A ranking system for Test openers
Mathew Hayden's retirement has drawn the curtains on the career of one of the greatest openers of all time. He, along with Sehwag and Greame Smith, re-defined the art of Test opening. Where do these wonderful opening batsmen stand vis-a-vis other greats like Hobbs, Gavaskar and Sutcliffe? I feel that this is the right time to do such a study.
The study of opening batsmen is a complicated task. Over the years the role of opening batsmen has changed. From defensive, stay-at-wicket-at-all-costs batsmen they have become match-winners who have been primarily responsible for the attacking attitudes which captains employ now. The study has to recognise this evolution and be fair to all types of opening batsmen.
The first task is to fix a minimum limit criteria. I have fixed this as 3000 runs, scored in the opening position (not complete career). This lets in most great openers. The only top-drawer opener left out is Hanif Mohammad (2638 runs). Unfortunately nothing can be done. I apologise to my Pakistani friends for this. I have also given at the end Hanif Mohammad's values. The other great opener left out, Victor Trumper, has scored only 1650 runs in the opening position. I wanted to avoid any longevity-based weighting and the only way is to keep a high entrance bar. The number of qualifying batsmen has also to be kept at a reasonable number, 35 in this case.
In order to cater to the different playing times, tactics, grounds et al, I have used the following 7 criteria. Each is explained in full later.
1. Home Batting Average. 2. Away batting Average. 3. Average Runs scored - weighted by the quality of bowling attack. 4. Scoring Rate. 5. Average opening partnerships participated in. 6. Quality of the top 3 pace bowlers faced. 7. Quality of batting support - Other opener and next 3 batsmen.
The principle I have followed is that the three direct measures, Home average, Away average and Average weighted runs, will carry a total weight of 50%. The other four secondary measures will have equal weight.
1. Home Batting Average (15 points).
This is the most basic of all measures. It is a straight forward computation of the home batting average. Since the minimum number of home runs scored by a batsman in the group of 35 is 1246 (by Michael Vaughan), any average figure will be valid.
The highest home average is that of Herbert Sutcliffe who has an outanding 64.60 average while playing as an opener in England. Mike Atherton of England is at the bottom with an average of 39.14.
2. Away batting Average (20 points).
This is the other basic measure. It is a straight forward computation of the away batting average. It carries a higher weighting than the home batting average for obvious reasons. Since the minimum number of away runs scored by a batsman in the group of 35 is 916 (by John Edrich), any average figure will be reasonably valid.
Away from home, the other great opener Hobbs averages 59.17. Mudassar Nazar travels very poorly with an average of 25.75.
3. Average Runs scored - weighted by the quality of bowling attack (15 points).
The first two were basic measures. However there is need to value the runs scored against better bowling attacks higher. Greame Smith should get much more credit for his knock of 154 against England as compared to his innings of 232 against Bangladesh even though both were match-winning innings and the second is 50% higher. This is done by weighting the runs scored by the bowling strength of the opposing team and averaging the same.
Hobbs' run tally comes down to 90% while Andrew Strauss' tally moves up to 109%.
4. Scoring Rate (12.5 points).
This is a new measure. The openers have changed the way the Tests are played now. First Hayden and then Greame Smith, Sehwag and Gayle et al have scored consistently at well above 3 runs per over and this has resulted in many more decisive games. This factor has to be recognized and has been.
We have accurate balls played information for the past 15 years and this can be used. For the early Tests I have assigned to the opening batsmen the team's strike rate for the innings. This might vary slightly from actual balls played information, which is, unfortunately, available nowhere. However this will even out over a career. It is also true that the olden day openers, barring a very few attacking players, played quite slowly and most of them would in reality be benefited by this methodology. For openers such as Jayasuriya, Greenidge, Haynes et al, wherever available, actual balls faced information is utilised.
The highest scoring rate for an opener has been achieved by Sehwag who has scored at an incredible 4.75 runs per over.
5. Average opening partnerships participated in (12.5 points).
This is a very good measure since it provides an indication of the effectiveness of the opener. Herbert Sutcliffe has averaged opening stands around 73 runs. The lowest figure is for Alec Stewart, around 36 runs.
6. Quality of the top 3 pace bowlers faced (12.5 points).
When the openers walk in at 0 for 0, they have a daunting task. If they reach lunch at xyz for 0, they would have done their job. Everything afterwards is a bonus. During these two hours or so, the opening batsmen are likely to face the three best pace bowlers of the other team. If these three happen to be Marshall, Holding and Garner as a few opening pairs faced during the 80s, as against the openers who faced Madan Lal, Amarnath and Solkar, they have to be given due credit.
The best three pace bowlers' averages are summed and averaged over the number of times the batsman opened.
Alec Stewart has faced the toughest pace bowlers with a low average of 27.75. A number of recent English opening batsmen have somewhat low figures since they have faced strong Australian attacks in frequent Ashes series. At the other end Hobbs, surprisingly, has had the easiest of opening stints at 37.09. Understandable since the non-English bowling between 1908 and 1930 was quite ordinary.
7. Quality of batting support - Other opener and next 3 batsmen (12.5 points).
Imagine Greenidge walking in with Haynes, with Richards, Kallicharan and Lloyd to follow. Or Langer walking in with Hayden with Ponting, Clarke and Hussey to follow. Contrast this with Gavaskar walking with the happy-go-lucky Srikkanth and P Sharma, Viswanath and BP Patil to follow. These are the extremes. This measure takes into account the supporting batsmen. The other opener gets highest weighting, followed by the no.3, no.4 and no.5 batsmen with progressive lower weightings. These proportionate averages are added and averaged. Higher credit is given for lower support averages.
It is clear that a strong bowler in a weak team has the benefit that he can take a greater share of wickets than a strong bowler in a strong team (Hadlee/Muralitharan against McGrath/Warne). Contrast this with batting where good support is always a boost to the batsmen.
As can be expected, Justin Langer has the best supporting batting with a figure of around 50. Don't forget that Langer had Mathew Hayden as the other opener. The one who had the least support is Chris Gayle with 33.63, despite the presence of Lara at no.4.
Table of top opening batsmen of all time
No Cty Batsman HmAvg AwAvg AdjRpt ScRate OpPshp PaceBow BatSup
100.00 15.00 20.00 15.00 12.50 12.50 12.50 12.50
1.Eng Sutcliffe H 72.00 12.92 15.20 11.40 5.43 11.51 7.03 8.51 2.Ind Sehwag V 71.72 10.41 14.05 11.12 9.89 8.25 8.85 9.15 3.Aus Simpson R.B 70.71 10.51 15.60 11.36 5.56 10.71 8.05 8.93 4.Saf Smith G.C 69.46 9.13 15.31 10.13 7.69 10.03 7.60 9.57 5.Eng Hobbs J.B 68.70 10.46 15.78 10.08 5.98 10.05 6.45 9.91 6.Ind Gavaskar S.M 67.80 9.57 14.11 10.33 5.84 6.95 9.49 11.50 7.Eng Hutton L 67.69 11.60 14.54 10.56 5.01 8.52 7.34 10.11 8.Eng Amiss D.L 66.77 11.18 13.94 11.40 5.29 6.73 7.22 11.02 9.Aus Hayden M.L 66.26 11.58 11.38 10.33 7.51 8.91 8.53 8.01 10.Eng Boycott G 65.55 9.68 12.77 10.14 5.01 8.40 9.09 10.46 11.Eng Vaughan M.P 65.52 11.33 10.71 9.39 6.77 9.59 7.72 10.02 12.Win Greenidge C.G 65.15 9.84 11.34 9.18 6.78 9.30 9.31 9.40 13.Pak Saeed Anwar 64.61 9.27 12.72 9.44 6.97 5.80 9.14 11.28 14.Aus Langer J.L 64.42 10.15 11.98 9.97 7.24 9.27 8.50 7.32 15.Saf Gibbs H.H 64.40 9.22 12.92 9.66 6.54 8.61 8.82 8.63 16.Eng Trescothick M.E 64.22 10.21 9.63 9.40 6.81 9.52 8.48 10.18 17.Eng Stewart A.J 64.15 10.17 11.03 9.21 6.08 5.64 11.12 10.92 18.Win Haynes D.L 63.21 11.33 8.94 8.50 6.65 8.74 9.36 9.69 19.Aus Lawry W.M 63.21 11.27 10.56 9.67 5.38 9.15 7.92 9.24 20.Eng Gooch G.A 63.10 9.56 10.12 9.16 6.03 6.82 10.39 11.03 21.Win Fredericks R.C 63.06 9.22 10.68 9.18 6.24 9.69 8.58 9.47 22.Eng Edrich J.H 62.16 9.14 11.10 9.40 5.25 8.37 9.05 9.84 23.Slk Jayasuriya S.T 62.15 8.85 10.07 8.00 8.14 8.41 8.92 9.76 24.Eng Strauss A.J 61.92 8.15 11.97 9.19 6.11 7.97 9.03 9.52 25.Aus Slater M.J 61.77 10.53 9.41 8.43 6.66 8.55 9.02 9.18 26.Win Hunte C.C 61.64 10.70 10.32 9.42 5.78 8.12 7.18 10.12 27.Win Gayle C.H 61.60 7.66 11.28 8.36 7.17 7.00 8.54 11.59 28.Aus Taylor M.A 61.25 8.68 11.63 8.65 5.37 7.42 9.82 9.69 29.Slk Atapattu M.S 60.46 8.28 12.05 8.12 5.59 8.48 8.45 9.49 30.Aus Morris A.R 60.25 7.75 14.74 8.91 5.79 6.10 7.97 8.98 31.Saf Kirsten G 59.80 7.90 11.81 8.65 5.20 6.39 9.33 10.52 32.Eng Atherton M.A 59.27 8.28 9.63 8.35 4.86 6.40 10.98 10.76 33.Aus McDonald C.C 57.65 9.53 8.89 8.40 5.01 7.34 8.02 10.46 34.Nzl Wright J.G 57.11 8.40 9.00 7.48 5.08 6.03 8.98 12.14 35.Pak Mudassar Nazar 56.04 10.43 6.87 7.20 6.25 5.81 9.02 10.47
Herbert Sutcliffe's position at the top is a well-earned one. He leads in two of the key measures
- Home average, - Average opening partnership and - Has a very good Away batting average of 57.00He is only one of two batsmen, the other being Miandad, who has never fallen below 50 in their (reasonably long) career. He clocks in comfortably in the other measures. He however had good support (Hobbs/Hammond) at the other end. The bowling Sutcliffe faced was nothing great.
Sehwag's second position should not surprise any unbiased observer. His credentials are listed below.
- 50+ averages both home and away, - Almost all his top scores have been against top class bowling, - He has an excellent strike rate of 4.75 rpo, - Has faced very good quality pace bowling almost always and - He has scored only around 200 runs in 5 Tests against Bangladesh/Zimbabwe.In fact he would have been at the top if the Strike Rate measure was, say, 15.00 instead of 12.50. That would have been a worthy position for Sehwag. He has won many matches for India through his uncompromising attacking style.
Bobby Simpson is the surprise package. The main reason is that his overall batting average is only 46.82. However his opening average is 55.52, that too, 52.55 at home and 58.48 away. His opening partnerships, mostly with Lawry, averaged 68 and he faced good quality pace bowling almost always.
Then comes Graeme Smith, who is somewhat similar to Sehwag and Hayden. He has an away average of 57.43. He loses out slightly in view of the runs scored against weaker teams, and also the quality of pace attacks faced.
Then come three great openers of yesteryears. Hobbs, Gavaskar and Hutton. Each of them could have been at the top with no questions asked. All have very good averages. Gavaskar loses in the average opening partnership but gains on the pace bowling quality and a very average middle order.
Hayden has lost out a little because of the indifferent end to his career (His average dropped by 2.5 runs during the last 10 Tests). Otherwise he would have challenged for a place in the top 5.
Readers would note that the top 10 opening batsmen comprise of 3 attacking match-winning openers of today and 7 openers of the previous eras. It is clear that for any opener of today to break into the top-10 they have to be extraordinarily good, as these three have been. One does not necessarily have to score at around 4 rpo, in which case, they have to average well above 50, both home and away and do that consistently against the top sides, not just the minnows. Being part of a good opening pair and consistently putting up above average partnerships would help.
As I had indicated earlier, I have given below Hanif Mohammad's summary figures. What is very relevent is his away batting average, which, standing at 44.05, is 20% better than his Home average. Also the total lack of support batting.
Pak Hanif Mohammad 56.62 7.37 11.75 8.01 4.38 5.44 7.17 12.50
Finally a note to the readers. One factor I keep in my mind always is that each of the measures used in all my articles should be understood by all the readers, without exception. One of the reasons I try to stay away from complex statistical measures and methodologies.
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Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems