Key out to solve third man problem

Historically the No 3 spot in England's batting order has been a difficult position to fill. Nasser Hussain and Mark Butcher have occupied it manfully since 1998, but England have to go back to David Gower, who batted in this position in the mid-Eighties, to find their last world-class performer.

Historically the No 3 spot in England's batting order has been a difficult position to fill. Nasser Hussain and Mark Butcher have occupied it manfully since 1998, but England have to go back to David Gower, who batted in this position in the mid-Eighties, to find their last world-class performer.

The batsman who bats at No 3 has a crucial role to play. Should an early wicket fall his first priority, like that of an opener, is to see off the new ball and protect the team's stroke-players in the middle order. In order to do this he requires a sound technique and the ability to cope with high-quality fast bowling.

But, should the openers put on a decent partnership, he also needs to be able to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, and move his side into a strong position. To do this he must also have a wide variety of strokes and the ability to play spin well.

Don Bradman played 56 of his 80 Test innings from this position, but the most successful No 3 in the history of the game is Rahul Dravid. Nicknamed "The Wall" - because this is what bowling at him is compared to - Dravid has scored 5,955 runs at an average of 61.5 batting in this position for India. The right-hander's attitude to this role is slightly more attritional than that of Bradman, Viv Richards, Richie Richardson, Rohan Kanhai, Ian Chappell and Ricky Ponting, who also shone in this position, but one only has to see him bat in one-day cricket to see what a class act he is.

England's most successful No 3, Wally Hammond, is the 10th-highest run scorer in this position, but he spent most of his Test career batting at four. Butcher has batted at three on more occasions than any other Englishman and moved to this position against Australia in 2001. Before then the Surrey captain had opened for England in Test cricket.

The responsibility of filling this pivotal position, following Butcher's early return to England with a wrist injury, has now been handed to Kent's Robert Key, who, like Butcher, opens for his county. But one gets the feeling that, were he given the choice, he would choose to bat here.

But Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick appear to have made these positions their own in the last 12 months and Key will have to become accustomed to sitting on the sidelines, waiting patiently for the first wicket to fall. But the 25-year-old has made an impressive start to his career in this new position, scoring 378 runs at an average of 63 against the West Indies last summer.

"I had a good time batting at three last year but I don't know whether three is my favourite position," Key said. "I got that one decent score [221 against the West Indies at Lord's] and it took a massive weight off my back. It is also where I have been most successful in Test cricket. But in county cricket I have always opened and it is where I have played my best for Kent.

"Batting at three has its plus points and negative points and I certainly would not want to be batting any lower down the order. If you have been in the field all day and have seven overs to bat at the end of the day, you have to go out as an opener, but at three you have the chance of a rest.

"But I don't enjoy sitting around and waiting to bat. I prefer to face a hard, new ball to one that has been used for 60 or 70 overs. The ball does not come on to the bat the same and quite often the opposition are setting slightly more negative fields. In these situations there are less gaps and batting requires greater patience."

During his stop-start Test career, Key's concentration has let him down and, following his dismissal in the second innings in Cape Town - he was stumped attempting to save the game - it is still an area that he needs to work on. Key had batted responsibly and skilfully for more than three and a half hours during his 41, but then he chose to dance down the wicket to Nicky Boje and was stumped.

"Getting out like that hit me hard," Key said. "I was just starting to feel in decent touch again. I was beginning to enjoy batting and this was probably the reason for my downfall.

"I try to get down the wicket to spinners and this was as reserved an innings as I have played against them. Boje wasn't spinning the ball a great deal and in a county game I would have been charging down the wicket every ball until the field went back.

"It was not getting out that I regretted; it was not doing what I wanted to do. I didn't play the ball as I should have done, but when you do something like that it looks terrible and you get slated for doing it.

"But it is now down to me. If I get proper runs in the next two Test matches I would expect to be first choice next summer."

* Andrew Flintoff will bowl in practice this morning for the first time since spraining his side in Cape Town.

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