Three is still the magic number for our selectors
The editor of Cricket Statistician analyses recent events
By the time you read this, the team will be picked and we will have some idea of who the selectors see as England’s No.3 for the winter. The problem arises because of the captain’s preference for four, though it maybe takes a professional to tease out the difference.
No.3 is in many ways a pseudoopener, picked as insurance against the first early wicket and a minicrisis. If four comes in with the ball still new then it’s a full-blown crisis. It’s a scary thought that the contenders all have Test averages (admittedly over a short period) in the 20s.
It starts hard. While Brisbane is no longer quite so fearsome as in the days of uncovered wickets, it is still the case that the last English batsman to make a first-innings hundred at the Gabba was Mark Butcher (then opening) in 1998. And two failures in the first Test of a series can leave you broken.
There are two possibilities. Your No.3 can be a third opener, ready to go in against the new ball when a wicket falls early, or the first of your attackers (though sometimes you will have had an attacking opener, such as Bob Barber in 1965/66, which then needed a cautious three, in that case John Edrich) but only Barber and Colin Milburn, who never went to Australia with England, had really been attacking openers in recent years.
Sometimes you might have somebody who likes to bat at three.
David Gower, Ted Dexter and Mike Gatting came into that category, and both John Edrich and his uncle Bill were regular threes, as was Ian Bell, who batted there in 2006.
Last time out and in 2010 it was Jonathan Trott, probably England’s last regular three, certainly the last man who seemed at home with the position.
Sometimes (as in 2002, when Mark Butcher and Robert Key alternated) it seems a matter of no great moment. This year is different, at least in part because one of the opening slots is equally problematic.
Then comes the problem statistic. None of the likely candidates to bat at two, three, or five has managed to average over 30 in their (short) Test careers so far (apart from Gary Ballance). Very few successful Test batsmen start so slowly. This is rather more pointed because Moeen Ali, Bairstow, Stokes and Woakes all do so.
Perhaps England should just move them all up three places and look again for what they need.
Making his Mark: Mark Butcher was the last Englishman to make a first-innings Test hundred at the Gabba, in 1998