Root, Roy, and the DNA of a No. 3
Jason Gillespie felt that if he was bowling at a decent Test batsman who was slightly out of form, he had an area around the size of a beach towel in which he could pitch the ball. If the player was in form, it was more like a hand towel. If the batsman was Ricky Ponting, it was a handkerchief.
Ponting had what he called a ‘4-3-2-1’ approach to each delivery. His first thought was ‘can I hit it for four?’ If not, it came down to a three and so on. This mindset brought him 13,000 Test runs, another 13,000 ODI runs, almost all of them from No.3.
But then, being Australia’s one-drop meant going in after Matthew Hayden, big Buzz Lightyear walking down the wicket to hit the straight drive he called ‘the bowler killer’, and his mate Justin Langer, with the pub nutter eyes and a cut shot to match.
People talked about Viv Richards, but then he went in after Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes had cleaned house.
Being a No.3 is different if you’re strapping them on in a hurry and going in after any one of the x-amount of players England tried to replace Andrew Strauss with. Even worse with Alastair Cook gone as well. Imagine being England’s No.3, and the captain too. There’s no respite, no precious minutes to decompress and swap from skipper to best batsman, just bang: ‘Stoneman/Jennings/Burns/whoever has nicked off again, skip…’
Forget that cup of tea, then…
The captain is edgy. After the Ireland Test he snapped something uncharacteristicabout a sub-standard pitch. The Ashes brings out fear. After four years of development, he watched the one-day side become an almost perfectly realised vision. He can’t say the same about his Test team.
On the Sunday before the series, Trevor Bayliss was again making clear in a radio interview that Joe Root should bat three. On Tuesday, it leaked that he might. He did the same after the last Ashes defeat and the dropping of James Vince. It lasted through two Tests in New Zealand, two against Pakistan and four and a bit against India, when Moeen appeared at three in the second innings of the Southampton game.
No.3… the big man, best player, the myth and the magic. Root has been periodically seduced enough by the notion to go against his instinct.
But is it even true? Of the ‘Big Four’ of contemporary batting, Virat Kohli prefers four, so does Steve Smith. So did Sachin Tendulkar. Brian Lara batted 148 times at number four and 66 at number three in Tests. Perhaps the best player at three is myth, smoke, the chat of old guys in pubs shooting hot air. Maybe it’s equivocal: sometimes the best player suits three, sometimes four.
England’s problem is not really where Root bats, it’s who else they’ve got. England’s No.4 used to be Kevin Pietersen. Now it’s Joe Denly. Nothing against Denly, but that is a comedown Crosby, Stills and Nash might not survive.
Jason Roy is no Ponting. He’s no Viv Richards, either. But at his best he has a couple of the attributes that they shared at number three. He plays fast bowling very well, the faster the better, sometimes.
He’d rather smash Mitchell Starc on eye and instinct than fiddle about trying to hit Colin de Grandhomme or Stuart Thompson off their length. And although he goes hard at the ball, and he will cause uproar every time he nicks off, he plays straight. Like Pietersen, a player he has modelled a part of his game on, his first instinct is to hit the ball with a vertical bat, rather than hang back to cut and pull.
Like Pietersen, he can learn how to survive, too. They are both full house, big stage kinda guys. Pietersen’s credo, “it’s the way I play,” might have been written for Roy. Pietersen’s ego seemed underpinned by insecurity as much as arrogance. Roy’s is the same.
And Roy’s capacity for self-improvement is underestimated. After 45 ODI appearances, he averaged 34.71, with three hundreds. That was the summer of 2017. Two years and 39 games later, he averages 42.79, with nine hundreds. His strike rate has increased by seven runs per 100 deliveries. That is some uptick. Maybe it is a more accurate indicator of his ability than half-hearted dips into county cricket.
One more thing: Pietersen’s performances were always, always refracted by the prejudices of those watching. His dismissals were, in their eyes, often crimes; crimes of carelessness, of wantonness, of ego. They hated how glibly he wrote off their feelings afterwards (“it’s the way I play”). Each of Roy’s dismissals at Lord’s, a nick-off and an airy drive from central casting, hit the echo chamber of Twitter like little bombs of angst and fury, of “I told you so”. That he eked out 70-odd, the game’s second-highest score, drew less comment. In his attitude and ability, he looked like a player.
Maybe even like a man big enough for No.3. By the end of the Ashes, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him there, perhaps with Rory Burns and Dom Sibley above him and the skipper below, feet up on the rails and contemplating that cup of tea.