Friday, March 26, 2010

The best Test team of the 2000s

We’ve tackled the batsmen and bowlers who dominated the first decade of the new Millennium, but what about the teams? Statistically, Australia owned the period, but which line-up of players comprised their best-ever line-up and how do the South African and Indian powerhouses stack up in comparison? Using the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings we can try to discover which the finest team was in the time period by analysing the total points each team had acquired.

Unsurprisingly, the ICC World XI which was assembled for the one-off Test against Australia in October 2005 possessed the highest total of Ratings points with 10422 – the only time a team has managed to break the ten-thousand point barrier. 6774 of those were for batting and 3648 for bowling. Looking at that line-up it is easy to see why no individual team has managed to better that mark – Graeme Smith, Sehwag, Dravid, Lara, Kallis, Inzamam, Flintoff, Boucher, Vettori, Harmison and Muralitharan. It didn’t help them of course, as they went down to a 210-run defeat.

After this representative team, Australians fill the next fifteen slots topped by the eleven who took the field against South Africa at Johannesburg in February 2002. That line-up totalled 9769 points between them and racked up 652-7 declared thanks to centuries from Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn and an unbeaten double-century from Adam Gilchrist. The Proteas folded for just 159 and 133 in reply and succumbed to the heaviest defeat in their Test history. Let’s have a look at that Australian team in detail:

All of the top seven featured in the world’s top twenty Test batsman, headed by Matthew Hayden (872) in third place and Gilchrist (864) in fourth. Just behind them were Damien Martyn in fifth, Steve Waugh seventh and Justin Langer ninth – so Australians filled more than half of the top nine. Rounding up the batsmen was Ricky Ponting – at the start of his ascent to greatness – with 657 points down in twentieth place. To illustrate how strong a batting line-up this was, no country in Test history has ever bettered the total of 6322 points this Australian team managed on this occasion – even Glenn McGrath contributed 109 batting points to the total.

With the ball, Glenn McGrath led the way with 907 points, just behind Muttiah Muralitatharan, and Shane Warne was surprisingly as low as seventh at the time. Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee also featured in the top sixteen in the world, and the two Waugh brothers both chipped in with a couple of hundred points each.

Australia dominated the team Ratings with only a turn-of-the-century South African team getting a look-in among the top 25 Rated countries taking the field over the course of the decade. You have to go down to 56th place to find the first non-Australian or South African team in the list, and surprisingly it is the New Zealand team who played England - and lost - at Lord’s - in 2004. Strength in depth was the key to the over-achieving Kiwi teams of the decade and this one was no different. Their highest-rated batsman was tenth-placed Mark Richardson but they had seven batsmen with Ratings over 500. It was a similar story with the bowlers with 12th placed Chris Martin leading the way. He was well supported by Daryl Tuffey, Chris Cairns, Daniel Vettori and Jacob Oram who were all above the 400-point mark. The highest-rated Indian team is down in 79th place with a total of 8319 points.

The Australians may have had the highest-rated overall team and batting line-up over the decade but they cannot claim the highest-rated bowling attack over the same period of time. That honour goes to the Proteas who even managed to out-point the ICC World XI with one of their bowling line-ups.

In March 2001 South Africa faced off against the West Indies at Bridgetown with the highest-rated Test bowling line-up since a Lillee and Thomson-inspired Australian attack in 1975. Shaun Pollock with 869 and Allan Donald with 830 were second and third in the world, and Jacques Kallis 17th. Nicky Boje and Makhaya Ntini – who had only taken 39 of his career total of 390 Test wickets at the time – were both in the top thirty and Lance Klusener not that far behind them.

However, on that occasion they couldn’t quite force a victory, with the West Indies ending on 88-7 chasing an improbable 265 for victory. It was the lower ranked Kallis and Boje who did most of the damage with Kallis taking six wickets in the West Indies first innings and Boje 4-17 in sixteen overs in the second. The South African bowlers made up for it the following week at Antigua when they helped the visitors to an 82-run victory but it was the batting that let them down in the final Test at Sabina Park when Courtney Walsh and Mervyn Dillon gave the home team a consolation win.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Swann on Song

Thanks to his ten wickets in the first Test with Bangladesh at Chittagong, England’s off-spinner has risen to the giddy heights of second in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. It has been mentioned widely in the press that he became the first English offie with a ten-wicket match haul since Jim Laker took his nineteen against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, but how does he compare with his off-spinning predecessors in the England team? Astonishingly, in their entire history of Test cricket, only two of them have managed to achieve top spot.

The first English off-spinner to top the Test charts was Billy Bates who reached 658 points in early 1887. He took 14 wickets at Melbourne in January 1883 which included England’s first-ever Test hat-trick, and he also scored 55 with the bat in England’s innings. However his tenure at the top was cut short by a freak injury in Australia in 1887-88. He was bowling in the nets when a straight-drive hit him in the face, damaging his eyesight so badly that he never played first-class cricket again.

England produced a number of off-spinners over the course of the first half of the 20th Century, but few were able to hold down a regular place in the Test team. Albert Relf was chosen to tour South Africa twice with mixed results and Ciss Parkin topped the bowling averages against the all-conquering 1921 touring Australians, but his career came to an end after he criticised the captain Arthur Gilligan in a newspaper article. Vallance Jupp also had his moments taking 28 wickets in his 8 Tests and briefly made it into the world’s top ten. Tom Goddard took nearly three thousand first-class wickets in a career which extended for thirty years, but he was unfortunate in that his career coincided with that of Hedley Verity, who was the preferred English spin-bowler at the time.

In fact, for the vast majority of the first eighty years of English Test cricket, it was the slow-left-armers who held favour in the team. Bobby Peel, Johnny Briggs, Charlie Blythe and Wilfred Rhodes all took over 100 Test wickets with this style of bowling, and all spent time at the top of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. Verity himself also spent four matches at the top thanks to his 15 wickets against Australia at Lord’s in 1934. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that England produced its second off-spinner to reach the number one spot.

Jim Laker’s nineteen wickets against the Australians at Old Trafford in 1956 are the stuff of cricketing legend. They had the effect of lifting him from sixth to top spot and there he occupied that place for a total of 21 matches. The late 1950s were truly a golden era of spinning talent as South African High Tayfield, Australian Richie Benaud as well as Laker’s England team-mate Tony Lock all enjoyed time at the top of the bowling tree.

Three off-spinners took more than 100 Test wickets for England in the 1960s and 1970s. David Allen is probably best remembered as the man who faced the final deliveries in the famous 1963 Lord’s Test with the West Indies with Colin Cowdrey nursing a broken arm at the non-striker’s end. But he was a good enough bowler to reach as high as the number 5 spot earlier the same year. Ray Illingworth will be forever linked with the trumphant 1970/71 Ashes tour when he was chaired off the field after the series-clinching victory at Sydney. His 3-39 in Australia’s second innings of that Test lifted him to his career-high of 647 points and seventh place.

However, the man who has achieved the highest Rating since Laker while bowling off-spin for England is Fred Titmus. One of the few men to have played first-class cricket in five different decades (the 1940s through the 1980s) he took 153 wickets in a Test career which spanned from 1955 to 1975. The mid-point of that career – the summer of 1965 – brought his highest career Rating. His figures of 5-19 in New Zealand’s second innings at Headingley hastened them to an innings defeat and propelled him up to 797 points and third place, only trailing fellow off-spinner Lance Gibbs and Wes Hall.

John Emburey has been the most durable offie used by England over the past quarter of a century, but he only briefly made it into the world’s top ten – early in 1987 after the triumphant Ashes tour under Mike Gatting. Current England Chief Selector Geoff Miller managed to reach number 19 in early 1984 but his successors Eddie Hemmings, Peter Such and Robert Croft – despite all having fleeting moments in the sun - never managed to crack the world’s top 25 in the longer format of the game.

So – having already attained the highest points tally for any English off-spinner since Fred Titmus, the challenge for Graeme Swann is now to see if he can emulate Billy Bates and Jim Laker and reach the coveted number one spot.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The leading bowlers in world cricket

So, if Bradman is the number one batsman, who is the number one bowler using this criteria? The answer may surprise a few, but that man is Glenn McGrath. His lead is not as clear-cut as Bradman's but it is significant enough over second placed Curtly Ambrose.

Over his 124 Tests, McGrath had an average Rating of 791 points - an incredible achievement given that his career spanned over thirteen years and after 8 Tests his bowling average stood at a distinctly ordinary 43.68. However, from that moment on his ascent to greatness was rapid and his Rating never dropped below the 800 mark from November 1996 until he retired at the end of the Sydney Test more than a decade later in January 2007.

In total he spent 174 matches at the top of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers, a number surpassed by only Muttiah Muralidaran. He first reached number one after taking eight wickets in the 1996 Boxing Day Test against the West Indies which moved him ahead of Pakistani Mushtaq Ahmed, and he was scarcely out of the world's top three after that. His nagging accuracy was second to none - Michael Atherton - who he dismissed a record 20 times - will testify to that, and his final tally of 563 Test wickets is well ahead of the next-highest by a paceman - Courtney Walsh's 519.

In second place to McGrath in terms of average Rating points comes that West Indian miser Curtly Ambrose, whose 405 Test wickets cost just 20.99 each. Over his 98-Test career, he averaged 777 points and spent a total of 145 matches on top of the world. England were his favourite opposition and he is the only non-Australian to take 150 wickets against them, thwarting victory chases on more than one occasion, and helping to humble them for just 46 at Port-of-Spain in early 1994.

Positions three and four are occupied by those two modern-day South African great pace bowlers Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald. They shared 397 wickets in the 47 Tests they played together from 1995 to 2002 and the Proteas won 23 of those Tests, losing only nine.

In fifth place is the first spinner on the list - Muttiah Muralidaran. It may come as a surprise to some that he is this far down, averaging 770 points over his 132-Test career so far, but he was a fairly late starter, and his career only really took off after twenty Tests or so. But once he took 28 wickets in four Tests in early 1997 he never looked back and spent the first of his record 214 matches in the number one spot in January 2002.

Proving their mastery over all bowling conditions, three of the top five Test bowlers in terms of average Ratings points also feature in the ODI list, but there is a slight shuffling of the pack as this time it is Shaun Pollock who comes out on top. When he finally retired in February 2008 his Rating still stood at 894 points, far ahead of second-placed Shane Bond on 755. Pollock had occupied the top position for the last two years of his career and his tally of 844 matches as world number one is more that twice that of anyone else in the shorter format of the game. He played a total of 303 One Day Internationals over the course of his career and averaged 794 points over those.

In second place in the one day arena is a man who just missed out on the top five in the Test game - Joel Garner. Admittedly, scoring rates were somewhat slower when he was in his pomp, but to maintain an economy rate of just 3.09 runs per over in 98 matches goes some way to explaining how he had an average Rating of 776 points. Few people will forget how he blew away England's tail in the 1979 World Cup final ending with figures of 5-38.

Unsurprisingly Messrs McGrath and Ambrose clock in at positions three and four and Michael Holding makes it three West Indians in the top five as he managed to average 739 points in his 102 ODIs. Fortunately for batsmen the world over, Ambrose didn't make his debut until the year after both Holding and Garner hung up their bowling boots, otherwise it really would have been too much to bear.

Lurking just outside the top five at positions six and seven are two Kiwis who played the vast majority of their careers together. While Sir Richard Hadlee often took the headlines, it is sometimes forgotten what an excellent bowler Ewen Chatfield was. They both played practically the same number of matches and averaged pretty much the same. Chatfield's peak of 893 was achieved in 1984 and has only ever been bettered by five bowlers in the history of the game.