The greatest of all batsmen, Don Bradman, almost always batted at 3. There was an occasional exception. At Melbourne in 1937, heavy rain followed by hot sun made the wicket well-nigh unplayable. Wisden called it a “gluepot”, something today’s players have never encountered. England were shot out for 76. Bradman, pictured, then reversed the batting order. He came in at No 7, with the score 97 for 5. By this time the wicket had improved. He made 270 and turned the series round. Sacrificing lesser players may have been selfish, yet was in his team’s interest
The Don’s great rival, Wally Hammond, also usually batted at 3, but when he became England’s captain in 1938 dropped down to 4 and sometimes 5. After the war, when England had two great batsman, Len Hutton of course opened, but Denis Compton was usually at 4, not 3. Ricky Ponting usually came in at first wicket down, but Greg Chappell preferred to be at 4, as do Steve Smith and Virat Kohli today.
Gary Sobers was usually at 4, but the West Indies in his day did have another great player, Rohan Kanhai, at 3. Later, when Sobers became captain, he more often than not preferred to bat at 6. Sachin Tendulkar was usually at 4, but again India had an outstanding No 3 in Rahul Dravid.
In short, both Willis and Boycott have a point, but I think Boycott has the better of the argument. Your best batsman has the right to choose where he should bat, and so, if Joe Root wants to be at 4, not 3, that’s where he should bat. Mind you, given the fragility of England’s top order, he is quite likely to find himself at the wicket with the score 20 for 2.
England have had a problem at 3 since Jonathan Trott dropped out of Test cricket, and there’s no reason to think they are going to solve it quickly. Tom Westley, of Essex, made a modestly promising start at The Oval on Thursday and he has been making a lot of runs for his county in that position. But, as Boycott again remarked, quite forcefully (of course), his overall career average, which is in the mid-thirties, isn’t very convincing. A genuine Test match player will usually have a county average in the upper 40s or over 50. There are exceptions to this rule. Michael Vaughan, for instance, was a better Test than county batsman. Yet in general it must hold good. If you don’t consistently make big scores in county cricket, you are unlikely to do so when you come up against better bowlers in Test matches.
Of course, not all Test bowlers are top-class and this can lead to deceptively good records. Ravi Bopara, for instance, scored three hundreds against a very weak West Indian attack on very easy pitches and never did anything again. Conversely, you get outstanding county players who, for whatever reason, have been comparative failures in Test cricket. Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, both who scored more than a hundred first-class centuries, are two examples. Ramprakash’s inability regularly to transfer his county form to the Test match game remains baffling, because, unlike Hick, he had no technical weaknesses. Oddly though, his Test match average against Australia was higher than either Michael Atherton’s or Nasser Hussain’s.
It’s more difficult to make the transition from the county game than it used to be, partly because there is so much less first-class county cricket than in the past, and almost none in the middle months of the summer, partly because wickets are better these days. So scoring is easier than it was in days gone by, and a player with a poor technique may flourish in the county game. Which, of course, makes it odder that so many of those tried for England nevertheless have a poorer career average than is to be looked for in a batsman of true Test match class.