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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Asia and WI||13||738||73.80||1|
|Aus, NZ and SA||17||456||28.50||0|
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter