By Suresh Menon
Even the casual cricket-watcher is willing to admit that the game needs specialists. Unlike a rowing team, as Mike Brearley has pointed out, a cricket team works only by dint of differentiation. The skill set of an opening batsman is different from that of a middle order player; that of a spinner different from a fast bowler’s. The all rounder is a wonderful animal, the great one even more so. Teams are lucky if they have someone in the eleven who can adequately keep wickets in an emergency when the regular keeper is injured, for that is a highly specialized job.
Yet one position that has not been given its due is that of the batsman at number three. Usually the man who comes in at the fall of the first wicket is the most crucial in a batting line-up. His job description covers a wide range. If a wicket falls early, he is expected to hold the fort, and show a broad blade and a stout heart – one without the other is ineffective. If the openers have got off to a good start, he is expected to continue the good work, attack more and ensure that the bowler is brought down from the temporary high that follows success.
A good description of a number three batsman would be: “A defensive player who attacks (or vice versa), someone who can both be the pillar around which the batting builds itself as well as the building itself.” It calls for the ability to switch gears depending on the state of the game. And that is why the side’s best all round batsman usually bats at number three. The top three slots in the batting order are best left to the specialists.
Of the ten batsmen who have held the world record for the highest score in an innings – from opener Charles Bannerman to Brian Lara – six have batted at number three. Don Bradman averaged over 100 runs and scored over five thousand in that position. Two of the greatest number threes in the game, Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid, are currently expanding the possibilities of their role. They have scored over 8500 runs from there, and carried their team’s batting on their shoulders for a decade and a half. It has allowed the middle order to play its natural game, and that is an important service a great number three performs in the team.
When V V S Laxman put India on the road to becoming the number one team in the world, he made his then Indian record of 281 batting at number three against Australia at Eden Gardens. The victory after following on signalled the start of the 21st century and a new era for Indian cricket. But Laxman was soon back at number six, and the man with whom he rescued India, Dravid, made that slot his own.
Dravid’s recent injury in Bangladesh came after 179 innings in that position, more than any other batsman in the game. Twenty three of his 29 centuries were made from there. His 8970 runs have come at an average of 55.71.
Of India’s last 142 Tests, Dravid has played 139, and in the last decade has done so remarkably well that we have taken him for granted. “Dravid’s at number three, all’s right with the world,” we tell ourselves if we remember that line from the Browning poem we did at school. The defeat in Nagpur showed just how much the team missed his combination of big heart and cool head at the crucial number three slot.