tour of Australia which ended disastrously with a 5-0 whitewashing of the Englishmen for all the famous names in their ranks.

What about the charming Des Haynes, born and bred in Barbados, and the abrasive Gordon Greenidge, who grew up in Hampshire; the Yorkshireman Len Hutton and the Lancastrian Cyril Washbrook; the admittedly snail-like Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson who was just as slow but whose long runless spells at the crease somehow escaped the notice of the critics; and the university-educated Michael Atherton and Graham Gooch, whose vision rarely strayed beyond the boundary.

Somehow all these fine cricketers were, in combination with their partners, greater than the total of their parts.

So with Matthew Hayden, a son of the farm from Queensland, a Christian with a high sense of moral values and Justin Langer, a more sophisticated man and an instinctive politician as his recent outburst against the English supporters proves.

They are unlikely accomplices even in the accommodating circles of sport yet they make a opening pair par excellence and they are undoubtedly the finest in the world at the moment. Two left-handers are rare anyway and those who prefer the contrast provided by, for instance, Geoff Boycott, the defensive right-hander and John Edrich, the more attacking left-hander, will swear that opposites are best.

Does it matter, so long as they manage their art profitably? I think not. After all Chris Broad and Tim Robinson opened the innings for Nottinghamshire for years and, so the popular story goes, rarely spoke other than to say "Yes'' or ''No'' or ''Wait.''

Hayden and Langer dominate Test cricket at the moment, scoring runs either together or singly and giving Australia a fine start so often that their country never needs to worry where their next run is to be found.

After victory in the fourth Test — as my table above shows — they stand second to the great Hobbs and Sutcliffe combination and the best pair of left handers cricket has ever known. They put on 195, the foundation stone of Australia's victory, in the first innings of the Melbourne Test, Langer went on to make 250 and win the Man of the Match award after Hayden went for 102.

Their consistency in this series has been astonishing. They made 67 in the first innings of the first Test, and Hayden went on to score 197 but they made only 30 in the second innings while Hayden completed his second century on The 'Gabba, his home ground. At Adelaide in the second Test they had a stand of 101 in their only visit to the crease and 31 at Perth where Australia again won by an innings.

It has been a cementing of their partnership which has been going only since they both returned from the wilderness.

Hayden had been told in no uncertain terms that he was not wanted in his teenage years; a voice from the Australian Academy said that he had been refused a place "because it is intended only for players who are going to take part in the first-class game.''

Hayden has gone far beyond that status and now he plays with such confidence that opening bowlers fear his heavy bat. You can sense his certainty as he leaves the confines of the dressing room, stamping his feet, jogging big time, swinging his bat as a Medieval knight once swung his broadsword. His stance at the crease appears to be rough and ready, but when the ball heads in his direction he is nimble enough; and when he attacks the ball disappears over the heads of the infield and often with no more than one bounce into the crowd.

Langer had his moments early in this cricket life but then found himself unwanted while Michael Slater's genius flair, first with Mark Taylor and then with Hayden. He struggled on, with Western Australia and with Middlesex, but it was a dark time in his life.

He is the more delicate, more defensive batsman than his partner, favouring the leg glance and the drop-at-your-feet-and-run technique to get his score moving. His sixes are rare although he went to his century at the MCG with a booming straight hit into the crowd.

Their success on this tour is all the sweeter because they must have expected that Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick would have offered competition since they had built up a big reputation in recent times.

Instead the England twosome have a highest stand of just 88 in four Tests and clearly need work before they emulate the Aussie pair or attempt to join the list of great England opening partners.

Others wait in the wings to challenge the supremacy of Hayden and Langer, not least Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar now struggling to establish an identity and to learn their craft more thoroughly and to gain the confidence and experience which have jetted the consummate.