The Bradman standard
Had he still been alive, Sir Donald Bradman would have turned 105 on August 27. Since his death in 2001, there has been something of a golden age of Test batting, and Test cricket. More Tests have been played, with more outright results, during these 12 years than in any other 12-year period in the 136-year history of Test cricket.
Some of the greatest batsmen since Bradman's retirement 65 years ago have played their best cricket in these 12 years. I think Bradman would have enjoyed watching the varied talents of Virender Sehwag, Hashim Amla, Mohammad Yousuf, Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis. And he would have keenly watched Sachin Tendulkar's second wind.
Yet, for all this batting brilliance, no batsman has come close to matching the great Australian master. In 80 visits to a Test match crease, Bradman was dismissed 70 times. Those 70 dismissals cost bowlers 6996 runs, giving Bradman a batting average that was one boundary shy of an even century. He made 29 hundreds in those 80 visits and set the standard for Test batting. It is hard to think of another sportsperson who remains so far ahead of the best players in his or her sport 65 years after retirement. Bradman remains the benchmark by which all other batsmen should be judged.
Tests are played more frequently these days. They are also played against more varied opposition on many continents. Bradman only played Tests in Australia and England. This proliferation and diversity mean that today's batsmen have many more opportunities to play Tests. England's current captain Alastair Cook has played 97 in 2734 days since his debut. Even if we discount the time Bradman lost due to World War II, he played 52 Tests in 4183 days. The higher frequency is a double-edged sword. While good form is rewarded, this form is also more fragile, simply because of the additional rigour of continual touring.
Even so, there isn't a single player in the history of Test cricket whose best record over 70 consecutive dismissals comes even remotely close to Bradman's record over his career. This is worth dwelling on for a moment. Bradman's entire career - over 20 years either side of a World War as an amateur Test player, with all that this entails: bad form, injury, technical problems and all else - is still substantially superior to any other player's best run over 70 dismissals.
This is why I think Test batsmen should be judged by the Bradman standard. The answer to the question "When was a Test batsman at his best?" should be given by looking at his best stretch of 70 consecutive dismissals. I tried this and the results are striking. It is rare for a batsman to have two non-overlapping stretches of 70 dismissals of comparable success. Only three players have made over 5000 runs over their best run of 70 dismissals. Only 30 have made between 4000 and 5000.
The record is revealing in other ways. It provides a way to compare Sunil Gavaskar's best results with, say, Herbert Sutcliffe's. It is also generally true that opening batsmen find themselves lower on the list than middle-order players. The top ten players in the list batted at No. 3 or 4 in the batting order. Matthew Hayden is the best-placed opening batsma,n with 4699 runs over his best 70 dismissal stretch, starting February 27, 2001 (at the Wankhede Stadium, where he made his second Test hundred) to October 26, 2004 (in Nagpur, where Australia won the series in India).
The early years of the 21st century were particularly great for Test batting. Many of the game's best players had their best periods - Lara, Inzamam, Dravid, Ponting, Hayden, Kallis and Yousuf. Since 2005, Shivarine Chanderpaul, Younis Khan, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla have dominated Test batting.
The 1980s and 1990s were lean years for Test batting. Allan Border and Javed Miandad were players of the 1980s. Steve Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar had their best years, either entirely or substantially, in the 1990s. Martin Crowe was at his best from the mid '80s to the mid '90s, just as Viv Richards was at his best from the mid '70s to the mid '80s. Sehwag dominated the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Most recently, Michael Clarke and Cook have been dominant.
Even the best of these players, Ponting, doesn't come within 1700 runs of Bradman. The list of players who came within 3000 runs of Bradman includes six Australians, seven Englishmen, five West Indians, four South Africans, four Indians, four Pakistanis, two Sri Lankans, and one New Zealander.
Bradman set the standard by which all other players should be measured. By the Bradman standard, the best anyone else has done is about 75%.