44.5 Anderson to Kumar, OUT, Praveen’s fun is over! Anderson spears down a yorker and it squeezes under the bat as Praveen Kumar tried to jab down on it!
The right answer, as in so many good cases, has to be ‘it depends’.
This question is obviously way more fun in tests, where almost everyone usually gets an opportunity to bat. Usually, batsmen batting from 8–11 can be considered tailenders, but not applying discretion here can result in crowning an M S Dhoni or a Kapil Dev as above- someone whom, let’s be honest, nobody in the world has ever considered a tailender.
Let’s get some data from Statsguru and get cracking, shall we?
The first idea, obviously, is to consider just the batting average: who is the Indian tailender with the best average?
Shortlisting Indian batsmen, then, who have batted 8–11 over all time (at least 10 test innings), gives these as the top ten:
There are some batsmen who obviously don’t belong here (M S Dhoni, Kapil Dev), and some borderline calls we’ll have to make. I take a simple line: a player makes the cut as a tailender if he wouldn’t make it to a squad as a batsman alone, but he would make the squad on his bowling alone. (Some subjectivity still obviously creeps in, but I’m fine with it.) On this consideration, Saha/Borde are also moved out, but R Ashwin/R Jadeja/M Prabhakar are all technically “tailenders”. (Ravi Shastri is a borderline case who bubbled up the batting order through his career, but he started off a bowler and gradually improved his batting, so I’ll allow it.)
Updating then, the list of top ten tailenders by average looks like this:
Tailenders get a better opportunity to remain not out at the end of an innings when compared to other batsmen, which might slightly inflate their averages. However, the increased opportunity self-sorts itself (No. 11 gets probably the highest chance to stay not out, No.10 after that, and so on. However, their batting order itself is likely to be decided based on batting ability, so No. 10 is likely to have a better batting average anyway compared to a No. 11.)
By batting average, then, Manoj Prabhakar is India’s best tailender, with a minimum of 10 Test innings.
But that’s too reductive! The role of a tailender in most cases, I would argue, is one of two:
- Score quick runs to bump up the lead or reduce the deficit (especially in absence of a top-order or middle-order batsman)
- Stick around at the crease (especially if batting with a specialist batsman, to give him a chance to prolong the innings enough)
To see how good a tailender is at the first, we could simply look at the batting Strike Rate; for the second, we will use ‘Balls Faced per Innings’ (BFI), calculated a la the batting average as:
You will see that the product of these metrics gives the batting average, which lets us see how different tailenders with a similar batting average could still be batting differently. Plotting for all tailenders for whom this data is available (at least 100 balls faced), you get something like this:
(Some names omitted for readability, e.g. Ajit Agarkar is the dot nearly coinciding with Madan Lal)
You can see how, despite having almost the same batting average, M Prabhakar and R Jadeja are different kinds of batsmen.
So that’s where you end up: there is more than one kind of tailender, and all of them can be useful depending on the match situation. There are lower-order batsmen like Harbhajan Singh, Mohammed Shami, and Praveen Kumar, who can score some quick runs but don’t generally stay at the crease for very long. There are batsmen like Prabhakar and Shastri who can really stick around – more than 12 overs on average – but won’t score very quickly, serving essentially as an extension of the middle order. Then there are batsmen like Jadeja, Ashwin and Irfan Pathan who can do a bit of both, serving as handy bowling all-rounders.
And then there is Jasprit Bumrah, who can scarcely hold a bat – and has yet survived one complete over each against Morne Morkel, James Anderson, and Stuart Broad.
You decide who is the best. I’m leaning towards Bumrah. (Look at the graph.)