Stats Analysis

Who are the top Test batsmen at each batting position?

The best Weighted Batting Average and aggregate at each spot in batting line-ups across Test history

Steven Smith and Virat Kohli shake hands at the end of the match, India v Australia, 4th Test, Dharamsala, 4th day, March 28, 2017

Which of these players tops the charts at No. 4?  •  India Today Group/Getty Images

My last article analysing Test batting performances by batting position was published in April 2010. The quartet of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root had not scored a single Test run among them. Sachin Tendulkar had seven international hundreds still in his tank; 429 Tests were played between then and July 1, 2020. The deadly coronavirus was still over ten years in the future. The lovely concept of Weighted Batting Average was still an idea on my work pad. I had yet to meet Milind, who helped shape many of my current ideas, including WBA. Barack Obama was in his first term as American president. So one can say that a lot of water has flown under many bridges since then.
The idea of looking at performances at each batting position is fascinating, and it deserves a fresh look at a point in time when one can safely say that the four top batsmen of the generation have crossed the halfway mark in their Test careers. The concept of WBA adds value since it negates the negative impact of a high number of not-outs. You can read more on WBA here.
In the graphs below, I have presented the ranks by WBA values on the left, and by runs scored on the right. On the left, in the graphs for batting positions one through five, the top 16 and the bottom three are presented. On the right, however, the top 20 aggregates for each position are shown, along with the percentage those runs counted for in those players' career runs. The cut-offs are position-dependent. For the opening position, the cut-off is 3000 runs. For positions 3-7, it is 2000. For positions 8 and 9, it is 1000 runs, and for the last two positions, it is 500. The last three batting positions are shown in a single graph. Finally, a summary across all batting positions is displayed.
England have always had great openers. Three of the top four names in the WBA section are English - Herbert Sutcliffe, Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton. Bob Simpson comes in at No. 3. All four have 50-plus WBA values. Virender Sehwag is in fifth place. Dennis Amiss, Matthew Hayden, Sunil Gavaskar, David Warner and Graeme Smith complete the top ten.
Alastair Cook scored the most runs in the opening position - close to 12,000, or 95% of his career runs. He batted at No. 3 in a few Tests at the beginning of his career and scored nearly 600 runs there. Gavaskar is next, with over 9500 runs. He batted at Nos. 4, 5 and 6 a few times, including when he made his highest score, 236 not out. Graeme Smith scored over 9000 runs opening, and mostly batted there. Hayden scored all his runs as an opener. Sehwag started in the middle order but scored most of his runs while opening. Of the players on the list here, Hayden, Mark Taylor, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Slater, Bill Lawry and Conrad Hunte scored all their runs in the opening position.
One thing we can safely say is that no one is going to average more than Don Bradman at No. 3, or for that matter in any position. He has a stupendous WBA of 93.1. Wally Hammond and Ken Barrington come next, with 65-plus WBAs. It is clear that England have always been very well served in the top three positions. Then come three great West Indians - playing years apart but all of them master batsmen - George Headley, Viv Richards and Brian Lara. All of them have 58-plus WBAs. Kumar Sangakkara, Rohan Kanhai, Ricky Ponting, Ted Dexter and John Edrich occupy the next five places. All of them have 50-plus WBAs.
Sangakkara scored almost all of his career runs at No. 3 position, over 11,600 runs. Rahul Dravid is the other batsman to score over 10,000 runs in this pivotal position. Then come three terrific modern stalwarts - Hashim Amla, Cheteswar Pujara and Kane Williamson. Bradman follows next with over 5000 runs. Sangakkara's 94.2% is the highest share of career runs in this position.
Now we come to the position dominated by the modern giants. If there are any doubts about Steven Smith's place at the top, they should be dispelled by his WBA of nearly 65 at No. 4 position. But it is clear that he has batted all over the place since he has scored only 51% of his career runs in this position. Everton Weekes, who passed away recently, is in second position with a near-60 WBA. Graeme Pollock chips in with a 56-plus WBA. What he would have achieved with a complete career boggles the imagination. Virat Kohli gets a well-deserved fourth place. Barrington, so highly placed on the No. 3 list, is at No. 5 here. Mohammad Yousuf, Jacques Kallis, Greg Chappell, Norman O'Neill and Denis Compton complete the top ten. They are followed by two modern greats - Lara and Tendulkar - with 50-plus WBAs.
On the right hand side, Tendulkar is the runaway leader, with nearly 13,500 runs at No. 4. That represents around 85% of his career. This is also the highest tally of runs scored in any position. He is followed by three modern stalwarts - Mahela Jayawardene, Kallis and Lara. Then comes Javed Miandad. Ross Taylor's 92% is the highest share of runs at No.4.
Michael Clarke has an excellent WBA of just over 55, batting at No.5. Among modern batsmen, Clarke does not always get the credit he deserves. AB de Villiers comes next, close behind Clarke. Zaheer Abbas is the only other player who has clocked a 50-plus WBA batting at No. 5. Yousuf and Steve Waugh complete the top five. The next five batsmen are a veritable who's who of middle-order batting. Shiv Chanderpaul leads the aggregate list, having scored nearly 7000 runs at No. 5. Steve Waugh follows close behind, then Clarke. Misbah-Ul-Haq's 89% is the highest share of career runs batting at No.5.
Chanderpaul switches sides when we move from No. 5 to No. 6. On the table above, he leads the WBA ranks with a 51-plus value, the only player to top 50 at this position. de Villiers follows close behind. Then come two West Indian stalwarts - Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd - and another 1980s luminary, Allan Border. Steve Waugh has scored over 3000 runs at No. 6 and he is followed by Asad Shafiq. In general, this is the allrounder's spot - Sobers, Ben Stokes, Ian Botham and Tony Greig find places in this list. Greig scored over three quarters of his career runs batting at No. 6.
At No. 7, Adam Gilchrist heads both tables. He has scored 3948 runs at a very impressive WBA of just over 41. That is some achievement. Any discussion of all-time great Test players without Gilchrist's name in the mix is a hollow one. No. 7 is a wicketkeepers' collection, with only Kapil Dev breaking the collection of glovemen. Quite a few other wicketkeepers have WBAs exceeding 30. Brad Haddin scored over 90% of his career runs batting at No. 7.
At No. 8, it is Daniel Vettori by a mile. He has an excellent WBA of 34 and has also scored the most runs. This was during the second half of his career, when his batting skills stood out. Kapil has a good WBA, exceeding 30, as also Mark Boucher. Daren Sammy scored 84% of his runs batting at No. 8.
Vettori leads this table too, since he batted at No. 9 during his early days. When a batsman averages nearly 22 at No.9, there is no other option to push him up and that is what New Zealand did. And how well did Vettori repay them. Stuart Broad and Brett Lee are also quite good here, exceeding a WBA of 17. Broad leads on the runs-scored table, closely followed by Vettori. This was the Broad who was a world-class batsman, not the imposter who comes out to bat nowadays.
In the table for all batting positions, Bradman leads, followed by Hammond, Barrington and Steven Smith. That is a great quartet of batsmen for Smith to be in. Only four batsmen have exceeded 10,000 in a batting position. Tendulkar leads with 13,492 runs, followed by Cook, Sangakkara and Dravid. All belonging to the modern era; this no doubt indicative of the relatively large number of Tests played in this period. It is interesting to see that while only three opening batsmen find places on the WBA table, as many as 12 opening batsmen feature on the runs-accumulated table. This is the place to accumulate the runs, not necessarily at high averages.
Barrington, Lara, Steve Waugh, Border, de Villiers, Chanderpaul, Inzamam, Yousuf, Boucher appear in two WBA tables. Of these, de Villiers stands out, being second on the two tables he appears in. Kapil, Vettori and Broad appear more than once on the late-order tables. Broad has three entries, at Nos. 8, 9 and 10. Gilchrist and Vettori are the only two batsmen who lead on both the WBA and Runs tables for a position.
How about this team of the toppers (with one nuanced selection at No. 6 using the number of runs and WBA)?
Herbert Sutcliffe
Jack Hobbs
Don Bradman
Steven Smith
Michael Clarke
Garry Sobers
Adam Gilchrist
and four bowlers.
This is a team to beat all teams. No Lara or Richards, but I will take it; they were competing with Smith and Bradman respectively. When it comes to the crunch, maybe a switch to an illustrious left-handed West Indian at No. 5 is on the cards.
Over the past few days I trawled all my articles on ESPNcricinfo and the Cricket Monthly. My first article was published on Nov 28, 2007. It was followed by a follow-up piece, mainly to respond to readers' queries and comments. I am astounded to learn that I have written over 300 articles in the past 13 years. When I look at the titles, I see that I have covered all aspects of the game, including the lighter side - perhaps because I did two, three and even four articles a month then. Now I do one a month and concentrate on analysis to make sure I do not miss out on important ideas. I have realised that a couple of times a year, I have to let myself go to come out with a really way-out article. The next one is like that. In these difficult times, let all of us have some fun.
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Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems