THERE is a game within a game going on in the fifth Test between India and England in Chennai.
Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are both within range of Michael Vaughan’s record for the most Test runs by an England batsman in a calendar year.
Root heads into the second innings needing 11 runs to eclipse Vaughan’s total of 1,481 in 2002.
And Bairstow heads into it requiring 13 runs to overtake Vaughan in an all-Yorkshire battle at the top of the list.
As England scored 284-4 on the opening day, Root made 88 and Bairstow 49 as the tourists endeavour to end a troubled tour on a high.
Both will consider it a missed opportunity – not so much in terms of the record, but that they were unable post a sizeable score.
Root walked off kicking the boundary rope in frustration after getting the faintest under-edge to the wicket-keeper as he tried to sweep Ravindra Jadeja.
And Bairstow exited in similar style, banging his bat in angry fashion after driving Jadeja to Lokesh Rahul at cover.
Both men pride themselves on “going big” and making what Graham Gooch used to call “daddy hundreds”.
Instead, the day belonged to the one England player who did reach three figures, Moeen Ali, after Alastair Cook won the toss on a good batting pitch.
Ali scored an unbeaten 120 and, in the process, passed 1,000 Test runs himself in 2016.
Cook, who fell for 10, is another member of the four-figure club this year, having hit 1,221 runs and counting.
Cricket, of course, is a game of statistics, which explains why it is so beloved of statisticians the world over.
All would have been keeping a close eye on Root and Bairstow as they strove to overtake Vaughan, whose annus mirabilis 14 years ago included outstanding series against India and Australia.
The key statistic, though, is not just how many runs a batsman scores in a calendar year – certainly not nowadays, given the increased number of Test matches – but now many innings he plays, with Root having played 31 and Bairstow 28 to Vaughan’s 26.
Other factors include the strength of the opposition, the match situation, what number the players bats in the order, the state of the pitch, and so on, making effective comparisons all-but impossible.
All that can be said with certainty is that Root and Bairstow have had an excellent 12 months, particularly Bairstow.
To be so close to breaking the record for the most Test runs by an Englishman in a calendar year, when you have not always batted high up the order, is a remarkable effort on Bairstow’s part.
Two of his three hundreds this year have come from the No 7 position – 150 not out against South Africa at Cape Town, and 140 against Sri Lanka on his home turf of Headingley.
He batted No 6 when he scored 167 not out against Sri Lanka at Lord’s.
Bairstow’s stats are more remarkable if one considers that he is also constantly involved in the game through his role as wicketkeeper.
Indeed, not only has he scored the most Test runs in a calendar year by any wicketkeeper, but he has also taken the most dismissals in a calendar year by any wicketkeeper too – 70 and counting.
When you consider that Bairstow’s place in the team was under scrutiny back in January, it has been a defining 12 months for him, just as it was for Vaughan back in 2002.
Vaughan had managed only one Test century in more than two years since making his debut prior to striking six in 2002, a sequence from which he never looked back.
Root, who has often been compared to Vaughan in terms of style, actually had a better year last year than he has this.
In 2015, Root scored 1,385 Test runs in 26 innings at an average of 60, compared to this year’s total of 1,471 at 50 from five more innings.
Interestingly, however, he has an identical conversion rate this year – three hundreds and 10 fifties – as in 2015, a conversion rate that will be a source of frustration for one so talented.
In the current series, Root has passed 50 in each Test but only once reached three figures – 124 in the opening match in Rajkot.
Although Root has a superior Test average to Vaughan (53.34 against 41.44), Vaughan’s conversion rate was more impressive.
Whereas Vaughan hit 18 hundreds and 18 fifties, Root has managed 11 hundreds and 27 fifties.
No one will be more determined to address the imbalance than Root himself.