July 21, 2008

Stephen Gelb

Five stars

Stephen Gelb

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.

RSS Feeds: Stephen Gelb

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Marcus on (July 22, 2008, 3:48 GMT)

Prince has certainly been a successful no. 5 in recent years. However, one problem that he has is that of consistency. At no. 5, he's averaged 42, however in 58 innings at that position he's scored 8 centuries and only 5 half-centuries- in other words, he's only passed 50 13 times in 58 innings. Cronje, on the other hand, averaged 37 at that position from 56 innings, scored only 3 centuries, but 15 half-centuries, so he passed 50 18 times in 56 innings. That's not saying that Prince hasn't done well- because he has- but only that he needs to start scoring 50's more consistently than he is now.

If I had to pick a Greatest Ever South African XI, however, Dudley Nourse would hold down the no. 5 slot- although normally a no. 4, he averaged 82 at 5, and is an all-time great.

As for Bell, I'd like to see him return to 3, despite his success at 5, and for Vaughan to be dropped. I'm sure Shah would slot in nicely at 5, or even Matt Prior as a specialist batsman.

Posted by Venkat on (July 21, 2008, 18:12 GMT)

Good to see that Prince's work is getting the recognition it deserves. Perhaps now, people will stop referring to him and Hashim amla as quota players. Maybe the quota was just one criteria in a whole list of positive reasons as to why they were picked to play for South Africa. Kevin Peitersen can continue his fair weather ways and preen for the tabloids. Prince and Amla are the real players that keep test cricket alive for the real fans, and not the tabloid junkies.

Posted by Ram on (July 21, 2008, 14:09 GMT)

Here is a difference. Bell looks spectacular when he is on song. While, Prince is not elegant.

Posted by Grant on (July 21, 2008, 9:54 GMT)

Talking of not getting a double hundred...a certain Mr JH Kallis has yet to get a double in test cricket...and I don't think there can be any argument as to how tough he is mentally...

Posted by Don on (July 21, 2008, 8:04 GMT)

I don't quite agree with the supposed role of the no. 5. Usually the no. 5 is assumed to be one of two multi-purpose batsmen (6 is the other). Able to hold an inning together if the top order collapses, but also able to bat quickly to get runs, if that is the need. Hussey and Clarke share that role now in the Australian team. With keepers expected to bat at 6 or 7 and the other reserved for an allrounder, 5 is supposed to be the last "true" batsman. Prince is certainly that. He has proved his mettle under tough conditions several times, and I agree he is turning out to be similar to a Steve Waugh in that regard (all to his credit). He has also leadership potential as backup to Smith, and that is also crucial in a problematic setup such as South Africa. I don't think Bell has proved himself yet. He has the skills, but I'm not sure he can stand alone and hold up the English team when all around him falls. However, he is young, so time will tell.

Comments have now been closed for this article