Graham Dilley hits out on his way to 56

Headingley 1981: Dilley, humpty, history

© Getty Images

The Zaltzmeister

No. 9 dream

Why batting at No. 9 offers some of the greatest potential for heroism

Andy Zaltzman  |  

"Mum, Dad, when I grow up, I want to bat at No. 9." Few children have ever uttered these words. Fewer still are the parents who have responded to such words without looking awkwardly at each other, concerned for what the future holds for their beloved offspring.

Yet, in many ways, No. 9 offers some of batsmanship's greatest potential for heroism, for unleashing match-transforming mayhem, or for resisting from the precipice with the stodgy defiance of a non-specialist showing his supposed superiors how to defend with true cricketing cojones, often as the last bulwark before the certifiable tailenders.

A nine with sporadic or unvarnished talent with the willow can launch a match-altering counterattack, rescuing his team from, say, 102 for 7 and taking them to 434 for 8, as Stuart Broad did for England in the naughtiness-overshadowed Lord's Test against Pakistan in 2010, after four of the previous five batsmen had been dismissed for ducks by Mohammad Amir.

Alternatively, the last of the single-digit batsmen can play the dutiful lieutenant, grinding the bowlers from the brink of innings-completing triumph to the outer reaches of frothing frustration, as Saqlain Mushtaq must have done when scoring 79 off 359 balls in more than seven hours against Zimbabwe in Sheikhupura in October 1996, supporting Wasim Akram's boundary-laden 257 as Pakistan recovered from 237 for 7 to 550 for 8.

Perhaps the archetypal innings by a nine is the quick-fire 30-odd, containing flashing boundaries and hinting deceitfully that an authentic allrounder lurks unexplored within. Such cameos often seem to have greater significance to the progress of a Test than a similar innings played by a top-order batsman.

The acorn of potential planted by Dilley at nine was Bothamed into a sapling of possibility, and then Willised into a rampaging oak of victory

Taken further, a half-century by a No. 9 can crush opposition morale, and on occasion transform a match and series. My first encounter with cricket was the 1981 Ashes, snippets of which I remember watching on the television - Chris Tavaré with his bat tucked almost vertically under his arm as he walked off, Kim Hughes being out hit-wicket at The Oval, and, I think, Botham batting at Old Trafford (although I have seen it so often since that I now cannot remember whether I am remembering an authentically remembered memory or pseudo-remembering an artificial-memory-enhancing video).

I was given a book about the series that Christmas that contained Bill Frindall's scorecards, their lovingly handwritten statistics searing into my impressionable brain and sowing the seeds for a lifelong love affair with cricketing numbers.

The series famously turned on Botham's Headingley 149 not out, and, specifically, on his partnership with England's No. 9, Graham Dilley. Even to my untrained child novice's eye, No. 9 hitting 56 off 75 balls shone luminously from the Bearded Wonder's scoresheets, a glorious anomaly from the dimly lit recesses of the Last Chance Saloon. To Statsguru's highly trained computerised eye, England's nines had scored just three half-centuries in their previous 97 Tests over almost ten years, and none in the Ashes since Fred Titmus' rather less dramatic 56 not out at the MCG in 1965-66.

When Dilley was out, England had advanced from, effectively, minus 92 for 7, to plus 25 for 8. Victory had been transformed from an absolute impossibility to a near-inconceivable pipe dream. But the acorn of potential planted by Dilley at nine was Bothamed into a sapling of possibility, and then Willised into a rampaging oak of victory.

Dilley was promoted to eight in his next Test, in India the following winter. He scored 0 and 9. He went back to nine, and scored 52. He was bumped up to seven in the final two Tests of the series, made 8 and 1, and batted most of the rest of his England career at 11. In his ten innings at nine, he scored more runs than in his 48 innings everywhere else. The magic of nine burned strong in the Kent paceman.

Nine is fine: Swann v Aussie at The Oval in 2013

Nine is fine: Swann v Aussie at The Oval in 2013 © Getty Images

Despite the apparent improvement in modern tail-end batting, and the performances in recent years of nines such as Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock, Graeme Swann, Bhuvneshwar Kumar (the first man to make three half-centuries in a series batting at nine or lower), and Daniel Vettori (for whom nine was a staging post on his journey to becoming probably the greatest eight in Test history), No. 9s actually contribute a smaller proportion of their team's runs now than in Test cricket's early days - 3.9% since 2000, compared with 5.1% in Tests up to the First World War.

It was in that period that the first of the 15 Test centuries by No. 9s was scored, although No. 9 purists might complain (if such people do exist) (which they should) it was something of a cheat - Australia's regular No. 3, Clem Hill, had been ill with influenza during the Adelaide Ashes Test of January 1908, batted at No. 7 in the first innings, and in the second, came to the crease at 180 for 7, with his team just 102 ahead against a strong England attack headed by SF Barnes. In what may be the first such sportingly documented case, Hill miraculously recuperated through the soothing balm of runs. And more runs. One hundred and sixty of them, helping Australia to a lead of 428, and victory by 245.

That remained the highest Test score by a nine until New Zealand wicketkeeper Ian Smith flayed India for a 136-ball 173 in Auckland in 1990, which was the first century at nine since Asif Iqbal's staggering 146 out of a Pakistan total of 255 all out in a heavy defeat at The Oval in 1967 (after coming in at 53 for 7, he scored 72% of the runs while he was at the crease).

Swann was the perfect number nine - a counter-attacker with prodigious natural timing, who, until a string of failures in his final months as a Test player, averaged 23 with a strike rate just below 80 when batting at nine, and never passed 50 when batting anywhere else. Among his many fascinations as a cricketer, Swann was an ideal candidate to spark a conversation about how a player can be a perfect nine, but definitely not an eight, and not really a ten either. He averaged 13 in his 13 innings batting at eight - the technical and temperamental difference between the two positions ought to be minimal, but perhaps he preferred the freedom of batting one place lower down than his talents suggested he could play.

Or perhaps it was just a statistical quirk. Who knows. Nine is a number of mystery in the science of the bat. Perhaps youngsters today will be inspired by the mysterious transformative power of the nine, which can change the outcome of an innings that had seemed set, and shift the mood of a five-day epic in a half-hour burst of mercurial, temporarily brilliant batsmanship. Perhaps they will dream of one day walking out to bat for their country with the scoreboard reading 29 for 7, and the crowd audibly thinking: "This is definitely the last throw of the dice."

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