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India’s one-drop dilemma: sheet anchor or stroke player?

Rahul Dravid’s career is testimony to the fact that nice guys can finish first, even if they happen to be number 3’s.

Batting at one-drop is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, jobs in cricket. This is especially true if you happen to represent India, for the Indian team has hardly ever had the benefit of many fine opening batsmen capable of making life easier for the others that follow. In fact for most of Dravid’s career he has had to come in and do his job soon after the opening batsmen have failed to do theirs, which is perhaps why Dravid has one of the lowest strike rates among the great number 3 batsmen in the history of Test cricket. Now that the Indian team is looking for someone to fill the spot vacated by the great man, the question that comes to mind is what sort of player might be ideal to step into Dravid’s giant boots?

Should the replacement be a stroke-filled, albeit solid, player like Ajinkya Rahane (or Virat Kohli) or should he be someone who is primarily a sheet anchor, like, say, Cheteswar Pujara? More importantly, which of these two types of batsmen is likely to make life more difficult for an opposition bowler? A bit of history just might help us answer this question.

After Dravid who? Reuters

After Dravid who? Reuters

The top nine number 3’s, after Dravid, in the history of Test cricket make for interesting reading. They are as follows; Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara, Sir Donald Bradman, Richie Richardson, Rohan Kanhai, David Boon, Ian Chappell, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Hashim Amla. From this lot of luminaries, only Boon (40.96) scored his runs at a rate slower than Dravid (42.51). Apart from Dravid, Sarwan (46.79) and Boon, nobody else in this top ten has a strike rate of less than 50 runs per hundred balls faced. Might this mean a stroke player makes for a better one drop? No, it doesn’t. It simply means that it’s best if a number 3 batsman is capable of being both.

A sheet anchor who cannot take the attack to the opposition is a dangerous player to slot in at number 3 for two reasons. One, if he comes in at the fall of an early wicket, he is unlikely to make matters better for his team. We all know that it takes only one good (and sometimes bad) ball to dismiss a batsman. If the new guy at the wicket is essentially a blocker, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be back in the pavilion with very little against his name. And two, if he comes to the middle after the team has been given a flier by the openers, he runs the risk of handing the initiative back to the opposition by batting defensively.

On the other hand, if the number 3 batsman is an out and out stroke player, that’s a problem, too, for two reasons. One, there’s every chance of him throwing his wicket away in pursuit of an extravagant shot. When this happens after the early loss of an opener, it exposes Sachin Tendulkar to the new ball, which history has taught us is never a good thing. And, two, if the openers do get the team off to a good start, the early loss of the one-drop batsman means the batting team has quickly lost the advantage gained from the good beginning.

Keeping the need for this balancing act in mind, what this writer thinks India should do is try out the concept of a floating number three. Here’s how it might work: If the first wicket falls early, send in Pujara to weather the storm and steady the ship. Alternatively, if the openers do manage to get the team off to a good start, send Ajinkya Rahane or Virat Kohli or Yuvraj Singh or, even, VVS Laxman in at number 3. Not only will this sort of flexibility in the batting order keep the opposition guessing, it will also ensure one young player is not burdened with the onerous task of being the next Dravid. Like?

The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.

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