August 13, 2010

The batting talent of tailenders

Lower-order batsmen have been improving over the last decade, and the most recent examples of this were the two Tests last week

The two most recent Test matches, in Sri Lanka and England, both produced some remarkable lower-order batting displays. At the P Sara Oval, Abhimanyu Mithun and Amit Mishra offered plenty of resistance in India's first innings, but that effort was dwarfed by Sri Lanka's incredible late-order fightback in which Ajantha Mendis played protagonist. The last three wickets in Sri Lanka's second innings put together 180 runs - which is the second-highest for them in all Tests - to lift them from a miserable 87 for 7. Meanwhile, the resistance from Pakistan's tail at Edgbaston further embarrassed the already beleaguered top-order batsmen, with Zulqarnain Haider and Saeed Ajmal at least ensuring that Pakistan's bowlers had some sort of a target to defend in the fourth innings.

These two Tests continue a recent trend where the last four batsmen have added a fair bit to their team's total. In 25 Tests this year, the last four batsmen (Nos. 8-11) average 18.46, with two centuries and 13 fifties; in 2009 they averaged 17.96, and both these numbers figure in the top five annual averages over the last 40 years. (Click here for the full list.)

As that link also shows, though, the increase in averages hasn't been as consistent, or as significant, as one might have thought: the average in 2008 was only 15.39, while in 2007 it was 14.78. Overall in the 2000s, the average was 15.51, which was only marginally better than the previous decade, and worse than the averages in the 1980s and the 1960s. That doesn't conform to the general perception that tail-end batting has improved substantially in recent years, though the way the 2010s have started is pretty encouraging.

Decade-wise averages of No. 8-11 batsmen since 1950
Decade Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
1950s 164 19,373 14.05 8/ 43
1960s 186 24,570 15.78 8/ 80
1970s 198 24,612 14.79 2/ 70
1980s 266 33,901 16.05 10/ 104
1990s 347 42,500 14.34 10/ 122
2000s 464 61,833 15.51 27/ 177
2010s 25 3878 18.46 2/ 13

The partnership stats for the last three wickets mirror the averages table above. Again, the 1960s and the 1980s outdid the 2000s, but 2010 has so far produced some important lower-order performances.

Decade-wise partnership stats for the last three wickets (8-10) since 1950
Decade Partnerships P'ship runs Average stand 100/ 50 stands
1950s 1348 18,985 14.49 4/ 62
1960s 1537 26,978 18.25 13/ 116
1970s 1624 27,464 17.59 13/ 112
1980s 2053 36,753 18.71 21/ 151
1990s 2832 47,258 17.25 26/ 187
2000s 3821 66,962 18.09 45/ 250
2010s 206 4029 20.34 5/ 16

A look at the batsmen with the highest averages at these positions since the 1950s shows that the top 10 is dominated by batsmen who played predominantly in the 1980s and the 2000s. Among those who've played at least 50 innings at these slots, a couple of South Africans head the list. Mark Boucher's preferred slot was No. 7, but he also played at eight and nine 52 times, averaging almost 35. Incidentally, in 112 innings at No. 7 he only averages 26.82. Shaun Pollock, on the other hand, played 99 out of 156 innings at Nos. 8 or 9. Both his Test centuries came when he batted at nine, making him one of 16 batsmen to score a hundred from that position, and the only one to get two.

Like Boucher, Kapil Dev played most often at No. 7 (98 out of 194 innings at that slot), but he had a more-than-handy record when he came in lower down the order, averaging nearly 33. Daniel Vettori, though, has clearly preferred batting at No. 8 or lower - in 152 Test innings, only 24 times has he batted higher. He is one of only two batsmen - Shane Warne is the other - to score more than 3000 runs at positions 8 to 11. Three of his five Test hundreds have come at No. 8, where he averages 42.28; at No. 9, though, his average slips to 23.88 in 51 innings, which is why his overall average at these positions is only 31.59. Boucher, Pollock, Kapil and Vettori are also the only batsmen with a 30-plus average.

Best batsmen at positions 8-11 since 1950 (Qual: 50 innings)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Mark Boucher 52 1424 34.73 2/ 9
Shaun Pollock 99 2330 32.81 2/ 7
Kapil Dev 65 1967 32.78 2/ 13
Daniel Vettori 128 3317 31.59 4/ 18
Ian Smith 75 1667 27.78 2/ 6
Syed Kirmani 76 1598 27.55 1/ 6
Kiran More 57 1180 26.81 0/ 7
Nicky Boje 52 1125 26.78 0/ 3
Chaminda Vaas 144 2785 25.55 1/ 12
Richard Hadlee 81 1641 24.49 1/ 8

Of the pairs who've batted together at least 10 times for the last three wickets in an innings, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq of Pakistan have the highest average - 34.33 from 12 innings. That average is slightly misleading, though, for 313 of their 412 partnership runs were scored in a single innings, against Zimbabwe in Sheikhpura, when Akram scored that monumental unbeaten 257. In 11 other innings, their highest partnership was 26. Jason Gillespie's limpet-like abilities have been well documented, so it's hardly surprising to see his name twice in the top 10, with Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist. With Waugh, Gillespie has two 50-plus partnerships in 10 innings, while with Gilchrist he had three in 14, including a 73-run stand in Fatullah when Gillespie scored a famous double-century. Gillespie is one of four Australians who feature twice in the top 10 - Gilchrist, Warne and Brett Lee are the others - which illustrates another aspect of their cricket that was outstanding during the period they dominated world cricket.

Best batting pairs for wickets 8-11 since 1950 (Qual: 10 partnerships)
Pair Partnerships Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
Saqlain Mushtaq - Wasim Akram 12 412 34.33 1/ 0
Jason Gillespie - Steve Waugh 10 308 34.22 1/ 1
Brett Lee - Shane Warne 10 340 34.00 0/ 3
James Franklin - Daniel Vettori 11 338 30.72 0/ 2
Ian Healy - Shane Warne 16 491 30.68 0/ 3
Abdul Qadir - Imran Khan 10 304 30.40 1/ 0
Adam Gilchrist - Jason Gillespie 14 382 29.38 0/ 3
Kumar Dharmasena - Chaminda Vaas 12 350 29.16 0/ 3
Adam Gilchrist - Brett Lee 17 458 28.62 1/ 2
Imran Khan - Sarfraz Nawaz 11 279 27.90 0/ 2

Sri Lanka's last four did give the Indians a lot of grief in Colombo, but it's nowhere close to what Akram and Co did to Zimbabwe's bowlers in that Sheikhupura Test. Powered by Akram's unbeaten 257, Pakistan's last four batsmen added 336, which remains a record for the most runs scored by the last four batsmen in a single innings (and this despite the Nos. 10 and 11, Waqar Younis and Shahid Nazir, getting ducks). The only other instance of the last four scoring more than 300 was way back in 1908 at the Adelaide Oval, when Australia's tail amassed 307, with hundreds for Roger Hartigan and Clem Hill.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo

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