Test Crickets Decline

31 03 2010

Yesterday we wrote about Mohammad Yousuf and his ‘toys-out-the-pram’ retirement from the game. Having, since, had a look at the Cricinfo article in which they compared Yousuf’s figures to other modern day and past middle order players we noticed a couple of things that make for quite interesting reading.

Out of the top 10 batsman in history who have scored 4000 test runs or more from the positions of 4 or 5 in the line up, Mohammad Yousuf, comes in 4th position when sorted by average. The player with the best record is Greg Chappell so few arguments there, but when we discovered 6 out of these top ten are players within the last decade we began to wonder what this meant. Incidentally, the only really old school player featuring is England’s Denis Compton with Chappell next on the list in terms of venerability, two comparatively recent players Javed Miandad and Allan Border then make up the quartet.

It is not an uncommon thing these days to argue that modern test cricket is in a fallow period and that standards have slipped from the halcyon days of yore. When you look at a table like this though you begin to doubt whether indeed that is the case. Surely if batsman are scoring more runs then standards have improved?

This, though, is not necessarily the case as by making this assumption, you are assuming cricket is a batsman’s game. Ideally of course, cricket features an even battle between ball and bat in which either operators have a relatively fair chance of success. What you have to take into account is the mitigating factors that mean that batsman scoring more runs is not actually a good thing.

That batsman can only ever score runs against the bowlers they are faced with is an important truism, and for that modern batsman must be praised for taking advantage and producing these brilliant figures. Yet it is equally apparent that the standard of bowling is not, perhaps, what it was even 15 years ago meaning that the runs scored today are cheaper.

During the 80’s and 90’s a bowling average of below 25 runs per wicket was considered very good and there were many bowlers achieving these figures. The West Indies had an embarrassment of riches including Marshall, Garner, Holding, Ambrose, Walsh, Croft and Bishop, Pakistan had Waqar, Wasim, Imran Khan, South Africa Allan Donald, even New Zealand had Richard Hadlee – and so the list goes on. There are several others too but our aim is not to simply list them.

Correspondingly at this time a batsman was considered good if he averaged 40 or even high thirties. Today that benchmark, as can be seen from this list of middle order batsman, has been raised. The proportion of players averaging over 50 has never been higher and the base line for what is considered a ‘good’ test match batsman has also increased. Someone averaging 40 would be unlikely to survive long in the modern day Australian side for example. Evern more pertinently, consider the high esteem Allan Lamb was held in for example, and then imagine if an average of 36 would cut it today. We think not.

Lamb of course gained his reputation from scoring a number of hundreds off the feared Windies attack of the late 80’s (consider the names listed earlier and imagine a combination of any four of them….) and therefore, justifiably, is held in high regard. Mohammad Yousuf, to name a topical example, has a low mean against the recent Australian and South African attacks and so hypothetically, we feel if he had been around in the 80’s, chances are he would have ended up with an average more like 40 or possibly less. A good player, but not the great one his stats suggest.

Factor in too that the modern player has the pleasure of facing toothless attacks in places like Bangladesh and recently Zimbabwe too, and suddenly you can understand the skewed records of modern day players. Shane Warne, to name one player over recent years, has been a vociferous critic of the cheap nature of these runs and wickets – understandably since his competitor for the record test wickets taken, Muttiah Muralitharan, has 167 wickets against these two countries. The fact that sub continental nations have traditionally played these opposition more often than England and Australia for example, also provide one reason why suddenly there is a plethora of batsman from this region achieving remarkable figures. For us, there is something wrong for example in Sri Lanka’s Thilan Samaraweera having an average higher than Denis Compton’s or Viv Richards, to name but two greats, when against England, Australia and South Africa he has a figure of only 28.

The reasons why this change has occurred are manifold. Important considerations include the shortening of boundaries around the world for health and safety reasons and advertising, the vast improvement in bat technology and the flatter nature of the pitches all mean that the balance between bat and ball has altered. A top edged hook or sweep which previously would have been caught at deep square leg is now sailing over the fielders head for six. Financial pressures from governing boards around the world mean that the pitches are being prepared flatter to ensure the game goes to 5 days and gains the maximum in gate receipts. Anyone reading this please help us here – we cannot remember the last 3 day test match? We are not arguing that a 3 day test match is necessarily a good thing to occur regularly (it usually means an innings defeat for someone), but some of the most exciting games are the low scoring ones. 200 plays 250 and so on.

One other factor which is probably not helping bowlers in their development, is the extraordinarily and increasingly frequent nature of one day and 20/20 matches in modern cricket. People often make the mistake of calling limited overs cricket, attacking cricket. It is not. In its essence, you are essentially trying to prevent the other side from scoring runs. Taking wickets is useful, but not essential as at the climax, the number of wickets taken only ever has an effect if the scores are level (and even then only if the competition rules dictate that this is the deciding factor). What this means is that bowlers coming through playing only these forms of cricket do not develop the skills necessary to extract batsman who are well set in a test match situation. It is a genuine concern that in 10 years time India, and the other sides who favour one day cricket, will not produce bowlers capable of performing regularly in test matches. If India, for one, start losing tests due to their bowlers, it is unlikely they will be keen to play much and test cricket will suffer what could be a irrevocable blow to its enduring nature.

Having said all this we hope that the recent emergence of bowlers such as Dale Steyn, someone who will sure be comparable to the greats of yesteryear if he continues at his current level of achievement, will inspire a new generation of players to come through. Ever since the 19th century and the days of W.G. Grace, cricket has been a batsman’s game over a bowlers. Consider the most well known players over the last 120 years, almost all of them are batsman and so perhaps the emergence of 20/20, surely a bowlers worst nightmare, is understandable. Yet we feel that the game is becoming too dangerously skewed one way, a process that seems to have increased in pace over the last 10 years,  and  for crickets sake, we hope that bowlers can find a way back in.



4 responses

31 03 2010

I also think that helmets and padding are a factor that give modern day batsmen an advantage over their historical contemporaries.
The likes of Roberts & Garner or Lillee & Thomson would have had much more success roughing up unprotected batsmen with shorter deliveries in their day.
The advent of technology such as bowling machines and in-depth video analysis of rival bowlers is another factor that gives modern batsmen an edge.
I recall an interview with Andy Roberts in which he said that he had a huge advantage in that the batsmen had never faced or heard of him until he ripped in his first delivery.

Apologies, my point was initially more measured and concise but I lost it and had to resubmit due to omitting my email address!

31 03 2010

I hear what you say Mr. Giordballs and I agree to an extent, particularly on the padding and video analysis aspect. One of the things about facing fast bowlers in particular is of course the fear factor involved and overcoming it, as you say with the help of the padding this is indeed easier today than it was. The video analysis as you mention is also very useful as at least this gives a batsman an idea of what the bowler will be trying to do. Although I must say it is one thing knowing what they are trying to do and quite another countering it.

I just think that valid as your points are, a top class bowler (like Steyn) will always take wickets cheaply and so these factors are not the overriding ones in the evolution of the game in my opinion.

Thanks for commenting though!

31 03 2010

It’s really hard to tell what is going on with bowlers. Most of them just don’t seem accurate enough over long periods of time which is down to concentration and playing a lot of short format cricket is never going to help with that. Alan Donald said that he thinks modern bowlers get too frustrated if things don’t go there way from the start which I think is spot on.

But then look at Mitchell Johnson. For all his inconsistency and what can be real waywardness on the field, one thing he is consistent with and that is taking wickets.

It isn’t all bad out there in the fast bowling world, though we could really do with a couple of proto-Steyns in other teams as he really is quality.

31 03 2010

Hi Lou, thanks for commenting. I think you’re pretty spot on really, but I do worry for the future! I know its not all bad and the thing about Mitchell Johnson is he mixes genuinely brilliant wicket taking balls with extraordinary dross, all at 95 miles an hour so in some ways its a pretty potent mix. The fact that he is the fastest ever to 150 test wickets seems to demonstrate just how potent (and undermines my argument a little!) Yet he is one of the few genuinely dangerous bowlers around and so I’m pleased to see him performing.

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