September 16, 2013

The Barnes standard

Many consider Sydney Barnes the best bowler in Test history. Which bowlers match him?

Waqar Younis: a wicket-taking demon between 1990 and 1994 Shaun Botterill / © Getty Images

If Don Bradman is the best batsman in Test history, Sydney Barnes, it is frequently argued, is the best bowler. In 27 Tests, Barnes took 189 wickets at 16.43, one every 41.6 balls. Barnes' claim is not as strong as Bradman's, but until 1990, Barnes was unmatched by any other bowler. He has the highest rating for a bowler in the ICC's ratings for Test bowlers, just as Bradman has the highest rating for batsmen. Therefore, I propose a Barnes standard for Test bowlers to complement the Bradman standard for Test batsmen.

The most successful bowler is one who takes the most wickets, while conceding the fewest runs, in the fewest deliveries. Put another way, the most successful bowler takes the most wickets, most cheaply and most frequently. Using such a rule, we get a Barnes standard measure: wickets taken divided by the product of bowling average and strike rate. Barnes' measure is 0.276 over the length of his career.

Among bowlers with a career haul of at least 100 Test wickets, only George Lohmann, a 19th century Englishman, and Dale Steyn have strike rates better than Barnes. Steyn's wickets cost about six runs more than each of Barnes' did. No bowler, not even Lohmann, has matched Barnes' average of seven wickets per Test.

It turns out that only one player in Test history has had a 27-match stretch - the length of Barnes' Test career - in which he achieved a higher Barnes standard measure. In 27 consecutive Tests between 1990 and 1994, Waqar Younis took 177 wickets, at the rate of one every 33 deliveries. This remains the single-most lethal wicket-devouring span over 27 consecutive Tests. Barnes, over the entirety of his Test career, produced a record comparable to Waqar's between 1990 and 1994.

Bowling in strong line-ups is not necessarily a drawback, since the Barnes standard measures the frequency and speed of wicket-taking in Tests. Malcolm Marshall was at his peak between 1984 and 1988 while bowling in a strong bowling attack. Amazingly, Wasim Akram's most successful period coincided with Waqar's. From 1990 to 1994, Pakistan had arguably the most lethal new-ball attack in Test history - two bowlers at their peak at the same time. Their successor, Shoaib Akhtar, also features high on the list but perhaps the most telling fact is that his best stretch of 27 Tests came over a six-year period - between November 26, 1999 and November 29, 2005 - when Pakistan played 55 Tests. Javagal Srinath too has a similar record. His best spell of 27 Tests came in a four-year period between November 20, 1996 and November 18, 2000, a spell in which India played 36 Tests. Playing three out of four Tests is not bad for a fast bowler, but, tragically for India, five of the nine Tests that Srinath missed in that phase were during the 1997 tour of West Indies.

Sir Richard Hadlee and Muttiah Muralitharan expectedly feature high on the list. Their dominant phases are not surprising either. Shane Warne's most successful phase was in the early 2000s. This is somewhat surprising as this was after Warne had been through a couple of rough tours of India and West Indies, and had a competitor for the legspinner's slot - Stuart MacGill.

Apart from telling us when the best bowlers in Test history were at their best, the Barnes standard also reveals when bowlers combined and peaked. With Wasim and Waqar at their best from January 12, 1990 to September 28, 1994, Pakistan won 15 of their 30 Tests and lost only six. Similarly, between 1968 and 1973, John Snow and Derek Underwood, who both peaked around the same time, led England to the top of Test heap. England beat West Indies in the West Indies, and Australia in Australia during this period. Their one major reverse was against India at home in 1971, when Bhagwath Chandrasekhar destroyed them at The Oval.

The Barnes standard record also shows peculiarities about individual bowlers. Dennis Lillee and Fred Trueman, both known to be genuinely quick bowlers, had their most productive phases of their Test careers after each had lost his tearaway pace to injury or age. In the early '60s, Trueman famously reduced the length of his run-up and gave up some pace for guile. Lillee suffered a serious back injury that interrupted his career, first in the early '70s and then in 1977, and remodelled his action. He was most productive between 1977 and 1981.

The fabled contest between Lillee and Viv Richards, often billed as one between the world's fastest bowler and the world's fastest batsman, probably held true in the 1975-76 series in Australia, but later on in the '70s, it was more a contest between a highly skilful fast bowler and a marauding batsman. In contrast to Lillee and Trueman, Waqar and Allan Donald were less productive once they lost some of their tearaway pace. They were still very good bowlers, just not the wicket-taking machines they had been at their respective peaks.

Finally, the standard illustrates, like few other statistics do, the weakness of India's Test bowling over the years. India's highest-placed bowler in the Barnes standard table is Anil Kumble, who places 51st. Kapil Dev, Srinath, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan all follow, between 55 and 71.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 18, 2013, 15:38 GMT

    Great work guys. Really appreciated

  • Harsh on September 18, 2013, 8:42 GMT

    With so much cricket played in the modern age 27 test matches can hardly be a true yardstick.The modern era of bowlers have the handicap of playing so many one day Internationals in addition to such an arduous test match programme.Today the pitches are much flatter than before and the batsman have an advantage with protective headgear and a restriction on bouncers.

    This analysis also reveals how some bowlers have been so brilliant in their peak eras but not overall matched it with consistency in that career.Waqar Younus's place at the top superbly illustrates this point.However the table does not put the great Dennis Lillee in his true light who captured over 5 wickets per test match plus his scalps in Kerry packet cricket where he took 79 wickets in just 15 superstests.It also dies injustice to Ray Lindwall.M

    Overall with the likes of Holding and Andy Roberts so low it confirms the fact that statistics can hardly project the full story in cricket ,morally.

  • Harsh on September 18, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Overall what is fascinating is that inspite of evolution in cricket pitches becoming more and more core conducive towards the batsmen in progressive decades still the likes of Waqar Younus,Richard Hadlee,Imran Khan , Malcolm Marshall ,Glen Mcgrath,Wasim Akram and Dennis Lillee are so high on the list.It reflects that at the peak of their careers Waqar Younus,Imran Khan,Richard Hadlee Malcolm Marshall ,in that order,could all have arguably been the best paceman of all time statistically.

    However the game is not about statistics alone and also about the total percentage of wickets in matches won and averages ,the strength of the opposition,the nature of the pitches and percentage of top -order batsman.The assesment could be unfair to stalwarts like Alan Davidson,Ray Lindwall,Keith Miller or even Wes Hall who bowled on pitches with little assistance as compared to Lillee or Thomson etc.In that light I complement,Wasim,Ambrose and Mcgrath who bowled on comparatively flat tracks.

  • Phani on September 17, 2013, 23:21 GMT

    Any bowler who has taken more than 150 wickets in 27 tests is worthy of a mention in all time list. Period

  • Dummy4 on September 17, 2013, 21:48 GMT

    always had a soft spot for Barnes, particularly his uncompromising nature which resulted in him missing out in plenty of tests. He is certainly worth considering as the gold standard and his record is outstanding. Played effectively into his 50's in minor county cricket as well. Every bowler on the list who are at the top had something special in them, some trail blazers, all effective, there are no mugs here, perhaps supporting the measure. The list also shows some surprising players had some hot streaks while some consistent performers never quite reached the levels some people thought they had. Botham's hot streak sticks out, against Kumble's consistency

  • Tansen on September 17, 2013, 17:07 GMT

    Funny that the author has not mentioned Imran, at #4 above. Also, Imran and Waqar had major career-threatening injuries during the peak periods considered.

    If one looks at the ICC all-time rankings, I think Imran is #3 below Barnes and Lohmann.

  • Jason on September 17, 2013, 12:22 GMT

    Although Barnes certainly benefitted from playing on uncovered wickets, I do not think that it is entirely straightforward to state that this distorts his statistics or means that he would not have been successful across eras. It must be taken into account that it was far more difficult to obtain an LBW in his day, due to the ball having to pitch AND hit in line, so his statistics would have been even better under the post 1937 leg before laws. It must also be taken into account that he was bowling fast medium spin. He was able to turn the ball both ways, whilst also swinging it, at a speed almost certainly in excess of 80mph, whilst maintaining relentless accuracy. I can think of no era in cricket's proud history where bowling of this nature would not have been similarly successful, and have no difficulty in stating that I believe Barnes to be the greatest English bowler, and second only to Warne amongst cricketers of all nations

  • Rachit on September 17, 2013, 11:34 GMT

    while comparing the best 27 test performance of any player is a good measure of knowing if the bowler was as good as barnes, i would say that the analysis ends there ... to say that waqar was better then the rest because of a high barnes standard would be incorrect ...

  • martin on September 17, 2013, 9:53 GMT

    According to Barnes bio 77 of the 106 Australian Test wickets that he took were on Aussie pitches that were kind to batsman and made many other bowlers of the time look ordinary. He took them at an average slightly over 22. Obviously he was the outstanding bowler of his generation in England and would have been helped by the wickets and conditions, but that doesn't alter the fact that he was exceptional for his time.

    It is difficult to compare eras for many reasons, especially so with someone like Barnes as there is no film of him. We don't know how quick he was, other than quick for the time, or what kind of movement he got through the air or off the seam other than from what others say. Contemporary opinion from those that faced him suggest he was as good as the history books suggest. Despite that one wouldn't expect him to be as good in the modern age because of better wickets, better overall standard of batting, etc. I bet he would be an ace at reverse swing though.