February 14, 2014

Which batsmen thrive against the best bowlers?

Why Tendulkar and Lara were superior all-round Test players, and why Sangakkara is a freak
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Kumar Sangakkara's bullying of minnows turns a great Test record into a freakishly brilliant one © AFP

Kumar Sangakkara made a triple-hundred and a hundred in the same Test in Chittagong recently. In the last 12 months, Sri Lanka have played four Tests against Bangladesh. In these, Sangakkara has scored 142, 105, 139, 55, 75, 319 and 105. In his last 12 Tests against one of the other seven top Test-playing teams, Sangakkara averages 48. This is a broader phenomenon in Test cricket. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have conceded runs at an impressive rate to the world's top batsmen. Players from the subcontinent play these two teams more often than players from Australia or England.

A few weeks ago I described a method to determine the bowling and batting strength of a Test team. I have since found that a simpler method of measuring bowling strength is similarly correlated with Test results. I describe it briefly below using the example of India's first innings in the Cape Town Test of 2011. This method could be improved substantially with detailed ball-by-ball data, but since this data is not available for all Tests, I use innings-level data.

Sachin Tendulkar made 146 in this Test in Cape Town and had a memorable battle with Dale Steyn. But South Africa's bowling attack as a whole was not particularly strong. The table below shows the calculation of bowling strength for the South African attack. The individual averages are the bowler's averages at the start of the Test innings. Tendulkar made 123 in 231 balls against Morkel, Tsotsobe and Harris, and 23 in 83 against Steyn. Steyn bowled 120 balls while Tendulkar was at the wicket. Tendulkar faced 83 of those. In the other 37, Steyn took three wickets.

Tendulkar made 169 at the same ground in 1997 against a much stronger all-round attack (Donald, Pollock, McMillan, Cronje, Klusener and Adams) that had a bowling strength of 26.1.

The bowling strength for a particular team innings is simply the weighted average of each bowler in a bowling line-up at the start of the said innings. Weights are assigned according to the share of the bowling for each bowler in this innings. For example, Steyn bowled about 26% of overs in that Indian first innings in Cape Town, Tsotsobe bowled 22% while Morkel and Harris bowled 22% each. Kallis, who was part of the South African XI for that Test, did not bowl at all in this innings.

I've used this method to calculate the bowling strength for all team Test innings. The median bowling strength for a Test innings from 1877 to 2014 (including the Sydney Test of the 2013-14 Ashes) is 31.54. Bowlers on Test debut are assigned the median figure.

In this, the first of a series of posts, I look at all batsmen who have made at least 10,000 Test runs and divide their careers into innings where the opposition bowling was better than the median, and innings where the opposition bowling was worse than the median. I also do the same for these players' home and away Test records.

For the purpose of this post, I will designate attacks with bowling strength better than the median as strong attacks and the rest as weak attacks. One final point to be noted about this method of determining the strength of a bowling attack: an attack including the exact same bowlers can have two different strength measures in different Tests. For example, a South African attack playing in Sri Lanka, where Nicky Boje would bowl a lot of overs, would have a weaker strength measure than the same attack bowling in South Africa, where Boje's share of the bowling would be much smaller.

Eleven batsmen have scored at least 10,000 Test runs as of January 2014. Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border, the first two players to reach this milestone, played 49% and 45% of their innings against strong attacks. In contrast, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis played 32% and 33% of their innings against strong attacks.

It is no surprise that top batsmen perform strongly against weaker attacks. Some more so than others, though. For Brian Lara and Tendulkar the difference in their performance against stronger attacks and weaker attacks is about 7 runs per innings. For Mahela Jayawardene, it is about 22 runs. For Jacques Kallis, it is 20 runs. For Ponting, Border and Rahul Dravid, it is about 13 runs.

Only Tendulkar, Border, Sangakkara and Steve Waugh average over 50 against strong attacks away from home. Jayawardene has struggled against such bowling, averaging only 27 over 49 innings, scoring one century. Ponting made eight centuries in 42 innings against strong attacks away from home, but averaged only 44. These innings constituted 14% of Ponting's innings in Tests. By contrast, Lara played 30% of his Test innings against strong attacks away from home. Sangakkara has built an imposing record against such attacks. Border averaged higher than 50 despite making only five centuries in 52 innings against such attacks.

In home Tests, only Lara and Sangakkara average more than 50 against strong attacks, while Kallis, Border and Waugh average less than 40. Lara has done equally well against strong and weak attacks in Tests at home. Tendulkar's record against strong attacks in India is his worst performance of the six categories shown in this post. He averages a mere 46.

Over the past 15 years or so, we often heard how Dravid was a more dependable player than Tendulkar. A similar observation was often made about Gundappa Viswanath. Observations have also been made about Ponting and Kallis being better players than Tendulkar or Lara.

These figures suggest, fairly clearly in my view, that Tendulkar and Lara were superior all-round Test players compared to all the others mentioned in this list. They also suggest that Sangakkara is a freak of nature whose bullying of the minnows only turns a great Test record into a freakishly brilliant one. The same cannot be said of his great friend Jayawardene, whose bullying of the minnows turns a very good record into a great one. Dravid, Ponting and Kallis were contemporaries. Each played about 250 Test innings. Yet Dravid played about 15 more innings against strong attacks compared to Kallis and Ponting.

These are some of the things that can be studied in these charts. If you would like to see comparisons of specific batsmen, please propose groups of such batsmen in the comments below. I will present analyses in my next post.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sigismund on February 20, 2014, 20:10 GMT

    Some of you fellows commenting here don't seem to understand the purpose of statistics. These ones are beautifully transparent: they tell you exactly what they say they do, and nothing more. It is up to you to draw inferences and weave them into the rich tapestry of your impressions. You should not mistrust statistics. They are innocent: they do not lie, they do not make any claims at all. It is only when people misunderstand them that they get abused.

  • Prateek24.1 on February 20, 2014, 13:26 GMT

    I do not think your formula to calculate the bowling strength is appropriate when defining strong and weak attacks. Consider the Adelaide test of 2003 between India and Australia. Because of amazing batting from Dravid, India managed to score big against mighty Australian attack. Now that Australian bowlers had conceded so many runs, your formula would judge them as not so strong attack. But, we all know how strong that attack was. Also, following your way of calculation above, it would look like Dravid scored high against a weak attack while actually it was his brilliant batting that made, the otherwise strong Australian attack, look weak Please correct me if I am going somewhere wrong here

  • dummy4fb on February 19, 2014, 14:09 GMT

    Every era with its rise and fall has produced batsmen of startling impression.Their styles and approach differ as much as the game. Sobers,Kanhai,Weeks, Worrell,Walcott,Richards,Lara.Kallicharran are just a few outstanding names that represented the WI.Around the world were Gregg Chappell,Steve Waugh Inzaman Ul Haq,Miandad and a string of others.All have made proud their country and this great sport,but the greatest batsman of all time is no other than SUNIL GAVASKAR. He has made 13 centuries against WI pace and never wore a helmet.There are others that did not wore a helmet,but Gavaskar was phenomenal.

  • harshthakor on February 19, 2014, 3:30 GMT

    My best batsmen versus great bowling in the last 4 decades

    1.Sunil Gavaskar 2.Alan Border 3.Brian Lara 4.Rahul Dravid 5.Greg Chappell 6.Viv Richards 7.Sachin Tendulkar 8.Wasim Raja 9.Graham Gooch 10..Mohinder Amarnath

    Just look at Wasim Raja's phenomenal average versus West Indies and Mohinder Amarnath at his best.Sadly Viv was not tested against the great Carribean battery although he was the best player of pace bowling ever in the history of the game.Majid Khan,Gundappa Vishwanath and Steve Waugh just missed out.

  • harshthakor on February 19, 2014, 3:21 GMT

    I will also highlight the batting of Rahul Dravid who weathered a storm better than any great batsmen of his time including Tendulkar and Lara and came out trumps in important series versus Australia,West Indies and Pakistan.At his best V.V.S.Laxman played the best pace bowling better than anyone as he showed versus Australia in 2001 and 2003-04.

    Sadly we do not consider the world series Packer supertests.In that Light Greg Chappell would have scored 5 more centuries against great International attacks and 3 more against the great West Indies attack.His 621 runs at an average of 69 in 5 supertests in West Indies in 1978-79 was a great performance.Never forget his 174 and 246 n.o versus a world 11 in 1977-78 in Packer supertests.Viv Richards also gave his best performances versus Australia in Packer cricket.I suggest you make a chart adding Packer supertest stats.

    Lastly I would mention Graham Gooch who played the best west Indian quartet better than anyone of his era.

  • harshthakor on February 19, 2014, 3:12 GMT

    The batsman to my mind who championed the great bowling attacks more than any batsmen was Sunil Gavaskar who faced the greatest pace bowling quartet in the history of cricket in addition to other great pacemen like Dennis Lillee,Imran Khan,Ian Botham Richard Hadlee and Jeff Thomson.Above all he opened the innings.Never forget Wasim Raja who had the best average against the Carribean quickies.In the 1980's Border was the best against the best bowling attacks scoring many tons against the great Carribean quartet as well as mastering turning tracks.In his peak time from 1982-83Mohinder Amarnath played great fast bowling better than any batsmen in the 1980's .From the 1990's my vote in test c cricket would go to Brian Lara who amassed huge tons and above all many centuries in a crisis against the top Australian attack.The manner he reversed the fate of the 1999 Frank Worrel trophy with successive centuries was unequaled in the last 15 years.

  • SLSup on February 18, 2014, 3:32 GMT

    Haha, Bob! Here we go again. Sanga has scored 6138 in SL and 5013 Away. He has scored 853 in Africa @ 47.38; 1397 in Eng/Aus/NZ @ 45.06; 1060 in India/Pak @ 58.88; 682 in UAE @ 62.00 & 783 in BNG @ 78.30. He scored 3170 outside of Asia at 47.29. If he had more opportunities to play outside Asia he would have. That's not his fault.

    Lara scored 6217 in WI and 4976 Away. He has scored 1063 in Africa @ 48.31; 3143 in Eng/Aus/NZ @ 43.65; 1530 in India/Pak/SL @ 58.84; 173 against BNG in WI @ 86.50.

    Conclusion: they have home and away records that are near identical; Lara does marginally better in Africa; Sanga has a better record against Eng/Aus/NZ combined; they do equally well against India/Pak while they compare against BNG at 86.50 to 95.57.

    Lara's strike rate is 60.51 vs Sanga's 54.24. Aided in no small measure by Lara's strike rates against BNG/ZIM @ 77.57 & 85.38 to Sanga's 59.69 & 71.94 respectively. Did Warne, McGarth, Murali, McDermott play for BNG/ZIM? I have to look that up.

  • dummy4fb on February 18, 2014, 1:37 GMT

    Sanga doesnt score outside of Asia, and his matches against Australia were against a depleted Australia which was undergoing serious transitional problems.

    As for the best batsman since 1989, I'd go for Lara. His 153, 213, 277, 226, 221, 202, 400 and 375 were vs McGrath, Gillespie, Warne, Hughes, McDermott, the world record Harmission/Hoggard/Flintoff, Murli and Vass. In short, Lara had epic innings vs epic bowlers, and he maintained a healthy strike rate.

  • SLSup on February 17, 2014, 16:11 GMT

    A note on what mizan3060: Bradman contributed approx 110 per inning when Aus won, Sanga approx 65 per inning when SL wins, Lara behind Sanga with approx 55 per inning, Sachin is nowhere.

    prashant1: you say it is pointless talking to me? That could be cos you missed the point! : )

    Kartikeya: Appreciate your honesty that you have not SEEN Sanga being compared as much with others. But a journalist must not neglect to LOOK before they comment. I trust you at least get my pointers than some who refuse to accept facts. On Lara: Sanga has 6 run advantage over him w/ZIM & BNG but Sanga's 2 runs behind when they are removed. It takes more balls to dismiss Sanga compared to Lara + Sanga has 17 N/Outs compared to Lara's 6 (and Sanga's played less innings than Lara!. Lara scores at a higher rate than Sanga but they score hundreds at an equal rate.

    Shawn Marsh is better bat in SA cos he played Steyn in a Test Steyn was toothless (though overall his record is better than Lillee's)?

  • Insightful2013 on February 17, 2014, 15:50 GMT

    Mr.Hrolf, I have to agree with you since I cannot provide evidence otherwise. However, based on fitness levels, increased body sizes and other improvements, I can only base my conclusions on the vids available. I also think when views the amount of padding now required, it proves that bowlers are quicker and more hostile. After all, it does limit movement. Mr. SLSup, I did not say Richards, Miandad, KP, Sachin and Lara could score as they wish. I do not believe anyone could score as they wished against Marshall. Wasim, Waquar, Murali, Garner or Ambrose. I believe they would survive and not get out, I think? Do you think any batsman you know, could thrive against those bowlers listed above? Murali possibly, sometimes, but I know of no other occurrences against the others.

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