Thursday, November 19, 2009

England v South Africa – a tale of Number One’s

As England prepares to take on South Africa in their ODI series, there is little doubt that the home team start as favourites, despite their disappointing showing in the recent ICC Champions Trophy 2009. Little more than a month ago, England upset the Proteas by 22 runs at Centurion in that competition to extend their unbeaten run against them to six matches, their best-ever.

However, despite those recent reversals, South Africa still holds a healthy 22-16 lead in the ODI matches between the two teams, with one match tied and two no-results. It is also very much the case that South Africans have dominated the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings far more in recent years than their English counterparts.

It could be argued that England’s best days in terms of ODI Rankings performances are long behind them. When the shorter format of the international game first started in the early 1970s England players dominated with both bat and ball. Keith Fletcher and Dennis Amiss had a near-monopoly on the number one position for batsmen in the four year period from 1973 to 1977, and it was John Snow, Geoff Arnold and Chris Old who were the pre-eminent bowlers over an even longer period – stretching all the way to late 1979. However, that was as good as it got for English bowlers, and none have been able to look down on the rest of the world since Andy Roberts usurped Old in December 1979. With so little to choose between the current top ten bowlers, could Stuart Broad be the first English bowler to reach top spot for more than three decades?

For South Africa, the pickings bowling-wise are even slimmer. Admittedly, the rest of the world had already played 685 matches by the time they returned from the international wilderness in Kolkata in 1991, but only one bowler from that country has reached top spot. However – once he reached it, he spent more matches than anyone else in that position. Shaun Pollock first reached number one in December 1997 and was in that position when he retired in February 2008 after spending 844 matches – and 1,964 days on top of the world. Hopes are high that Dale Steyn – currently in sixth place and still qualifying for a full Rating – will be able to emulate his former team-mate.

Since that initial dominance from Amiss and Fletcher (and the solitary match John Edrich had as number one after the very first ODI of all) three other England batsmen have spent fleeting amounts of time on top. First was Allan Lamb, who had a brief moment in the sun after slamming 91 against India at Kanpur in October 1989. Next was Marcus Trescothick who enjoyed a fortnight at the top after scoring heavily in the home series with South Africa in the summer of 2003. And most recently it was Kevin Pietersen who achieved the feat during the 2007 World Cup and stayed there for five months.

Four South African batsmen have enjoyed the number one spot. The first was Hansie Cronje – a four-match stay in late 1994 in an era dominated by Brian Lara. Surprisingly, the honour of the highest number of batting points by any South African – and the only man to reach 900 - goes to Gary Kirsten. He achieved this after an unbeaten innings of 105 against Australia at Indore in 1996 – at the end of a period in which he hit six centuries in 21 matches. Since then both Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith have enjoyed 60-odd matches in top spot and with a good series against England, AB de Villiers could become the fifth Protea to reach the batting pinnacle.

It is in the all-rounder stakes – however – that the South Africans really come into their own. Between them, the foursome of Kallis, Pollock, Cronje and Lance Klusener have racked up 1,211 matches in top spot – all of them among the top six in the history of the game in terms of matches spent at number one. England also boasts four all-rounders who have been number one (plus John Snow who was top for two days after the second ODI ever played). However, the sum total of matches that Messrs Old, Botham, Greig and Flintoff spent there comes to just 316 in reply.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Test 800ers

A couple of months ago, we examined the players who had remained above the threshold of 800 points for the longest in One Day International cricket. Now, as Test Match hostilities commence between Sri Lanka and India it is time to investigate their Test Match equivalents.

The first player to reach 800 batting points in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings was Clem Hill. After scoring 119 in Australia’s second innings against England in Sheffield’s only Test in July 1902, which helped his team to a convincing triumph by 143 runs, he reached 827 points, good enough to lead the batting charts by more than one hundred points. He remained the only player to have reached this high level until team-mate Victor Trumper three years later.

The bowling mark was first crossed much earlier. In fact, nine different bowlers had achieved 800 points by the time Hill did, and a tenth – Monty Noble – reached the landmark in the same Test. However, someone had to be first and that man was Joey Palmer. At Old Trafford in 1886 England may have won a narrow victory by four wickets, but Palmer took 3-41 and 1-11 in the match to follow-up his great successes on 1884 when he took 14 wickets in the three-Test series. Palmer didn’t have a long wait for company as Fred ‘the Demon’ Spofforth took 4-73 in 56 overs in the following match at Lord’s to move up to 803 points.

Since those initial trailblazers, a total of 86 batsmen and 81 bowlers have achieved that landmark of cricketing greatness – 800 points in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings. Some had fleeting moments in the sun like Marcus Trescothick who enjoyed a brief 8-day period at this level in late 2005. Or John Ferris, who managed to represent both England and Australia, and enjoyed an even briefer, 5-day stay at the end of his career.

So what can the Rankings tell us about supposed ‘Golden Ages’ of cricketing batsmen or bowlers? Three times there have been nine batsmen above 800 points – all relatively recently. Matthew Hayden led the way in April 2004, Jacques Kallis led a nine-pronged attack the following year, and most recently it was Ricky Ponting whose 936 points in January 2007 headed eight other batsmen over 800 points. The last time no Test batsman enjoyed such a high standing was in February 1995 when Jimmy Adams’ 786 points were good enough for top spot.

With the ball, seven bowlers have topped 800 points at two separate times in Test history. The first was in early 1984 when Geoff Lawson, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Bob Willis, Kapil Dev, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding were the leading seven. Not a spinner among them! In fact the leading spinner at that time was Pakistani Iqbal Qasim down in 13th place with 619 points. The other occasion bowlers ruled the world was in February 1998 when the men were Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald, Shane Warne, Shaun Pollock, Mushtaq Ahmed and Wasim Akram. There has always been at least one bowler above 800 points since August 1978 when Bob Willis briefly topped the charts with 792 points.

So – who of all these players managed to spend the longest time at this level of performance? Can anyone topple Donald Bradman in the batting charts and how do the modern greats compare? Here are the top ten batsmen in terms of days spent above 800 points:


Total days

Donald Bradman


Jack Hobbs


George Headley


Garry Sobers


Walter Hammond


Viv Richards


Brian Lara


Neil Harvey


Sachin Tendulkar


Ricky Ponting


Both Tendulkar and Ponting will have opportunities to move further up this list, whereas at the top it is very close for first place, but Bradman just holds off Jack Hobbs by a mere two months. Here are the bowlers:


Total days

Muttiah Muralitharan


Bill O'Reilly


Glenn McGrath


Curtly Ambrose


Johnny Briggs


Richard Hadlee


Ray Lindwall


Malcolm Marshall


Lance Gibbs


Imran Khan


Here, as with the batsmen, we have a nice mix of past and present stars with Sri Lankan world Test wicket record-holder Murali on top. He first moved above 800 points after taking 16 wickets at The Oval in 1998 and has scarcely dropped below that level since then. With plenty of time to go on his career, and having overtaken Bill O’Reilly earlier this year, he has the opportunity to put this particular record way out of reach.