Three Is Not The Magic Number For Root

T

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:

No.2 42

No.3 45

No.4 54

No.5 73

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.

James Morgan

30 comments

  • All these arguments are perfectly sound, but what happens when you have three excellent number fives all averaging in the high 40s and two mediocre players who bat at three and four but averaging on the low 30’s? Do you pick the mediocre players and leave the better batsmen out? Or do you pick the best batsmen and ask them to adapt to a new position?

    Because this is England’s problem. Too many good lower order players. Not enough top order players.

    • Hi Tom. I’m not sure England have this problem as Bairstow keeps and Stokes could well be unavailable. At the moment Malan is batting is 5. Would he move up a spot if Root moves to 3? Overall I think the negatives outweigh the potential positives.

  • I was about to write that it doesn’t really matter the difference between 3 and 4 but for the sake of putting an alternative view

    England haven’t picked anyone who likes to bat at three Vince, Ballance and Malan all bat at 4 for the respective Counties. The stereotype of the Kookaburra ball is that it only swings for fifteen overs so I can see why you would want Root coming in after that period but he is best equipped to dealing with it look at his hundred at TB in 2015 or the one of the SA tour in 2016. Root is also a good starter, we all know how good he is at getting to 70 so why not have that earlier?

    I agree the best player batting at three stuff is lazy guff but beyond that I think there is a case that in the current England lineup it makes sense although it might be more informative to look at Root’s average based on when his first delivery was rather than what it said on the scorecard.

  • Whilst it is difficult to argue with any of James’ analysis, it still leaves the question at no3 of ‘if not Root, then who?’. Given that Ballance and Vince look like dead men walking at 3 then Root must be an option unless we look at other solutions. There seem to be four other solutions.
    1. Bairstow at 3. But given the reluctance of the selectors even to bat him above 6, and his keeping duties, this seems a non starter – even if it may be the best solution.
    2. Malan at 3 with Ballance or Vince at 5. This would certainly suit Ballance and Vince although it risks Malan having the same issues as would Root in moving up a place. Having said that, it is probably better to take the risk with Malan than Root. Probably the most likely solution.
    3. Moeen Ali at 3. He is certainly capable, having opened the batting often enough. But he seems to have established his role at 7/8 and given his success in that role it would seem as big a risk as asking Root to move.
    4. The ‘hail Mary’ gambit. Given that no one else either suits or wants the no3 position ask Woakes to bat there. He does not mind where he bats, has a more defensive technique and mindset than most, has a FC batting average similar to Malan and Vince and is less of a sacrifice than Root, Ali or Malan. His technique is not ideal for no3, but would there be much to lose?

    The problem is less Root and moving him, rather the unsatisfactory nature of all the alternatives.

    • Moeen lacks the technique and mentality for top order test batting. Jesus he’s as loose and flakey as a drunk locks bike and as flakey as a choc flake !!

      Ffs, people need to realise that our game is losing the ability to produce high quality test class top 3batters

      • I agree that Moeen’s technique is better suited to down the order, but that is equally true of the alternatives other than Root, which is why he is an option. His FC batting average suggests he is as good an option as Malan or Vince. However, it is precisely because all the other options have major drawbacks that I would go for option 4, Woakes as the Hail Mary play. But it will not happen.

  • I really don’t like the idea of forcing a player to bat in a position where he feels uncomfortable. And the captain is under no obligation to move himself because other batsmen in the team are inept/unproven/proven failures (relatively speaking). Root is our best batsman by far and its foolish to risk his contributions by exposing him prematurely.
    England’s real problem is team selection. I fully expect there to be a couple of promotions from the Lions squad before
    the tour is out.

  • No leave him at 4 where he bats best. If you put him at 3 he’s effectively the third opener if an early wicket falls, which it probably will. Besides as people are saying batsman like a particular position for all sorts of reasons. Leave well alone.
    Personally I wouldn’t have Vince, Malan or Balance batting anywhere, but there you go. Who else is their. All that have been tried so far are much of the same, take your pick. But if you’re having a hitter at 5, surely Hayles instead of Malan?

    • Apart from he isn’t good enough technically to open !!

      Aus are in a worse state batting wise so this series will be low quality but closer than people think

      • If he averages 42 at no2 he clearly is good enough technically. The issue is not his technical proficiency at 2 or3; it is the sacrifice of the even higher number of runs he would make at 4. The preference for no4 is right, but not due to a lack of technical ability at a higher position.

        • You obviously don’t watch his ability to nick off outside off stump regularly vs the newer ball and bowlers.

          I’ll give up the convo as you’re obviously not technically minded to see it. Just keep reading Vaughan and co and believing their hyperbole

          • I watch him regularly and have played senior club cricket as an opening bat for 50 years (still do) including at top level (Southern League and Surrey Championship)…..so I suspect I am a better judge than you. Note I did not say he has the perfect technique for opening, just that it is good enough. You do not need the perfect technique to succeed, as Root’s stats prove and as many other openers (including Cook) have shown.

  • You are absolutely right James. I have been making this same point all along, but nobody listens to me. (Surprise surprise! 😅) I hope you have better luck and that both TB and Farby pay attention.

  • For me there’s two reasons why Root should bat at 3.

    1. The best position to bat in Australia is at 3
    2. Without Stokes we need to pack our batting , England won’t do it but that means Root at 3, Bairstow at 4, Vince/Ballance/Malan at 5, Mo 6, Foakes 7, Woakes at 3.
    There’s no point picking Vince or Ballance at 3. Your just picking them to fail, give them more of a chance down the order when hopefully the top 4 have got us in a decent position.

    • As others have said before batting at no 4 is too high up the order for Bairstow. I’d return Ballace to 3 for now, because he has done it before and should have learned something, while allowing Malan to bed in and gain test experience at 5. Bairstow at 6 with Foakes at 7. They should have picked an extra batsman or an all rounder to replace Stokes. Malan has talent.

      • Maybe Malan has the talent. But a FC average of 37 at age 30 suggests either that his recent form is just a streak or that something fundamental has changed in the last 2 years. I hope it is the latter.

  • Having watched England’s top order I am not sure batting at 4 protects Root from the new ball! Also Sachin batted at 4 behind Rahul Dravid who was an ideal number 3. England don’t have that luxury. Having said that I think Root is best at 4 so should stay there.

  • Root has to bat 3 not because he’s the best batsman in the team, although he is, but because he’s the best equipped batsman in the team to bat 3.
    The Aussies will attack us with extreme pace and with Cook, not quite what he was, and an inexperienced Stoneman it’s not difficult to imagine an early wicket will go more often than not.
    What next?
    An inexperience player, fighting for a Test career, burdened with fear about not giving it away or the best player in the team, attacking by instinct, capable of reversing the momentum in the space of a few overs.
    If it comes off it makes life 10x easier for those who come next. Alternatively the rookie 3 is blown away and the danger is the momentum that builds up becomes unstoppable.
    England have a poor batting line up, and losing Root earlier is a risk but if it comes off you’re giving yourself a chance of competing. Alternatively, in my opinion, you’re increasing the likelihood of being blown away.

  • What bothers me more than where he bats is the message he sends by saying “I don’t want to bat at three”. And that message is “I’d rather make someone else bat out of position than do it myself”. He’s already sacrificed his “mate” Gary Ballance last summer – now it’s going to be Ballance again, Vince or Malan, none of whom bat at three for their counties.
    The fact is this England side doesn’t have a natural three. Blame the selectors. Blame County Cricket. Blame the man in the moon. But it’s where we are. So someone is going to have to step out of their comfort zone and take it on. Should it be a bloke fighting for his career, or should it be the captain and the best player in the side?
    To me the answer is obvious. When you’re the captain, you suck it up do what’s required. Or – put another way – you don’t ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself.

  • I think there are strong points both ways. I’m (every so slightly) leaning towards the “bat him at 3” view at the moment in lieu of the alternatives and the location (probably wouldn’t have the same view in England).

    Just to pick up on one pet peeve on this topic:

    “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.”

    The bottom line is to maximise England’s chance of winning, not to optimise any one player’s performances. If not, you could argue from averages that Root is already batting one position too high.

    To illustrate for the sake or argument, if it costs Root’s series average 10 to bat at 3 instead of 4 but other members of the team contribute more than this due to having a more “stable” platform above, then (all other things being equal) this is in England’s interests. Not a given that this is the case, but certainly a plausible scenario.

    • I agree with your analysis, but it does not fit with the approach of the selectors. If they believed in optimising the teams returns they would have looked very seriously at playing a specialist keeper long before now. Bairstow is a decent county standard and Buttler was barely top club level, so we sacrificed many runs in the form of drops and extras by foregoing a top keeper. I hope Foakes gets the gloves with Bairstow focusing on his batting, but if it happens it will only be because the Stokes debacle has enabled it – not because the selectors have suddenly developed a brain.

      • Not sure if I agree… i admit I don’t have a great eye for the impact an elite wicket keeper can have, but Bairstow seems to me have come on a lot in the last couple of series in terms of consistency. I would see improving the wicket-keeping option as a distant third priority after sorting the top order and a spinner.

        Arguably years of a very fallible top order has left the selectors (understandably) extremely reluctant to weaken the middle order, from a batting perspective at least. Maybe if he we had a solid top order it wouldn’t be the case. Or maybe not!

  • I was a No 3 for many years in the Birmingham league and towards the end of my career dropped down the order to No 5, as my reactions deteriorated. It is as specialised as opening, and more difficult mentally. Sometimes you have to go in early to steady the ship, other times later when quick runs are required. From what I have seen of Root he looks vulnerable when his shot making is restricted. The new ball needs a more cautious approach. I would sooner go with a less talented individual than sacrifice your best batsman out of position. As a general rule, whatever standard of cricket you play, messing about with the batting order is not advisable. Root has been successful coming in when early wickets have fallen because he is comfortable in that position. Psychologically it would send the wrong message to the Aussies moving him in an attempt to cover a weakness, acknowledged by both him and the batsman moved to accommodate him. This would certainly put more pressure on Root. There is enough there already as captain and figurehead batsman in the absence of Stokes. Traditionally you play your best strokemakers at 4 and 5 and your strongest mentally at the top. Ballance is certainly not the best stroke maker, but he has a cussedness about him which means he can accumulate, playing and missing without being too concerned, a bit like John Edrich used to.

By James Morgan

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