Some might say that taking an opening batsman on tour and asking him to sit on the sidelines while a middle order batsman returning to the international scene takes his place is a bloody stupid thing to do. Even more so when it’s to partner a captain under intense scrutiny, high pressure and who hasn’t hasn’t reached three figures for longer than we care to recall. Such is the ridiculousness of this situation, we would go so far as to describe it as quintessentially English. Now that’s a criticism for you.
For some observers, the opener’s role is so specialist that it’s nothing short of farcical that Jonathan Trott should be shoehorned there. For others, his previous pedigree combined with the resilience that he showed in the first four years of his Test career means that he’s a perfectly sensible solution to an ongoing problem. Based on the evidence of the first two Tests, we know which prediction is looking more accurate.
This particular shambles got us thinking: have any players ever truly succeeded in Test cricket both as opener and at number three?
To start, we set a threshold of 20 innings in each role. That’s enough to have performed there on a regular basis, and across a minimum of three series. It also gives a sample of just 18 players, surprisingly few given the long history of Test cricket and England’s habit of shuffling the batting order at the merest whiff of a whim. Even before we look at the numbers, this made us think that actually, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often. There’s probably a pretty good reason for that.
|Innings as Opener
|Innings at 3
|Difference in Average
Hopefully someone who didn’t quit A-level Maths as soon as the going got tough can do a Chi-squared analysis of this and tell us what it all means, apart from David Boon and Alec Stewart both being awesome and Marc Butcher a bit less so. In fact, a lot less so.
We also looked at the players who had batted at least ten times at three and had the best averages (a list that Trott comes in at 55 on, sandwiched between Jacques Rudolph and Darren Bravo). The following shows the leading 20, and gives the number of times that they opened:-
So as only two players (Boon and Langer) have batted at least 50 innings both as opener and at 3, and the very best players at first-drop have rarely opened – whether out of choice, ability or selection policy -it does seem as if there has always been a distinction between the two roles. Boon’s career was interesting: originally batting at five, six and on one particularly momentous occasion seven, after a year in the side he was pushed up to three and then, against India in 1985 he replaced Robbie Kerr (no idea) and became an opener. He stayed there for the next three years, before Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor became the established opening pair, with the great moustachioed one reverting to first drop. In 1992/93 he returned to open instead of Marsh, but the success of Michael Slater soon saw him back at three. All this while fielding at short leg with a Victoria Bitter in his hand.
Meanwhile Langer spent much of the 90s on the sidelines behind the likes of Taylor, Slater, Blewett, Boon and Hayden in the queue for the top order. When he first became a regular pick, he was at three, until New Zealand came touring in 2001 and he opened with Hayden, never again to drop down to the purgatory of the middle order and sitting around with his pads on for hours waiting for someone to balls up and give him a go.
So there we are: there are basically only two players to have made a proper go of opening and batting at three in more than a hundred years of Test cricket. You don’t need to have actually turned up for A-level Maths to know that that’s not many. Of course, like all good stories, there’s a twist in the tale: with a threshold of ten innings, the only player to be in the top 50 averages both as opener and at three is one AN Cook, which goes to show that maybe he’s not quite as bad as we’ve been making out. Although being at the other end to Jonathan Trott is enough to make anyone look good at the moment.