Don Bradman and Wally Hammond at the toss

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

© Associated Press

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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