The Disappearing Threes

It is hardly news that there has been a heavy hitting revolution in international cricket. A hit for six, once unusual or even rare, is now familiar fare. In the 1958/59 Ashes series, just one ball was hit for six; in 2006/07, there were 27. In Australia, boundary shots have never been more abundant (51 per cent of all runs since 2000), and hits for three have plummeted.  Threes have become fours, fours have become sixes.


Looking at the Australian stats in detail, the change was sudden, and remarkably so. There was a  first hint in 1995/96, with the introduction of boundary ropes at all grounds. Boundary hitting edged upwards. But nearly all the change occurred in the space of one season from 2000/01 to 2001/02. Sixes went from less than two per cent of runs to  more than 3.5 per cent, and have remained elevated ever since. At the same time, the number of threes being hit dropped by more than one-third, and this change also appears to be permanent.


The best explanation is the introduction of high-technology bats. The numbers suggest that the innovation swept through Test cricket in a matter of months. By cricket’s historical standards, this is revolutionary change. More recently, the ICC has acted to limit further technical improvements in bats, so (I hope) perhaps this step change was a one-time thing.


What would players of earlier generations make of this? One intriguing innings that might look very different today is Bob Cowper’s 307 at the M.C.G. in 1966. The innings spanned more than four days, including a rest day and time lost – four days, twelve minutes to be exact – and is the longest innings in elapsed time (as opposed to batting time) by an Australian. It’s bare stats of 727 minutes and 589 balls make it sound like a dreary affair. Indeed, I thought so at the time (at the age of nine) watching it on TV thanks to the wonder of the “Coaxial Cable” to Sydney. It is my earliest memory of cricket on TV.


In reality, Cowper had to contend throughout with tight bowling, a pedestrian over rate,  and an impossibly slow outfield. The boundary was barely reachable, for both sides. Even on the first day, the England batsmen hit ten threes before striking the first boundary. On the third day, Australia scored 234 runs for one wicket with only five shots reaching the boundary all day, the first of them coming more than halfway through the day as the outfield slowly dried; another five fours were all-run. Cowper hit no fewer than 26 threes in his innings, an all-time record. The nearest known tallies are 15 by Len Hutton his 364 in 1938, and by Bill Lawry in a score of just 205 at the M.C.G. in 1968/69. Cowper normally collected over 45 per cent of his runs in boundaries, well above average for his time, but in this Test he could hit only 18 boundary fours, or 23 per cent of his runs.


What a contrast when Matt Hayden, in the age of super bats and shorter boundaries, made 380 at the WACA in 2003 and smashed Cowper’s home Test record. Hayden hit 38 fours and 11 sixes, 57 per cent of his runs; even more remarkably, there was only one hit for three. There are even more extreme cases. Chris Gayle hit no threes at all in an innings of 333 at Galle in 2010, nor did Inzamam-ul-Haq in an innings of 329 at Lahore in 2002. The only player in the last 500 Test matches who has hit more than 10 threes in an innings was Justin Langer, with eleven in his 250 at the M.C.G. in 2002.  It begs the question posed by the different conditions and the new generation of bats; is it possible to ‘normalise’ these differences to get a more realistic historical comparison?


One simple way is to simply tally the ‘power’ shots of these and other innings, the multi-run shots. These are the shots that are most affected by the changes in bats and grounds. If we total the hits for two, three four and six for major innings it produces an interesting list.



Balls Faced

‘Power’ shots (2, 3, 4, 6)

M.L. Hayden

Perth (WACA), 2003/04




D.G. Bradman

Leeds (Headingley), 1930




B.C. Lara

Antigua (St John's), 2004




I.V.A. Richards

The Oval, 1976




G.S. Sobers

Kingston, Jamaica, 1958




R.M. Cowper

Melbourne (MCG), 1965/66




B.C. Lara

Antigua (St John's), 1994




D.P.M.D. Jayawardene

Colombo2 (SSC), 2006




R.E. Foster

Sydney (SCG), 1903/04




Zaheer Abbas

Birmingham (Edgbaston), 1971




W.R. Hammond

Auckland, 1932/33




M.A. Taylor

Peshawar (Niaz), 1998/99




L. Hutton

The Oval, 1938




Note: there are a handful of innings between 280 and 340 for which data is unavailable – however, these are unlikely to exceed Cowper’s tally.


Test cricket’s history is now so vast that Cowper’s innings ranks only twenty-second in runs scored, but it rises to sixth with its total of 74 multi-run hits. It still falls short of Hayden’s monolithic innings, though, and due credit must be offered to Hayden for that. Viv Richard’s place, equal to Brian Lara in the table, is also intriguing; Richards’ 291 contained only 50 singles, whereas Lara’s 400 not out had 139 singles.


Very few batsmen have had to work so hard for their runs as Cowper, who ran about 8,500 yards between the wickets during his innings, if you include runs hit by his batting partners and sundries (not counting any running for  balls that did reach the boundary). Hayden would have run about 6,000 yards. None of the players in the table would have done more running than Cowper, with the exception of  Hutton, who probably ran more than 10,000 yards in his innings.

Most Threes in a Test Innings (where known)


R.M. Cowper (307)

Melbourne (MCG) 1965/66


L. Hutton (364)

The Oval 1938


W.M. Lawry (205)

Melbourne (MCG) 1968/69


G. Kirsten (275)

Durban (Kingsmead) 1999/00


M.A. Taylor (219)

Nottingham (Trent Bridge) 1989


I.V.A. Richards (291)

The Oval 1976


J.L. Langer (250)

Melbourne (MCG) 2002/03

Note, an incomplete list: there are a number of innings in the range 250-340 runs for which number of threes is not known.


Most Running Between Wickets in a Test Innings

Running (Yards)


L. Hutton (364)

The Oval 1938


A. Sandham (325)

Kingston, Jamaica 1930


Hanif Mohammad (337)

Bridgetown, Barbados 1958


R.B. Simpson (311)

Manchester (Old Trafford) 1964


R.M. Cowper (307)

Melbourne (MCG) 1965/66


G.S. Sobers (365*)

Kingston, Jamaica 1958


D.P.M.D. Jayawardene (374)

Colombo2 (SSC) 2006


M.A. Taylor (334*)

Peshawar (Niaz) 1998/99


D.G. Bradman (299*)

Adelaide Oval 1931/32

Includes runs hit by batting partners, and sundries, but not running for shots that reached the boundary.


Charles Davis

 May 2011