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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Edwin on March 3, 2014, 16:38 GMT

    Gooch's 154* will always remain as one of the best all-time centuries - considering the quality of the opposition bowlers, the pitch and weather conditions, - the next highest score (from either team) confirms such.

  • David on March 3, 2014, 3:30 GMT

    Our recent bowlers have probably been better than their 80s/90s counterparts, even if we haven't yet quite produced a Steyn or a McGrath. But Date may have a point about the batsmen. Despite the higher averages, it is still notable how recent England batting orders have crumbled when faced when a genuinely fast bowler (Johnson) or quality spin bowler (Ajmal in 2012). How would Strauss, Cook, Trott, Bell, Pietersen et al have fared against the great 90s bowling attacks of Australia, the WI, Pakistan and SA? Perhaps only KP would have really got on top at times. Agree that Thorpe was quite underrated. Even as his body aged, and he suffered from personal issues, his batting average climbed from 40 to nearly 45, as he faced the less fearsome bowling attacks of the early 2000s. Like KP, Thorpe often played his best innings when the match was in the balance. (Still have slight regret that these 2 didn't bat at 4 and 5 in the 2005 Ashes...).

  • Cricinfouser on March 2, 2014, 19:03 GMT

    @Deuce03 - I don't deny that, against recent test bowlers, Atherton, Stewart and Hussain might be the equal of Bell, Pietersen and Cook but I think 'better' is a step too far. You're right that it is entirely subjective but the article suggests that the data presented constitutes objective proof. It doesn't. It was the bit about conventional wisdom being wrong which really got me - as if I'd imagined the 80s and 90s.

  • Tom on March 2, 2014, 13:01 GMT

    @shillingsworth: It depends whether you draw a distinction between "better" and "more successful". The former is largely subjective, the latter objective. Moreover the former can be divorced from context whereas the latter is always comparatively dependent. England cricket was unfortunate that it reached a low point and suffered a crisis of confidence when global cricket was so competitive. West Indies, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and even Australia have been much softer opponents in the Vaughan/Strauss/Cook era than they were during the Atherton/Stewart/Hussain years, and few other teams (other than the always-competitive South Africa) have markedly improved, especially when it comes to bowling. The earlier England sides also never had the luxury of playing against Bangladesh to inflate their figures. It's almost a truism that had a batsman like, say, Robin Smith, played in the era or teams that Bell, Cook or KP have, his career figures would look a lot healthier.

  • Cricinfouser on March 1, 2014, 22:55 GMT

    'Conventional wisdom suggests that recent English teams under Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Cook have been better than teams of the 1980s and 1990s.'

    Conventional wisdom is absolutely spot on, as the respective win / loss ratios of the two eras will tell you (1980-1999 W46 L82 D83, 2000 to date W80 L52 D49). It would take a particularly bizarre measure of 'better' to come to any other conclusion.

  • Lee on March 1, 2014, 21:47 GMT

    An interesting idea, except it risks measuring the quality of a bowing attack on past record, and takes no account of the relative performances in the match. I do remember that innings of Gooch's at Headingley in 1991. It was an incredibly difficult pitch, 26 innings ended in single figure scores, the second innings was the only one in which either side scored over 200. Gooch carried his bat to score 154no,the other ten scored 77 between them, and Derek Pringle won a place in every English supporter heart for staying with him and scoring 27. It is rightly considered the greatest innings ever scored. However I would concur that Graham Thorpe was never given the respect he deserved, he was the most unselfish player I ever saw. If he was in sight of 100, but the side needed quick runs that was what he did. The tables also seem to show that when Cook breaks the English record he will be very deserving of it.

  • Clifford on March 1, 2014, 16:57 GMT

    Thorpie was wonderful to watch. I loved his panache. His shots were very pretty. I wish I could understand the relevance of Date's articles, sometimes? I appreciate the time it must take to compile these averages etc, however sport is a visceral, voyeuristic spectacle. It elicits emotions. Date seeks to bludgeon assessments, manipulating stats. As a purist, Gooch, Thorpe, KP, Lamb,Strauss are up there with the very best of batsmen despite stats. Their techniques and execution were excellent. And, Date, does Sanga's ton become relevant because it's against an Indian team or does their poor bowling attack, relegate his accomplishment to your previous assessment? The guy is very, very good and you need to acknowledge it and stop being so biased!

  • Tom on March 1, 2014, 12:22 GMT

    @Kevin Gregg: I suppose it depends whether you look at a team's bowling strength in terms of their bowlers' career figures or how well they performed in a given series; both can lead to distortion. If taking the former, then the presence of Jeff Thomson in the Australian squad (in addition to Lawson and McDermott) would be enough to make that attack look above-average even if they lacked a potent fourth bowler. Of course by that point Thommo was well past his best, so Australia had a decent opening pair and nothing else.

    Even then, though, for 1985 the Australian bowling was less weak than it might have been. Other than the West Indies and arguably Pakistan, few teams had a world-class bowling attack: there were certainly great bowlers about, but they were often not well-supported. England's lineup in the same series of Botham/Ellison/Embury/Edmonds/Allott/Taylor was hardly a vintage one.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2014, 9:08 GMT

    Dont know how you could consider the 1985 Australian Ashes attack as better than median. Take those stats out and David Gower's average against good attacks looks decidely sick

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