October 19, 2013

Is Test cricket in better health than ever before?

We tend to believe the game was better and more competitive in the past. But the truth as seen through the numbers is more complicated

Brian Statham averaged five runs fewer per wicket than fast bowlers of the '80s and '90s, but that only indicates that batsmen have become more attacking over the years © PA Photos

How has Test cricket evolved over the past 80 years or so? Where does it stand today? There are a number of opinions about this. Many of these views have acquired the status of truisms. Contemporary fast bowling is not as good as the fast bowling in the '70s, '80s and even '90s. Batting techniques have declined. The quality of cricket is not what it used to be in Tests. Fielding has improved out of sight. Tailenders bat better these days compared to earlier eras. Test cricket is dying because wickets are consistently dead and boring. You hear all these points and more from pundits, partisans and pressmen alike. To the trained ear, they contain familiar amounts of nostalgia - the tendency to view the past only in terms of its highs, setting aside its lows.

The figures suggest a more complicated picture of the evolution of the contest between bat and ball.

A close look down the list of Test cricket's most successful bowlers at their respective peaks suggests that a certain type of bowler does not exist these days in the game's foremost format. This bowler took a Test wicket once every ten or 11 overs (that is, a strike rate of 60-66), but conceded less than 25 runs for each of these wickets. This was not a shock bowler like Malcolm Marshall or Waqar Younis or Fred Trueman, all of whom took their wickets at the rate of one every seven to eight overs. The art of this type of bowler was to keep the runs down, to give the fielding captain control on good wickets.

Brian Statham was perhaps the foremost exponent of this art. He was genuinely quick, bowled over a 100,000 deliveries in his 18-year career in first-class cricket, took over 250 Test wickets and 2200 first-class wickets (this meant he bowled nearly 1000 overs per year!). He took a Test wicket every 63 balls, and conceded 24.8 runs in return. Alan Davidson, the Australian left-armer is another example of this type of bowler. He took a wicket every 62 balls, at a cost of 20.5 runs. Davidson occasionally also bowled offbreaks. Keith Miller and Neil Adcock are two other examples.

In a later era, Kapil Dev took his wickets at about the same rate at Statham. But each of Kapil's wickets cost him five runs more than Statham. By Kapil's era, a fast bowler who took a wicket every 10-11 overs was conceding about 30 runs per wicket. Chris Old, Heath Streak and Rodney Hogg conceded about 28 runs per wicket, and took a wicket every 62 balls. At the higher end of this range, Danny Morrison took his wickets at 35 apiece. Michael Kasprowicz 33 apiece. In this era, bowlers whose wickets cost less than 25 runs each tended to have strike rates in the low 50s or high 40s. Elite fast men like Waqar Younis, Allan Donald and Malcolm Marshall were taking wickets at the rate of one every seven or eight overs

Today, we have Dale Steyn, who takes a Test wicket every 41 balls, at a cost of 22.6 runs each.

This does not mean that Statham was more accurate than successful bowlers from the '80s or '90s. It suggests that batsmen in more recent times have been more willing to play strokes. A friend of mine argued, persuasively, that stock deliveries that were guaranteed to be "dot" balls in earlier eras are no longer so. These days, there are more batsmen capable of playing more strokes in more Test teams than ever before. The proliferation of limited-overs cricket with its tremendously skewed contest between bat and ball must have something to do with this. Limited-overs cricket provides batsmen with an incentive and an arena in which they can cultivate attacking shots. The reverse sweep makes a regular appearance in Tests these days. It is a matter of time before batsmen are playing the scoop.

In one sense, I agree with those who argue that Test cricket has become a batsman's game over the decades since World War II. Bats have become heavier and better, protective equipment has improved, laws have been changed slightly in favour of batsmen. But this has had a counterintuitive effect as the figures below show. They have meant that batsmen have been willing to play more shots, take more risks. Batsmen are getting out more frequently than they used to, with the result that there are fewer draws. It is true that the larger number of results has something to do with superior drainage facilities at contemporary cricket grounds (resulting in substantially lesser time lost), but the strike-rate figures should not be affected by superior drainage. It has also been suggested that tailenders tend to be better batsmen these days than in earlier eras, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.

Decade-wise results
Decade Drawn matches Result matches % drawn
Matches Average Matches Average  
1870s 0 0.0 3 18.7 0%
1880s 4 31.4 25 17.9 14%
1890s 6 29.2 26 24.4 19%
1900s 10 30.4 31 23.9 24%
1910s 4 27.6 25 27.5 24%
1920s 16 41.3 35 31.2 31%
1930s 36 39.9 53 28.8 40%
1940s 22 39.5 23 32.5 49%
1950s 51 36.2 113 25.9 31%
1960s 88 36.5 98 29.1 47%
1970s 84 39.5 114 28.9 42%
1980s 122 39.9 144 28.0 46%
1990s 124 39.5 223 28.5 36%
2000s 114 44.7 350 31.5 25%
2010s 39 42.4 113 31.2 26%

While over rates have declined, and the laws, the conditions and equipment have all developed to make batting easier, batsmen are getting out more frequently and outright results are more frequent. Between 1960 and 2000, two out of five Tests were drawn. Since 2000, one in four has been drawn. Between 1960 and 2000, on average, 355 overs were bowled in a Test. Since 2000, this figure drops to 331. The cost of a wicket in a non-draw Test in the 1960-2000 period was consistently about 28 to 29 runs. In the 2000 to 2013 period, this rises to 31. Between 1960 and 2000, one Test wicket fell on average every 66 balls. Between 2000 and 2013, this figure was down to 60 - a difference of ten overs per completed innings, and more than one full session per Test match. See figures for wickets taken by bowlers here (i.e. excluding run-outs). While fielding standards have undoubtedly risen, this has not resulted in more run-outs. In fact, the number of run-outs per Test match has declined from 1.2 in the '50s and '60s to one since the 1980s. Batsmen are fitter too.

This makes comparisons across eras very difficult. Harbhajan Singh, for example, took his wickets more frequently than Erapalli Prasanna or Bishan Bedi. Yet, few will agree that Harbhajan is a more attacking bowler than Prasanna or Bedi were. If we were to ask connoisseurs of Test cricket to say when, in their view, bowling was superior in Test cricket, they would probably be quite unanimous in choosing the period 1960-2000 over 2000-2013. Brett Lee, for example, took a Test wicket every 53 balls. Consider the bowlers who didn't manage to do as well as Lee (let alone significantly better) - Imran Khan, Wes Hall, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Jason Gillespie, Andy Roberts, Peter Pollock, Craig McDermott, Courtney Walsh and James Anderson. All these bowlers have better bowling averages than Lee. Darren Gough took his wickets more frequently than all these bowlers, including Lee. He also did slightly better than Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Ian Bishop and Glenn McGrath! Yet, if all the fast bowlers named in this paragraph are ranked by experienced cricket watchers, Lee and Gough are likely to be nearer to the bottom than the top of the list.

The influence of one-day cricket has to be acknowledged here. There is less evidence to suggest that T20 has had an impact. This could be because, while Test and ODI XIs were more or less the same across the cricket world for many years, T20 and Test teams have tended to include different players from the outset. T20 came of age after the era when the ODI specialist had already arrived.

Test matches today see far more action on a ball-by-ball basis than ever before. Batsmen take more chances, wickets fall more frequently, and results are achieved with greater regularity. This makes bowlers who can control the game even more valuable than they used to be. McGrath was probably the last great bowler who could bowl in the Statham-Davidson mould. Steyn is a strike bowler who concedes runs at about the same rate as Lee did.

Evolution in Test cricket is essentially evolution of the contest between bat and ball. It can be considered to something akin to "evolution" over a period of time, because it occurs due to intended and unintended consequences of adjustments to the laws and the conditions made by many different people over a period of time. While batsmen have apparently been ascendant, they have also been getting out more frequently, thereby producing greater numbers of outright results.

It is one of the paradoxes of our age that those of us who are doing better than others also complain the loudest. So it is with Test cricket. In an age when more Tests are being played than ever before, with fewer draws than ever before, for more money than ever before, predictions of Test cricket's demise are also just as loud. Tests in England have been sold out, close finishes to Tests in India have brought the country to a standstill (and it's a big country!), and India are scheduled to play Tests more frequently in the next few years than they have at any time in their history (with the possible exception of the 1978-80 period). Today there are more competitive Test teams than ever before.

Test cricket is thriving on the field. Off the field, it's another story.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on October 21, 2013, 8:35 GMT

    Today the flat pitches hardly give assistance to pace bowlers.In addition the amount of cricket including t-20 and one day which is played today hardly gives time for a pace bowler to recover.In yesteryears the pitches were a greater test for batsmen.

    Batting greats of the past,particularly of the 1970's and 1980's would have relished the docile tracks of today and averaged atleast 5 runs more.I would have backed Gavaskar to average more than Tendulkar and Viv Richards to average more than Lara had they played in the same era.The bowling standards have also declined.Gavaskar and Viv Richards may well have averaged over 55 runs.

    To improve test cricket either the t-20 or the 50 over one- day game has to be done away with.We must also have many more 5 match series.

  • Dummy4 on October 21, 2013, 5:07 GMT

    You ignored the pitches. If the batsman from the 50's were able to bat on the roads that modern batsman played on with bats that pick up like a 2'4 but really weigh 2'12 then I don't see how a Norm O'Neill or a Ted Dexter wouldn't be scoring the same rate (or higher) than the modern player. They simply had more shots in the bag, and a lot more finesse off the back foot. And Statham was more accurate than modern bowlers. Watch the footage.

  • Harsh on October 21, 2013, 4:21 GMT

    In recent years we have some of the hardest fought test matches where the pendulum has swung either way continuously .One was often reminded of a Holywood classic with an unexpected climax.The 2010 series and particularly the 2nd test match between South Africa and Australia was the best example.The thriller where the Kiwis beat Australia by 7 runs in 2011 and the Trent Bridge cliff-hanger of the 1st Ashes test in 2013 are other examples.

    Today test cricket has twice as many results than in yesteryears.The advent of the shorter versions of the game has greatly boosted the average scoring rate.Tests looking certain to end in draws have had results beacuse of sporting declarations or ended in thrilling finishes.

    What has been lost is the touch of batting artistry and technique of yesteryears of batsmen like Gavaskar,Lara or Viv Richards and the bowling prowess of the likes of Marshall,Lillee,Akram and Warne.Although more exciting the artistic aspect of test cricket has diminished.

  • Harsh on October 21, 2013, 4:12 GMT


    There are 2 primary aspects The 1st one is on the standard of cricket in reference to the quality of batting,bowling and fielding.The 2nd one is on the competitiveness and intensity of games.

    Today overall the standard of test cricket has declined .We hardly have any tearaway pace bowlers bar Dale Steyn and very few great batsmen who can be truly be termed 'great'.With Tendulkar retiring Jacques Kallis ,Dale Steyn and arguably Kevin Pieterson are the only 3 'great' players left.We have no outstanding team today that even compares with the quality of the great West Indian or Australian teams of the past and no team displays the consistency after reaching the top.Just record how quickly England fell from top of the the pedestal.

    On the other hand we have had some of the most hard-fought and exciting test matches and series in recent years eclipsing the excitement of yesteryears which had the fluctuations of an enthralling Hollywood thriller.

  • Dummy4 on October 21, 2013, 4:07 GMT

    Character limit force me into a second comment.... The article misses a vital point in analysing test cricket. Patronage. While I admit it is a very complicated topic, one expects atleast a certain amount of effort devoted to assembling and analysing those numbers before drawing conclusion. The demand side for Test cricket is a vital consideration before any pronouncements can be made on its survival, longevity, popularity and profitability.

  • Dummy4 on October 21, 2013, 3:55 GMT

    Test cricket is living or dying, prospering or declining is as much a matter of how many are watching and following it thru the reports on them. I am a bit surprised that this assessment of the health of Test cricket which had considered so many bits of statistics has not talked about the number of Test cricket watchers at the ground or on tv and yet draws some general conclusions. Often India is said to be a billion pair of eyes watching - say a World Cup final. But reality is far different. Do we really have reliable numbers about how many tvs are in use, how many are turned on, how many are tuned to the cricket channel and how mnay at home are really watching it? What about the spectators at each venue - do we have such hard numbers on them over the decades?

    Further, Test cricket is a commercial operation now. So unless a measure of the return on money invested on Test cricket vis-a-vis other forms is also taken into account a 'health report' is not complete.

  • Murray on October 20, 2013, 20:19 GMT

    It would be very interesting to know how/if bowling strike rates have changed when viewed in time rather than overs........... Until somewhere in the 1980's cricket was played in time not overs. I suspect that Statham's wickets per hour bowled might be right up there given they bowled so many more balls per hour. If wickets per spell get looked at, I'm certain modern fast bowlers don't strike as often due to their bowling spells being so much shorter.

  • Jon on October 20, 2013, 18:54 GMT

    Bowling in test match cricket was certainly better in the 90's than it has been for the last 5-10 years. I think T20 cricket is destroying the art of bowling as it really is a game geared towards batting. In the 90's with test cricket being predominantly played batsmen still had a fear of facing certain bowlers and they would sweat on it from series to series. Nowadays a bowler can have the wood on a batsmen in the test series and a week later he can have a slog at him in a T20 without any fear of getting out. By the time the next test series has arrived that fear factor of playing such a bowler has diminished slightly as he will at least have some memory of smacking him around in any form of cricket. Guys like McGrath and Pollock would be prime targets to get belted in T2O's as they bowl a length. It would be interesting to have seen if they could have maintained their impeccable line and length in test matches, if they were constantly forced to bowl variations in T2O cricket inbetwee

  • Tony on October 20, 2013, 15:45 GMT

    Without going into a diatribe about the pros and cons of using statistics to compare different eras there are two points that must be made. 1) Protective gear. In days gone by a batsman (virtually unprotected) would play himself in until he was seeing the ball well before allowing himself to play aggressive shots If a new batsman played risky shots early on, he would be perceived by a fast bowler, to be taking liberties "and a bit of a wanker". This would lead to some hostile "chin music" accompanied by a word or two,to put said batsman in his place. With limited protective gear and allowance of more frequent short balls batsmen respected the fact they could be hurt if a bowler intended such. Now there were unwritten rules such as no bouncers to number 9,10 and 11 etc. Result, slower run rates and strke rates a little higher.

    2) The elements. Due to the fact that players of yesteryear had to endure the effects of changeable weather conditions batsmen had to be more cautious.

  • sam on October 20, 2013, 14:42 GMT

    I started to follow cricket since I was 5 in 1990. The best fast bowlers I have seen are 1. Marshall 2.(tie)Ambrose and McGrath 3.Akram 4.Steyn 5.Waqar 6.Donald 7.Bishop 8.Bond 9.Walsh 10.Pollock 11.Mcdermott 12. Jason Gillespie 13.Gough 14.Anderson 15.Damien Fleming Out of these I will call only bowlers till Donald as great. Rest are world class but not great though Bishop and Bond had tremendous potential. The best spinners are 1.Murali 2.Warne 3.Kumble 4.Ajmal 5.Qadir 6.Swann The best batsman are 1.Lara 2.Tendulkar 3.Ponting 4.Kallis 5.Dravid 6.Steve Waugh The best all-rounder 1.Kallis 2.Pollock 3.Flintoff Best wicket-keeper 1. Ian Healy 2.Rashid Latif 3.Chris Read