August 28, 2009

How good is Samaraweera?

Thilan Samaraweera has taken his batting average to over 50, the magic number that used to confer greatness on Test batsmen, but is he a great?

With his second successive hundred against New Zealand, Thilan Samaraweera has taken his batting average to over 50, the magic number that used to confer greatness on Test batsmen. He now stands 29th on the all-time averages list, and if the list is restricted to batsmen with a minimum of 50 Tests, he jumps to 18.

Samaraweera, of course, deserves his success. In March this year he was hit by a bullet when terrorists attacked the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore, and he feared he would never play cricket again. He had just hit two back-to-back double-hundreds then. You can argue that his returns have been halved now. But as S Rajesh tells us, Samaraweera has had a cracking couple of years, averaging over 76 in his last 15 Tests.

Still, how good is he? We perhaps don't know yet. He averages 31.22 against Australia, 24.66 against South Africa, 28.87 against England. In Australia he averages 22.66, in England 4.25, and in India 10.50. He has played 30 of his 54 Tests at home, and averages nearly 60 in them. Seven of his 11 hundreds have come at home, and his career average has been massively boosted by his five Tests in Pakistan, in which he scored 633 runs at 90.42 with three hundreds. His other hundred came in the West Indies.

Scoring big runs is a special ability. And given that Samaraweera started in the Sri Lankan team as a bowler who could bat, his achievements are huge. If he were to retire today, he would forever remain in an elite band statistically. But the numbers will lie because if we drew up a list of top 50 batsmen of all time, Samaraweera will not feature in it. Not even in a list of the top 100.

Niether will, say, Michael Atherton. But Atherton averages 37.69. He will never be called a great batsman. He was nowhere near being picked in Cricinfo's all-time England XI. But it can be suggested that his average did not do him justice. He opened the innings in a bowler's era. He had to survive and score runs against Wasim and Waqar, Walsh and Ambrose, Donald and Pollock, and Glenn McGrath. Each run scored in the '90s meant more than one scored today does. Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were the kings of that age. An average of over 50 then meant you were great.

At 21 Tests, Michael Hussey averaged 80.22. At 42, he averages 52.65. Samaraweera can perhaps be better judged after 100 Tests, which he could well end up playing. But even then his average might not reflect his true worth. Batting is unlikely to get tougher in the next five years.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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