May 6, 2014

The Curiously Disappointing in a Particular Batting Position Test XI

Otherwise good batsmen who had unaccountable dips in form when they moved to a different spot in the batting order

David Gower: didn't like to be sandwiched © Getty Images

A learned cricket-loving shrink with some time to spare could probably write a book about the psychology of batting positions. Why do some players thrive in a certain spot in the order but struggle when just one place higher or lower? What causes a world-beating No. 5 to be a ploddingly pedestrian No. 4, or a useless No. 10 to come alive when batting in single figures? Admittedly, such a book might not instantly topple JK Rowling or Dan Brown from the top of the bestseller charts (unless Rowling and/or Brown were to ghostwrite it with their magic unit-shifting typewriters), but some cricket fans would at least peruse its back cover before deciding to buy a copy of The Official ECB "How To" Guide To Controversially Sacking High-Profile Cricketers instead.

The positive and negative effects of pressure, expectation and confidence can all affect players in different ways. Some might like the sinuous curves of the number 8 gleaming out from the scoreboard, but be terrified of the angular threat of the 7. One player might have fallen in love with the number 6 whilst watching Sesame Street as a child; another might suffer from recurring nightmares about being chased out of a pavilion by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and as a result be unable to bat at second wicket down. Some cricketers are statistically impervious to changing places in the batting order. Others become completely different players when shunted up or down. This XI is dedicated to them, to those whose Test match statistics suggest a surprising frailty in a specific position in the batting order, which might be caused by any of the above factors, or by something completely different, or my mere numerical chance. There are, I think, some unexpected members of what would undoubtedly be a highly competitive team. If all of the players were batting in different spots in the order.

Qualification: minimum 20 innings in the position in question (ten innings for numbers 8 and below), plus a significant body of evidence from elsewhere in the batting order.

Stipulations: to qualify for this XI, a batsman need not necessarily have failed in his position, but his returns in that position should be oddly disappointing, compared to his run-scoring exploits when batting elsewhere. He should have played a significant proportion of his career in the position, ideally to the point of selectorial questionability. His relative failures in the position in question should have been accumulated over the course of several years, rather than being attributable to having struggled there early or late in his career (thus excluding, for example, Matthew Hayden at No. 1 (average 34), Shivnarine Chanderpaul at Nos 3 and 4 (averaged 34 in both positions). All selections are final, legally enforceable, and spiritually binding. All team members, alive and dead, are to report to whatever that big cricket facility in Dubai is called, next Monday morning, for pre-season training and psychological evaluation by a batting-order specialist.

Number 1: Geoffrey Boycott (England; 117 innings at 1, average 43.9; 74 innings at No. 2, average 55.2)
Boycott is the archetypal Test match No. 1. Defiant, resilient, technically unimpeachable, capable of facing the first delivery of a Test whilst thinking: "I will still be batting in five days' time." However, his average as a No. 1 is significantly and strangely inferior to his record at 2. And by the time he dropped permanently to No. 2 in 1979-80 to accommodate Graham Gooch, his record at 2 (averaging 72 with five centuries in 28 innings) was almost 30 runs per dismissal better than his performance at 1.

To put this in context, Chris Gayle, who is many things as a cricket, but is certifiably not the archetypal Test match No. 1, has a better average when facing the first ball than Boycott does (45.1 to 43.9). And of the 41 batsmen to have batted at 1 in 50 or more Test innings, Boycott has just the 20th highest average.

By contrast, of the 27 batsmen to have batted at 2 in 50 or more Test innings, Boycott has the third-best average, behind Herbert Sutcliffe and Hayden. Other players have greater disparities between their averages at 1 and 2, but Boycott's relative statistical ordinariness at No. 1 is more surprising than any shot he played in almost two decades of international cricket.

Honourable mentions:
* Mudassar Nazar (Pakistan; 66 innings at 1, average 31.6; 43 innings at 2, average 44.7)
* Grant Flower (Zimbabwe; 52 innings at 1, average 22.0; 32 innings at 2, average 41.6)
* Graham Dowling (New Zealand; 52 innings at 1, average 25.7; 19 innings at 2, average 49.2)

Number 2: Mark Taylor (Australia; 96 innings at 2, average 36.1; 90 innings at 1, average 52.0)
Taylor did not come across as the kind of player to become discombobulated by minor distractions. However, the statistics suggest that, in contrast to Boycott, he was significantly less effective when he was not allowed to face the first ball of an innings. Perhaps a minute or two fiddling with his gloves, humming classic Gregorian chants to himself (as one assumes all Australian openers have always done), or exchanging small talk with the umpire, rendered him too relaxed to bat to the best of his Baggy Green ability. Perhaps not. What is indisputable by all those who acknowledge the existence of numbers is that, using those same lists of openers with 50-plus innings at 1 and 2, Taylor is the third-highest averaging number 1, but only 23rd out of the 27 number 2s.

Honourable mentions:
* Sadiq Mohammad (average 27.1 in 46 innings at 2; average 49.2 in 26 innings at 1)
* Mohsin Khan (29.0 in 29 innings at 2; 44.3 in 42 innings at 1).
Bearing in mind that both of these men opened the batting with Mudassar Nazar (see above), questions might be asked of the Pakistani selectors. Not for the first, or last, time

The statistics suggest that Mark Taylor was significantly less effective when he was not allowed to face the first ball of an innings. Perhaps a minute or two fiddling with his gloves, humming classic Gregorian chants to himself (as one assumes all Australian openers have always done), or exchanging small talk with the umpire, rendered him too relaxed to bat

Number 3: Norman O'Neill (Australia; 21 innings at 3, average 32.0; 41 innings at 4, average 57.4)
Great things were expected of the young O'Neill after some dazzling Sheffield Shield performances and a striking Test debut. As a No. 4, he largely fulfilled these expectations, and remains in the all-time top 10 in that position, second only to Greg Chappell among Australians.

The Baggy Green selectors then decided to change a winning formula, and picked their dominant and consistently successful No. 4 as a No. 3. He played there in 21 of his final 46 innings, without scoring a century, and, despite continuing to average well in his favoured slot, was finished as a Test player at the age of 28. As the old saying goes: "Do not force Muddy Waters to sing Abba songs. He will do them adequately at best."

Honourable mention:
* Polly Umrigar (India; 36 innings at 3, average 33.0; 45 innings at 5, average 46.6)
Compared favourably with the best of his contemporaries at 5, but had one of the poorest records of a regular 1950s No. 3

Number 4: David Gower (England; 91 innings at 4, average 38.3; 56 innings at 3, average 49.4; 49 innings at 5, average 49.5)
If Boycott seemed to be the perfect No. 1, then Gower would appear to be the identikit No. four - perhaps too loose to bat at 3, and too important to the team's success to be sacrificed to the newish ball, but with the flair, technique, temperament and range of strokes ideally suited to shaping the innings from one place lower in the order, and too good to be hidden at No. 5.

Gower duly batted more often for England at 4 than anywhere else. However, he scored only three of his 18 Test centuries at 4, and averaged 11 runs fewer, and scored at a significantly inferior strike rate (45 runs per 100 balls), than he did at both No. 3 and No. 5, where his statistics are almost identical (average 49, strike rate 54 in both positions).

One can easily understand why a No. 3 faces different technical challenges to a No. 4; and, to a lesser extent, why the demands of batting at 5 are also distinct from those faced at 4. But for a batsman to be so excellent at both 3 and 5 (Gower is England's best of the last 40 years at 3, and second best at 5, in terms of average), whilst being relatively unexceptional in the position in which he was most often selected, is as curious as some of the shots, socks and aeroplane flights for which Gower used to be so regularly criticised.

Nevertheless, he remains England's most elegant No. 3, its most graceful No. 4, and its most stylish No. 5 of the past 2000 years. His cover drive could solve the Ukraine crisis, and his flick through midwicket could make a fossilised dog bark with joy.

Honourable mention:
* Mohammad Ashraful (Bangladesh; 44 innings at 4, average 15.7; 53 innings at 5, average 24.7; 22 innings elsewhere, average 40.3).
Ashraful was no great shakes as a Test No. 5, but he was no shakes whatsoever, great or otherwise, at No. 4. He made just three half-centuries in 44 innings when coming to the crease with Bangladesh two wickets down, with a highest score of 77. No other top-six player has played more than 32 innings in one position without reaching 80. If you were to pick an All Time Least Effective in One Position XI, Ashraful at 4 would be one of your first names on the team sheet. But he is edged out by Gower for this XI because you would have expected Ashraful to be at least quite rubbish at 4, and he backed it up by also being largely useless at 5.

Number 5 and captain: Nawab of Pataudi Jr (India; 45 innings at 5, average 26.2; 38 innings elsewhere, average 46.0)
Pataudi batted at 5 in well over half of his Test innings, but scored only one of his six centuries there, and sits a lowly 90th on the table of 94 batsmen who have batted No. 5 in 20 or more innings. Counting only innings at 4, 6 and 7, however, Pataudi's average of 47 in 37 innings places him alongside Martin Crowe, Clive Lloyd and Kevin Pietersen. As a No. 5, he was marginally superior to Ashraful. Which is, as suggested above, nothing to write home about. Unless that letter reads: "Dear Everyone, I hope you are all well. I must try really hard to score more runs when batting at No. 5. Yours sincerely, etc., the Nawab (Jr)."

Honourable mentions:
* Ken Barrington (England; 31 innings at 5, average 41.9, no centuries; 84 innings at 3 or 4, average 67.4, 20 centuries)
* Jeremy Coney (New Zealand; 26 innings at 5, average 23.2; 48 innings at 6, average 45.4)
* Sourav Ganguly (India; 99 innings at 5, average 37.3; 89 innings elsewhere, average 47.7) (also, Ganguly averaged 38.0 in his 160 ODI innings batting at No. 1; batting at 2 or 3, he averaged 50.0 in 108 innings. He clearly responded badly to batting where he usually batted.)

Next time: Which all-time-great allrounder was a surprisingly run-of-the-mill No. 6? Which modern-day legend has been less than half as productive when batting in his normal position than when one place higher or lower? Can Ajit Agarkar work his way into yet another Confectionery Stall XI? And which perfectly decent No. 8 was also one of the worst No. 10s in Test history? Tune in next week for the second and final thrilling instalment of The Curiously Disappointing in a Particular Batting Position Test XI.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer