Geoff Boycott poses next to his wax statue

Geoff Boycott with his pick for the greatest opening batsman of all time

© PA Photos
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The Zaltzmeister

One and only

Epic hundreds, ignominious king pairs, stonewallers and fire starters: the short history of cricket's first men in

Andy Zaltzman |

One. First man in. New ball. Fresh bowler. "0 for 0 off 0.0" gleaming out from the untainted scoreboard. The blankest of cricket's many and varied canvases, on which Test cricket's number ones have been painting, attempting to paint, and failing to paint their masterpieces since 1877.

Some have created epic artworks expressing the spiritual heart of batsmanship - Len Hutton's then-record 364, Hanif Mohammad's 16-hour match-saving triple-hundred, Roy Fredericks' futuristic, 21st-century 169 off 145 against Lillee, Thomson and the rest in Perth in 1975-76.

Others have merely managed a formless potato-print splodge of failure. Grant Flower posted an average of just 22.05 in 52 innings at one, with a remarkably persistent ten ducks. Bangladesh's Javed Omar recorded the only king pair by a one, leaving his team 0 for 1 after 0.1 in both innings in Mirpur in 2007, in what even the most ardent Javed Omar fans would concede was a disappointing response to India's 610 for 3 declared. Perhaps Omar - who batted at one without ever scoring a century a record 55 times, 24 more hundred-less innings than the next most by a No. 1 who failed to trouble the honours boards - was inspired by his Indian counterpart Wasim Jaffer, who had bagged a four-ball pair in the previous Test.

I was always fascinated by the grinding possibilities of oneness. I once made 6 in 75 minutes, four of which were a glorious boundary edged between a bored wicketkeeper and a quietly dozing slip

The first ever Test No. 1 began the position's claim to be one of the greatest 11 in the Test batting order in spectacular fashion. Charles Bannerman faced Test cricket's inaugural delivery on March 15, 1877. At the close of play, he was 126 not out, out of an Australian score of 166 for 6. TV pundits of the day would have had little trouble picking their man of the day, were it not for the fact that the noble art of televised punditry was still a distant pipe dream. Bannerman eventually retired hurt for 165, 67.3% of his team's total of 245 all out. Some 2201 matches and 7983 innings later, this remains the record proportion of a completed Test innings contributed by one batsman.

The first hundred by a one in England was a similarly dominant innings. WG Grace made 170 at The Oval in 1886, leaving with the score at 216 for 2. In the early decades of Test cricket, ones were often a team's best or second player. Grace could probably have argued that he was England's best player and his beard the second best. Up to the Second World War, ones averaged higher than any position other than three; since the war, one has been behind three, four and five, and has often functioned more as a bulwark protecting the more valuable game-changing assets down the order than a match-shaping scene-setter.

Notwithstanding the glories of the era-defining, enrapturing genius Victor Trumper, the definitive technical perfection of Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton, who remain statistically unchallenged as the pre-eminent major ones in Test history, the greatness of Gavaskar, the brute pugilism of Graeme Smith, and the silken glories of Saeed Anwar, the history of No. 1 is festooned with the unashamedly defensive, for whom rearguard action began not when their team was under pressure needing dead-batted escapology but when the coin fell on the first morning.

Life in the slow lane: Alec Bannerman (standing, second from right) bored the SCG for just under seven and a half hours in 1892, scoring 91

Life in the slow lane: Alec Bannerman (standing, second from right) bored the SCG for just under seven and a half hours in 1892, scoring 91 © Getty Images

Ones have arguably bored spectators more often, and more effectively, than any other number in the batting order. Charles Bannerman's brother Alec took the Art of One in an entirely different direction. A direction of unremitting, fossilised negativity (Australian cricket sage AG Moyes wrote that "at times, the crowd found him as wearisome to the flesh as fleas in a warm bed", which is not a pull-quote many modern-day player agents would be splashing all over their clients' websites). One of the stoniest and walliest of stonewallers, Alec Bannerman's crowningly action-freezing achievement was a 448-minute innings of 91 at the SCG in 1891-92.

Alec faced 204 deliveries from England's William Attewell, a "medium pacer of unremitting accuracy and length" according to Wisden, and scored from only five of them, a contest that reportedly resulted in significant advances in the medical understanding of general anaesthesia.

Alec is thought to have faced 620 balls altogether, 617 of which he elected not to hit for four. Nevertheless, as Charles' innings had been 15 years earlier, Alec's innings was a match-winning one, illustrating the diverse ways in which a one can serve his team.

Boycott is one of a strange and apparently patternless selection of players who have fared considerably better or worse at one than at two

As a young cricket fan, I was always fascinated by the grinding possibilities of oneness. I used to open the batting, and was not averse to summoning up the spirit of Alec Bannerman in Under-15 C-team matches. I once made 6 in 75 minutes, four of which were a glorious boundary edged between a bored wicketkeeper and a quietly dozing slip. Happy days.

Vengeance for Alec Bannerman was a dish served extremely, and appropriately, cold by England. At the WACA in 1978-79, Geoffrey Boycott, a one similarly unafraid of scoreboard cryogenesis, batted six minutes longer than Bannerman had for 77 first-innings runs, 73 of which were not scored in boundaries. Over rates had declined, so Boycott faced "only" 337 balls, followed by another 103 in the second innings, from which he anti-pummelled a further 23 boundary-free runs. In all, Boycott batted for nine hours and 42 minutes, and faced 440 balls, 439 of which did not find the boundary rope. Result: an England win, and some slightly worrying seismic activity in the Perth region, registering approximately 2.1 on the Richter scale, later attributed to several thousand people simultaneously snoring.

Boycott illustrates one of the many statistical curiosities created by ones. He is one of a strange and apparently patternless selection of players who have fared considerably better or worse at one than at two. Boycott, who would seem to be the identikit stereotype of the Ideal Cautious One, averaged a decent 43.91 in 117 innings at one, but a significantly better 55.23 in 74 innings at two. By contrast, Mark Taylor averaged 52.00 at one but only 36.18 at two.

See new ball, hit new ball: Chris Gayle has the four fastest 50-plus innings by a No. 1

See new ball, hit new ball: Chris Gayle has the four fastest 50-plus innings by a No. 1 © AFP

At the other end of the one-tertainment scale, a certifiable anti-Boycott, and a man who has earned enough money from T20 to build a time machine, go back to the 1880s, and teach Alec Bannerman how to get a bit more oomph in his shots, is Chris Gayle. Gayle's Test career may be something of a footnote beneath the clattering impact of his T20 exploits for West Indies and his 54 different franchises, but he is the sixth-highest-scoring No. 1 in Test history, with a one average higher than Gooch, Greenidge, Cook or Boycott.

Gayle has the four fastest 50-plus innings by a one (in terms of runs per ball), and the two fastest of 100 or more (102 off 72 against Australia in 2009-10 and 105 off 87 against England in 2004). He also made a 653-minute 333, the third longest innings by a one this millennium.

Another curiosity is in the discrepancy between some ones' records when batting first as opposed to second. The two men who have faced the first ball of a Test most often are Graham Gooch and Sunil Gavaskar. Gooch averaged 50 as a first-innings one when England batted first, but only 38 when batting second. Gavaskar was a less effective day-one-innings-one one, averaging 40 when taking the first delivery of the match but 57 in the first innings when India batted second.

Justin Langer was a staggering bat-first one (averaging 67.70), but merely a decent bat-second one (43.34). The man he succeeded as Australia's chosen one, Michael Slater, had equivalent figures of 36.04 batting first and 64.23 batting second. If Australia could have found a way of secretly swapping one for the other in a generic pantomime Australian opener suit depending on whether they were batting first or second, or creating a hybrid Langer-Slater Frankenstein's opener, they would have been truly unbeatable. Which, at the time, they almost were anyway.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

 

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  • POSTED BY pauln2 on | May 31, 2016, 3:35 GMT

    I think you may have done Boycott an extreme injustice with your reporting of his first innings at Perth: it's true he hit one four, but I believe it was an all-run job and therefore he didn't trouble the fence (no rope in those days) throughout either innings. Very glad I wasn't there.

  • POSTED BY Freck on | May 30, 2016, 17:47 GMT

    I had something of a similar career as an opening batsman, reaching the dizzying heights of the Kings Langley B10 grade team in Sydney, to Andy. In one game I batted for 90 minutes without troubling the scorers, and when I finally edged one to the keeper, one of my own team-mates yelled out "for God's sake give him out"! Following on (as happened a lot that season), I was off the mark second ball, to a standing ovation, but then proceeded to bat another two hours for 10. When I finally managed a two off the opposition off-spinner, at least three of his team-mates went up to him and said "this bloke is SMASHING you". We still lost an by an innings.