Stephen Gelb July 21, 2008

Five stars

Ashwell Prince is now the ideal number five, the mould for the position having shifted 180 degrees from Dexter to Steve Waugh (or maybe Allan Border?) Five is now the ‘glue’ of the batting order, the one around whom the rest bat.

One of the stories of the England-SA series so far is about the number five batsmen. Bell and Prince both started the series with question marks over their places but both responded decisively. The similarities don’t end there – both are small in stature and apparently quiet in demeanour, both showed great early talent as attacking batsmen but now have different personas and different roles. Until recently, neither was a regular part of their countries’ ODI setup.

Their Test records are remarkably similar. Headingley is Bell’s 41st test, Prince’s 43rd. After the first innings, Bell had played 72 innings (8 not outs) for 2821 runs at 44.07, 8 hundreds, 18 fifties and strike-rate 50.8. Prince’s numbers were 70 innings (10 not outs) for 2634 runs at 43.90, with 9 hundreds, 7 fifties and S/R 42.7.

Curiously, there has been a huge difference against Bangladesh: Prince has only 52 in 5 innings, Bell 227 in 2 (both not out). I don’t believe one should discount performances against the weaker teams, but without Bangladesh, Prince averages 47, Bell 40.5.

Prince must now be regarded as South Africa’s best ever number five. Hansie Cronje’s numbers (111 innings, 3714 runs, average 36.41, strike-rate 44.5, 6 hundreds and 23 fifties) are surprisingly mediocre, and clearly inferior to Prince. When Cronje disappeared, Gary Kirsten moved down the order, since there was no obvious replacement at five. Prince has now surely locked up the position for a long time.

Back in the 50s and 60s, the model for number five was an attacking player, lovely to watch but not entirely reliable to get a really big score. Fitting this mould were Roy McLean (a Lord’s centurion like Prince, 40 tests, 5 hundreds, average just 30) and Colin Bland, the Rhodesian (21 tests, 3 centuries, average a very good 49). Also Tiger Lance and Lee Irvine, brief occupants before isolation.

The archetype was of course Ted Dexter (62 tests, 9 hundreds, 27 fifties, average 48), who visited SA with the International Cavaliers. ‘Cavalier’ was exactly right: Dexter apparently specialised in supremely stylish and quick 70s, whatever the match circumstances.

Prince, in his early years in provincial cricket, was in fact very Dexter-like – he would play really beautifully and score quickly, but after getting to 60 or 70, he would contrive to chuck it away. But by the time he first played for SA in the 2001/02 season, he had become a tough-minded, gritty ‘sticker’, a number three. Nerves kept him from a debut 50 (batting at three), but he was the only batsman who stood up to a rampant attack in an Australian rout.

He was dropped later, but since taking over five after Kirsten’s retirement, he has many times rescued SA from disaster or fought a lone battle against it, as on day 3 at Lord’s in the first Test of the ongoing series. Prince is now the ideal number five, the mould for the position having shifted 180 degrees from Dexter to Steve Waugh (or maybe Allan Border?) Five is now the ‘glue’ of the batting order, the one around whom the rest bat. It was great though to see Prince open up a little with some of his old shots in his Headingley ton.

Ian Bell’s 199 at Lord’s was brilliant too and getting out (after two rain breaks in the 190s) cruel luck. Bell started the Lord’s test with a reputation as ‘a Dexter’, but finished it as a modern number five. Did his failure to reach 200 show continuing mental weakness as some suggested? Maybe. But what about Michael Vaughan? Twice out in the 190s, and twice between 175 and 190, yet to reach 200. Like Prince, Bell’s going to be at five for quite a while.

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