January 8, 2016

The Root cause at No. 4

England's two-down batsmen have been the least prolific among the top eight teams in the last 40 years, but in Joe Root they have a possible long-term solution

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In their long and chequered Test history, England have had some remarkable batsmen at the No. 4 slot: Denis Compton, Wally Hammond, Peter May and Ken Barrington all scored 2000-plus runs at that position at 50-plus averages. Barrington averaged almost 60 at that position, scoring 2367 runs at 59.17, while May's average of 58.12 was only marginally lower.

All these batsmen also played in the pre-1970 era; in the last 40 years, England have struggled to unearth more such batsmen who could be as prolific at No. 4. They did find one: Kevin Pietersen scored 6490 runs at the slot - more than any other England batsman - at 48.43, but his England career ended abruptly due to reasons other than his cricketing talent. Other than Pietersen, though, England's No. 4 batsmen in the last 40 years have mostly averaged in the last 30s or early 40s; it's not surprising, then, that England's overall average at No. 4 in the last 40 years is the lowest among the top eight teams. In contrast, in the 50 years between 1925 and 1975, England's No. 4 batsmen averaged 45.07, the second-highest among all teams.

England batsmen with 2000-plus runs at No. 4 in Tests
Player Innings Runs Average 100s
 Ken Barrington  44  2367  59.17  7
 Peter May  49  2383  58.12  7
 Denis Compton  86  4234  53.59  13
 Wally Hammond  66  2997  50.79  7
 Kevin Pietersen  139  6490  48.43  19
 Graham Thorpe  73  2712  41.72  4
 David Gower  91  3223  38.36  3
 Allan Lamb  67  2340  38.36  8
 Nasser Hussain  82  2877  37.36  8

In the last 40 years, Pietersen stands well clear of other England batsmen at No. 4. Among those who have scored at least 750 runs at that slot, the next best average is Graham Thorpe's 41.72, and he is the only other batsman to average more than 40. Robin Smith comes close, while Allan Lamb and David Gower have identical averages of 38.36 at that slot. England's averages in that era suffered generally because of the number of Tests they played against West Indies' four-pronged pace attack, but in this case West Indies isn't the reason for the relatively low averages of Smith, Gower and Lamb: Smith averaged 42.50 against West Indies at No. 4, Gower 38.66 and Lamb 44.33. Both Gower and Lamb had more problems at four against Australia: Gower averaged 23.27 from 18 innings, and Lamb 33.05 from 19.

Kevin Pietersen was one of England's best No. 4s © Getty Images

The bigger, and more recent, disappointment at that slot for England has been Ian Bell. His technique and temperament were thought to be ideally suited for the slot, especially after Pietersen's removal, but he has consistently disappointed, averaging only 33.14 in 49 innings at No. 4.

England batsmen at No. 4 since 1976 (Min 1000 runs)
Player Innings Runs Average 100s
 Kevin Pietersen  139  6490  48.43  19
 Graham Thorpe  73  2712  41.72  4
 Robin Smith  49  1834  39.86  5
 David Gower  91  3223  38.36  3
 Allan Lamb  67  2340  38.36  8
 Nasser Hussain  82  2877  37.36  8
 Ian Bell  49  1558  33.14  4

Among all batsmen who have scored at least 1500 Test runs at No. 4 in the last 40 years, Greg Chappell sits on top with an average of 64.64, with Jacques Kallis next on 61.86. Eleven batsmen have averages of more than 50, including Sachin Tendulkar, Javed Miandad, Brian Lara and Allan Border. Pietersen is in 14th place among these 33 batsmen, while Michael Clarke (average 30.61) and Bell bring up the rear. In fact, among the eight batsmen with the lowest averages among these 33, five are from England, which is a telling indicator of the problems they have historically had at this position.

Lowest averages at No. 4, in Tests since Jan 1976 (Min 1500 runs)
Player Innings Runs Average 100s
 Michael Clarke  62  1745  30.61  5
 Ian Bell  49  1558  33.14  4
 Marlon Samuels  46  1610  35.00  5
 Stephen Fleming  82  2902  36.27  2
 Nasser Hussain  82  2877  37.36  8
 Allan Lamb  67  2340  38.36  8
 David Gower  91  3223  38.36  3
 Robin Smith  49  1834  39.86  5

England's incumbent at that position has the class and the hunger to change those stats at least somewhat, though. Joe Root has batted only 14 times at No. 4 in Tests so far, but already he has shown he enjoys the responsibility of batting at that position, scoring a century and six fifties, and averaging 51.07. The conversion rate could do with some improvement - he has been dismissed four times between 60 and 75 - but he has consistently got starts, and a strike rate of 59 indicates a willingness to take the initiative and dominate the bowling.

Joe Root averages over 50 at No. 4 Gareth Copley / © Getty Images

His overall career stats are outstanding too: the average of 54.16 is sixth among the 41 England batsmen who have scored at least 3000 Test runs. All the others in the top ten played Test cricket before 1985, which shows how special Root has been in his three years so far.

Highest Test averages for England (Min 3000 runs)
Batsman Span Tests Runs Average 100s
 Herbert Sutcliffe  1924-1935  54  4555  60.73  16
 Ken Barrington  1955-1968  82  6806  58.67  20
 Wally Hammond  1927-1947  85  7249  58.45  22
 Jack Hobbs  1908-1930  61  5410  56.94  15
 Len Hutton  1937-1955  79  6971  56.67  19
 Joe Root  2012-2016  37  3196  54.16  8
 Denis Compton  1937-1957  78  5807  50.06  17
 Ted Dexter  1958-1968  62  4502  47.89  9
 Geoff Boycott  1964-1982  108  8114  47.72  22

Root's career is still in its early stages, and while the overall numbers are outstanding, there are gaps he will want to fill. His stats at home, in Asia and in the West Indies are superb, but in Australia and New Zealand he has one half-century from 13 innings. In the ongoing series in South Africa, he has got starts in each innings, but scores of 24, 73, 50 and 29 indicate a failure to convert those starts. Bigger scores could well be round the corner, given the way he has shaped up in these innings. That will only raise his stocks further, and a few more years of Root at No. 4 should give a lift to England's stats at that position as well.

Joe Root's Test career
In country/continent Innings Runs Average 100s
 England  38  2002  60.66  7
 Asia and WI  13  738  73.80  1
 Aus, NZ and SA  17  456  28.50  0
 Career  68  3196  54.16  8

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

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