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The hinterland of 40

James Vince: pretty while he lasted Getty Images

Forty. It's a good average but not a good score. An innings of 40 occupies that hinterland between success and failure, a liminal score, a score for the flaky talent or the not yet good enough. Forty is as likely to annoy the selectors as excite them. When he remembered the golden run that saw him average more than 100 for two full first-class seasons in 2006 and 2007, Mark Ramprakash said: "If I gutsed out 40 or 50 on a difficult wicket, I thought, 'Yeah well done.' But it also meant if conditions were in my favour, I was absolutely ruthless."

A score of 40 does not represent ruthlessness in the mind of Ramprakash, or of any serious batsman. The reactions of the fielders if they dismissed a Lara or a Ponting or a Kallis for 40 said it all: it was a win, a bullet dodged, a cause for celebration. And take a look at the face of Brian or Ricky or Jacques - were they happy with 40? They were not. In a strange way, they'd rather get out early than fight through all of that and then chuck it away. It's like putting Led Zeppelin IV on the stereo and turning it off again before "Stairway to Heaven".

Most batsmen fail to make their average in two-thirds of their innings. This rule applied even to Don Bradman, the most ruthless of all, who was as vulnerable to early dismissal as everyone else (Jack Hobbs apparently had more chance, statistically, of reaching 10). But of his 80 Test match innings, Bradman made just four scores between 40 and 50. He passed fifty 42 times, and turned 29 of those into a hundred or more. Thirty-six per cent of his innings were centuries, and 25% were scores of fewer than 20. He was the ultimate converter of starts.

The second innings of England's defeat to Pakistan at Lord's contained three scores in the 40s. They demonstrated how the light refracts differently depending how the runs were made, and by whom. James Vince scored 42, Gary Ballance 43, and Jonny Bairstow 48.

They were very different knocks by players in very different places. Vince is four Tests and six innings into the apparent seven-game run that every new gun is afforded under Andrew Strauss. He cover-drives as though the ghosts of Dexter, Vaughan and Bell are at his back, the rifle-crack of the ball leaving his bat at stark odds with the languorous fluidity of his strokeplay. Of his 112 Test runs, 76 have come in boundaries. At Lord's before lunch he seemed to ride the wave, the ball scudding across the green as a herald to his talent, and yet it was suddenly quelled by the kind of shot that so often extinguishes other batsmen touched by aesthetic beauty. Forty-two for him, and more murmuring.

Ballance had bet the house on his unaltered technique, still crabbed and crease-bound. Stubbornness, though, is a quality prized by pros and selectors. His 43 was as ugly and hard-won as Vince's was apparently casually knocked off. Most of those 43 runs seemed to go through slip and left him white-faced with effort. It was a score that seemed somehow more virtuous for being difficult.

Bairstow's grim countenance had little to do with his immediate future in the England team. He was a man who knew he could do it when it mattered, and it mattered now. Yasir Shah had bowled pure kryptonite at him in the UAE, and then in the first innings, Bairstow had tried to cut one off middle stump, a shot full of doubt and fear. Now he played with a vertical bat and a clenched jaw, looking for all the world like a young redbeard King Hal.

He and Chris Woakes, another player with the sun shining down on him at last, were deeply aware that they were the last, thin chance England had. Yasir tired, and Bairstow pulled a long hop for four to move within six of 50. Then came another, but this time with an extra zap from wrist or fingers, met by a waft that was neither punch nor pull, and he was done. The fiery demeanour gave way to shattered realisation.

Three men, three innings, three forties, one defeat. Bairstow drew plaudits for his. Ballance, it was generally acknowledged, should get another game. For Vince, a stereotype was reinforced. Perhaps he can ask Bairstow about how he might reinvent himself if - and probably when - the axe comes.

For all of them, and for all of their reasons, 40 was, as ever, far from enough.