Clarke's problems at No. 4
Historically, the No. 4 position in Test cricket is a much-coveted one, often manned by the best batsman in the team. Think Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Javed Miandad, Greg Chappell, Graeme Pollock, Kevin Pietersen - among many others - and you get the drift. There have been instances of the best man batting at No. 3, or even opening the innings, but very often two-down suits the most prolific batsman - he is shielded from the brand new ball and the quick bowlers at their freshest, but also has enough batsmen to bat with to pile up a huge score.
The stats bear out the fact that the No. 4 position is the most prolific one in Test cricket: overall in Tests, that's the only slot with a 40-plus batting average. Batsmen batting at No. 4 average 41, those at No. 3 39.98, the openers 35.94, and the No. 5s 37.74. Given that it's such a key position, it's not unusual for batsmen to start their careers at a lower position, and then move up the pecking order as they gain skill and experience, and establish themselves as the best batsman in the side.
In the current Australian side, there's no doubt that Michael Clarke is the best batsman: he's the only one averaging more than 50, and his Test career has already spanned almost a decade, during which period he's scored at least one Test century in every country, except Bangladesh. When he started out he batted at No. 6 since there were several other stalwarts in the middle order, but now that they've all retired, he's the man who has taken the No. 4 spot as he must, given that he is the best by a distance that Australia have.
Except that Clarke's stats at No. 4 are completely at odds with the quality he possesses: in 32 innings at that position - the last of which was a duck against England at Trent Bridge - Clarke averages an abysmal 21.51, with only four half-centuries and a highest of 80. At No. 5, his most preferred position, he averages three times as much - 63.95 - with 20 centuries from 98 innings; at No. 4 he has none from 32. Given that Clarke has batted 156 times in all Tests, he has played 20% of his innings at No. 4, but has scored only 9% of his total runs from there. In contrast, he has batted at No. 5 63% of the time, and scored 78% of his runs in those innings. He's probably the only batsman for whom one batting position has made such a huge difference to his run-scoring ability.
Perhaps the most damning indictment about Clarke's stats at No. 4 is that, among the 69 batsmen who've played at least 25 innings at that position in Test history, only one batsman has an average lower than Clarke's 21.51: Bangladesh's Mohammad Ashraful averages 15.70 from 44 innings. There are a few others whose presence is a surprise in the table below: Carl Hooper did his batting ability no justice at all with a career average of 36.46, but he was even worse at No. 4, averaging 29.39 from 45 innings. Hooper's best position was No. 5, where he averaged more than 42, and scored seven of his 13 Test centuries. Through much of Hooper's career, though, he had Lara batting at No. 3 or 4 and doing the bulk of the scoring.
England's former captain Michael Vaughan finished with a career average of 41.44, but at No. 4 his average fell to 32.66 from 30 innings. Unlike Clarke and Hooper, though, Vaughan lifted his game when he went up the batting order, averaging 45.48 as opener - a position in which he scored 10 of his 18 Test centuries - and 40.37 at No. 3.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul's career average of 51.81 is very similar to Clarke's 51.75, and he too has struggled at No. 4, though not to the extent that Clarke has: in 41 innings he has averaged 34.51. In his first innings at that slot he scored 118, against England way back in 1998, but since then 40 innings at that position fetched only one more century.
|Mohammad Ashraful||44||691||15.70||0/ 3|
|Michael Clarke||32||667||21.51||0/ 4|
|Alistair Campbell||36||776||22.82||1/ 3|
|Rajin Saleh||25||593||24.70||0/ 3|
|Dave Nourse||51||1346||27.46||0/ 9|
|Carl Hooper||45||1205||29.39||3/ 7|
|Mark Burgess||27||812||32.48||1/ 6|
|Michael Vaughan||30||882||32.66||2/ 5|
|Brian Hastings||29||869||33.42||2/ 5|
|Javed Burki||29||927||34.33||2/ 3|
|Shivnarine Chanderpaul||41||1208||34.51||2/ 5|
|Chandu Borde||27||932||34.51||2/ 5|
The contrast between Clarke the No. 4 batsman and Clarke the No. 5 batsman is quite stunning. While he is second from bottom among batsmen who've played at least 25 innings at No. 4, he's second from top with the same qualification criterion at No. 5: only AB de Villiers has a higher average than Clarke's 63.95. In terms of runs at No. 5 Clarke's aggregate of 5692 is already the third-highest at that slot, after Steve Waugh and Chanderpaul.
In fact, Chanderpaul is the only batsman, apart from Clarke, who's in both lists: he averages 57.85 at No. 5, where he has batted 50% of his total Test innings. (He has done even better at No. 6, averaging 65.94, but has batted only 47 times in that position.)
|AB de Villiers||48||2599||68.39||10/ 9|
|Michael Clarke||98||5692||63.95||20/ 19|
|Michael Hussey||38||1978||59.93||6/ 9|
|Sachin Tendulkar||29||1552||59.69||5/ 6|
|Clyde Walcott||31||1599||59.22||5/ 9|
|Garry Sobers||37||1895||59.21||7/ 8|
|Shivnarine Chanderpaul||125||5959||57.85||17/ 30|
|Steve Waugh||142||6754||56.28||24/ 29|
|Graham Thorpe||78||3373||56.21||10/ 18|
|Andy Flower||82||3788||54.89||9/ 22|
|Javed Miandad||33||1468||54.37||3/ 10|
|Zaheer Abbas||42||2048||53.89||6/ 7|
Clearly, Clarke is too good a batsman to finish up with those numbers at No. 4, and it's entirely possible that he'll make up for these lapses with a glut of runs at that slot over the next few years, when he bats at No. 4 over an extended period of time.
However, it isn't as if Clarke has never had an extended run at No. 4. In the period between July 2010 and September 2011, he batted 20 innings in a row at No. 4, and averaged 23.15, with three fifties. Coming into that stint at No. 4, Clarke was in sparkling form, scoring 166 (against Pakistan in Hobart) and 168 (against New Zealand in Wellington) in successive innings. When he moved to four, though, the runs dried up: he averaged 34.75 in a low-scoring series against Pakistan in England, 8.75 in four innings in India, after which came perhaps his most disappointing series. In the 2010-11 Ashes, he played at the pivotal two-down position for nine innings on the trot, and scored only 193 runs at 21.44. That, coupled with Ricky Ponting's failure at No. 3 (113 runs at 16.14), was a huge blow to Australia's chances in the series. After the Ashes, Clarke also batted at No. 4 when Australia toured Sri Lanka in 2011, but scored only 96 in three innings.
When he returned to No. 5, the runs came back almost immediately, as he scored 112 in his second innings at that position, against Sri Lanka in Colombo, and a masterly 151 against South Africa in Cape Town in his next innings. (Click here for Clarke's innings-by-innings list.)
In that series Ponting batted at No. 4, but given the inexperience of Australia's current line-up, there's little doubt that Clarke needs to bat at that position. It's possible that he'll bat there and score plenty through most of the remainder of his career. If he does bat at two-down over a number of innings, he'll want to finish at the other end of the No. 4 spectrum, along with the likes of Kallis, Chappell, Tendulkar and Miandad. Clearly, he belongs with those names much more than the company he's currently keeping at No. 4.
All stats updated till July 17, 2013.
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter