Sunday, December 27, 2009

Kallis v Sobers?

As the Test series between South Africa and England continues, comparisons have been drawn between the home team’s all-rounder Jacques Kallis and arguably the greatest-ever in that field – Sir Garfield Sobers. As Kallis moves towards the end of his career, what do the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings say about him and how he compares to the West Indian legend? As Sobers only played one ODI (and was dismissed for a duck in that match) we’ll just look at their Test careers to begin with, although we will examine Kallis’s career in the shorter format of the game at the end of the article.

Kallis: Highest Rating: 935 (2007). Highest Ranking: 1st (40 matches). Average: 715
Sobers: Highest Rating: 938 (1967). Highest Ranking: 1st (189 matches). Average: 781

At first glance, they appear to have had similar peaks with both among the top ten batsmen in the history of the game in terms of points. While Kallis spent 40 matches and 281 days on top of the batting tree, Sobers truly dominated the 1960s spending a total of 189 matches as the number one batsman – more than anyone else in the history of the game. His nearest challengers in that respect are both fellow countrymen – Viv Richards (179) and Brian Lara (140).

Kallis: Highest Rating: 742 (2003). Highest Ranking: 6th (2002). Average: 529
Sobers: Highest Rating: 715 (1966). Highest Ranking: 4th (1964). Average: 483

Similar returns for the two all-rounders here. While both would probably freely admit that batting was their stronger suit, both were good enough bowlers to reach the higher echelons of the bowling tree too. At Kallis’s peak he was part of a strong South African pace-bowling attack that featured Shaun Pollock in second place and Makhaya Ntini just starting to dominate in seventeenth. Sobers made a slow start to his bowling career in which he only took 45 wickets in his first 35 Tests. However, he made the breakthrough in the famous 1960/61 series in Australia and never dipped below 600 points in his last 49 Tests – spread over eleven years, peaking at number four.

Kallis: Highest Rating: 616 (2002). Highest Ranking: 1st (370 matches). Average: 404
Sobers: Highest Rating: 669 (1966). Highest Ranking: 1st (213 matches). Average: 400

Sobers’ peak Rating of 669 is the highest ever achieved by an all-rounder in either format of the game. At that stage of his career he had a batting rating of 936 – top by nearly a hundred points from Bill Lawry – and also stood eighth in the bowling ratings with 715 points – trailing the leader Lance Gibbs. Kallis has topped the Test all-rounder table for more matches than anyone else and achieved his peak points when he had a batting rating of 848 placing second behind Matthew Hayden and a bowling rating of 726 – good enough for seventh place behind leader Glenn McGrath. Ian Botham is the only other all-rounder to break the 600 point barrier in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test all-rounders which illustrates how great these two players are. It is truly remarkable that their average numbers of points are so similar given that Sobers played 93 Tests and Kallis has so far played 131.

Coupled with these figures, it should not be forgotten that they were fielders of some brilliance too. Sobers retired with 109 Test catches and Kallis is so far up to 148 – ninth best all-time. Sobers also captained his country on 39 occasions, ending with a surprisingly disappointing record of 9 wins, 10 defeats and 20 draws. Kallis has only been called upon to captain South Africa twice – a defeat to Australia by 2 wickets in 2006 and an innings victory over the same opposition in 2009.

The One Day International game came too late for Sobers who only took the field once for the West Indies – against England at Headingley in 1973. He didn’t distinguish himself either – being dismissed by Chris Old for a duck and taking 1-31 and conceding the winning run as England sneaked home by 1 wicket in the final over. However, it has been a different story with Kallis. A veteran of 295 ODIs – the best part of 10 months-worth – he spent 58 matches in the number one position in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI batsmen in 2004 and 2005. He was less successful with the ball – peaking at 15th position in early 2001. However, his combined threat meant that he has spent a total of 432 matches as the top-rated ODI all-rounder in the world, more than anyone else apart from Kapil Dev. So he can truly be considered a great in that format of the game too.

So why is it that Sobers is often looked upon as the finer player when these two are compared? The West Indian shades the Test batting stakes average-wise, but Kallis edges the bowling by a similar margin. And then there is the South African’s ODI career too. Could it be that Sobers was considered a more swashbuckling batsman? He had a Test batting strike rate of 52.5 runs per hundred balls faced, whereas Kallis is down at 44.2, meaning that an average Sobers century would take some 36 deliveries fewer than one by Kallis. There were those six sixes in an over too which added to the Sobers legend!

Perhaps Kallis suffers from being a right-arm seamer in an era when South Africa were blessed by many of that kind. Donald, Pollock, Steyn, Ntini and Nel all spent considerable time in the world’s top ten, while Sobers could alter his mode of attack depending on the match and pitch conditions.

2571 men have now played Test cricket. Who is anyone to argue that these two are among the greatest to play the game? You could toss a coin to determine who was the greater, but it would be a tough man to decide between the two.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spinning it on the Highveld

Almost un-noticed, Paul Harris has sneaked his way into the world’s top ten in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. Helped by his match figures of nine for 161 against Australia at Cape Town this March, he now sits pretty on 669 points – the highest-rated left-arm spinner in the world. He was even higher in May of this year – peaking at seventh place before the resurgence of Mohammad Asif and Shane Bond in the recent series in New Zealand. A veteran of only 24 Tests since his debut in January 2007, he has so far taken 71 wickets, so is still qualifying for a “full” rating.

South Africa has hardly been a hot-bed of spinning talent since their return to the international cricketing fold in 1991. In fact, over that period of time, just 15% of all the Test wickets taken by their bowlers have gone to spinners. In contrast, over the same period of time, spinners for the other Test playing nations have taken 34% of their total wickets – more than twice as many. This is partly due to the lack of high-quality spinners in South Africa, but also due to the exceptionally high standard of the pace-bowling in that country. Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Dale Steyn have all spent time at the top of the bowling tree in recent years, Makhaya Ntini reached number 2 and Jacques Kallis and Andre Nel both featured in the world’s top ten at various stages of their careers.

The pickings have been slimmer slow-bowling-wise. In fact, Harris is the first South African spinner to reach the top twenty – let alone the top ten – since their re-admission. Paul Adams and Nicky Boje both played more than forty Tests and took more than a hundred wickets each, but never made a big impact on the rankings. Adams peaked at 588 points and 23rd position while Boje managed 545 points and 22nd position. So – if Harris is unchallenged as the top achieving South African tweaker in recent years, if we push the boundaries back, how does he stack up historically with his fellow countrymen?

Six bowlers from the Rainbow Nation have topped the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers – the three mentioned above plus Peter Pollock, Aubrey Faulkner (who uniquely topped the batting Rankings too!) and Hugh Tayfield . Tayfield first achieved top spot after the 1955 Oval Test in which he took 8 wickets, and really made his name by bowling a record 137 dot balls in a row to the England batsmen in the Durban Test of January 1957. He ended his career with 170 wickets in 37 Tests – still the leading wicket-taker among South African spinners – having spent a total of 24 Tests at number one.

So if Tayfield is the pre-eminent spinner – although Faulkner topped the bowling ratings for 7 matches – how does Harris compare? His current points tally of 669 places him 17th among all South African bowlers. However, only three spinners are above him: Tayfield – who peaked at 895 in 1957, Bert Vogler (750) and Cyril Vincent (713). Of them, only Vincent was a slow-left-armer like Harris. So – already early in his career, he can be considered one of the leading South African exponents of spin bowling.

All things considered, the recent South African attack is a far cry from arguably the most famous one in their history. For the first Test of the 1905/06 series with England at Johannesburg, the Proteas picked four leg-spinners - Faulkner, Vogler, Reggie Schwarz and Gordon White. They would go on to record their first-ever series victory 4-1 with the four leggies taking 43 wickets between them. However Schwarz and White died young in the First World War so it was very much a case of what might have been with them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping it real

A total of 241 men have taken the gloves in Test Match cricket and 203 in One Day International cricket. Historically it has always proved very difficult to combine both jobs of batting well and keeping wicket. However, a number of players have bucked the trend in these forms of the game and here we pay tribute to them.

The rapid onset of the one-day game in the recent years has persuaded international teams that they need to consider their wicket-keeper more as a front-line batsman, with the admission that they wouldn’t necessarily take the chances that the pure stumpers of old may have done. Long gone are the days of the wicket-keeper hidden away down the batting order in case of emergencies.

One of England’s finest glovemen was Bert Strudwick who played 28 Tests between 1910 and 1926 but ended with a Test batting average of 7.93 and a highest batting rating of just 104. George Duckworth replaced him in the team and held his place for most of the next decade but he ended with an average of 14.62 and a highest rating of 127. Other examples of the ‘all-field, little-bat’ keeper include Ken James (highest rating 41 in 11 Tests), Gil Langley (highest rating 223 in 26 Tests), and Narendra Tamhane (highest rating 251 in 21 Tests).

To illustrate this paradigm change, in the 1980s Test wicket-keepers averaged 23.61 with the bat. In the 1990s it was 27.29 and in the 2000s it had risen to 30.76.

Of course, some have flourished despite keeping wicket for the vast majority of their careers. Andy Flower managed to combine his role as key batsman and wicket-keeper and became the first keeper to reach the number one spot in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen in 2001. He was followed the following year by Adam Gilchrist, who hit 17 Test centuries and single-handedly revolutionised the way wicket-keepers are viewed in the longer format of the game.

Despite the current trend to choose fast-scoring wicket-keepers, especially in the shorter format of the game, only two have ever reached top spot in ODI cricket. Unsurprisingly, the first was Gilchrist who first topped the pile in February 2004 and spent a total of 396 days as the number one. The next to achieve the feat was the current incumbent – MS Dhoni. An innings of 96 against England at Jamshedpur in April 2006 took him to number one – a mere 16 months after his international debut for India. He has currently spent a total of 428 days on top of the world.

Even Flower occasionally hung up his gloves as Wayne James and Tatenda Taibu took the gloves in eight of his 63 Tests. However, Zimbabwe was possibly better served with their premier batsman sharing both duties as he averaged just 35.45 in those eight Tests as opposed to 53.70 when he combined both roles. This flies in the face of the other two recent players to play a significant number of matches as both batsmen and keeper. Kumar Sangakkara averages 40.48 with the gloves on and 72.79 without and Alec Stewart 34.92 with and 46.70 without. Back in 1948, Sir Clyde Walcott started his career behind the stumps and played his first fifteen matches in that position, but with a Test batting average of 40.36 he gave up the gloves and averaged 64.66 in his remaining 29 Tests.

So – which wicket-keeper has achieved the highest rating in terms of points in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings? Well – there are several answers to that question depending on how you define the word “wicket-keeper”

If we look at players who were picked as wicket-keeper for every match they played, the answers are:

Adam Gilchrist (874)
Alan Knott (650)
Brad Haddin (623)

MS Dhoni (837)
Mark Boucher (622)
Rod Marsh (559)

How about those players – like Sangakkara, Flower and Stewart – who were picked as wicket-keeper for their side in at least half their total matches?

Kumar Sangakkara (938)
Andy Flower (895)
Adam Gilchrist (874)

MS Dhoni (837)
Adam Gilchrist (824)
Kumar Sangakkara (755)

Before anyone says anything – early in his career, Gilchrist played five matches purely as a batsman while Ian Healy kept wicket.

Lastly, we should reserve a special place for the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton. He was picked as England’s wicket-keeper in all four of his Test Matches in the 1880s, but ironically is best remembered for an inspired bowling spell. In his final match, at The Oval in 1884, he was the tenth bowler tried in a massive Australian first innings. However, he proceeded to take four wickets for just 19 runs in 12 overs as Australia was bowled out for 551. That effort gave him a bowling Rating of 158 – the highest for anyone who has played exclusively as a Test wicket-keeper.