April 18, 2009

Eight miles higher

The link between keeper and tail has become more important and has produced handy runs since the advent of one-day cricket

Once upon a time cricket enjoyed an extremely harmonious relationship with the number eight. Think the eight-ball over, the eight consecutive years - between 1882 and 1890 - and series that England held the Ashes for, Jim Laker's barely-credible 8 for 2 for England versus The Rest at Bradford, "Tich" Freeman's eight 200-plus-wicket seasons for Kent, Yorkshire's 887.

Of late, however, this has been under severe, at times intolerable, stress. And not merely because, despite all those incessantly manful attempts to create pitches that turn bowlers into spiritual wrecks, Kingston 1930 remains the scene of the one and only Test total in the 800s.

No fast bowler or non-spinner has taken more than 80 Test wickets in a calendar year since Dennis Lillee in 1981 - and he's the only one ever to do so. England and Australia's eighth-wicket records are now, respectively, 78 and 101 years old. The first-class peak for the eighth wicket, 433 by Arthur Sims and Victor Trumper, is half a decade away from celebrating its centenary. Nobody playing senior limited-overs cricket has bettered Brian Langford's perfect eight for Somerset against Essex at Yeovil in the inaugural Sunday League season 40 summers ago: 8-8-0-0. And nobody, rather more mercifully, bowls eight-ball overs anymore (the very idea that they only stopped doing so 30 years ago is difficult enough to stomach, much less credit).

Happily, ample and heady compensation has come in the shape of the No. 8 berth in the order, hitherto occupied almost exclusively by wicketkeepers and a lengthy and splendid array of top-class bowlers without too many clues about how to construct an innings, as opposed to block and/or swipe. Uncertainty was understandable: with precious few exceptions you were neither specialist nor rabbit, neither relied upon nor excused responsibility. Which explains why, up to the start of this decade, a century and a quarter had brought just 40 Test tons from that less-than-exalted position, four of them by fleeting residents - Colin Cowdrey, Clive Lloyd, Thilan Samaraweera and Peter Willey. That total now stands at 60.

Daniel Vettori, furthermore, has emerged as the most productive Test No. 8 in history. "Calmness" is the virtue he said he most admired in Stephen Fleming, his predecessor as New Zealand's captain. Few pupils have heeded their mentor's example quite so well. Among those who have played 20 or more innings from such a lowly rung, Vettori's average of 40.43 peers down at the next six in the list: Kamran Akmal (37.31), Paul Reiffel (35.00), Mark Boucher (33.90), Kapil Dev (33.52), Paul Strang (33.37) and Shaun Pollock (30.96). Note that not one of those players played a Test BP (Before Packer). This seems anything but coincidental. Improved rewards, allied to the opportunity for self-expression facilitated by the growth in ODIs, have brought stiffer resistance.

It is a measure of the strides taken that two indubitably top-class allrounders were unable to average 28 at No. 8 - Sir Richard Hadlee (27.44) and Imran Khan (27.15) - while another struggled even more. Subtract that historic 257 not out against Zimbabwe, comfortably the highest score by a Test No. 8, and Wasim Akram's mean score, barely 20, seems relatively sickly.

The No. 8 berth in the order was hitherto occupied almost exclusively by wicketkeepers and a lengthy and splendid array of top-class bowlers without too many clues about how to construct an innings as opposed to block and/or swipe. Uncertainty was understandable

Of the 28 highest scores by a No. 8, moreover, no fewer than 10 have been made in the current millennium, including two, astonishingly, on consecutive days last month by Vettori and then Mitchell "When Do We Get To Call Him Mitch?" Johnson, whose 123 not out against South Africa was the best by an Australian No. 8 since George Bonnor's explosive 128 against England at the SCG in 1885. Vettori, meanwhile, joined Akmal (three), Boucher and Wasim (two apiece) as the only No. 8s to pass go and collect more than one Test hundred. Then there's Albie Morkel, who made his Test debut at No. 8 at Newlands last month and collected a violent yet composed 58. Five quid says he's the man who finally bashes a hundred inside 56 balls.

Partnerships, too, have flourished. Of the top 31 seventh-wicket liaisons, all involving No. 8s, more than half, 16, have occurred this decade. We're only a quarter of the way through 2009 and already we've seen duets of 169 (unbroken) by Akmal and Yasir Arafat for Pakistan against Sri Lanka, and 186 by Vettori and Jesse Ryder against India. Johnson, indeed, has added 142 with Michael Clarke and 163 with Andrew McDonald. In any other era, the 128 added by Vettori and Brendon McCullum in Napier recently would have warranted awe. Not now.

The all-time top four most prolific seventh-wicket pairs include Boucher and Pollock (912 runs, the record), Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne (720) and Warne and Steve Waugh (638). Meanwhile, the regular dynamic duos (seven-plus innings) boasting the highest average alliance both feature Chaminda Vaas: 64.14 with Mahela Jayawardene (third all-time behind Waugh and Paul Reiffel's 68.40 and the 64.50 managed by the distinctly odd coupling of Rod Marsh and Kerry O'Keeffe) and with Samaraweera (57.50, fifth-best).

Yet while this increase in output has enveloped the game, one country has remained staunchly resistant. Genuine No. 8s - and I think we can safely exclude Adam Gilchrist, who made 121 at Christchurch in 2005 in one of his few sorties in that position - have collectively notched a total of 21 centuries for nine Test-playing nations this decade. Since Ray Illingworth's 113 against West Indies at Lord's in 1969, however, not a single Englishman has reached three figures (Bob Taylor, with 97 at Adelaide in 1979, came closest). Stuart Broad should consider that a goal well worth scoring.

Granted, Craig White's average of 50 is the highest by anyone who has had 10 or more innings at sixth-drop, but you have to go back to Jack Russell (30.14) to find the only other Pom, converted or otherwise, averaging more than 28 in the 72 years since Walter Robins (32.50) played his final Test. Of the 13 scores of 70-plus by regulars since Illingworth's hundred, only two - by White at Trent Bridge and Melbourne in 2002 - have come since 1995. Upper lips, in other words, are in dire need of stiffening.

THEN THERE'S THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY. Until his latest comeback, James Franklin would have been a decidedly useful No. 8 had he worn anything other than a black cap. Strangely enough, he started out in that role, but only once since, against Sri Lanka in Napier, has he done so again - and he made 55 that day, his first Test 50 and still his second-highest score. Instead, he's taken guard at five down and eight down. but most of the time has emerged at No. 9, the launchpad for that remarkable maiden century in Cape Town three years ago, an unbeaten six-hour 122, during which he helped Fleming add 256, a national record for the - wouldn't you know it - eighth wicket.

Lest it be forgotten, Franklin, for all the injuries that have bedevilled his staccato career, is no mean bowler. He entered last month's Napier Test with a career strike-rate of 50.9 balls per wicket, third-best among those who have played a five-dayer over the past year. But now, encouraged by Vettori, he is also batting in a key position, at No. 6, having averaged nearly 67 in this season's State Championship for Wellington - no mean soar in anyone's book. Indeed, his assured and measured approach before that daft run-out in Napier suggested he may not stop there.

There are precedents for such self-advancement. Wilfred Rhodes, famously and uniquely, managed to haul himself up all the way from 11 to 1; Fred Titmus went in at 9 and 10 in the third and fourth Tests against India in 1964 yet found himself opening with Geoff Boycott on the latter's debut at Trent Bridge two games later; Irfan Pathan clambered from 10 to 2 only to slither from the India XI with alarming alacrity. Similar tales of vertiginous derring-doings, though, are exceedingly few and far between. Unlike Vettori, Johnson, Vaas and Co., Franklin, plainly, is a chap who simply doesn't know his place.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton