Yesterday I heard Kevin Pietersen playing down England’s Ashes chances. He quite rightly pointed out all the holes in our batting line up, which currently resembles something akin to Swiss cheese. Although to be fair to the cheese-makers of Switzerland, their diary products are probably hardier and more resilient.
Where I disagree with KP, however, is his assertion that Joe Root should bat 3. Why do so called experts always think that a team’s best batsman should always bat at first drop? It’s just a cliche and one of the most widely propagated fallacies in the modern game.
I got sick of pundits claiming that Pietersen himself should bat 3 during his England career (which was another bad idea) and I’m getting rather tired of wise heads wanting to shoehorn Root into an unnatural position too.
The bottom line is that a batsman should bat in his best position. In other words the position that suits him most. This might be the spot he feels most comfortable at, or the spot that best suits his technique. It’s all about batting at the number where he’ll be most productive.
I’ve heard it mentioned that players should bat where the team needs them most. This might be a noble sentiment but it’s not particularly pragmatic. After all, surely the team simply needs a batsman to score as many runs as possible? If he’s more likely to score runs at one particular position, then that’s where he should go.
A look at Root’s career averages demonstrates that Joe scores more runs the further down the order he goes:
This suggests to me that he’s best suited to a middle-order role. Yes he could bat at 2 or 3 but he won’t be so successful there. Why turn a world class No.4 into a slightly above average No. 3? Maybe that’s why Joe himself wants to stay where he is.
Some might argue that Root has the game to be effective anywhere. But I disagree. Yes he’s a very good player but he’s definitely more vulnerable against the harder ball. He’s obviously not unique in this regard but one cannot discount the way Joe plays.
Joe likes to play shots, particularly outside off stump, and he likes to play through point a great deal. In fact he sometimes can’t resist. A new ball is more likely to lift more than expected, move slightly off the seam, and therefore take the edge and fly through to the slip cordon.
Although this analysis isn’t exactly rocket science it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that it’s true. Root likes playing with a somewhat open face at times, so he’s better suited to number 4 or 5. And that should be the end of it.
Although most great sides have had a world class No.3 – think Viv Richards or Ricky Ponting – it’s not actually mandatory. Neither, as I argued earlier, is it mandatory for the best player to bat there. Sachin Tendulkar did not bat 3 once in his entire test career. Perhaps the pundits ought to think about that.
Another fantastic Indian player, the current darling of Delhi Virat Kohli, also bats at 4. Why? Because like Joe, the Indian skipper averages far more at No.4 than he does at No.3 (56 versus just 19). Therefore it would be completely nonsensical for India to move him.
Obviously India have the comfort blanket of Cheteshwar Pujara at first drop in their test side, whereas England have, erm, James Vince, Gary Ballance or Tom Westley, but the absence of good players around Root should not influence where Root himself should bat.
The bottom line is that some players, no matter how good they are, just seem to suit a certain spot. It has been that way historically and it’s still that way today.
One of the all time modern greats, Steve Waugh, was an average No.3, a modest No.4, but an absolute champion at No.5 where he his average rocketed from the mid-30 into the mid-50s. Conversely, Sir Viv Richards was a titan at No.3, where he averaged 61, but a mere mortal at No.4, where he averaged just 41.
I imagine it worked out this way for both psychological and technical reasons. Sir Viv loved to dominate proceedings. He strode to the wicket and stamped his personality on games. Waugh, on the other hand, was a man for a crisis and a man who liked to grind the opposition down; therefore batting No.5 suited his hard-nosed and nuggety style.
What type of player is Joe Root? This has yet to be decided. He’s still young and he still has some maturing to do. Although he’s highly gifted – albeit not in the same league as Sir Viv – he’s currently something of a sports car. He looks great, scores runs quickly, but often burns himself out and throws his wicket away. Does that sound like the ideal No.3 to you? Personally I’m not so sure.
With Ben Stokes currently tied up in a police investigation, England have just three international class test batsmen: Cook, Bairstow, and Root himself. Because Joe is one of England’s few bankers, moving him would only create uncertainty. It’s too much of a risk, and it’s one England don’t have to take.
At the moment England have a weakness at 3 and a big strength at 4. Moving Root might create a weakness at 4 without necessarily turning 3 into a similarly big strength.
The strategy therefore makes no sense. It’s risking a net loss of runs even though there’s very little prospect of a net gain if the move goes well.