Mike Holmans December 22, 2008

Three's Company

The main function of an England number three is to serve as the focus of the complaints about the fragile batting for a decent period before being dropped or moved to somewhere more congenial



Spare a thought this Christmas for poor Ian Bell. Unless he manages a hundred in the second innings at Mohali, he will spend the festive period wondering anxiously about his future.

There has always been an air of impermanence about Bell. He is one of those players who fails to inspire confidence even when he scores runs by the cartload. A couple of years ago, he was getting hundreds for fun at number six but there was still a general reluctance to acknowledge him as having arrived as a fixture in the Test team. When he got 199 against South Africa at Lord’s this summer, it looked for a week or two as though he had achieved acceptance but as soon as Paul Collingwood also got runs, the murmurings about him restarted.

And then came the fatal blow. He was “promoted” to bat at number three.

The main function of an England number three is to serve as the focus of the complaints about the fragile batting for a decent period before being dropped or moved to somewhere more congenial. In the last forty years, only one batsman has occupied the spot without anyone railing against him: Mike Gatting – and he only got the position because he had failed multiple times in every other slot from one to eight.

David Gower was the best batsman to try the role but it was not long before we stopped praising him for his brilliant strokeplay and started laying into him for giving third slip catching practice by feebly waving his bat at balls outside off stump. Apparently such behaviour is more acceptable in a number four, which was where Gower batted as often as he got the chance, such as when he was captain and could insist, the escape route also taken by Nasser Hussain.

Mark Butcher spent four years in the job expecting to be dropped after just about every game. If he got a hundred he reckoned he could feel safe for a game or two, but otherwise he was relieved when the team was announced for each match and he was still in it. Like Bell, he was a very pretty player to watch but he always seemed too skittish for the gravely serious position of coming in first wicket down.

But seriousness is no guarantee of public or selectorial affection. Chris Tavare was certainly grave – indeed, some even maintained that his scorelessness was because he was in fact already dead – but he simply became the butt of jokes about statues.

The only ones to escape regular opprobrium were those who were clearly only batting at three because they were not opening. One way round the eternal problem has been to pick three openers, so people like Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton, Graham Gooch, David Steele, Tim Robinson, Kim Barnett, Rob Bailey and even, heaven help us, Mike Brearley have played there, but no-one holds it against them. (There may be other reasons to recall some of them with derision, but their performances at three do not feature high on the list.)

Ian Bell is not an opener, though, so he is the latest recruit to the club most famous for including Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick, John Crawley and Bill Athey – batsmen reckoned to be supremely talented who somehow just didn’t cut it in Test cricket.

If England fans want a mystery to on the long winter evenings until the Caribbean trip, why we cannot unearth someone who can bat convincingly at three in our Test side seems like a good one. Answers to Geoff Miller, please.

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