By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published March 14, 2016
For fifteen decades, the best batsmen in Test cricket batted from positions one (1) through seven (7) in their respective team’s lineup. The best of the best no doubt batted at positions three, four and five. Cricket’s old adage claims that your best batsmen should bat at number 3. However, in today’s game, which batting position is most productive and how have they varied throughout the years?
Sir Garfield Sobers is considered the greatest all-rounder of all-time. Unfortunately, many fail to recognize that he is also one of the greatest batsmen of all-time. In my restricted raw ranking and index analyses of the top-10 most consistently productive Test batsmen who have scored 5000 plus runs in Test cricket, Sobers ranked third and fourth respectively. Only the likes of Sir Donald Bradman and Kumar Sangakkara were ahead of him in both analyses, and only Brian Lara managed to join Bradman and Sangakkara ahead of him in the index analysis. Nevertheless, also unknown to many is that Sobers was not only the greatest all-rounder of all-time – batting, bowling and fielding – but possibly the greatest all-round batsmen of all-time.
Most batsmen in Test cricket favour or fear a particular batting position in their team’s lineup. Sachin Tendulkar, the player who has played the most matches and has scored the most runs in Test cricket, has never batted at the venerable number three position. So much for the proverb, “your best batsman should bat at number three (3)”.
Sobers, on the other hand, batted at positions two through nine in his career, averaging as low as 53 to as high as 72 for the premier batting positions three through seven. To put it into perspective, Lara’s career Test batting average is a shade under 53. Such was the dominance of the great Sobers at the key positions in his team’s lineup.
Some of the greatest batsmen of all-time have batted at number three: Bradman, Wally Hammond, Sobers, George Headley, Viv Richards, Sangakkara, Lara, Ricky Ponting, and others. Likewise, at number five: Tendulkar, Clyde Walcott, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Steve Waugh, Javed Miandad, and others.
However, during the last five decades, we’ve seen some interesting trends at these positions. In the 1970s, batsmen averaged 40.17 with the bat at number three. That average plunged gradually to 38.07 in the 1980s and to 35.99 by the 1990s, two of the decades of great bowling in Test cricket. The previous time we saw the returns for batting at number three falling to these depths, it was before World War I, during the infancy years of Test cricket. Fortunately, in the past decade and a half, the returns at number three has been more favourable, with batting averages leaping from the unfathomable 35.99 to 43.41 and 43.55 in the 2000s and 2010s, respectively.
This has been aided by several established and prospective greats performing admirably in recent years at the number three position. The exploits of Lara, Steven Smith, Sangakkara, Ponting, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Kane Williamson, Rahul Dravid and others come readily to mind. Batting at number three is returning to the ‘Bradman Years’, that is, the 1920s to the 1940s, when Bradman, Hammond, Headley and others ruled the world.
Interesting Fact: During the 2000s, while batting at number three, Brian Lara averaged an astronomical 85.41 in 10 matches with three centuries and a fifty while during the 1990s, he averaged 54.33 at the same position.
The tendency at the number five position over the decades has been more straightforward. Without a doubt, we have seen a gradual increase in the production at this position from its chasm of 32.83, post-World War II, in the 1950s, to the heights of 44.86 currently in the 2010s. Actually, this decade, specifically the first six years of it, is the first decade that the number five position has topped all batting positions. This is normally reserved for the number three and four positions, starting as far back as the 1920s.
The number five position in the past four decades has gradually increased decade by decade from 36.43 in the 1980s, 38.12 in the 1990s, 40.95 in the 2000s, to the aforementioned 44.86, the highest average at any batting position in the past six and a half decades.
This rise to these unforeseen summits can be attributed to several of the reputable and future greats who have recently batted at the number five position. The mere mention of the likes of Adam Voges, Joe Root, Andy Flower, Steven Smith, AB de Villiers, Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Steve Waugh, and several others, easily stir our consciousness into remembrance of their great performances.
Interesting Fact: During the 2010s, specifically the last nine months since his debut, Adam Voges has averaged an enormous 85.50 in 11 matches with three centuries and three fifties, batting at number five.
It is predictably clear that batting at position five is the new number three or number four of the yesteryears in batting lineups and your best batsman is likely or should bat at that position. Fortunately, the number three position has rebounded since the turn of the millennium and interestingly, the number four position has been the most stable throughout the years.
Nonetheless, we have to be mindful of the pitfalls with batting averages based on the mere method of calculation as well as the possible reasons for these averages trending one way or the other. However, that’s for further discussion and another article. In the meantime, it seems that currently, if you want to improve your chances of ending your career with phenomenal numbers statistically, you should ask your captain politely to slot you in at number five in Test matches. It might be well worth it since the averages there just keep on rising.
Until next time …
© Zaheer Clarke
Writer’s note: All statistical data for this article was obtained from ESPN Cricinfo’s Statsguru database on February 13, 2016.
From the “Lies & Statistics” column in the Western Mirror (Published March 13, 2016)