Mark Taylor is dismissed by Darren Gough

Mark Taylor, batting at No. 2 in the 1995 Sydney Test, departs for a mere 49 (as opposed to the 113 he made in the second innings from No. 1)

© Getty Images
8

The Zaltzmeister

The power of two. (Or not)

Why does the position seemingly inspire a relative lack of performance in many - and the opposite in a few?

Andy Zaltzman

What do the renowned decades the 2010s, the 1960s, the 1900s and the 1880s, all have in common?

(a) They were all decades in which major advances in transport were made - Karl Benz's Motorwagen in the 1880s; the Wright Brothers' maiden flight in the 1900s; the moon landings in the 1960s; and the Rocket-Powered Round-The-World Pogo Stick in the 2010s.

(b) They are all decades in which an American president has owned a pet crocodile (Lyndon Johnson's much-loved Snappy is still spoken of fondly by White House staff).

(c) They are the only decades in which No. 2 batsmen have collectively averaged more than No. 1 batsmen in Test cricket.

(d) Each decade has featured a No. 1 hit by Kanye West.

The correct answer is (c). ([a] is still possible; [b] is an unproven rumour; and [d], while outside this writer's sphere of expertise, is almost certainly untrue.) A recent surge by No. 2 batsmen has, at the time of writing, edged this often overlooked batting position ahead of No. 1 for only the second decade since 1910. It is, truly, a time of hope and wonderment for all batsmen who enjoy the thrill, attention and responsibility of opening the batting, and the comradeship of the accompanied walk from the pavilion to the middle, but prefer someone else to face the first ball in case it is terrifyingly fast, demonically unplayable, or both.

This I write from bitter personal experience. Aged eight, in my second-ever cricket match I was promoted to bat at No. 2. From memory, the anointed opener was absent due to illness (or a piano class) (or burnout) (or autobiography). I was, therefore, at the non-striker's end while the opposition opening bowler started pacing out his run-up. And continued pacing out his run-up. Until he had reached the boundary.

This was, it should be stressed, an Under-9 match, so the boundary might only have been ten or 12 yards behind the bowler's stumps. Nevertheless, a boundary is a boundary, and when a fast bowler runs in from it - whether a peak-era Michael Holding carving athletic perfection into the mythology of cricket, or an eight-year-old bowling to another eight-year-old - fear is an understandable, if not inevitable, by-product.

The first ball. In my mind, the eight-year-old Lillee-Larwood-Garner hybrid steamed down the hill with the ferocity of a recently divorced rhinoceros who has just seen his ex-wife smooching a hippo, a pace tornado rumbling past the umpire, a gathering storm of junior malevolence, whanging unseeable missiles. By the time I took strike later in that opening over, I was, in effect, already out.

Those two or three minutes at the non-striker's end remain the toughest spell of bowling I have ever not faced

My first ball. I watched it all the way onto the bat. Albeit with my eyes shut. I stayed perfectly in line. With an imaginary set of stumps approximately three feet down the leg side. I played a textbook forward defensive. Without the forward bit. And slightly after the ball had already hit the stumps.

This is not to suggest that, had I faced the first ball, I would have insouciantly whipped him over midwicket for a one-bounce four. But seeing that run-up, imagining the raw primeval pace thunderbolting down the wicket towards me… Those two or three minutes at the non-striker's end remain the toughest spell of bowling I have ever not faced.

Clearly, at the highest level not all No. 2 batsmen are affected in quite such an adverse way. Childish cowardice is seldom a prominent trait among Test match openers. Overall in Tests, however, No. 2s have lagged behind No. 1s, averaging 34.88 to 37.09. No. 2 has often been a position for the young, unproven or selectorially untrusted. Twenty-five percent of all innings at No. 2 have been played by batsmen under the age of 25, but only 18% of innings at No. 1. The turnover of No. 2s has been significantly higher - 774 batsmen have batted at No. 2, 35% more than the 571 No. 1s.

The 1920s was the last decade in which No. 2 was one of the top three highest-averaging positions in the batting order, and it has mostly been the least productive of the top five. In the 1980s - exactly a century after its one decade as the highest-averaging spot in the Test batting order - No. 2 even sank to the dark depths of being overtaken by the humble No. 6, and in the 1950s, No. 2s averaged just 29.85 (the only decade since the 1900s in which one of the top five positions has averaged under 30).

Boycs en route to his 100th hundred, at Headingley in 1977. Would he have got there if he had been batting No. 1? Fat chance

Boycs en route to his 100th hundred, at Headingley in 1977. Would he have got there if he had been batting No. 1? Fat chance © Getty Images

For some players, the difference between batting at No. 1 and batting at No. 2 is marked. Can it be rationally explained why Geoffrey Boycott, an apparent concrete stegosaurus of mental impregnability, was statistically far more effective as a No. 2 (average 55.23) than as a No. 1 (43.91), while Mark Taylor, another of seemingly imperturbable temperament, was one of the finest No. 1s (average 52), but a relatively ordinary No. 2 (36.18)? Did being able to watch, rather than having to face, the first ball of the innings give Boycott the soothing reassurance he needed to be as Boycottian as a Boycott could Boycottically be, but reduce Taylor to a 70% shadow of his baggy-green self?

Furthermore, the relative strength of No. 2s compared to No. 1s varies by team. No team's No. 2s collectively average more than their opening partners, but Pakistan's No. 2s average just 30.71, compared to the 37.91 recorded by their No. 1s - a 19% Opening-But-Not-Facing-First-Ball Inferiority factor (a measurement that must surely be adopted by all right-thinking scientists). For Bangladesh, the OBNFFBI Factor is a massive 27% (22.15 to 30.25). For the other eight Test teams combined, it is just 4.2%, and there is less than a one-run difference in average between the No. 1s and No. 2s of England, Australia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe (all recording an OBNFFBI Factor under 2.5%).

Is there any reason for any of these statistical quirks and curiosities, and the many others that appear on closer inspection of the individual and collective performances of No. 2 Test batsmen? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But no other position is guaranteed to give batsmen those moments of contemplation in the middle, when already a participant in the drama but not yet an active one, when he can think himself in or persuade himself out before even facing a ball.

Stats correct to 29 June 2015

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

 

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LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY David_Bofinger on | August 16, 2015, 11:15 GMT

    If Number 1 vs Number 2 really did matter then you'd expect a lot of the difference to be attributable to ducks. Easy to check.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | August 16, 2015, 7:35 GMT

    The overall stats indicating that number ones do better than twos aren't really surprising, just indicative that some teams put their better opener in at one. So how can we explain Taylor and Boycott - you wouldn't think it would make much difference to an individual batsman, unless going in at two helps marginally because you don't initially face the opposition's best fast bowler. After spending perhaps too much time thinking about it, I believe it is probably just a statistical quirk and Taylor wasn't a better batsman going in first.

    I fitted a Weibull distribution to Taylor's overall runs per dismissal (ignoring ducks, which I estimated separately) and randomly sampled from it to reproduce his career stats batting at one (80 times) and two (93 times). I then repeat this a million times and in about 1% of them his average at one is more than 16 runs greater than his average at two. While 1% doesn't seem very likely, Taylor was the outlier picked from a lot of batsman.

  • POSTED BY billy on | August 15, 2015, 6:11 GMT

    I thought there was going to be a joke somewhere in this piece about Dr.Evil and Number 2, his henchman, from the Austin Powers movies. I guess you arent that big of a fan of the series. :)

  • POSTED BY saishenoy on | August 14, 2015, 17:30 GMT

    Cue under 9 joke: maybe their performance is shitty, because they are number 2 ;)

  • POSTED BY Calypso_Kid on | August 13, 2015, 21:09 GMT

    As a long-time opener for my club, I found the first ball was usually loose and therefore a good one to face. Score a single in the first over and you get the loosener at the other end, while no.2 gets neither. Maybe the reason behind Andy's disturbing statistical discovery?

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | August 13, 2015, 14:33 GMT

    I am so surprised that the batting position of Michael Clarke has been omitted.

  • POSTED BY dmat on | August 13, 2015, 8:02 GMT

    It's hard to beat a good number 2!

  • POSTED BY cricfan10904064 on | August 13, 2015, 7:10 GMT

    As immaculate a concoction of stats and titters as ever Andy - mazeltovs a-go-go! I look forward to you extending this theory to our Suddenly Great Captain's generous decision to give the boy Lyth first strike this summer.