August 21, 2008

Meaty in the middle

Some of the all-time best middle orders

The struggles of India's famed Fab Four, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, have been fascinating to watch, for they also represent perhaps the game's strongest middle order over a period of time. We take a look at some other middle orders that dominated bowling attacks


Those three big Ws of mine: Worrell, Weekes and Walcott were instrumental in West Indies' success in the 1950s © The Cricketer International
 

Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott (1948-1957)
They were born within 18 months of each other, in Barbados, and went on to become one of the game's greatest batting triumvirates. The three Ws came together in February 1948, in the Port-of-Spain Test against England. The trio was at its combined peak when West Indies triumphed in England in 1950. They scored over 1000 runs in 18 innings between them - Worrell had 539 in his six. Besides, Worrell was good with the new ball, and Walcott with his keeping. Learie Constantine summed up the three: "While Walcott bludgeoned the bowlers and Weekes dominated them, the stylist Worrell waved them away."

Highly successful as a unit otherwise, the Ws never managed to effectively handle the Australian attack of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. The trio was finally separated in 1957-58 when Weekes retired during the series against Pakistan, but their powers had been on the wane for some time then.

Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell and Doug Walters (1970-1975)
Although Australia lost the 1970-71 Ashes, it marked the coming together of the Chappells and Walters, a key factor in their winning five series out of the next seven. Ian Chappell and Greg were formidable Nos 3 and 4, with Walters at No. 5 or 6. They were not an instant hit, though: Walters managed only 54 in seven innings in England in 1972. But on the West Indies tour the following year, Ian and Walters scored two hundreds and three fifties each, averaging in the 70s, while Greg managed just below 50. The middle order worked so overwhelmingly that Australia won 2-0 despite an injured Dennis Lillee, and without the services Bob Massie, who had a sensational debut at Lord's in 1972, and offspinner Ashely Mallett.

The next year, the Chappells became the first set of brothers to score two centuries each in the same Test, in Wellington. Ian then led Australia to two Ashes triumphs: Greg topped the run-scoring charts in Australia. While he wasn't on song in his first Ashes win, Ian starred in retaining the urn in his final bow as captain.

Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq (2000-2007)
The Ys and Inzamam played 42 Tests together, and each averaged over 50 in those. Despite turbulent times all around them, they managed to win 18 and lose 13 of those Tests.

Younis was a slow starter, but once he found his way in international cricket, the trio competed with the contemporary Indian and Australian middle orders. During the period, Inzamam scored his 329 against New Zealand in 2002, Younis and Yousuf made merry against West Indies in the UAE earlier in the year, and the three combined beautifully as Pakistan drew against India in 2005. The same year Yousuf and Inzamam consigned England to a 2-0 defeat at home, before Younis once again led the charge against India as Pakistan triumphed 1-0. When in full flow, scoring runs seemed effortless for the trio, and none did it better that Yousuf in 2006: 1788 runs in 11 Tests, the most in a calendar year. Inzamam, though, was on the decline by then, and the following year came his retirement, leaving Pakistan's fortunes in the trusted hands of Younis and Yousuf.

Ricky Ponting, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist (2000-2002)
More formidable than famous, this five-batsmen middle order were even more dangerous than the Fab Four for the 16 Tests they played together. All five averaged over 40, and Australia lost only one of the 16 they played as a unit, winning four out of five series. Ponting was ruthless, Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn elegant, Steve Waugh resolute, and Gilchrist devastating. Their averages in those 16 Tests read thus: Gilchrist 78.06, Ponting 54.23, Martyn 51.00, Mark 40.57 and Steve 40.47.

It was a pity this middle order had to separate with Mark's retirement in October 2002, and Steve's in 2003-04. The other three continued to be just as formidable until 2006-07, when Martyn called it quits mid-way through the Ashes, and Gilchrist a season later. During the period, Australia lost just one series - the Ashes in 2005.


In years of turmoil, the Ys, along with, Inzamam, provided Pakistan with stability © Getty Images
 
Dean Jones, Allan Border and Steve Waugh (1986-1991)
They may not have evoked Viv Richards-like fear, or VVS Laxman-like awe, but they were never short of perseverance, a quality that always set Border and Waugh apart from their contemporaries. As Greg Baum noted, Border "parlayed three shots and a fanatical zeal about not giving away his wicket into the most durable career that cricket in his time had known". Waugh perhaps read that and modelled himself accordingly. Jones, though classical, was surely the showman given the style of his peers.

In their first series together, the tour to India in 1986-87, Jones and Border averaged over 80, with the former scoring 210 in the Tied Test in Madras. However, consistent performances from the three weren't enough to stop an Ashes loss. Australia were a team in transition, and successes didn't come easy, but the 1989 Ashes, a six-Test contest, was won 4-0. Waugh, Jones and Border all averaged over 70 in the series.

In the period, Australia won six series, lost five and drew three under Border's leadership. They were separated when Waugh was dropped in favour of brother Mark, and soon after Jones found himself out of favour with the selectors.

Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Asif Iqbal (1976-1980)
Javed Miandad's debut in 1976 brought together three of Pakistan's finest batsmen in the same XI: the stylish Abbas, the cavalier Iqbal, and the street-fighter Miandad. Till Iqbal's final Test in 1980, the three played 18 of Pakistan's 26 Tests in that period: both Abbas and Iqbal missed the home and away series against England during the Packer row. Pakistan won six and lost four of those 18, winning three series out of six. Miandad averaged 65.54, Iqbal 53.92, and Abbas 49.55.

Miandad scored 504 runs in his debut three-Test series against New Zealand, which Pakistan won 2-0. On the trip to Australia, Miandad averaged less than 30, but Iqbal and Abbas played with distinction: Abbas scored 85 and 101 in the drawn first Test, while Iqbal's 120 set up Pakistan's first Test triumph in Australia, levelling the series. Abbas and Miandad also took a liking to neighbours India during their visit in 1978, when Pakistan won 2-0. They carried the form into the New Zealand tour, but after a 2-0 loss in the five-Test series in India in 1979-80, Iqbal didn't play a Test, ending the triangular partnership.

Viv Richards, Larry Gomes and Clive Lloyd (1976-1985)
Gomes made his first Test appearance in 1976, when he first played alongside Richards and Lloyd in England. However, it was their absence during the Packer era that earned Gomes his chances, and he did well enough to keep his place when more attractive batsmen came back. Gomes was efficient as opposed to destructive, playing the perfect foil to Richards and Lloyd's destruction.

Lloyd was at his best when the three played together: he managed nearly 56 per dismissal while Gomes and Richards hovered around the 50-mark. They played 33 of West Indies' 38 games from November 1980 till the end of 1984, winning 17 and losing just two. Lloyd's team failed to win one series out of eight in those years, drawing 1-1 in Australia in 1981-82.

Before Gomes arrived, the trio of Alvin Kallicharran, Richards and Lloyd wasn't far behind: they played 36 Tests together between 1974 and 1981, in which Kallicharran averaged 42.32, Lloyd 48.56 and Richards 55.69.

Basil Butcher, Rohan Kanhai and Garry Sobers (1958-1969)
Like Gomes, Basil Butcher was another West Indian batsman overshadowed by his fellow batsmen. According to Wisden, Richie Benaud considered Butcher the most difficult batsman to dismiss, of all West Indians.

Generally sandwiched between Kanhai and Sobers, Butcher held his own. In 38 Tests with the two in the middle order, he scored 2610 runs at 42.74. Kanhai averaged 51.25 for his 3383, and the genius Sobers 65.85 for his 3754.

All three piled on runs in Butcher's debut series in 1958-59; however, he was outdone by his two partners. Kanhai smashed 256 in Kolkata, while the others hit hundreds as West Indies won by an innings and 336 runs. Kanhai hit another double in Pakistan, but his team-mates were below-par on the trip, as they lost 2-1. Sobers topped the charts as they fell to England 1-0 at home, but after Butcher missed the next two series for the team, they had their revenge: the trio made healthy contributions during the 3-1 triumph in England. That scoreline was repeated three years later as well.

Of the nine series that the three of them played together, West Indies won five.


Steve Waugh passed the captaincy, and the leadership of a formidable middle order to Ponting © Getty Images
 

Don Bradman, Lindsay Hassett and Keith Miller (1946-1948)
Bradman and anybody would have made a solid middle order, but these anybodies in the Invincibles, Hassett and Miller, were as good as other contemporary middle-order batsmen. The trio played together in 14 Tests for Australia, but Hassett played as an opener in Leeds in 1948, scoring 30. In the remaining 13, he averaged over 60, Bradman went at a rate of 102.55 per innings, and Miller at 46.18. All comers were smashed by that Australian side: England were beaten 3-0 and 4-0 at home and away; in between India touched down for a 4-0 defeat on their first visit to Australia.

Bradman was on top of the run pile during the Ashes in 1946-47, while an unbeaten 141 for Miller meant he averaged 76.80, and Hassett scored at a healthy 47.72. Both Bradman and Hassett capitalised on the inexperienced Indian bowlers next. Bradman, though, was not at his dominant best in 1948, but Hassett's average remained in the 40s. Miller, too, was slightly off colour, but he made up with 38 wickets in the three series, taken at 22.31 apiece.

Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney and Peter May (1954-1959)
Most of England's best batsmen have been openers: Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe, Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch. Moreover, the careers of Wally Hammond and Denis Compton were interrupted by the World War II. But they got their only really solid middle order when Cowdrey made his debut in 1954, joining May, "the beau ideal of English batsmanship and sportsmanship", and the classical Graveney in the middle order. They played in 21 of England's matches in the period, during which May averaged over 55, while the other two stayed over the 40-mark. However, four of those matches for Graveney came as an opener, so did two for Cowdrey.

In the eight series the 21 Tests spanned over, England lost only one, against Australia in 1958-59. Cowdrey's career never lived up to the high expectations, and he never found a permanent position in the batting order. He later played 22 Tests in the middle order alongside Ken Barrington, a famous stonewaller, and Ted Dexter, whose batting could often be exhilarating. Cowdrey, though, averaged in the low 40s alongside them as well.

Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey and Andrew Symonds (2005-)
The Waugh brothers may have left the dressing room, so may have Martyn and Gilchrist, but Ponting's team still has a middle order which is just as hard to breach. Clarke provides the elegance, Hussey the determination, and Symonds the dash. Ponting's own form may have waned - he averages just under 40 in 12 Tests with this middle order, but the rest more than make up for it. Clarke averages nearly 60, and Hussey and Symonds over. Nine of those 12 games have been won, with just one loss - against India earlier this year. And once the Fab Four are separated, there would be no doubt as to which the best current middle order is.

Mathew Varghese is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo