21. Where do the best batsmen bat?

Batting seems to be becoming more specialised, between a top order that bats long and a lower middle order that bats quick

One of the stated reasons behind the promotion of batsmen such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mark Waugh to the top of the order in the early 1990s was that with the number of overs being limited, the “best batsmen need to get as many overs as possible”. Until then, it had been common for teams to arrange their batting orders just like they did in Tests, when the best batsmen typically came at number four, after the new ball had been seen off.

And so in the 1990s, teams strove to move their best batsmen to the top of the order. By 1999, 60% of the teams played with their best batsman in an opening position. And then the trend reversed. Through the 2000s, the best batsman in the team would frequently appear at 4 and 5. And now the trend has reversed once again. 75% of the games in 2019 have seen the best batsman in the team bat in the top three.

We use a conventional definition to select the “best batsman” - the player with the best batting average in the team at the beginning of the game. To get rid of anomalies we ignore players who have played fewer than 10 games for their teams, and only consider games where at least seven players in the eleven have played 10 or more games.

There is one problems with this approach - if we look at the batsmen who have had the best running average for their teams, batsmen who have a higher tendency to remain not out in the end score high. For example the two Australians who have been the “best batsmen” in their teams by this metric are Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey, both lower order accumulators. Sachin Tendulkar was the batsman with the best batting average for India in most games, but he is followed by MS Dhoni, who has a tendency to accumulate lots of not outs.

That apart, the trend in this decade is clear - teams have been moving their best batsmen higher up the order (or batsmen up the order are scoring more runs!). Shakib Al Hasan has moved up to number 3 (from number 5) for Bangladesh, and has had a spectacular World Cup. Hashim Amla made a move to the opening position a few years back. Shai Hope has moved from number 4-5 to either open or bat at 3 for the West Indies.

While the best batsmen (defined by batting average) have been batting up the order, the explosive batsmen are moving lower and lower down the order. In fact the mid 1990s to mid 2000s period was the heyday of the explosive opener, when openers accounted for about half the number of fastest players.

Once again, we use conventional methods to identify the most explosive batsman - he is the batsman with the highest strike rate (at the beginning of the game), but subject to being one of the best five batsmen in the team (on account of batting average).

The interesting trend in recent times is that it is extremely rare for number 3 or 4 (or even number 5) to be the most explosive batsman in the team. While teams still play with explosive openers, 3 and 4 are used for consolidation, and it is the job of the lower order hitter (coming in at 6 or 7) to provide the acceleration. This is in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s when number fours were frequently the most explosive batsman in their teams.

It seems like batting orders are becoming more specialist. Rather than having a Tendulkar both batting long and batting quick, teams are packing the top order with batsmen who can bat long (and not particularly slow). And then there is a lower middle order filled with hitters who provide the acceleration.

And what that means is that the number four position, once occupied by the best batsman in the team who would bat both long and quick, has gotten squeezed in between, without a clearly defined role. India’s number four problem is emblematic of that.