March 1, 2014

Running the rule over modern English batsmen

Why Atherton, Thorpe and other batsmen from the 1980s and 1990s were no worse than the current crop

Graham Thorpe: perhaps the most underrated batsman of his era Paul Gilham / © Getty Images

Despite the fact that England play more Test cricket than any other Test team, no English player has scored 9000 Test runs or more. Alastair Cook will almost certainly change that in the near future. My last post, in which I considered only those 11 batsmen who have scored at least 10,000 career Test runs, did not include any Englishmen. In this post, I consider 15 recent and contemporary English batsmen. They cover three distinct English teams from the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s. Conventional wisdom suggests that recent English teams under Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Cook have been better than teams of the 1980s and 1990s. Ashes success has something to do with this view. Current English batsmen also have healthier averages than their predecessors.

I think this view is wrong. The record shows that English batsmen from the 1980s and 1990s were no worse than English batsmen today. What has been different in recent years is that the bowling attacks available to Vaughan, Strauss and Cook have been better than other attacks of the day, while attacks available to earlier English captains were not. Mike Atherton, who ended his career with a Test average of 37, opened the batting for England, against the likes of Walsh and Ambrose; Wasim, Waqar and later Shoaib; McGrath, Gillespie, McDermott and Lee; and Donald and Pollock.

First, a basic division of players' records in innings against attacks better than the median (31.5 runs per wicket), and innings against attacks of median strength or worse. 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 the innings. Using this method means that the bowling strength of an attack for a given innings can at best be estimated before the innings is played, and can only be calculated accurately once the innings is complete.

England play longer series against traditionally strong bowling sides like Australia and South Africa. Nearly all the players on my list have played the majority of their innings against strong attacks. The exceptions are Strauss, Cook and Jonathan Trott. Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart played at least 65% of their innings against strong attacks.

I've included Mark Butcher in this list because he played what I think is the most astonishing Test innings of the 21st century, at Headingley in 2001. On an uneven wicket, against McGrath and Gillespie, Butcher made 173 not out in the fourth innings to lead England to a successful chase of 315. A lot has been made of Graham Gooch's 154 not out against Marshall, Ambrose, Patterson and Walsh (Bowling Strength 27.7). Since I didn't watch Gooch's innings, it is hard to say which was better, but Butcher's innings was miraculous. The 2001 Ashes Australians were, in my view, the strongest Australian team of all (bowling strength 23.1 in that fourth innings at Headingley). A mercurial southpaw, Butcher did better against strong attacks than he did against bad attacks.

The record of the big four in recent English teams - Kevin Pietersen, Cook, Ian Bell and Trott - offers an interesting complement to their respective reputations. Pietersen and Cook have better records than Bell and Trott. Bell's reputation as a batsman who is at his best against modest bowling is more or less confirmed. The same also goes for Trott, whose career settled after an early rush of big runs into that of a moderate-quality Test player.

If we break this record down by home and away Tests, the most interesting comparison is between the records of Cook and Pietersen. Cook has struggled against strong attacks in England, while Pietersen has thrived. In away Tests, the results have been exactly the reverse. Trott and Bell have struggled against strong bowling in England. Butcher's peculiar record persists, as does Bell's strong preference for weak attacks.

Graham Thorpe is perhaps the most underrated batsman of his era along with Marcus Trescothick. Imagine what an England line-up that reads Butcher, Trescothick, Gower, Pietersen and Thorpe might achieve. We would get to see some astonishing batting and, I imagine, some incredibly imaginative dismissals. It would probably drive England's team management mad.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here