No 6 caught at sixes and sevens

Cricket Diary
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The Independent Online
WHEN Ronnie Irani obligingly left both his leg stump and batsman's dignity exposed at Lord's on Thursday he was merely continuing a long line of failure associated with the middle position in the England order. If the No 3 spot is the poisoned chalice to be passed from one poor sucker to the next, then No 6 also comes lined with barbed wire.

Of the last 163 innings (a number not entirely chosen at random) played for England by those coming in at the fall of the fourth wicket, a mere four have resulted in a century, and only 16 have reached the sunny uplands of fifty. The most recent century, to boot, was struck not by the side's intended No 6. Graeme Hick scored it against West Indies last summer after Richard Illingworth had been sent in before him as night watchman.

Discounting that, it is necessary to go back 64 England innings for a century by a No 6. That, too, was made by Hick, his first in Test matches, in India in 1993. Robin Smith was responsible for the third a fleeting 25 innings earlier, against the West Indies and also the fourth only 16 innings before that.

It has been this way, of course, since the days of the last action hero. Ian Botham made five of his 14 Test hundreds at No 6 (though the legendary pair in the 1981 Ashes series came when he was at seven). He made his final century in the position nine years and, yes, 163 England number- six innings ago.

The mobile nature of batting orders means that it is hardly a position likely to be the sole preserve of one individual and England have done their best to ensure this. Irani is the 24th player to have batted there for England in the Nineties which takes in 118 innings (the first, incidentally, was Nasser Hussain who has now assumed the No 3 spot).

Given time and a following wind he may grow into it though the best No 6 of them all was already established. As Sir Garfield Sobers explains in his new book: "It was reasoned that my knowledge of the game put me in a position to follow it better and hence I could either attack or defend according to the circumstances."

Comparing England's central position with those of the two leading Test nations of recent times is naturally not an uplifting task. Australia have used 12 players at No 6 spanning 100 innings this decade, most prominently Steve Waugh and Allan Border. Waugh has batted there 37 times and Border 21 times while Alec Stewart (17) leads the way for England. Such continuity, not to mention class, has been rewarded with nine hundreds (three to Waugh, two to Border) and 24 fifties. Australia's new No 6 is Ricky Ponting.

The West Indies' last 100 innings by No 6 go back to 1987 in which time 12 players have accrued only two hundreds and 28 fifties between them. But there is another telling figure. Irani's solitary single at Lord's means the England No 6 has been in single figures 46 times in the side's last 100 innings (and 53 in the 118 of the Nineties). That is almost 20 more than each of the other two sides.

SMILING, gracious and graceful as ever, Sir Garfield Sobers had a huge queue before him during lunch on the first day at the Second Test. They thronged by the Grace Gates as he signed copy after copy of his new book, Sobers - The Changing Face of Cricket.

Some were unbothered about the tome, which is as polite and uncontroversial as you might expect, though he comes down against computer ratings for cricketers, arguing that reputation is what matters. They bought one just to get to shake the hand of the game's greatest all-rounder. They called him Gary and Gary was as pleased to talk about golf as cricket. As the elderly chap in the MCC tie, gazing in wonderment, said: "Small book, big signature."

Spectators in the upper reaches of the Mound, Edrich and Compton Stands at Lord's are at risk of sustaining muscular injury in the upper body. After each ball the crowd dutifully turns round, like a tennis audience watching a Sampras volley disappear, to catch the video replay on the screen above the Edrich Stand.

The players are at it too. It was especially noticeable in the case of Nasser Hussain while the ball was moving about early in England's first innings. He regularly looked up at the screen to check his shot, using it as coaching aide.

IT is a statistical quirk - and a fate that awaits those facing the new ball - that Michael Atherton has made more ducks for England than centuries. His departure, lbw, to Javagal Srinath's fifth ball at Lord's was the 12th occasion on which he has departed scoreless in 107 innings which have brought nine hundreds. It was the fourth time he has been leg before without scoring and the 18th in all.

Darren Gough, still understandably tipped as a future England all-rounder, hit his maiden century after seven years and more than 100 matches last Saturday. Lovely to watch it was, too, and "Dazzler" said afterwards: "I know that more could have been expected of my batting in the past. I hope that's a breakthrough and I'd like to bat at No 7 regularly for Yorkshire and England one day in the future." Do not bet against it.