Who, between Dravid and Ponting, is the best No 3 batsman in modern cricket?

Ricky Ponting (left) and Rahul Dravid, two batsmen who played pivotal roles for their teams at the critical one-drop position ©Getty Images


By Madan Mohan


Now that the dust has settled on the retirement of the great Rahul Dravid, it is possible to settle some academic questions. It is rightly said that the best time to evaluate the full significance of a player’s achievements is after his playing days. Now that Dravid has left the international game and cannot add or detract from his achievements anymore, the No 3 question can be settled. 


Dravid is arguably the best No 3 Indian cricket has produced. But where does he stand among modern No 3 batsmen? Brian Lara commenced his career a little earlier than Dravid and also retired a few years earlier so this article will focus on current batsmen who bat at, or have batted at the one-drop position. 


Notable No 3 batsmen of our times, other than Dravid, are Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara, Jacques Kallis and Younis Khan. Of these, Sangakkara has the most impressive record, but at 8702 runs at No 3, he is about a 1000 runs short of the point where it would merit comparison with Dravid or Ponting. The Australian great has more runs than the other challengers to Dravid’s pride of place at the pivotal spot.  Also, he has lately started batting at No 4 and may well continue to do so until his exit from Test cricket.  So, comparison between Ponting and Dravid is also easier; Ponting’s playing days are not over, but his days as a No 3 may well be. 


So how do both fare at this position, described by Dravid as more demanding than the middle order? Dravid has scored 10,524 runs at an average of 52.88 and struck 28 centuries, coming in right after the openers. Ponting has played fewer innings at this slot, 196 to Dravid’s 219, but scored 9904 runs at an average of 56.27 and struck 32 centuries.  Prima facie, it would appear that Ponting has a decisive edge over Dravid for the spot. 


The question is not quite so easily settled, though. As is often mentioned in tributes to Dravid, he averages better away than home and over 50 both home and away. Ponting averages significantly more home than away and lower than 50 away. The popular perception is that Ponting is poor against spin, but this is perhaps based on his unflattering record in India, for he has fared well in Sri Lanka. Ponting hasn’t done particularly well in England, except early on when he batted at No 6, while Dravid hasn’t fared well in South Africa. 


Statistically, I am inclined to give it to Ponting by a hair’s breadth. But what two such great batsmen brought to the table is hardly defined by just the numbers. They performed crucial roles for their respective teams, roles which were defined also by the strengths and weaknesses of the teams. 


Australia had a powerful batting line-up and two of the greatest bowlers of all time in their attack. Their motto was to attack from the word go and Ponting was the ideal No 3 for the great Australian team of the noughties. It has been suggested that the opening pair of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden released the pressure on Ponting, but he has demonstrated that his attacking instincts don’t necessarily depend so much on the match situation. 


In 1997, a young Ponting was promoted to No 3 against West Indies in a match in Brisbane.  He had no qualms about cutting and pulling the likes of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh en route to an attacking 88. On the other hand, his solid technique has nevertheless equipped him to graft and grit it out when it was required of him to do so, as in his century in Bangalore in 2008 – his only hundred in India.   


India, on the other hand, lacked a strong bowling attack for the better part of Dravid’s career.  In his initial years, India also did not have a stable opening combination, which meant he had to walk out to the middle with the scoreboard barely disturbed. Hence, Dravid’s role was to anchor the innings as the aggressors like Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Azharuddin, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly among others kept the scoreboard rolling and mounted a formidable total. His reliable presence in the batting unit has guided India to some of its most memorable away victories, be it at Trinidad or Headingley in 2002, Adelaide in 2003 or Perth in 2008.     


It is difficult to say if Ponting would have batted like Dravid had he played in the Indian line-up instead of Australia. On the occasions that VVS Laxman was promoted to No 3, he preferred to attack and the odds are that Ponting would have preferred to do so as well.  What seems much clearer is Dravid would have been more reminiscent of Justin Langer in his approach had he batted for Australia.  


Make no mistake, Dravid is capable of playing an attacking game and he has done so in overs-limit cricket. But it is difficult to see him dominating the bowling quite to the same extent as Ponting even if he had had the freedom to do so. Even in Test cricket, time is of essence and an attacking approach, without licence to madness or hara kiri, is somewhat preferable in a batsman. 


I have no qualification, really, to comment on the achievements of such legends. Having said that, if by some grave mistake, I were given the power to pick the Indian team of the noughties all over again and allowed to include foreign players in it (like the IPL!), I would still choose Dravid over Ponting. For a World XI, however, I would prefer Ponting over Dravid for his combination of aggression and consistency. But I would much rather not have to choose one over the other at all.


(Madan Mohan is a 26-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)