ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

The difference between England's and Australia's top orders

Going into the Ashes, England's top four has a solid look to it. Australia's, on the other hand, has plenty to prove

S Rajesh

July 5, 2013

Comments: 22 | Text size: A | A

Phil Hughes prepares to cut, South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Johannesburg, 2nd day, November 18, 2011
Phil Hughes is one of the batsmen in contention for a top-order slot in the Ashes, but his record so far isn't convincing © AFP

With less than a week to go for the Ashes to begin, Australia are still trying to figure out their best combination, with the batting, especially, causing plenty of concern. Since Darren Lehmann took over as coach, the opening combination has been firmed up, but there are plenty of contenders for the rest of the slots: Phil Hughes, Ed Cowan, David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Steven Smith all fighting for the two or three remaining spots (depending on whether Australia play four bowlers or five).

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when Australia's batting line-up was among the most settled, but all that has changed with the retirement of several stalwarts. England, on the other hand, have a more well-settled top order, though Joe Root's promotion to the top of the order is a fairly significant change. With Kevin Pietersen back and in form, the line-up of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Pietersen and Bell looks quite formidable on paper. The difference between the two line-ups is also quite stark when comparing the stats at each batting position over the last 40 months.

Since the beginning of March 2010, England have a 22-9 win-loss record, compared to Australia's 16-13, and they've scored 40 runs per wicket compared to Australia's 34.15. As the table below shows, the difference in averages for the openers during this period is almost ten runs per wicket, which is fairly significant, but even that isn't much compared to the difference in stats for the No. 3 and No. 4 batsmen.

These two slots have a history of excellence associated with them, with Don Bradman, Ian and Greg Chappell, and Ricky Ponting scoring tons of runs from there, but currently Australia's cupboard looks rather bare. In these last 40 months, their No. 3 and No. 4 batsmen have both averaged less than 30, while England's have averaged more than 50. That's a huge gap, and potentially a huge worry for Australia. Adding up the difference in averages for the first four batsmen gives the grand sum of 67.41 runs (multiplying the openers' difference by two), which is a substantial difference that the rest of their batsmen need to make up.

Australia's big strength has been the No. 5 spot, where they've averaged more than 60, thanks largely to Michael Clarke, who has averaged almost 82 at that slot during this period, with some help from the now-retired Michael Hussey, who averaged nearly 50.

Australia's average at No. 6 is also a bit higher than England's, but that's due to Hussey, who scored 1184 at 51.47. He won't be around to help Australia during the Ashes. At No. 7, England have the clear advantage thanks to Matt Prior.

England and Australia's stats by batting positions in Tests since March 2010
Position Team Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Openers England 138 5945 45.73 20/ 18
  Australia 130 4505 36.04 7/ 28
No.3 England 68 3329 53.69 9/ 15
  Australia 64 1712 27.61 1/ 12
No.4 England 64 3102 51.70 7/ 17
  Australia 62 1815 29.75 2/ 12
No.5 England 62 2011 35.28 7/ 8
  Australia 62 3753 64.70 13/ 10
No.6 England 61 1789 33.75 2/ 12
  Australia 62 2139 38.19 8/ 6
No.7 England 59 2066 43.95 4/ 14
  Australia 61 1708 34.16 2/ 12
Nos.8-11 England 191 2629 18.25 3/ 7
  Australia 212 2837 18.07 0/ 11

Coming back to the top four slots, Australia's big problem has been their inability to convert their starts into bigger scores. Their top four batsmen have gone past fifty 62 times in Tests during this period, but have converted only ten of those into centuries. England's top four, on the other hand, have scored 36 centuries out of the 86 times they've gone past 50. England's conversion rate: 42%; Australia's: 16%. For them to have a chance in the Ashes, Australia's batsmen will have to do much better than that.

The problem for Australia begins with the opening slot, where their batsmen have managed only seven centuries out of 35 scores of 50-plus. Shane Watson and Ed Cowan have been the chief culprits, with a combined record of two out of 16. England's star at the top of the order has been Cook, who has piled up hundreds at an amazing rate: 15 out of 22 scores of 50-plus have been centuries. Among the other seven innings are three scores in the 90s - 96, 94 and 94. Even Nick Compton, who otherwise has pretty ordinary numbers, has converted two of his three 50-plus scores into hundreds.

Openers from England and Australia in Tests since March 2010
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Alastair Cook 69 3728 58.25 15/ 7
Andrew Strauss 47 1579 34.32 3/ 9
David Warner 33 1240 40.00 3/ 7
Shane Watson 30 1046 36.06 1/ 8
Ed Cowan 29 963 33.20 1/ 6
Simon Katich 16 685 45.66 1/ 5
Phil Hughes 21 563 28.15 1/ 2
Nick Compton 17 479 31.93 2/ 1

Australia have decided on their opening combination for the first Ashes Test, but they haven't quite nailed their Nos. 3 and 4 yet, and those are two positions that have caused them plenty of grief in the last few years. As the table below shows, the three batsmen who have averaged more than 50 at these positions are all from England, with Trott and Pietersen being the dominant ones.

Australia's leading scorers at these positions all have poor averages. Ponting has scored 1515 runs, but he was clearly not at his best during this period: it took him 46 innings to score those runs, which means his average was only 34.43. Like most of the other Australian batsmen, his conversion rate was poor too, with only two hundreds to go with 11 fifties.

The other Australian batsmen, though, have fared even worse than him. Clarke has been outstanding at No. 5, but 24 innings at higher slots - all except one of those at No. 4 - have fetched only 544 runs at a poor average of 22.66. He has never gone past 80 in those 24 innings. Watson's returns aren't impressive either - 423 runs in 15 innings at 28.20. Hughes, Marsh and Khawaja are the others who have tried their hand at these positions but without too much success.

Come Wednesday at Trent Bridge, Australia will want much more from their top four. How they go against England's top-class pace attack could well determine which way the series goes. For a start, Australia will be hoping that Chris Rogers' presence at the top of the line-up makes a difference.

England and Australian batsmen at Nos. 3 and 4 in Tests since March 2010
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Jonathan Trott 62 3015 53.83 8/ 14
Kevin Pietersen 51 2595 55.21 6/ 14
Ricky Ponting 46 1515 34.43 2/ 11
Ian Bell 11 652 59.27 2/ 2
Michael Clarke 24 544 22.66 0/ 4
Shane Watson 15 423 28.20 0/ 3
Phil Hughes 13 380 29.23 0/ 3
Shaun Marsh 10 301 30.10 1/ 1
Usman Khawaja 8 203 29.00 0/ 1

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Comments: 22 
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Posted by David on (July 8, 2013, 21:21 GMT)

I love that cricinfo published articles like this. Good effort, Mr Rajesh, but I do feel the analysis is somewhat imperfect. The main flaw is the inclusion of the records of retired players. Surely they can be of no relevance in trying to predict the performances of the current players.

I also agree with Flashman to an extent. When I do these analyses I usually base them on the last 2 years as that feels a better predictor that either longer or shorter periods (though I've never done any analysis to discover whether that is actually valid or not). What I would really like to see are recency-adjusted averages in which recent scores carry more weight than older scores.

Finally, I think that 50 to 100 conversion rate is irrelevant. If batsman A scores 50 every innings and batsman B scores 0, 100, 0, 100 and so on, the are equally valuable players. A low conversion rate may just mean being very good at avoiding low scores.

Posted by Brenton on (July 8, 2013, 14:47 GMT)

Moppa, Hussey used to be an opener but turned into an excellent number 4. Somehow he ended up at 6. When we were regularly 3/10 with Hussey sitting down at 6 it was a total waste.

N. Harvey, Chappell brothers, Punter, Clarke, M.Waugh, Martyn and Boon as a few examples all began their careers in the middle order and had to earn their stripes before earning a move to 3-4.

Khawaja doesn't even rate a mention next to these other players so why shouldn't he also begin his career in the same fashion as these other greats? Langer and Hayden were openers, it's a specialised position so not relevant.

Posted by Ben on (July 8, 2013, 14:24 GMT)

Id play cowen at #3 its hit last chance.. For 3 reasons

1) Nottingham is seaming pitch .. we will likely loose an early wicket and you dont want to expose clarke. 2) He spent a countty season on this very pitch. 3) He was one of the best in India .. you cant really sack someone with form when Hughes has always been great against crap attacks on flat pitches but struggled in India and last time he was in England.

If he gets less than 100 runs for the match id replace him . Unless we play 4 bowlers Steve Smith can wait a match .

Posted by glenn on (July 8, 2013, 12:05 GMT)

I completely agree about the importance for Australia to somehow match England's top order.

However, the 40 month comparison seems a bit long, given the emergence of a better Australian bowling attack, and less rock-solid form from England. The same stats over 20 months, show Australia 2nd best for win/loss (11 wins, 7 losses) & England on 5th place with 7 wins, 7 losses. Average runs are closer, with Australia only 2 runs per wicket better than England. Australian average runs are the same over the 20 & 40 month periods, at 34, whilst the England average dropped from 40 to 32. So . . . narrow the timeframe, and we get an idea of recent form. (Most recently, of course, Australia were utterly hopeless in India.) England still firm favourites at home, but form in 2012 does not show the teams miles apart.

Posted by Guy on (July 8, 2013, 11:56 GMT)

@Barnesy4444, you can argue this 'blooding players in the middle order' thing either way. For starters, are you really saying that Rob Quiney would be a world-beater if only he had a gentle introduction at no.6? But, taking the names you mention, Steve Waugh never moved up the order (apart from a brief stint in 1992/93) and was happy for Langer, Hayden and others to debut above him. Border also let players like Jones and Boon play above him early in their careers. As for Bradman, well, hard to learn anything from his career that applies to anyone else, but he was batting no.3 by the age of 21. Somehow, I think he would have gone fine without the experience of three matches down the order. In general, surely top-order players like Hughes, Cowan, Rogers, Quiney, Khawaja etc, who've spent their whole career batting against the new ball, are capable of debuting in the top order. Similarly, good players of spin like Clarke and Smith should play in the middle-order.

Posted by Ben on (July 8, 2013, 7:52 GMT)

@ Chris_Howard, totally agree. Australia has the potential to play some breathtaking and extremely competitive cricket and will outclass England in some sessions particularly if Watson, Hughes and Clarke bat to their full potential and Pattinson continues his form with the ball. The reality is that England through all their experience are a better test team with a mix of conventional and stylish batsmen and balanced bowling attack that has served them well. Australia definitely has the capabilities but England are currently a tougher team - based on batting superiority - that is far more used to winning and they will lift for the ashes far more than they did against New Zealand. England's consistency will shine through. If Australia are to win then Cook and Pietersen in particular need to be kept quiet.

Posted by Brenton on (July 8, 2013, 3:17 GMT)

Batmanian, you are right. Hughes should be persisted with at 3 until someone else pushes him out. Hayden just needed a bit of faith and persistence and he repaid selectors, it's the same with Hughes. If Khawaja is picked it should be in the middle order until he proves he's hungry enough to consistently make large scores before moving up the order.

Posted by Brenton on (July 8, 2013, 3:10 GMT)

For decades Australia's tradition has been to introduce young batsmen into the middle order, 5-6. If they perform well then, and only then, do they receive a promotion to up the order. Bradman, Punter, Waugh and Clarke all began down there.

In recent years selectors have been keeping our experienced bats in the middle order and playing brand new players in the vital top order. Why wasn't Hussey moved up to 3 and Clarke 4 when our top order was struggling? Maybe Khawaja, Quiney, Marsh etc etc would have been more successful with less pressure batting at 6? They may be settled members of the team by now and ready to move up the order.

I can't fathom why many think Khawaja should come in at 3, he should begin his career in the middle order like everyone else. He is more likely to be successful which is better for everyone.

Posted by Heath on (July 7, 2013, 15:36 GMT)

Very interesting. I thought the difference between openers would be greater. But it is the positions of 3 and 4 where Australia's fragile batting is most prominent. Good article and tells a lot.

Posted by Chris on (July 7, 2013, 12:51 GMT)

I think most of the time it will be even, Auatralia winning some sessions, and England others. But England will win the key sessions and hence the series.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.

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