Don Bradman and Wally Hammond at the toss

"Look Wally, Orion's belt is trying to tell us something"

© Associated Press
5

The Zaltzmeister

Third man

Test batting's most intriguing position has served as a home to all manner of batsmen, including the greatest of them all

Andy Zaltzman

Number Three: the home of Donald Bradman, cricket's unmatchable run-scoring miracle man. The place where Viv Richards achieved greatness. The temporary accommodation of Chris Tavaré. The occasional involuntary lodgings of Jimmy Anderson. The match-shaping position where Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Kumar Sangakkara have carved their modern-day legends, where Wally Hammond and George Headley found pre-war cricketing immortality, where Garry Sobers and Brian Lara broke the Test record, where Ian Bell has always looked a perfect fit without ever actually becoming one. Three is perhaps Test batting's most intriguing position, encompassing all manner of batsmen - the brilliant and the bulwarks, the cavalier stylists and the roundhead grinders, the young and untouchably confident and the wise old craftsmen.

Three had a largely nondescript start as a Test batting position, enlivened only by Billy Murdoch hitting Test cricket's first double-century at The Oval in 1884, to follow his 153 not out four years earlier, the first Australian Test hundred in England, and Arthur Shrewsbury's 164 at Lord's in 1886. However, it rose to prominence in the 1890s, topping the decade averages at 33.86. Three was the highest-averaging position again in the 1900s, 1920s and, most strikingly, in the 1930s, when, at 51.25, it averaged over ten runs more than its closest challenger (four, with 40.84).

From the moment Hammond was promoted to three in the second Test of the 1928-29 series, until the outbreak of World War Two, the three SuperThrees combined to score more than 9000 Test runs

This, of course, was largely down to Bradman, who achieved most of his feats of stratospheric statistical splendour at three, but who had made his debut in November 1928 batting at seven. With hindsight, seven seems unnecessarily low for Bradman. Derek Pringle also batted at seven on debut. As did Ramesh Powar. Neither of whom achieved what might be described as Bradmanesque status with the bat.

By the time the Don first appeared at three, two other men had already begun to bombard the history books with scarcely credible numbers. In the 1928-29 Ashes, Hammond scored 785 of his 905 runs in five innings at three (and did not pass 50 in four innings at four). Early in 1930, West Indian genius Headley had made 695 in seven innings at three against England. Then Bradman was promoted to three in the second innings of the first Test in 1930, scored 131, followed by two double-hundreds and a triple in his other five innings in the series, and in his next ten innings at first-wicket down, five further three-figure scores (all over 150, including a 299 not out and two other doubles).

The 1990s were not quite a purple patch for one-down batsmen

The 1990s were not quite a purple patch for one-down batsmen © Getty Images

The Age Of The MegaThree was in full swing. From the moment Hammond was promoted from Four to Three in the second Test of the 1928-29 series, until the outbreak of World War Two, the three SuperThrees combined to score more than 9000 Test runs at an average of 85, and convert 38 of their 51 half-centuries into three-figure scores. Taking your opponents' first wicket, generally considered a sound strategic goal for a fielding team, had become at best a strategic risk, and often a recipe for scoreboard-melting disaster.

The 1930s not only dragged the planet inexorably towards a cataclysmic, species-defining war, but also proved to be the high point for No. 3 in Test cricket. Three has never again been the highest-averaging position in Test cricket's batting-order pantheon. It has been second best in six of the last seven decades but never top.

Three even sank to fourth-best position in the 1990s, as a golden age of pace scuppered the world's top orders. The advent of the new millennium, however, clearly emboldened threes. If the year could begin with the number 2, they evidently thought, why can our major innings not do the same?

The advent of the new millennium, however, clearly emboldened threes. If the year could begin with the number 2, they evidently thought, why can our major innings not do the same?

Justin Langer pounded India for 223 in the New Year's Test at the SCG in 2000, the first of 30 double-hundreds by threes in the decade. There have been 16 more in the 2010s; in all, 46 in the first 699 Tests of this millennium, after only 33 were scored in the 1206 post-war matches of the previous 1000 years of human existence. Leading the statistical three-charge: Sangakkara, with 11 doubles (coincidentally, 11 doubles is often what opposition bowlers wanted to drink after bowling to him). Ponting and Dravid scored five each. Jason Gillespie one.

Ponting and Sangakkara in particular came close to matching the run-harvesting mastery of the 1930s greats. From August 2001, when he made his first hundred as a three, to December 2006, Ponting made 26 centuries in 104 innings at three, and averaged 75.21. Sangakkara, between June 2006 and his final Test hundred in January 2015, averaged just over 70 in 70 Tests there. Many teams now hold their "real" threes to bat at five. But the value of a top-quality three, batting at three, is inestimable.

If you need proof that three is a screwy position, the Chappell brothers' are it

If you need proof that three is a screwy position, the Chappell brothers' are it © Fairfax Media via Getty Images

As with so many of its colleagues in the batting order, three is a position that throws up statistical anomalies, quirks and wild fluctuations. In 1988, for example, threes collectively averaged 31.03, at the time the position's second-lowest year average since 1956. In 1989, they averaged 56.21, the highest since 1939. Then in 1990, they tumbled back to 30.04 (again the second lowest since 1956). Perhaps the imminent and actual collapse of the Berlin Wall, and its aftermath, alternately distracted and inspired the world's premier first-drop batsmen.

Contributing factors were the two series between England and West Indies in 1988 and early in 1990, in which, in a total of nine Tests, no three on either side scored a half-century. Only two other series of four or more matches in all Test history have ended without at least one half-century by a three.

At the time, England were in the midst of the longest period of failure by a team's threes against a specific opposition. In the 15 series contested by the two teams between 1969 and 2000 inclusive, England's threes averaged 16.28 in 71 Tests, with just one hundred (David Steele's 1976 century) and six other half-centuries (none of them over 70); 67 out of 136 innings ended in single-figure dismissals. Bearing in mind that this epoch of first-drop failures began well before the age of the unstoppable West Indian pace barrage, this represents, in its own unheralded way, one of the greatest collective feats of endurance anti-achievement in the history of batting.

Sangakkara, between June 2006 and his final Test hundred in January 2015, averaged just over 70 in 70 Tests at No. 3

In the same matches, West Indies' threes averaged 54.67, with 19 centuries. West Indies held the advantage elsewhere in the batting order - in the other ten positions they averaged 30.69 to England's 24.98, a 23% superiority. But at three, the margin was over 235%.

What, then, makes the ideal three (other than every single component of Bradman)? Science could perhaps provide the answers, via a long-overdue research project involving Australian cricket's most famous non-twin siblings. Ian Chappell averaged 50.94 in his 91 innings at three, and only 25.38 in 45 innings elsewhere. The figures for his younger brother Greg are 43.39 at three, and 58.09 elsewhere (mostly at four). Greg was the greater batsman, Ian the better three. If ICC scientists have not at some point taken secret DNA swabs from the Chappells to prove whether there is a hitherto undiscovered strand of the human genome that governs a player's capability at first wicket down, then that organisation is in even direr straits than is currently assumed.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

 

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  • POSTED BY Harsh on | November 25, 2015, 6:57 GMT

    At his best Mohinder Amarnath at one down came close to any great .Who can forget his heroic exploits in West Indies in 1983 when he tackled the likes of the greatest pace attack ever with relentnesses no great batsman showed in that era.He scored 593 runs at an average of 66 displaying the courage of a soldier.Even Gavaskar or Viv Richards did not equal an effort of this stature against such a lethal pace attack.David Gower too at his best was a marvel at one down like in the 1985 home Ashes .At their best at one down Amarnath,Gower and Vengsarkar came close to the greats.

  • POSTED BY Harsh on | November 24, 2015, 13:52 GMT

    Another to be included is Pakistani maestro Zaheer Abbas.No one down batsmen was more artistic as Zaheer who carried a bat like a wand.He caressed the best deliveries to the fence with the deftest of touches resembling a painter making curves on a board.On flat tracks Zaheer was a champion like when scoring 2 double centuries in England.Zaheer's strokes were like the touches of a painters brush.Zaheer's cover drive through extracover was in the Walter Hammond class.

    Dilip Vengsarkar was a master in seaming conditions scoring 3 centuries at Lords and a classic century at leeds and was very prolific against the great Carribean pace battery.At his best in 1986-88 he was in the Greg Chappell class.Dilip tackled the likes of Imran and Marshall .

    Coming back to Kanhai he faced great bowling and was arguably the most complete batsmen after Bradman,facing better bowling than Viv Richards.Against pure pace he may well have overshadowed Sachin and Lara.

  • POSTED BY Harsh on | November 24, 2015, 5:55 GMT

    @RAJPER99

    Rohan Kanhai's innings at Perth against Australia for Rest of the world in 1972 and his 110 at Port of Spain against England testify this.Rohan was not just a magician but a master in a crisis against great pace and spin.Who can forget his 2 centuries score at a run a minute in the 2nd test of the historic 1960-61 series in Australia.Above all he averaged 58 in test matches won.At his best he would make my world xi but lack of consistentcy arguably place him in the 3rd or 4th all-time xi's.

  • POSTED BY Harsh on | November 24, 2015, 5:46 GMT

    I totally agree with you RAJPER99.Arguably at his best Rohan could even surpass the Don.Kanhai surpassed even Bradman in terms of creative genius traversing regions that even Bradman did not.Rohan would blend the skills of an architect.magician and poet.Significantly he averaged 53 at one down.To change the complexion of a game Viv Richards was the ultimate champion who could set fire to the stadium creating the impact of a bomber raiding an airbase.No batsmen intimidated bowlers more than Viv.To bat for your life my candidates would be Rahul Dravid and Ian Chappell. Dravid's fifties and centuries were more crucial to the team's cause than Tendulkar's while in a crisis Ian Chappell overshadowed brother Greg.Even David Gower Dilip Vengsarkar played some of the finest innings ever seen at one down.Statistically Ponting is Bradman's runner -up.,followed by Sangakaara.