A territory where only the tough survive

The number three slot is very crucial in any batting line-up. The batsman walking in at this position has to be versatile. He has to possess all the attributes of an opener and a middle-order batsman. S. Dinakar analyses what it takes to be a No. 3.

Number 3 is a pivotal slot. The occupants of this position need to bat with an amalgam of technique and temperament. These are men who weather storms, negotiate sharp bends and go on to build monuments. The man surfacing at one drop — the openers and the No. 3 batsman form the top-order — is a vital link to the middle-order. He builds bridges, provides shape to the innings.

The No. 3 batsman has to be versatile. He could potentially be walking in to face the second ball of the innings and needs to possess the attributes of an opener.

If the openers lay a solid foundation, the No. 3 batsman has to consolidate and build partnerships. Here, he dons the cloak of a middle-order batsman.

Then there could be a switch in his role again if he survives to face the second new ball. Invariably, a No. 3 will display sound judgment in the corridor, fine footwork and immense powers of concentration. Not for nothing is this position a demanding one, both physically and mentally. A team expects its No. 3 to bat for long periods, overcoming different conditions — from pace, seam movement and swing at the start to turn, bounce and reverse swing later on. He could be walking in, in the very early stages of an innings in the first session of day one or making his way to the crease in the post-tea session on the second after spending long, tiring hours on the ground watching the opposition pile on the runs.

Not surprisingly, the No. 3s of world cricket are largely exceptional batsmen — the men with heart and skill to surmount the worst of conditions. In other words, nothing comes easy for a No. 3.

There are different kinds of No. 3s. For instance, a Ricky Ponting in full flight can pierce the field with stunning shots, seize the initiative from the opposition and push the bowlers into a state of mind where they are forced to contain the flow of runs rather than go for wickets. From being aggressive, they are forced adopt defensive methods. Ponting in his pomp is a dominant No. 3.

Rahul Dravid, on the other hand, is a batsman who grinds the bowling, bats patiently through balls, overs, spells, sessions and days. He has the strokes off either foot on both sides of the wicket (he is among the finest users of the crease in the game) but essentially blunts the bowling and carefully chooses his moments to strike. He does read the game and the situation capably.

Almost all successful No. 3 batsmen are sound back-foot players. These men often have to cope with the lifting deliveries — when the ball could be still new and hard — on bouncy tracks. Strokes of defence (keeping the ball down with soft hands) or offence (the pull) have to be perfected.

Among contemporary batsmen, Dravid, Ponting and Kumar Sangakkara are already great names at this crucial slot. Hashim Amla and Jonathan Trott have the ingredients to be ranked with the best.

The year 2011 has been a glorious one for Dravid. He has amassed 1067 runs in 11 Tests at 59.27; and his five centuries include one on a surface of uneven bounce at Sabina Park and three in Old Blighty when the rest of the Indian batting failed in conditions that assisted seam and swing bowling and against a probing attack.

In the homes series against the West Indies, Dravid became only the second batsman — maestro Sachin Tendulkar being the first — to cross 13,000 runs in Tests. His average of 53.22 and 36 hundreds underline his value to the side.

Importantly, no batsman has made more runs than Dravid's 10,330 in 211 innings (average: 54.08) at No. 3. This is a remarkable record that reflects his fitness, technique, consistency and that precious ability to withstand pressure. Years of cricket have not diminished his hunger for runs or his love for the gripping contest between bat and ball on the big stage. The smell of a duel stokes his combative instincts.

Ponting is second in the all-time list of aggregates for No. 3 batsmen with 9904 runs in 196 innings (average: 56. 27) followed by the left-handed Sangakkara (8522 from 152 innings at 60.01). Ponting has notched up the most number of centuries (32), followed by Dravid's 28 at one drop.

Of course, the incomparable Don Bradman, who showcased his glorious skills without helmet and on uncovered pitches, conjured 5078 runs in only 56 innings at an astonishing average of 103.63 with 20 centuries.

With his priceless ability to decipher the length in a jiffy and an innate sense of field placements, the marauding Aussie dented the ego of the opposition and scripted victories. We need to leave Bradman alone and talk about the rest.

Much of Dravid's game revolves around his ability to play the different lengths with appropriate footwork. Not too many present-day batsmen counter the good length delivery — those that might have gone on to hit the top of the off-stump — with a tighter game than Dravid.

He harnesses the pace of the wicket on tracks outside the sub-continent; he employs soft hands and makes subtle adjustments in his back-lift. However, Dravid hits the ball harder and relies a lot more on his front-foot on Indian wickets. This erudite cricketer can adapt. Despite a trigger movement forward he does not commit himself to the front foot and can shift his weight to the back leg with ease.

Creditably, Dravid also has most runs (5506 in 115 innings at 53.45) at No. 3 away from home. The genial cricketer will value these numbers for it is the performances on foreign soil that reveal the true worth of a batsman. This influential batsman will be key to India's plans in the upcoming campaign in Australia.

Ponting follows Dravid with 4055 ‘away' runs from 86 innings at 50.06 and Sangakkara is third tallying 3309 runs in 70 innings at 49.38. The gifted West Indian, Rohan Kanhai (2721 runs in 52 innings at 52.32) is fourth in aggregate.

The nimble-footed Ponting might have struggled in recent times but might still be able to turn the clock back when the Indians travel down under later this year. He can still flash his drives past cover and can still pull effectively (the Punter was ruthless with this stroke in his heyday). While his reflexes and bat-speed might not be the same, you count someone such as Ponting out at your own peril.

Sangakkara, the southpaw with an iron-clad technique, is at the peak of his powers though. An outstanding back-foot player — he can punch, cut and pull with fluency — Sangakkara adds much-needed steel to the Sri Lankan batting.

In fact, over the last two years, no No. 3 batsman has made more runs than Sangakkara ( 1761 in 27 innings at 70.44). He has revelled in crisis, soaked up the pressure and backed his stroke-play with sound judgment on or outside the off-stump and bold and sure-foot ways while countering the short rising deliveries from the quicks. As a left-hander, Sangakkara adds another dimension to the Sri Lankan batting. Mahela Jayawardene often thrills the senses with late strokes of delicate beauty but it is Sangakkara who is more dependable on surfaces with speed, bounce and seam movement. He is hard to break.

South Africa's Hashim Amla is a different customer these days from being a batsman with an unconvincing back-lift and a tendency to fall away in his early, struggling period with the National side. Now he is a batsman of poise and balance with a flowing back-lift that is more straight. Amla has worked on the transfer of weight as well and is striking the ball in the ‘V' with the full face of the blade.

The transformation in Amla has been sensational. In the last two years, he has notched up 1512 runs in 26 innings at a stunning average of 65.73 at No. 3. A cricketer with admirable work ethic and values, his composure in situations of duress has had a calming influence in the South African dressing room.

Jonathan Trott's role in England's rise as the No. 1 side in Tests has been significant. The compact right-hander cuts out the frills and does have strong basics. Although, he can be rather one dimensional in his approach, there is no denying his solidity. Trott does add value to the English side at the No. 3 slot.

In the past two years, he has grown in stature with 1412 runs in 30 innings at 54.30. In the process, he has shown laudable innings-building skills. He may lack the flamboyance of an Ian Bell but the steady Trott appears a winner all the way.

And then there are young batsmen such as Pakistan's Azhar Ali and Kirk Edwards of the West Indies who have immense possibilities. Azhar of dextrous wrists can coax the ball into the empty spaces with elan. Edwards is a powerful striker of the ball who revives memories of some great West Indian batsmen from the past. The Bajan is light on his feet and heavy with his strokes. Edwards' future hinges on his attitude and temperament in adversity.

Indeed, there is a certain mystique about the No 3. slot. In this territory, only the toughest survive.