There was history on one side, and Ben Stokes and Jack Leach on the other. History said the average tenth-wicket partnership for England in test cricket was an anaemic 14 runs. History said of the 123 times that England was dismissed while chasing a target, on 77 of those occasions, the last-wicket pair had failed to even reach 10 runs. Stokes and Leach wrote their own history, adding an undefeated 76 runs in last week’s humdinger in Headingley.

In a summer that has belonged to him like no other cricketer, Stokes also burnished his credentials of batting with the tail. Coming in usually at the fall of the third or fourth wicket, Stokes’ approach was to take his time and take matches deep. Stokes, 28, is still early in his career, and he will have many outings batting with the bowlers: wickets 7 to 10. It’s an art that few among the top order have mastered.

Ironically, two of the foremost exponents of batting with the tail were from the side that Stokes was putting in the shade that afternoon in Headingley: Australia. In the history of the game, no top-order batsman (coming in at number 6 or before) has scored as many runs with the tail (batsmen coming in at 7 to 10) as Steve Waugh.

The doughty Waugh, who batted at three or four down for much of his Test career, added 4,102 runs for wickets 7 to 10. Close behind him is another prolific, but low-profile, batsman, Shivnarine Chanderpaul of the West Indies. He is followed by Allan Border, who is the only one in the list of top 10 batsmen batting with the tail who stopped playing test cricket before the turn of this century.

There are three Indians in that list, led by VVS Laxman. The other two are Sachin Tendulkar and Ravi Shastri, whose presence here reflects a distinct characteristic about their batting craft and the circumstances surrounding it. For Shastri, it reflected his ability to put a great price to his wicket.

For Tendulkar, who batted at number four for nearly his entire career, that characteristic is last man standing. As many as 85% of Tendulkar’s innings and 92% of runs with the tail came outside India, which is also the highest percentage in away runs among this list of 10. While part of this showcases his colossal appetite for runs, part of this also reflects India’s frailties overseas in the top half of Tendulkar’s career: in 23 of the 62 away innings where Tendulkar batted with the tail, he started doing so before India had crossed 200 runs.

In this list of 10, Tendulkar is one of the two players who predominantly came in at two down or before—a reflection of innings longevity in the context of batting with the lower order. The other is Steve Smith, and batting with the lower order is another sub-text to his prolific accumulation. Smith already has more runs with the tail than Tendulkar.

Among these 10 batsmen, Smith has the highest average while batting with the tail of 34 runs per innings. In terms of averages, Shivnarine Chanderpaul is at the bottom of this list with an average of 19. At the same time, Chanderpaul leads this list in terms of the highest percentage of outings that resulted in batting with the tail. In 78% of the 280 innings in which he batted, Chanderpaul stretched his batting stint to the tail. Steve Waugh also scores high on this count, batting with the tail in 64% of his 260 innings.

Over the history of test cricket, there’s not much to choose among teams at an overall level (wickets 7 to 10). Most teams average 20 runs per wicket. But there are differences in where they are getting this return from and where they are not. India, for example, leads in averages for the seventh wicket. Similarly, Australia is a cut above at wickets 9 and 10.

Over time, the run contribution of the lower order has increased for most teams. There was a time was when it was acceptable for the bowler to just take wickets, but now they are also expected to stick in and support the top order or make contributions of their own.

Thus, in the past four decades, there have been periods when teams have seen that lower-order average of 20 increase to 23-24. Notably, India in the 1980s, when India’s lower order duo comprised Kapil Dev and Syed Kirmani; Australia, New Zealand and South Africa between 2000 and 2010; and South Africa in the 1990s. More is being expected of the lower order. More is being delivered by the lower order. The Stokes and Leach partnership was another example, a special one, of that.

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