Every good team has a strong No 3 batsman and that’s been evident in the most successful Test sides of recent times. India had Rahul Dravid with his technical efficiency and is now blessed with Cheteshwar Pujara, who has a taste for big scores that would satisfy a master chef. South Africa has Hashim Amla, a run-making machine and Jonathan Trott performed a similar role for England until recently. It’s no coincidence that Trott’s slump has resulted in lower England totals.
Sri Lanka has the silky smooth Kumar Sangakkara and Australia had the ideal prototype in Ricky Ponting. However, since Ponting retired, No 3 has been a black hole during a period of limited Australian success. That’s why the importance of Shane Watson’s belligerent century at the Oval can’t be overstated.
Ponting was the latest in a long line of Australian No 3’s who excelled in successful teams; a list that includes such illustrious counter-attackers as Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Clem Hill and Charlie Macartney. To validate the credentials of the latter two, Hill was once widely regarded as the best left-hander in the game and Macartney uttered the words; “Some cove’s going to cop it today,” before strapping on his pads to face Nottinghamshire in 1921. He lived up to his boast by rattling off 345 in 232 minutes, still the fastest first-class triple century.
After yet another shuffle of the Australian batting order Watson was at three for the first time in the current series and he proceeded to bat in a similarly ambitious mode. His defence was more solid, he produced flowing drives from the full deliveries and the shorter ones were dispatched with authorative pull shots.
However, it was his match awareness that caught the eye. He took charge of the game with the advent of England’s two debutant bowlers. Admittedly Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan delivered some dross but this could well have been exacerbated by Watson’s eagerness to stamp his authority on the innings.
This is what a successful Test team needs from its No 3. A player who can come in at the fall of an early wicket but not be frightened to launch a counter attack the moment he feels comfortable. It’s a ploy that can unnerve an opposition expecting a more measured response.
A successful No 3 must also be a decent player of spin bowling because he’s expected to regularly convert starts into a big score. For the first time in ages Watson achieved that goal and for only the second time since Ponting’s departure, the Australian No 3 scored a Test century.
There’s a lot of codswallop spoken and written about the No 3 spot. For instance, it’s not the most difficult batting position; it is in fact the best place in the order to bat. A good No 3 has the opportunity to set the pattern of play rather than follow the established trend. It’s far easier coming in at one for very few than three for not many; one wicket can be a fluke, whereas three down is a collapse.
Then there’s the notion that the “poor old No 3” might have to face the second ball of an innings. If you’re not mentally ready to enter the fray at 0/1 then you’re not in the right frame of mind to bat at first drop. No 3 doesn’t yearn for an opener to be dismissed early but it is better to bat when you’re fresh rather than after you’ve been sitting around for a few hours.
Watson still has much to prove before he’s an established top-class No 3. However, he has a number of the required traits, not the least of them being an ability to counter-attack against the new ball.
Australia will not return to being a strong batting side until they at least find a capable number three. Watson still has to show he can handle that task against consistently good bowling on a regular basis. However, his credentials place him well ahead of the nearest challenger in the Australian side for this crucial batting position.
Been there, done that
In his 75-match Test career, Ian Chappell, batting at No 3, scored 4279 runs in 91 innings at an average of 50.94.