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The Heavy Ball

Great at eight

Why are the best batsmen to be found at No. 8 these days?

Alex Bowden
The giant screen congratulates Daniel Vettori on his hundred, Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 2nd Test, SSC, 5th day, August 30, 2009

Vettori: uber-night-watchman  •  AFP

In a batting line-up, positions eight and nine used to be reserved for bowlers who could correctly identify a bat handle given three guesses, some helpful clues and a bit of conspicuous labelling. But those days are gone. Nowadays some serious batsmen ply their trade in that strange land between the lower order and the tail. They might play across the line as often as Merv Hughes called Mike Atherton "arsewipe", but like Merv, ugly-yet-effective is what today's eights and nines are all about.
India's eight and nine combined to great effect in the first one-day international against Australia. Harbhajan Singh hit 49 off 31 balls, while Praveen Kumar hit 40 not out off 32. Granted, the Shane Watson Pie Delivery Service was fulfilling more orders than normal, but each still needed putting away and the pair of them tucked in like shortcrust connoisseurs holidaying in Wigan. Or perhaps Watson was working to a plan to have them caught at deep extra cover or cow corner, in which case this pair did well to evade that devilish trap.
Australia themselves have an impressive duo in those key batting spots. Brett Lee basically won the Champions League Twenty20 final with his 31-ball 48, while Mitchell Johnson is deployed rather than brought in to bat. Johnson's a danger when he engages the long handle and a positive menace when he unveils the telescopic handle. He couldn't stop England, though, who snatched the Ashes by clogging their upper-order with charlatans before unleashing Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann later on.
However, the finest example of this trend is New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori, who refuses to bat higher than eight in the face of overwhelming evidence that maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea if he did. Vettori has three Test hundreds and an average of 42.64 batting at eight. Clearly New Zealand are using their top seven to take the shine off the ball and for nothing more than that.
Perhaps that isn't such a bad tactic. Opening batsmen are there to endure the difficult conditions early on. New Zealand have just taken this a step further by selecting a series of specialist night-watchmen to endure the difficult conditions later on, even later on and a bit later on still - at which point Vettori emerges to showcase the heave and the nurdle. He is perhaps the finest number eight in the history of a country littered with them - albeit number eights in a completely different sport.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket
Any or all quotes and facts in this article may be wholly or partly fiction (but you knew that already, didn't you?)