No 6 was the main protagonist of an oddball peak-time television hit four and a half decades ago. Patrick McGoohan’s character in The Prisoner spent all 17 episodes protesting that he was a name not a number. Nobody knew who he really was, what was going on generally or was any the wiser by the end. The viewing public lapped it up.
The fascinating phoney war before the Ashes – never quite as gripping as the contest itself but nor far short – has its own drama featuring two No 6s, neither of whom yet has a name. England and Australia are both casting about for a player to fill a role which can be central in more ways than one.
The holders of the urn are not much nearer to their choice after the first of three warm-up matches, which ended in a draw in Perth on Saturday. Meanwhile, the home side think they have their man, the chairman of selectors virtually having said as much, but as the time draws near doubts intrude.
England must also deal with the vexed question of who plays as the third seamer at the start of the series in Brisbane on 21 November. Australia think they know what their seam attack will be but remain perplexed about their spinner.
England’s bowling coach, David Saker, could hardly deny that for the tourists it would be a much harder Test team to pick than that three years ago when they came to this country knowing precisely who their men were and what they had to do. “I’m sure it is because we had a clear idea of our attack and our batting line-up then,” he said. “But that’s a healthy thing, people fighting for spots is always good, especially when it’s a very good cricket team.” It would be healthier, of course, if the XI simply picked themselves, which is more or less the way England have preferred it these past few years.
It is more than three years, or 41 Test matches, since the No 6 position authentically provided a hundred for England. Eoin Morgan was the man in possession then and came up with a crucial 130 against Pakistan.
True, Ian Bell scored a century against Sri Lanka the following year at No 6 but that was after a nightwatchman went in at No 3. In the time since Morgan’s innings the position has averaged 31.15.
This might be adequate were it to be occupied by an all-rounder but England have almost invariably picked a specialist batsman for the position: 11 players have batted No 6 in the period, nine of them specialists.
One of the candidates for the opening match of the imminent series is Jonny Bairstow, who has not yet quite cracked the requirements of Test cricket. His rivals are Gary Ballance, Ben Stokes, who would be debutants, and more improbably Michael Carberry, who played one Test in Bangladesh in 2010 and was originally selected as the squad’s reserve opener. Carberry’s 78 in the draw at the WACA against the Chairman’s XI, albeit on an amenable surface with bowling to match, may put him in contention since Ballance, who seems to be the early favourite, made a first-ball duck and Stokes four. Bairstow will presumably play in Hobart against Australia A in the match starting on Wednesday.
It is a key position, linking the top order and the tail, and its demands are various. You can fill your boots if the going is good and the earlier batsmen have done their job or you can limit damage and protect the men below if they have not. It is the bridge between success and disaster.
The other position which is more wide open is for the third seamer. Steve Finn, Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin are vying for it but, as Saker said after the match in Perth: “There’s nothing one player did that made him jump anybody and there’s nothing someone did that would take him out of consideration.” Finn has, or had, the enviable trait of simply taking wickets and that may win him the vote. The feeling grows that Rankin may be the man for this series.
Australia’s batting is nowhere near as settled but the country is suddenly awash with George Bailey fever. Bailey is 31 and has never played a Test match but is winning rave notices with his performances in the one-day series in India, which has caused no end of problems for Australia’s Ashes preparations.
As for the spinner, the popular movement is towards the untested leg-spin of Fawad Ahmed, ahead of Nathan Lyon, who continues to labour under excessive expectation.
England and Australia have to come up with names very soon; it would be tremendous if each could show he was not a number but a free man.