XIs November 13, 2012

The novelists who ate bowlers

Or how Robert Ludlum and John Updike turned promising ODI superstars into long-format wrecks

Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of the Confectionery Stall Good-In-One-Format-But-Rubbish-In-Another XIs, already regarded in several leading academic establishments as one of the canonical works of scientific research and/or philosophy and/or anthropology in any field.

Here are numbers 7 to 11 in the ODI Legends But Test Match Muppets XI. (Qualification criteria: a minimum of both ten Tests and 20 ODIs.)

7. Chris Harris (New Zealand): 23 Tests, batting average 20.4, bowling average 73.1; 250 ODIs, batting average 29.0, bowling average 37.5 From the beginning of 1990 to the end of 2004, only six men played more ODIs than Chris Harris, Kiwi stalwart, hero to the balding, and six-time nominee for Inelegance magazine's International Cricketer of the Year. The only men to appear more than Harris in that decade and a half were the useful squadlet of Tendulkar, Jayasuriya, Inzamam, Wasim Akram, Ganguly and Kumble.

Between them, those half a dozen cricketing legends also played 553 Test matches in that time, totalling 82 centuries and 50 five-wicket hauls. Chris Harris played 23 Tests in ten separate spells in the New Zealand side, had a highest score of 71, and best bowling figures of 2 for 16. He was the only one of the 18 most-capped ODI players from 1990 to 2004 not to play at least 50 Tests (the other 17 averaged 89 Test caps each over that time span). But for almost 15 years, Harris was one of the first names beiged into the New Zealand one-day team sheet.

Moreover, the Christchurch Quirkster, who matched the raging unorthodoxy of his career statistics with a almost surreal and definitely biomechanically inadvisable bowling action, averaged 38 with the bat against Australia in one-dayers, the seventh-highest of the 41 batsmen who played 20 or more ODI innings against the non-baggy-canary-yellows from 1990 to 2004.

He scored 130 in his nation's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Australia in 1996, the highest score by a batsman in a losing cause in a World Cup knockout match. By career-confirming contrast, in three Tests against the baggy greens, Harris scored 30 runs in six innings.

As a bowler, he was awkward and economical in one-day matches. In Tests he proudly boasts the fourth worst average of the 880 Test bowlers who have taken ten or more wickets, behind Bangladeshi cannon fodder Rubel Hossain and Mohammad Sharif, and misleading-debut specialist Ian Salisbury. With a wicket every 26 overs and four balls, Harris can also lay claim to the equal fourth-worst strike rate. In the five-day game, he was an almost mind-blowing 32% less penetrative than Russel Arnold.

Harris was one of the most persistently low-impact all-round Test cricketers of all time - he is the only player ever to have both batted and bowled in at least 20 Test innings without either scoring 75 or taking three wickets in an innings.

8. Ajit Agarkar (India): 26 Tests, 58 wickets, average 47.3; 191 ODIs, 288 wickets, average 27.8 Agarkar is a statistical treasure trove. His Test career was almost unremittingly meaningless. But he scored a century at Lord's, and bowled India to a victory in Australia with 6 for 41. Apart from those two hermetically lonely landmarks, he never scored another half-century or took four wickets in an innings in seven years of alarmingly consistent five-day mediocrity. Over the course of his ODI career, however, he was the world's fourth-highest wicket-taker, behind Muralitharan, Pollock and McGrath, who collectively took 1726 more Test wickets than the Mumbai Mystery.

Agarkar's 288 ODI wickets put him 113 scalps ahead of India's next most-wicketous one-day bowler during the period of his international career. Even if he cannot be considered a great ODI bowler - his record in tournament knockout matches was pitiful and his economy rate was verging on Greek ‒ comparing the one-day Agarkar with the five-day Agarkar is like comparing Château Latour with Walmart Economy Grape Juice. They both allegedly come from the same fruit, but are at best extremely distant cousins.

9. Farveez Maharoof (Sri Lanka): 22 Tests, 25 wickets, average 65.2; 104 ODIs, 133 wickets, average 26.8 One of the two Farveez Maharoofs who have represented Sri Lanka was almost heroically useless as a Test bowler. He took little more than a wicket per match, at a pitiful average of 65 ‒ the worst of any bowler who has taken 25 or more Test wickets, and with a considerable margin of ineptitude to spare. Maharoof's inability to dismiss batsmen has also ripened dangerously with time, like a long-forgotten Stilton in a garden shed. In his most recent 13 Tests, he has harvested 11 wickets at 90 runs apiece.

The other Farveez Maharoof has a better ODI bowling average than Dale Steyn and Malcolm Marshall. The real Dale Steyn and Malcolm Marshall. Not pretend ones. That Maharoof's ODI average, which is only fractionally inferior to Lasith Malinga's, also outdoes those of Courtney Walsh, Chaminda Vaas, Anil Kumble, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Stuart Broad, and, in total, 76 of the 109 bowlers who have taken 100 ODI wickets. His Test average is worse than Mohammad Ashraful's. In both bowling and batting. Which is a considerable all-round anti-achievement.

Some so-called experts are still claiming the two Maharoofs (or Maharooves?) are, in fact, one and the same. It is barely credible that history will support this outlandish theory.

10. Mohammad Sami (Pakistan): 36 Tests, 85 wickets, average 52.7; 85 ODIs, 121 wickets, average 28.5 There are many good ODI bowlers who have failed at Test level. But none has done so quite as remorselessly as Sami, who has now powerstretched his underachievement out for more than a decade, since returning gloriously misleading Test debut figures of 8 for 106 in March 2001.

How can a bowler who could (occasionally) (very occasionally) bowl like a world-beating 95mph force of nature have proved so monumentally ineffective in five-day cricket? At last, I have uncovered the answer.

On the last day of Sami's debut Test in Auckland, legendary American spy-thriller author Robert Ludlum died. Obviously grief-stricken by the demise of the Bourne Trilogy creator at the age of 73, Sami was never the same again in the five-day game (averaging 56.8 since that solitary Test he played whilst Ludlum was alive). Somehow, however, he managed to channel his desolation more effectively in the one-day arena. For a while. Until his despair at Ludlum's passing spread to his ODI performances.

Between 15 February 2002, when Sami emerged from 11 months of mourning with a breakthrough 4 for 41 against West Indies, and 22 July 2004, he was the joint-fifth leading ODI wicket-taker in the world, with 84 victims at an average of 23.4. On 23 July 2004, the movie version of Ludlum's The Bourne Supremacy was released. Since then, Sami has been the joint-140th leading ODI wicket-taker in the world, with 34 victims at 38.6. Who knows the reason why - perhaps the Pakistani paceman was unconvinced by the casting of Julia Stiles as former Treadstone support technician Nicky Parsons ‒ but it has been heart-rending to see a potentially brilliant paceman wrecked by Robert Ludlum.

Sami is the only Test bowler to have taken more than 50 wickets at an average of more than 50 - in fact, only one other bowler has taken more than 40 wickets at a 50-plus average - Sachin Tendulkar, who, most experts would probably concur, (a) contributes more to his team with the bat than Sami does, and (b) has proved far more adept at coping with the sad deaths of American thriller writers.

11. Chris Pringle (New Zealand): 14 Tests, 30 wickets, average 46.3; 64 ODIs, 103 wickets, average 23.8 The early 1990s were a boom time for fast bowlers. Waqar and Wasim were at their irresistible peak. Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop had picked up the baton of Caribbean pace, Donald had made South Africa instantly competitive on their return to Test cricket, McDermott and Hughes laid the foundations for Australia's Warne-inspired resurgence. But the bowler who truly made batsmen's blood freeze at the mere thought of him turning at the end of his run-up, who haunted their waking nightmares and made them quiver at the mention of his name, was New Zealand trundler Chris Pringle. As long as that run-up (or, more accurately, waddle-up) was in a one-day international.

The words "one of the most devastating seam bowlers in world cricket" and "Chris Pringle" have never previously appeared in the same sentence. Or article. Or book. Or decade. If Google is to be believed. But in the first half of the 1990s, Pringle had a better ODI strike rate than all the aforementioned pace legends, apart from Waqar.

By reality-restoring contrast, in Tests during those same five years, of the 52 bowlers to take 25 or more Test wickets, the only two with a worse strike rate than Pringle's 99 were ice-cool part-time West Indian tweaker Carl Hooper, and seldom-sculpted Sri Lankan not-much-spinner Don Anurasiri.

Only 21 bowlers have taken 100 ODI wickets at an average of under 25. It is largely a collection of modern bowling greats. Only three of them have not also taken 100 Test wickets: ODI specialist Nathan Bracken, who fails to meet the ten-Test qualification criterion for this team; Shane Bond, who narrowly failed to reach the 100-Test-wicket mark only due to tedious injuries and infantile ICL-related bickering; and Pringle.

Please also bear in mind that his 30 wickets in 14 Tests included 11 in one barking-mad match in Faisalabad, apart from which Pringle took 19 wickets at 65 with a strike rate of a wicket every 23 overs. And this is a man with the best ODI average (and third-best strike rate) of the 134 non-Aussie bowlers who have bowled in ten or more matches in Australia. Chris Pringle has truly earned his place in this XI.

Unlucky to miss out:

Ajantha Mendis (Sri Lanka): 16 Tests, 62 wickets at 32.4; 59 ODIs, 96 wickets at 20.7 On bare statistics, Mendis merits a place. But his Test and ODI careers both began with wild success, and both then simultaneously slumped like a narcoleptic bobsledder after a heavy lunch at the top of the Cresta Run. On 26 January 2009, Mendis had taken 59 wickets at 10.8 in 24 ODIs, and 33 wickets at 18.3 in four Tests. On 27 January 2009, American novelist and literary legend John Updike passed away.

It has been like the Sami-Ludlum debacle all over again, but more so. Since the Witches Of Eastwick scribe popped his highly regarded clogs, Mendis has taken 37 wickets at 36.4 in 35 more one-dayers, and 29 wickets at 48.5 in 12 more Tests. There must be hordes of international bowlers anxiously scanning the newspapers for any snippets of news on the health of 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth.

So, the full line-ups for the three-Test and seven-ODI whitewashes are:

Test Stars But One-Day Flops XI MJ Slater, MP Vaughan, KJ Hughes, GR Viswanath, TT Samaraweera, IT Botham, MJ Prior, JG Bracewell, DJ Nash, JR Thomson, Mohammad Asif

ODI Legends But Test Match Muppets NV Knight, Salim Elahi, GA Hick, HH Dippenaar, MS Dhoni, MG Bevan, CZ Harris, AB Agarkar, MF Maharoof, Mohammad Sami, C Pringle

With this onerous selectorial task now complete, I will now return to writing about actual cricket. Which, it seems, has resumed.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on November 14, 2012, 6:52 GMT

    this was one heck of a series of articles. welldone, and thanks Andy!

  • testli5504537 on November 14, 2012, 6:42 GMT

    Glorious Final punch

    "With this onerous selectorial task now complete, I will now return to writing about actual cricket. Which, it seems, has resumed."

  • testli5504537 on November 14, 2012, 6:32 GMT

    Hats off Mr. Zaltzman......you are AWESOME!

  • testli5504537 on November 14, 2012, 1:09 GMT

    beyond the birth and obit coincidences, it'd be great if there was more writing on cricket and fiction that superficially doesn't have much to do with cricket. this was a bit underwhelming really, was expecting more substantial stuff on the subject.

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 23:51 GMT

    It is a interesting list which has truly one Test Great ' I T Botham'. But there are two one day greats who are also Test Muppets - Michael Bevan and Neil Fairbrother.

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 19:00 GMT

    Absolutely brilliant. Zaltz is a statistical genius, a humor giant and a literary king. No comparisons in any of the categories (sorry S.Rajesh). Even if you don't agree with him, you love him. You have to. Hats off again Andy. You are one of the few reasons I wouldn't ever want to turn to any other cricket site.

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 18:44 GMT

    the sami-ludlum comparison was so stunning, i momentarily forgot about the usual suspects' ending...

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 18:26 GMT

    Damn you Ludlum! Damn you!!!

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 13:06 GMT

    Deliciously pointless. If our scientists paid as much attention to their research as your clearly do to Statsguru we'd have global warming and cancer solved by now!

  • testli5504537 on November 13, 2012, 12:34 GMT

    I usually don't comment on these things, but the Zaltz man is too good! Amazing reading your works, always funny, always witty, and always a touch of class about it. Loving it!

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