Every great team has had a great No. 3, which may come as bad news for Darren Lehman as he prepares his Australia side for the final Ashes Test.
The Australia of old had Don Bradman there (in 40 of his 56 Test matches). Ian Chappell batted at three for the fearsome side of the 70s to be followed by his brother Greg. Viv Richards swaggered out for the invincible West Indies side of the 80s and when Australia prevailed in the 90s and beyond this slot was occupied by two little Tasmanian giants, David Boon and Ricky Ponting.
Contrast that, rather unfairly, with the current lot. At Trent Bridge Australia picked Ed Cowan at No. 3 but they quickly lost confidence in him. Since then Usman Khawaja has replaced him. Now it is anticipated that Khawaja, who averaged 19 in three Tests, will be dropped.
For Australia the No. 3 slot has become a burden. They are casting around for volunteers like a stereotypical sergeant major: “You, you and you.”
In fact, there may be no shortage of volunteers since it is a coveted role with a magical history, but none of the current candidates are really suited to the position. Why? Because No. 3 can be the most demanding place in the order, which explains how it has often been filled by the best player in the team.
The No. 3 has to be technically sound, yet temperamentally flexible. At least an opening batsman knows, more or less, when he is going to start his innings and he does so without the bowler being cock-a-hoop at having just taken a wicket.
The No. 3 is deprived of that certainty. He may be required to face the second ball of the match, in which case he needs all the attributes of the opening batsman. Indeed sometimes the successful No. 3, like John Edrich on the 1970-71 tour of Australia or Boon after the arrival of Mark Taylor in the Australia side in 1989, has been a converted opener.
On other days he must wait his turn and then be prepared to set the pattern of the innings, to take the initiative, which was second nature to the likes of Richards and Ponting. If successful he makes life so much easier for the fancy dans down the order.
Great players have batted lower than three but they have to work even harder to earn the tag of “greatness” because of the fact that they have been less likely to encounter the hard, new ball and fresh bowlers. Steve Waugh (no fancy dan) was undoubtedly a great batsman but he batted at three in just five of his 168 Tests; so too was Allan Border (not much of a fancy dan either), who was at three in 21 of his 156 Tests and Clive Lloyd (two Tests out of 110). It would be churlish not to regard Michael Clarke, who has batted at three in two of his 96 matches, as a great player.
These batsmen have avoided the No. 3 slot for a combination of technical and psychological reasons — and it may have suited their side to have such mighty ballast down the order.
They may have been slightly more vulnerable to the swinging, bouncing new ball; moreover cricketers are generally suspicious creatures, who like a routine. Once success has been achieved at four or five there is no great motivation to move.
The obvious solution for Australia may seem to be to send Clarke, their best player, in at three to take the match by the scruff of the neck, thereby allowing the lesser batsmen to flourish down the order. Yet such a move would be more likely to diminish Clarke’s output. It is established that he scores runs at five. There are no guarantees when he bats higher up the order.
Likewise England would have no truck with the idea of moving Ian Bell, currently their best batsman, up to No. 3 because he has been playing so well in this series.
On the surface England may seem to have a bit of a problem of their own since Jonathan Trott has contributed only 194 runs at 24 in this series but his stock remains high; he is a reassuring presence in a pivotal position, which is so tough to fill. The anticipation is that the wheel will turn and that the runs will come for Trott because of his overall record. It is hard to say the same for any Australian No. 3 at the moment. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013