Which is the greatest sub-ten Test innings of the last 40 years?

Chris Martin: always kept fans wanting more William West / © AFP

In the second instalment of Rabbit Holes, three huge nerds - Andy Zaltzman, Andrew Miller and S Rajesh - delve into the emphatically non-burning issue of which was the greatest single-figure innings in the last 40 years. Why? Does there have to be a reason?

Andy Zaltzman, stand-up comedian: Is there a video call for this?

S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor: Nope, just a text chat, I believe.

Zaltzman: Okay, I'll take off my make-up and wig and start then.

Single-figure innings, the forgotten masterpieces of Test batting. In many ways, a good one-digit dig is of far greater cosmic relevance than a flashy 250. The single-figure score is something we can all relate to, not some feat of otherworldly talent given only to a select elite few.

I'm going to kick things off with a tribute to the Mozart of the Single-Figure Score: Chris Martin.

Andrew Miller, ESPNcricinfo's UK editor: Oh joy, we've hit the mother lode already.

Zaltzman: Specifically, Martin's debut innings - a staggering knock of 7 off 23 balls, in Bloemfontein in late 2000.

Rajesh: Not a bad effort. Did he ever face more balls than that in an innings?

Miller: Quite possibly the most misleading introduction to Test cricket since Nilesh Kulkarni in Colombo (a first-ball wicket, then zip for 195 in the rest of his miserable spell).

Zaltzman: Martin batted another 103 times in Tests, and only once exceeded the 7 he made on his first appearance as a Test "batsman" (terminology subject to legal challenge). He only once faced more balls.

Miller: And he only once reached double figures, 12 not out, in an innings in which he scored two fours for the only time. The second, immediately after the first, was an inside edge past the keeper.

Rajesh: You're being cruel, Miller… that was intentional.

Miller: But I'm going straight for the greatest moment of Martin's thoroughly inept career. Wellington, versus India, in April 2009. He came to the crease without a single run in 23 matches in all cricket, dating back to the Gabba Test in November. He duly dumped Harbhajan Singh back over his head for a one-bounce four. Utterly triumphant.

Zaltzman: Greatest shot in the history of cricket! His career began with a record-setting run of 48 consecutive single-figure innings. He made that one 12 against Bangladesh and had another 55 consecutive single-figure knocks. And then Martin finished his Test batting career in the most appropriate way possible - run out for 0 without facing. He had honed batting failure to such an art form that bowlers were no longer needed.

Miller: He hit 15 fours in 13 years! Thirteen!

Rajesh: And all perfectly timed, with a control percentage of 100.

Zaltzman: The South African attack in Martin's epic debut: Donald, Pollock, Ntini, Kallis, plus Klusener and Boje. Over 1600 Test wickets among them by the end of their careers. I'd say, in context (i.e. bearing in mind whose hands were holding the bat), that innings will take some beating.

Miller: For me, that is the beauty of this quest for the ultimate single-figure score. Anyone (barring maybe Martin) can rustle up a flashy 5 on demand. But as far as I'm concerned, these innings need to be heroic, or heroic failures. And you can put the emphasis on either word in that last phrase.

Rajesh: Hmm, that's a great start, Mr Zaltzman, so let me stick to a country-mate of his, from a few years before: Gary Troup.

Zaltzman: Troup was on my list too. Is that why you lobbied for a 1980 start date?

Rajesh: I think the scorecard will do all the talking here.

Zaltzman: That scorecard is very different to Michael Holding's version - I think 24 more New Zealand wickets fell, and he's scrubbed the names of the umpires out in indelible marker pen.

Rajesh: Yeah, I was looking at YouTube links of the game too, but I couldn't find a single ball from Troup's innings, which is just so cruel.

Zaltzman: Troup - 7 not out off 38 in 55 minutes v Garner, Holding and Croft, taking the score from 73 for 8 to 104 for 9 and a one-wicket win. It justified the umpiring in its unbreakable determination.

Miller: Troup's first-innings 0 is worth a mention in dispatches too.

Rajesh: Yep, 57 balls and out just once (on the scorecard, at least). Calls for some celebration.

Miller: So inevitably, the bulk of these will belong to plucky tailenders, forced to grind to the bitter end for victory or a draw. But precious few managed to achieve both heroism and heroic failure in the same innings. Step forward, Shannon "Why did he do dat?" Gabriel! It had absolutely everything. Ceaseless heroism to drag West Indies to a share of a hard-fought series, a tenth-wicket stand spanning seven and a half grittily endured overs, and then, the hack to end all hacks - into the timbers. A 2-1 series defeat. Immortality achieved.

Zaltzman: Gabriel's innings against Pakistan was the greatest expression of the human condition since the glory days of ancient Greek theatre. The match-losing shot was eerily reminiscent of Edmund Hillary's first attempt to climb Everest, when, 20 metres from the top, he said, "I'm going to do a snow angel", and slid 5000 metres back to base camp.

Miller: At the opposite end of the competence spectrum, I nominate none other than Alec Stewart, Sabina Park 1998. Nine not out in 56 minutes on a pitch moulded from corrugated iron.

Zaltzman: Stewart's innings must be up there among the greatest single-figure scores by a top-order batsman. Worth a triple-hundred in Colombo.

Miller: There were more visits from the physio (12) than runs from Stewart's bat. At one stage he played forward to Curtly Ambrose and watched the ball take off like a Harrier and soar over David Williams' gloves.

Zaltzman: As I remember it, every ball Ambrose bowled to an England batsman in the 1990s did that.

Rajesh: Since we're talking West Indies, I'll throw another one in the ring. A classic No. 11 who Mr Martin would be proud of: Courtney Walsh, who saved West Indies the ignominy of their first home series defeat to Pakistan with the grittiest 4 off 24 balls ever seen.

Miller: Ah, Courtney. My favourite of his innings came a year earlier, in remarkably similar circumstances. But his 0 not out against Australia in Barbados in 1999, in support of Lara's 153, edges it for me because of the comic majesty of his first delivery. A no-ball from Jason Gillespie, left alone outside off, and in the same motion he tucks his bat under his arm and fist-pumps the bonus run. Never mind the fact it meant he had another ball to survive. Heart and soul on the line.

Rajesh: Yes, we need to do a separate list for Walsh. I think we're allowed our individual favourites as long as Walsh is on the list.

Zaltzman: Tidy attack there too: McGrath, Gillespie, Warne, MacGill. It takes a special tailender to avoid facing too much of them.

Zaltzman: I once saw Courtney Walsh hit three sixes over the pavilion in Oxford. Bowling maybe not in the same category, admittedly.

Rajesh: Was it you bowling to him?

Zaltzman: I'd have cleaned him up. Raw pace.

Miller: While we're talking of 0 not outs, by the way, I'd like to nominate a forgotten classic of the genre. Andrew Caddick, at The Oval in 1997. For some reason, he was always batting at No. 8 in that era, getting a nosebleed every innings. But on this occasion, in a low-scoring humdinger, he loitered for 37 balls to give Mark Ramprakash enough support to squeeze England's lead into triple figures. And then, when Ramps got out for 48, Digger Martin, Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell all fell second ball - from 160 for 6 to 163 all out, a target of 124 for Australia. So Caddick then rocks up with 5 for 42 to win by 19 runs.

Zaltzman: Caddick averaged 14 at No. 8, 10 at No. 9 and 6.9 at No. 10. Should have filled the problem No. 3 position, in hindsight.

Rajesh: And let me throw in a Statsguru question. There are only two instances of a sub-ten score lasting 100-plus balls, in matches not lost by that player's team, in Tests since 1980.

Zaltzman: In my mind, that is Gary Kirsten's entire career. Only, he often strung together the sub-tens in one innings. Sometimes 30 or so of them.

Rajesh: You're close. South African, but not for South Africa.

Zaltzman: Neil Wagner?

Rajesh: Yep, enjoy this one.

Zaltzman: I had Wagner on my list - 7 off 103 to save the 2018 Christchurch Test v England and secure a 1-0 series win. But his innings was nothing to do with wanting to save the game or series for his team. Nothing at all. It was a deeply personal revenge block.

Miller: I fancy a bit more heroic failure amid all this tail-end bigging-up, though. Time to bring out the Beef! Specifically, his six-ball duck against Australia at Old Trafford. First morning of the Test, England 2-0 down in the series and going reasonably steady with Robin Smith well set. His response? A maniacal lurch down the track to Trevor Hohns, going for a massive hoon over cow corner, and bowled. It was utterly abject. But you have to applaud the intent. Imagine if he had connected. It could have changed the course of history!

Zaltzman: Please never mention the 1989 Ashes again in my presence. I get terrible flashbacks. The horror...

Miller: Staying with '80s Ashes knocks, I had a Bob Willis innings shortlisted, but it's really only as a proxy for one that sadly got too rowdy to make the cut - 8 not out at Melbourne in England's three-run win.

Zaltzman: Muttiah Muralitharan and Lonwabo Tsotsobe are the only other two players with a recorded 8 off three balls in Tests on Statsguru. Murali's was v West Indies in 2008. He clubbed Fidel Edwards for two fours, then, in the great Sri Lankan tradition, was caught at third man.

Miller: Talking of Murali and Co, I've got another bosh-tastic belter to fling into the mix: Sanath Jayasuriya, Colombo 1993. Facing his only ball with Sri Lanka on the verge of their maiden Test victory over England, he smokes Phil Tufnell for six. It was the stirring of the beast that would soon be unleashed. At that stage of his career, he was a left-arm spinner batting at seven. Cue Faisalabad and The Oval.

Zaltzman: Can I dive back into the pre-1980 universe and mention West Indies' Frank King?

Rajesh: By all means.

Zaltzman: 1955 v Australia, came in in the second innings on, appropriately enough, a king pair. Out second ball for 6.

Miller: Sensational.

Rajesh: That's class.

Zaltzman: Three balls in the match, W, 6, W. Can't ask for more than that. The only recorded two-ball 6 in Tests.

Rajesh: That deserves more than an honourable mention.

Miller: A bit like Chris Martin's career, that is the sort of Test performance I think I could aspire to.

Rajesh: And to save the best for last - Sreesanth's 4 not out off seven balls to save India the Lord's Test.

Miller: Oh shush. That innings sent Monty Panesar's career into a tailspin. His execrable Twitter channel is almost certainly the fault of that not-out.

Zaltzman: Shall we try to resolve the Vishwa Fernando v Jack Leach issue? You could write a doctorate on whether Fernando's innings or Leach's innings was the greater.

Miller: Fidel probably has.

Rajesh: My favourite Vishwa stat: He had batted only seven times in Tests before that innings and never lasted more than 17 balls. Scored only five runs in those innings. Beat that, Leach.

Zaltzman: Leach, 1 not out off 17, added 76 with Stokes to win by one wicket and keep the Ashes alive. Vishwa Fernando v South Africa in South Africa, 6 not out off 27, added 78 with Kusal Perera to win by one wicket. Vishwa had emphatically never scored 92 as a Test nightwatchman, however.

Miller: To be fair to Vishwa, Leach did cheat a bit with that net against Ireland.

Zaltzman: Before that innings, Vishwa had been out four times in the 52 balls he'd faced in Tests.

Rajesh: He hadn't even scored 9. His scores till then: 0 not out, 0, 0, 4 not out, 0, 0, 1 not out.

Zaltzman: Two high-class bowling attacks, two pyrotechnicians flambéeing away at the other end... hard to separate. In any case, out of the 22,259 single-figure innings in Tests since 1980 (bear in mind, this is a much more hotly contested title than Greatest Century, for all the glory hunters out there), are we down to Troup v Leach v Vishwa? Or one of Walsh's one-wicket-win masterpieces?

Miller: I did go against my better judgement and proclaim Kusal Perera' innings as greater than Ben Stokes', so I'm not sure I can stand for both debates to be won by Sri Lanka!

Zaltzman: Sri Lanka went on to win the series as well, if you want to factor that into the extremely non-mathematical equation.

Rajesh: Yeah, too many factors going for Vishwa, so let's give it to Leach.

Miller: Leach clearly gets bonus points for his comedy glasses-cleaning. Would only have been improved had he recruited Bilal Shafayat to run his lint cloth onto the field between balls.

Rajesh: And he proved Lyon is a choker.

Miller: By causing the gaffe to end all gaffes (and to end Australia's dressing-room rubbish bin) when he called for the run that led to Lyon's fumble.

Zaltzman: I had to start a stand-up comedy show (remember them?) at the Edinburgh Festival 15 minutes after Stokes hit the winning boundary. In front of the giddiest crowd I have ever played to. I reckon 90% of them were watching the cricket on their mobiles whilst waiting outside the venue. And 100% of me was watching it on my mobile in my dressing room.

Miller: Did you just play Lyon's fumble on loop and take the moolah?

Zaltzman: Would also be remiss not to mention Pommie Mbangwa, 25 innings without reaching double figures, the most by a player who never troubled the second digit on the scoreboard. If only he'd played more Tests, he could have challenged Chris Martin.

Miller: Sadly, Jasprit Bumrah's 10 not out in Christchurch, to haul his average out of the 1s, is too rich for the palate of this discussion

Zaltzman: One more: Nick Compton's 7 v New Zealand in 2013 whilst Alastair Cook scored 57 at the other end. Outscored by Cook by a factor of 8 to 1 - heroic.

Miller: That's joyous. And to think he got the hump when Trevor Bayliss suggested he might like to get a bit of a move on.

Zaltzman: Much promise being shown by Bangladesh's Ebadot Hussain - ten innings, four runs, six dismissals, in his Test career so far. Keep an eye on him, he could go far in the pantheon of single-figure batsmanship.

Miller: Splendid, that's good intel.

Zaltzman: Do we have to choose a winner? Troup or Vishwa for me, I think.

Rajesh: I'll go with Troup.

Zaltzman: I suppose Wilfred Rhodes' 6 not out at The Oval in 1902 is out of the qualifying period. Shame.

Rajesh: No one remembers James Anderson's 81-minute 0?

Rajesh: Didn't do much good for England, though.

Zaltzman: Both my children cried when Anderson was out that day.

Miller: So did Anderson.

Rajesh: In that innings, Nos. 10 and 11 (Broad, Anderson) faced 79 balls without a run. Defiance in defeat defined.

Miller: I'm reluctant to let go of Martin, but reluctantly I can be talked round.

Zaltzman: Can we give Martin a Lifetime Achievement Award?

Miller: Done!

Zaltzman: I vote for Troup. But if we're doing 1981 onwards instead of 1980 onwards: Vishwa Fernando.

Rajesh: I'll go with Troup (with a rather heavy heart, to justify the request to go back to 1980).

Rajesh: So the group's with Troup?

Miller: I'll go for Leach - the majesty of that single. But Troup has the room.

Zaltzman: There will be dancing in the streets of Taumarunui. If they're allowed out at the moment.

Rajesh: With honourable mentions for Walsh and Vishwa.

Miller: And Caddick, for being asked to bat at No. 8 by the tidal wave of ineptitude that he was walling in.

Zaltzman: A pleasure discussing this highly important issue with you both.

Rajesh: Ditto!

Miller: Well rummaged, everyone.

Read the previous Rabbit Holes piece - on the prettiest batsmen in the game today - here