Lower-order batsmen: they wag and how!

It’s a dead-heat between Adam Gilchrist and Kapil Dev as to who was the best lower order batsman ever. And I haven’t chosen these two names as a cop-out solution. They were simply too good, actualising their potential and setting a threshold by which future generations of players too would be judged.

Adam Gilchrist's explosive batting down the order enabled Australia to maintain its status as a champion team for quite some time.   -  Getty Images

Kapil Dev always delivered with the bat when runs were needed badly.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

There was a time when the likes of genuine tailenders like Dilip Doshi came out to bat, they were greeted with fervour because they had embarked on an enterprise not in keeping with their primary calling, bowling.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Brilliantly as Virat Kohli, M. Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, K. L. Rahul and Karun Nair batted against England in the recently concluded series, the contribution of the lower order must be acknowledged. Without this, India’s wins wouldn’t have been as emphatic. Indeed, these players frequently bailed the team out of crises.

For the record, between them Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav scored a whopping 751 runs in the series. Ashwin made the most, 306, which along with his 28 wickets made it one of the most compelling all-round performances in the annals of the game.

Ashwin had four half centuries from the seven innings he batted in to reiterate his batting credentials — if at all this was necessary. He had made a bagful of runs against New Zealand too in the preceding series, and two centuries before that against the West Indies.

In virtually every series since the one against Sri Lanka in 2015, Ashwin has impressed as a batsman too. This has enabled him to be Man of The Series four times out of five (Virat Kohli winning the other), and it is hardly surprising that he occupies the No. 1 spot in the all-rounders category too (apart from bowlers) in the current ICC rankings.

Against England, Jadeja was not far behind Ashwin with 224 (2 half centuries) runs and 26 wickets, while rookie Jayant Yadav, in his first international series, had 221 runs (one century, one half century) to go with his 9 wickets.

The remaining ‘specialist’ bowlers boast decent batting performances too. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Amit Mishra have first-class hundreds to their name, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma have shown the ability to play out fairly long periods of time while Umesh Yadav can use the long handle effectively.

I can’t remember a time when the Indian lower order has looked so bountiful. In fact, there seems to be virtually no ‘tail’ to the team as is commonly understood, which is quite in contrast to how things were even about 12-15 years back.

On my first cricket tour, to Pakistan in 1982-83, India’s tail would begin with Kapil Dev, batting at number 7. The team also included players like Madan Lal and Balwinder Singh Sandhu — no mugs with the bat — but their presence could not stave off a 0-3 rout.

In fact the blistering pace and prodigious late swing of Imran Khan not only made a mess of the lower order but frequently the top order too. Only Mohinder Amarnath and to an extent Sunil Gavaskar could live up to reputation.

 

But that was still the era when lower order batsmen were not expected to score too many runs. “If your top six are unable to get sufficient runs to win a game, the team is not good enough,’’ was the refrain of experts and aficionados. And this conformed to the cricketing logic that had prevailed since Test cricket had come into existence.

When I first got hooked on to the sport in the early 1960s, tailenders would be greeted with as much fervour as the specialist or star batsmen. B. S. Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi or Erapalli Prasanna, Dilip Doshi and such would come out to bat to deafening cheers simply because it seemed such a contradiction to their main work profile, which was bowling.

Even if they lasted a couple of overs such players had done very well. If they scored 15-20 runs, they had done exceptionally. If perchance they gave a ‘stand’ to a main batsman and helped the team give a fight, bail it out of a tight situation or go on to eke out a win, it was nothing short of heroic!

Interestingly, every tailender need not remain one as Ashwin has shown. There are some freaks who started out as bowlers and went on to become top or middle order specialist batsmen. For instance, Wilfred Rhodes began his career as a number 11, Ravi Shastri number 10 and both finished their careers as openers. Sir Ian Botham in his first match batted number 8.

The most extraordinary example, of course, is Sir Garfield Sobers, in my opinion the greatest cricketer the game has seen. Sir Garry began his career batting No. 9, hit the then world record score of 365 not out at No. 3 and settled in for a long period at No. 6 making thousands of runs.

Usually, lower order players who contributed substantially in terms of runs were all-rounders: either wicket-keepers or bowlers who could bat. Among the best in the former category in the post-War era are Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott, Rod Marsh, Syed Kirmani, Dave Richardson, Jeff Dujon, Adam Gilchrist and Matt Prior to name a few.

Among all-rounders are Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Richie Benaud, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, and now, of course, Ashwin, Jadeja, Yadav, Quinton de Kock and Ben Stokes if they can sustain their run-getting over a longer period of time. The exception here, again, is Jacques Kallis, a top-order batsman who was also a wicket-taker.

All those mentioned in the few preceding paragraphs are multi-faceted, top quality players, either because of intrinsic ability or by steady evolution. But what’s changed in cricket is in the past few decades is that rank tailenders are becoming virtually obsolete.

The advent of limited overs cricket, ODIs first and now T20, has made it virtually imperative that even specialist bowlers acquire enough batting skills to make a decent contribution. The concept of a ‘bunny’ has become almost redundant.

This is particularly relevant in the shortest format where matches are often decided in the final few overs, and where a couple of decent strokes can make a difference between victory or not.

Since limited overs cricket depends more on runs scored than wickets taken, the career of many bowlers is decided by how well they can contribute with the bat. Willy-nilly, the new generation of bowlers has had to focus on this skill too, and some of them have done it quite remarkably.

Effectively, tailenders as we knew them are passé. There are now just top-order and lower order batsmen. To put all of this in perspective for the matter under discussion — of determining the best lower order batsman — I’ve put number 7 or lower as benchmark. A higher position would push the batsman into the top order.

Based on this yardstick, my research throws up two players, Adam Gilchrist and Kapil Dev vying as the best. All other great all-rounders — Miller, Sobers, Botham, Imran — generally batted one or two spots higher. Hadlee was usually 7 or below, but doesn’t quite have the runs to back his claims.

Gilchrist batted at No. 7 in his first Test and his last. In a career spanning almost a decade, his batting position didn’t change much, but he scored 5570 runs at 47.60, which is quite spectacular. Indeed, Gilchrist was one of the major reasons why Australia looked invincible for most of the first decade of this millennium.

Kapil Dev made 5284 runs in 131 Tests at 31.05, which looks far inferior to Gilchrist’s figures. But he also took 434 wickets and wasn’t part of a world-beating team. Indeed, he was often the reason why India won matches. He made runs attractively and when they were most needed.

In my opinion, it’s a dead-heat between Gilchrist and Kapil Dev as to who was the best lower order batsman ever. And I haven’t chosen these two names as a cop-out solution. They were simply too good, actualising their potential and setting a threshold by which future generations of players too would be judged.