Why has number three suddenly become cricket’s Syria, the no-go zone of international batting orders?
In recent times, Michael Clarke flatly refused to bat there; both India and England’s prime position has been in a state of flux and there are calls for Steve Smith, despite reasonable success, to vacate three now he’s Australia captain.
Unless you’re a born opener, three’s the best place to bat. If there isn’t a Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson or Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, highly successful opening partnership preceding you, there’s the opportunity to establish the pattern of play. You bat at your own pace and, apart from the case of an immediate setback, there’s a chance to quickly assess from the pavilion how the pitch is playing and what the new ball bowlers have that day.
While there’s a chance you’ll sit for a while before batting, if you’re not mentally prepared to face the second ball of an innings, then batting at three isn’t for you.
A number three doesn’t barrack for a dismissal but going in early is no bad thing. The bowlers are still working their way into a spell and you’re mentally fresh.
Before Smith accepts any misguided advice to drop down the order, he should ponder this thought. As captain of Australia in the Caribbean in 1973, I was delighted when my opposite number Rohan Kanhai demoted himself to five. WRONG MOVE Kanhai was one of the best right-hand batsmen I’ve seen (he’s largely overlooked because he played in the shadow of Sir Garfield Sobers), a dominant player possessing all the shots and not afraid to launch a calculated but furious counter-attack after the loss of an early wicket. By demoting himself, he indicated doubts about his batting line-up.
Kanhai handed Australia an advantage even before a ball had been bowled. Any sign of Smith wavering would provide similar comfort to opponents.
There are two choices for number three. There’s the skilled stroke-maker who can mount a counter-attack, or the technically sound player who fights his way out of trouble after an early loss. I’d put Ricky Ponting and VVS Laxman in the first category with David Boon and Rahul Dravid in the second.
My preference is for the Ponting/ Laxman type over the Boon/ Dravid style. If a captain is fortunate enough to have someone with that level of skill, you don’t dilute his attributes by batting him down the order.
Ajinkya Rahane recently embraced the opportunity to bat at three, which says a lot about a player who has grown in stature since the beginning of the Australian tour. England’s Ian Bell has the talent but unlike Rahane he only moved there as a career-saving last resort.
I don’t agree with the theory “the best player bats at three” which is a hangover from the Don Bradman era when he was both ideally suited to the position and the best batsman in the team. However, certain players have a ‘born to bat at three’ demeanour. Kanhai, Viv Richards, Ponting, Ted Dexter and Laxman are a few.
There was much to admire about Ponting’s play but importantly for Australia he displayed a fierce determination to hold down the number three spot. Smith will do his team a similar service if he shows that same determination through the good and bad times.