May 13, 2014

Why Dhoni hates No. 7 and Swann hates No. 8

Andy Zaltzman
MS Dhoni: not the seventh wonder of the world  © AFP
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A reminder of the top five in this historic XI that will unquestionably lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition and, from this, world peace:

1. Geoff Boycott - averaged 43.9 at number 1; 55.2 at No. 2
2. Mark Taylor - averaged 36.1 at number 2; 52.0 at No. 1
3. Norman O'Neill - averaged 32.0 at number 3; 57.4 at No. 4
4. David Gower - averaged 38.3 at number 4; 49.4 at Nos. 3 or 5
5. The Nawab of Pataudi jnr (captain) - averaged 26.2 at No. 5; 46.0 elsewhere

Number 6. Ian Botham (94 innings at 6, average 29.2; 54 innings at 5 or 7, average 44.8)
No. 6 was, unquestionably, Botham's position. He owned it for as long as he was fit. Or, in the latter stages of his career, even partially fit, when injuries had taken such a toll that his aura had far better averages than his body. Botham is one of the first names on most all-time England XIs, a match-shaping force of nature, who, in his early years in Tests, was the most complete allrounder that cricket has produced. Botham at 6, plus ten others. In fact, if we are talking about a Botham in his magnificent, statistic-melting, and disappointingly short-lived pomp, you could pick Botham at 6, plus seven or eight others, just to give him a challenge.

How do we explain then, that, of the 39 batsmen who have played 30 or more Test innings at No. 6, England's greatest allrounder has the 38th best average, with only Dwayne Bravo (26.6) beneath him? Batting at 5 (average 53) and 7 (average 40), Botham compares well with the best the Test game has seen, albeit from relatively few innings. He clearly responded well when batting with the extra pressure of the number 5 position. And to the reduced pressure of coming in at 7.

Honourable mentions:
* Mohammad Azharrudin (India; 32 innings at 6, average 34.2; 94 innings at 5, average 48.8).
* Brian McMillan (South Africa; 23 innings at 6, average 26.8; 23 innings at 7, average 58.3). Statistically, the greatest No. 7 batsman in Test history. If you judge these things purely by batting average and having played a minimum of 15 innings.
Also, one of the worst established No. 6s that has ever disgraced the five-day game.

Number 7 & wicketkeeper: MS Dhoni (India; 97 innings at 7, average 30.8; 28 innings at 6 and 8, average 67.5)
Counting only innings at 6 and 8, out of the 411 batsmen who have played in those positions a minimum of ten times, Dhoni has the best average in Test history. He averages mid-to-high 60s in both positions. As a No. 7, however, where he has played more than three-quarters of his Test innings, he nestles in the statistical foothills, amongst the likes of less-garlanded and lower-earning wicketkeepers Ridley Jacobs, Prasanna Jayawardene and Rashid Latif, and only slightly ahead of his Indian predecessor Parthiv Patel. A statistical quirk of the highest order.

It seems clear from these stats that Dhoni's mind is focused by not batting in his listed position - it worked for him in the 2011 World Cup final, after all. He should be India's official No. 11. Then, wherever he bats, he will be like a cross between Gilchrist and Bradman.

Honourable mention:
* Mark Boucher (South Africa; 124 innings at 7, average 26.0; 72 innings at 6 or 8, average 38.8). Also a massive fan of batting in an even-numbered position. Both Dhoni and Boucher are inverse Alan Knotts. The Kent gloveman averaged 41 as a No. 7 for England, but only 23 when batting 6 or 8.

Number 8. Graeme Swann (England; 13 innings at 8, average 12.5; 61 innings at 9 or 10, average 23.7).
I have bent the qualification criteria to include Swann, because his average as a No. 8 batsman, although garnered from only 13 innings, was what initially sowed the seeds for this blog. Statistically, Swann is Test cricket's best ever No. 10, and second only to Broad as an England No. 9 (15 innings minimum in both cases). He was a magnificent striker of the ball, and played a number of important innings under pressure. Technically, you would assume there is no practical difference between batting at 8 and batting at 9 or 10. But Swann, in his innings at 8, has a highest score of 32, and had the fifth worst average of the 43 players who have batted at least ten times at No. 8 for England, behind Andy Caddick (who, conversely, averaged 14 at Nos. 8, 10 at number 9, and a pitiful 6.9 at No. 10).

Was Swann a talented lower-order batsman who was most comfortable batting in positions that he was too good for? Was he good under certain types of match-play pressure, but not under the added expectation of batting as high as 8? Was Caddick a genuine tailender who, when asked to bat higher up the order due to England's selectors opting for a tail-end that almost defied cricketing science in its ineptitude, reacted with determination and fortitude, spurred to play above himself by the responsibility thrust upon him? Or are they just the kind of numerical coincidences that cricket pukes out on a daily basis? Send your answers to the International Institute For Cricketing Psychology, c/o La Paz University, Bolivia.

Oddly, Swann's tweaking predecessor for England, Hedley Verity, one of his rivals to the claim of being England's best ever tailender, suffered a similar failure to replicate low-order effectiveness in the loftier realms of the batting order. The Yorkshire war hero averaged 26.9 at 9 and 10, but only 14.5 at No. 8.

Honourable mention:
* Ajit Agarkar (India; 23 innings at 8, average 12.3; 16 innings elsewhere, average 23.2).

A relatively small sample, but what makes Agarkar's failures in his regular position at 8 so impressive is that it was there that he scored his only score of 50 or more - his stats-defying, flash-in-an-apparently-cryogenically-frozen-pan, unbeaten century at Lord's. If you remove that talking-dolphin-in-an-jacuzzi-full-of-dead-goldfish of an innings, his 22 knocks at No. 8 anti-harvested just 137 runs at an average of 6.8 (if "knock" is an appropriate word, given the lack of frequency with which the ball "knocked" into his bat). Furthermore, 44 of those 137 were made in another undefeated innings, aside from which he failed to reach 20 in 21 innings at No. 8.

Elsewhere in the batting order, he made three 30s in four innings at 7, and reached 25 five times in 11 innings at No. 9, where his average of 23 matches those of Philander, Broad, Vettori and Swann in the same position. Agarkar played just 26 Tests, but managed to generate more statistical curiosities than most players could dream of. Not always flattering statistical curiosities, but statistical curiosities nonetheless. A Confectionery Stall stats legend.

Number 9. Ray Lindwall (Australia; 37 innings at 9, average 15.5; 33 innings at 7 or 8, average 29.2)
Lindwall's bowling was so brilliant that his excellence with the bat is sometimes overlooked. The Eddie Hemmings of his day. The post-war paceman scored a 90-ball century in his fourth innings for Australia, batting at 9 at the MCG against England. For the rest of his career, however, he averaged under 13 when batting there, despite it being his regular position in the order. As a 7/8, however, he was statistically more effective than either Benaud or Davidson, both of whom are more highly regarded as allrounders.

Honourable mention:
* Bill O'Reilly (Australia; 17 innings at 9, average 8.5; 21 innings at 8, 10 or 11, average 18.9).

Number 10. Phillip DeFreitas (England; 13 innings at 10, average 4.6; 26 innings at 9, average 14.2; 21 innings at 8, average 21.1)
A decent No. 8; an acceptable No. 9; a truly abysmal No. 10. DeFreitas seemed to bat according to the expectations of his batting position. If England had grabbed hold of the promising 20-year-old DeFreitas who toured Australia in 1986-87, and told him to bat at 3 for his entire career, he would have been the new Wally Hammond.

Honourable mention:
* Richard Collinge (New Zealand; 21 innings at 10, average 9.0; 29 innings at 9 or 11, average 18.4)

Number 11. Lance Gibbs (West Indies; 71 innings at 11, average 4.9; 31 innings at 9 or 10, average 10.3)
Despite a healthy proportion of not-outs, Gibbs was next to useless when going in last. He seemed to thrive on the added excitement and self-esteem of having someone even worse than him in the batting order.

Honourable mention:
* Lasith Malinga (Sri Lanka; 15 innings at 11, average 2.4; 22 innings at 9 or 10, average 15.1). Ditto. A worse average than Chris Martin at 11. Better than competent tailenders Steyn, Gough and Holding at 10.

This XI will play a five-Test series against the forthcoming Confectionery Stall Brilliant In One Position Only XI, at some point in the next two months. Subject to (a) logistics; (b) TV money; (c) reversibility of retirement/old age/death; and (d) me writing the Brilliant In One Position Only XI.

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

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Posted by Sir_Francis on (May 17, 2014, 11:05 GMT)

Comparing Hemmings with Lindwall? I have no words for that. Except as cricketing antonyms.

Posted by   on (May 14, 2014, 10:48 GMT)

The explanation for Dhoni is simple: he usually bats at No. 7 when India play overseas and use only four bowlers. On the other hand, on the rare occasions when India go in with five bowlers, it's usually when they're playing on spin-friendly home tracks, where Dhoni slaughters opposition attacks. He then moves up to No. 6. Look at his domestic and overseas records and the contrast will become clear

Posted by   on (May 13, 2014, 16:30 GMT)

cant wait for the "Brilliant In One Position Only XI" - the only illogical part of the above list was that the bowlers were chosen according to their batting performance - should they not be picked as per bowling stats - home/away difference or even/odd innings difference??

Posted by ramli on (May 13, 2014, 8:04 GMT)

Well ... the more matches you play in your customary position, your total figures get "averaged" while when you play less matches in unconventional positions, even flashes of brilliance bails you out to land with higher averages ... that is all

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNcricinfo.

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