Michael Jeh October 7, 2010

An attempt to understand second-innings stalwarts

In my most recent post , I 'fluked' the Laxman prediction and it opened up some dialogue that deserves a follow-up piece

In my most recent post, I 'fluked' the Laxman prediction and it opened up some dialogue that deserves a follow-up piece. The raison d'etre behind writing the original story wasn't really meant to be a prediction; rather, it was intended to explore the unusual phenomenon of batsmen who buck the overwhelming trend and average more in the second innings of Test cricket. The sheer luck involved in predicting Laxman's great innings was almost accidental. A few tongue-in-cheek comments suggested I must be part of the match-fixing mafia and I smiled at the suggestion, all the more since this was one of the few times I had no wager riding on it!

Today's article is about following up on my promise to a few bloggers who were keen to explore the question of which great batsmen average more in the second innings than the first. More importantly, can we suggest any reasons why that may be the case? Thankfully, S Rajesh, in his customary style, ended up doing my homework for me by writing an insightful piece which listed the top 8 batsmen of all time in that category. So let's check that list out again.

Best batting averages in second innings (Qual: 2500 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Jacques Kallis 97 4086 58.37 8/ 26
Garry Sobers 67 2923 55.15 8/ 15
Allan Border 111 4371 54.63 11/ 24
Kumar Sangakkara 61 2894 53.59 9/ 12
Matthew Hayden 81 3472 51.82 11/ 13
Sunil Gavaskar 90 3963 51.46 11/ 22
Geoff Boycott 85 3319 51.06 9/ 17
VVS Laxman 74 2877 50.47 5/ 17

My initial hypothesis was that I figured a few of the players in this list were likely to be opening batsmen, especially players who played a lot of cricket on pitches that would have been difficult to bat on the first day of a Test match, thereby creating a situation where their second innings average, on slightly flatter, drier surfaces, was likely to be inflated in comparison. I think it may be fair to extend that to include openers and No. 3 batsmen because they tend to be in pretty early on 'fresh' pitches that need enough moisture to last five days. Looking at those eight players listed, most of them batted in the top 3, even Laxman at the start of his career. So that theory may have some substance to it then?

What strikes me as curious though is that the two greatest batting allrounders of the game are right at the top of that list. Yes, Jacques Kallis has batted at 3 for most of his Test career so that is in line with my first theory, but when you consider that both Kallis and Garry Sobers would already have done some bowling in the match (and in Kumar Sangakkara’s case, wicketkeeping), their improved performances in the second innings is a great credit to their fitness levels.

Kallis, especially, is worthy of mention because he so often gets unfairly shaded when compared to the peerless Sobers. Looking at Kallis' numbers in all aspects of the game, including ODIs, I think we'll look back on his career and retrospectively realise that he was one of the genuine 'greats' of the game. I just hope that the cricketing world, not just the South Africans, savour the twilight of his career because I doubt we'll see a player of his calibre (and durability) again in the modern era.

Back to the original theme, it seems then that Kallis' place at the top of that list can be attributed in part to his resilient and unflinching style of batting, rarely flamboyant, but utterly dependable and risk-free. Well, in Test cricket anyway. He can shift gears seamlessly when necessary but I think it is a fair comment to say that his game is built around a rock-solid foundation of eliminating risk. I never saw Sobers bat but the legend around him paints a picture of a very different kind of batsman, much more carefree and flowing. For those who remember his batting, was that really the case or are they over-romanticising the aura around the great man?

No surprises that Allan Border is somewhere in that list. His entire reputation (perhaps unfairly) was built around his tenacity and courage with his back to the wall, and with a fair bit of his career played in a relatively weak Australian team, it's no surprise that rearguard efforts in second innings have boosted his average. What may surprise some people, though, is that AB was a fabulous attacking player in his own right. I played club cricket with him at Valleys CC in Brisbane for many years and at that level, free of the burden of responsibility (and not having to deal with Ambrose, Walsh, Holding, Marshall etc), AB's ferocity in attack was awesome to watch. Had he played in the modern era, behind a dominant top order, we might have seen another dimension to his batting. He was that good!

Matthew Hayden's inclusion on that list just proves that you don't need to be the traditional style of opening batsman to feature in this analysis of second-innings champions. Both Sunil Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott were from a different era and a different tempo, much less Haydenesque in technique and strike-rate. Boycott certainly would have batted on many pitches that were 'unfriendly' on the first morning of a Test match, hence it is no surprise that he cashed in heavily when he got a second chance. Gavaskar would probably have played many back-to-the-wall innings for India early in his career, again creating opportunity for long second innings that might even have left him carrying his bat. Again, while my boyhood memories of Gavaskar were those of a brave and courageous grafter, friends of mine who played with him at the Ranji level speak in awe at his ability to rip into attacks with savage intent.

Sangakkara's presence in the list is another surprise to me, only because I would have expected a wicketkeeper to be fatigued by the time he bats in the second innings. The only valid reason I can come up with is that he must have had a good look at the bounce and movement off the pitch by the time he batted in the second dig and this must surely have helped, along with lashings of talent!

Another theory I had for this second innings phenomenon was that it might feature players who batted a lot in venues that are traditionally tougher to bat on first thing in the morning, hence the second innings was likely to be more productive because it could happen at any time of the day. The dew in Sri Lanka is a known factor, Brisbane (and many Australian pitches) are notoriously hard work until lunch on the first day and I'm assuming South Africa is very similar to explain Kallis' average. I suppose, even in India, going back to Gavaskar's days, the new ball on a fresh pitch might have been the biggest threat, especially for someone like Gavaskar who was a fabulous player of spin bowling.

Enough guessing – I am keen to hear your opinions on these theories. What would also be interesting would be to see what the comparison of second innings aggregates and centuries are for these batsmen. Is their average inflated slightly by not-outs in the second innings (less likely in the first innings for obvious reasons) or have they genuinely churned out big runs batting last? Not that it's meant to be a criticism. It's hardly Laxman's fault that his last 7 second-innings efforts have been 124*, 61, 51*, 69*, 69, 103*, and 73*. Perhaps we can convince Rajesh to do his magic on Statsguru and give us another brilliant insight into this fascinating picture.

As for the greatest batsman of all time, Sir Donald Bradman? He did not make the list since he narrowly missed the 2500 runs cut-off but, for the record, he probably has the biggest gap between first and second innings averages of all. 97.85 in the first dig, 104.50 in the second. So that lays waste to any suggestion that the truly great players score heavily in the first innings, setting up the victory. Mind you, an average of 97 in the first innings is always a handy start!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane