17. Neither one thing nor the other

The rise and fall of the bits and pieces players in ODIs

Long-time cricket commentators such as Sunil Gavaskar will tell you that for an all-rounder to be a “genuine all-rounder”, he should be able to get selected into the team based on his batting or his bowling skills alone, with the other skill being a bonus.

However, teams frequently include players who wouldn’t make it to the team on bowling or batting ability alone, but where the combination of their batting and bowling makes them useful to the team. When the number of such players increased rapidly through the late 1990s, commentators invented the phrase “bits and pieces player” to describe them.

And then suddenly after the year 2000 they started going out of fashion. From 1.2 bits and pieces players per ODI eleven in 2000, the number went down to 0.5 per eleven in 2008. Since then, more bits and pieces players have come by, but it looks like we are unlikely to hit the late 1990s numbers.

So who are bits and pieces players? By definition, they can both bat and bowl but can’t get into the team based on batting or bowling prowess alone. If we rank all the players in a playing eleven by career batting and bowling averages, bits and pieces players can be considered as those who are between the sixth and eighth best batsman, and between the fourth and seventh best bowler in their teams.

Additionally, we place the constraint that a bits and pieces player has a batting average of at least 10 and a bowling average of at most 50. We also ignore players who have batted in fewer than 20 innings or bowled less than 600 balls through their careers.

Unsurprisingly, England has played the most number of bits and pieces players over time, with thirteen. From Tony Greig back in the 1970s to Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes today, and through the Adam Hollioake-led team in Sharjah in the mid 1990s, they have been the biggest promoters of bits and pieces players. South Africa come second, with ten. This includes Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris, who have been regular starters in the ongoing World Cup.

Most teams at the ongoing World Cup have bits and pieces players in their squads, though not all of them are playing regularly.

India has Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja. New Zealand has Colin de Grandhomme and Mitchell Santher. Australia has Glenn Maxwell. Afghanistan’s is captained by a bits and pieces player. Imad Wasim (Pakistan), Ashley Nurse (West Indies) and Jeewan Mendis (Sri Lanka) are other bits and pieces players in their countries’ squads, though they haven’t always been in the playing eleven.

My hypothesis is that the rise of bits and pieces players in the 1990s coincided with the development of wicketkeepers who batted well enough to bat in the top six. England had Alec Stewart and Australia discovered Adam Gilchrist. Mark Boucher replaced David Richardson for South Africa. Zimbabwe had Andy Flower. The keeper batting in the top six meant that the number seven position was “free”, and teams weren’t sure how exactly to fill that position.

And the most obvious way was to play someone who could both bat and bowl a bit. And thus the bits and pieces player was born. What this doesn’t explain, however, is the decline of bits and pieces players in the 2000s. Maybe a keeper who could bat became so normalised in that decade that teams stopped looking at the number 7 position as a “free player”?

In forthcoming editions of this newsletter, we will take a deeper look into these two issues - the role of wicketkeepers, and how teams have dealt with the number seven position.

In the meantime, write back and tell me your favourite theory on why the bits and pieces player became prominent in the late 1990s, and then went out of fashion in the 2000s.

PS: The title of this edition is a tribute to an early bits and pieces players who played 20 Test matches for New Zealand, and who was described as being “neither one thing nor the other”. His name was Bob Cunis.