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Lawrence Booth: Vettori’s wags show the way

November 25th, 2009 by Lawrence Booth in England, Test cricket

Daniel Vettori’s batting heroics – the poor bloke has just made 99 against Pakistan in Dunedin – are a sign of the times. It’s true that Vettori is exceptional even by the standards of the 21st-century lower-order batsman: that innings made him the highest-grossing No.8 in Test history, with 2,018 runs, including three hundreds, at the luxuriant average of almost 44. But the very fact that we are no longer able to refer to these one-time whipping-boys as the “tail” without being ticked off by an indignant coach tells its own story.

The days when nine, ten, jack were considered a fast bowler’s perk are gone. Genuine rabbits persist, as they always will – and cricket would be a poorer place without Chris Martin and his bulbous pads. And yet, for some reason, the idea that the lower order should occasionally be expected to bail out its supposed betters is regarded in some quarters as a heresy second only to the notion that Kevin Pietersen should bat at No.3.

“If the top six don’t make the runs, why should the rest?” is the kind of orthodoxy that can stunt a Test nation’s growth. But you hear it often enough, usually from people who use ridiculous examples such as Glenn McGrath (“So he wouldn’t be in your team because he can’t bat, eh?”) to make their point. Don’t listen to them, these argument-twisting dinosaurs.

Instead, ask Australia. In the last 12 months, lower-order batsmanship has been far more than an irritant to Ricky Ponting: it has been the begetter of two great big historical blemishes. First Dale Steyn hung around at Melbourne last December to add 180 for the ninth wicket with JP Duminy and seal Australia’s first Test-series defeat at home for 16 years. Then Graeme Swann averaged 35, mainly from No.9, with a strike-rate of 83, as England’s lower order outdid Australia’s during the Ashes.

Of course, in an ideal world, the top six never needs a helping hand, just as the proper bowlers would love to turn their nose up at the opportunistic partnership breaker. But, in so many ways, cricket forsook the ideal a long time ago: if Pangloss had played his Test cricket today, he would probably be a bits-and-pieces allrounder with a well-disguised slower ball.

Like it or not, this is the age of pragmatism and professionalism. Twenty years ago, hardened traditionalists would have flexed their machismo at the thought of Duncan Fletcher coaching South Africa’s lower order. But Mickey Arthur has already seen at first hand the benefit of one of his bunnies holding up an end. And if one of Steyn, Morne Morkel or Paul Harris thwarts England for two or three hours this winter, it will be job done.

England face a dilemma of their own. Choose five bowlers, and they must bat Matt Prior at No.6, which will leave whoever bats at No.9 a place too high, unless they compromise unconvincingly by including Luke Wright at No.7. Choose four bowlers, and Nos.8 and 9 will be Stuart Broad and Swann, which is the kind of depth South Africa could have sleepless nights over.

Even as recently as 2006-07, when Monty-mania dictated that the Panesar v Giles debate was viewed as an absurdity, a lot of cricket fans subscribed to the old orthodoxy. But batting depth is the new balanced bowling attack: it tires bowlers out, makes captains think twice before enforcing the follow-on and saps spirit. Hell, it may even win England or South Africa a Test series.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail, and you can sign up for his weekly newsletter the Top Spin here. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is out now, published by A&C Black

Posted in England, Test cricket | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Lawrence Booth: Vettori’s wags show the way”

  1.   Hofstadter says:

    Personally speaking, if there aren’t six batsman, an old-school wickie who thinks runs are an inconvenience of touring the subcontinent, and four Devon Malcolms, it isn’t a cricket team.

    A bowler with soft hands is one who’s been doing too much washing up.

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