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July 22, 2014

Are Test batsmen maturing quicker these days?

Michael Jeh
County cricket must not have too much wrong with it if it is able to produce Test-ready batsmen like Gary Ballance  © Getty Images
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Has batting become a whole lot easier in the last decade or so? Or are batsmen entering the international game more battle-hardened and more ready for instant success than was the case in the past?

I contemplated this theory just this week when Ajinkya Rahane peeled off a masterful Test century at Lord's, hot on the heels of recent hundreds from Sam Robson, Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes early in their Test careers. I then did a quick calculation in my head and immediately came up with a few other batsmen who have scored Test centuries early in their careers (see below). So why is this? Despite the so-called threats to technique from ODI and T20 cricket, are Test batsmen maturing quicker these days?

So I looked at Test squads around the world to see if there's a discernible pattern. Looking at say the 15 players in and around the national squads, how many of these batsmen scored a century in at least one of their first five Tests? What might this suggest to inform my hypothesis?

I stress that this analysis is imperfect and prone to obvious misses. My knowledge of the Pakistan and Bangladesh squads is sketchy, partly because I've hardly seen them on television in Australia in recent years. So I'm going on my recollection of recent Test series, which I then augmented by looking up a "suspect's" career on Statsguru. The numbers in brackets indicate which of their first five Tests they scored a century in.

Australia: Michael Clarke (1 and 5), David Warner (2 and 5), Chris Rogers (5), Shaun Marsh (1). That's four of the current top six. Recent memory extends to Marcus North, Mike Hussey, Adam Gilchrist, and going back another decade brings in Michael Slater, Mark Waugh, Greg Blewett and Martin Love.

India's record looks amazing: Rahane (5), Shikhar Dhawan (1), Cheteshwar Pujara (4), Suresh Raina (1), Rohit Sharma (1 and 2).

England look good too. Alastair Cook (1), Ballance (2 and 5), Moeen Ali (2), Ben Stokes (2), Sam Robson (2), Ian Bell (3) make up the entire current top order. And Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, who have only recently left the game, will enjoy being mentioned together!

New Zealand? Jimmy Neesham can't stop scoring 'em (1 and 2), Hamish Rutherford (1), Kane Williamson (1), Ross Taylor (3). That's another four in their top order.

South Africa have a full house too. Alviro Peterson (1), Dean Elgar (3), Hashim Amla (4), JP Duminy (2), Faf du Plessis (1 and 4) and AB de Villiers (5).

Sri Lanka boast Mahela Jayawardene (4), Tillakaratne Dilshan (2) and Upul Tharanga (3). Pakistan have just Ahmed Shehzad (3) and Younis Khan (1).

Kirk Edwards (1 and 3) is the only current West Indian with an early burst. What inferences can we draw about how the domestic game in the Caribbean prepares batsmen?

Bangladesh are not forgotten with Mominul Haque (2 and 5 - he has scored four centuries in seven Tests) and Shamsur Rahman (2). Zimbabwe's Tino Mawoyo (2) and Hamilton Masakadza (1) complete the picture.

While I concede that my memory of yesteryear is fading, I still cannot remember so many players in the one squad scoring early-career Test centuries. If readers can think of examples from different generations, please write in.

I can think of two theories to support this argument, if in fact it holds true. The first is that the quality of bowling has dropped significantly. Rotation policies and a seemingly higher injury count for fast bowlers offer fledgling batsmen more opportunities to make a big score. To test this theory to its nth degree, I suppose we need to see if there are more centuries being scored full stop in the modern game, regardless of who scores them.

The second theory I put forward is that perhaps the first-class system or the junior cricket championships are now better preparing debutant players to step on to the big stage and find their feet straight away. Maybe these debutants are not that young anymore so when they do get there, their game is honed to a fine degree. In Australia, you could certainly make that case with examples like Hussey, Rogers and Mark Waugh, who scored many first-class hundreds before they got their first go at Test cricket. Kepler Wessels will attest to that.

What happens in India and South Africa then? Is the apprenticeship long or does young talent get fast-tracked? Are they just that good that young?

County cricket, for all its detractors, seems to be able to produce Test-ready batsmen, if England's current top order is any yardstick by which we can prosecute this case - five of the England top six (if you include KP, that would be a full house).

So many other factors come into play. Where do we draw the line? Are cricket bats better, pitches truer, boundaries shorter? Does DRS help batsmen more than bowlers? What about improved fielding standards as a counter-balance?

Another controversial theory I'll throw in to ignite some debate is whether the proliferation of short-form cricket is actually creating better batsmen. Or is the real reason that the bowlers are more fatigued, rested or injured? So many batsmen seem to be scoring debut ODI hundreds (or producing stunning performances like James Faulkner) compared to a few decades ago. They seem to hit the ground running, batting fearlessly from day one. This must have something to do with their preparation prior to being selected, perhaps on "A" tours.

Whatever the reason, I cannot help but think that this is more than coincidence. My boyhood memories of the '70s and '80s were that Test hundreds were rare and even rarer from "green" players. Greg Chappell, Gary Cosier, Wayne Phillips, Mohammad Azharuddin, Graham Thorpe, Andrew Hudson and Lawrence Rowe come to mind.

Fascinated to hear what you think. Am I on to something here or are you going to throw a whole stack of names from the recent past to shoot me down in flames? I've been known to be wrong once but even that was a mistake!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by ygkd on (July 26, 2014, 1:08 GMT)

Batsmen may be tasting Test success earlier, but there is one area where early success is becoming increasingly rare - and that's wicket-keeping, at least outside Asia. There is a paucity of pure wicket-keeping talent ready to move up. Everyone's looking at the batting so much. Buttler's selection for England is a case in point. Learn on the job is the new rule. Make some runs and keep your keeping spot. We don't accept that someone who can make runs in the U19s is a ready-made international bat, or a bowler who takes U19 wickets likewise, and yet some of the wicket-keeping that goes on, especially in domestic limited overs, is, well, no better than what should be U19 minimum standard. How is that relevant? Well, taking wickets is how you stop batsmen being successful and top keepers take wickets. I won't even say "help take wickets" because it underestimates the pressure that they can help build. If batsmen are being successful earlier maybe they're being let off a little too lightly?

Posted by   on (July 24, 2014, 15:46 GMT)

Obsessive coaching and data analyses have taken precedence over instincts when it comes to bowling. I cringe to think what modern day coaches would have done to bowlers like Shane Warne, Imran Khan, Courtney Walsh etc.

Posted by balajik1968 on (July 24, 2014, 9:22 GMT)

Interesting analysis. I think we should also look at the domestic records of all these players. Rahane and Pujara have played a lot of domestic cricket and have a good domestic record. I would just like to see the other players domestic records.

Posted by N0mad on (July 24, 2014, 6:15 GMT)

I guess the talent is a part of the equation, but I feel the 'unknown' factor is working in favour of these batsmen. Bowlers aren't thinking too much nowadays, as evidenced by Dhoni's comments on Ishant and other bowlers being reluctant to try things out - and they follow plans when it is presented to them by coaches/analysts. Earlier, the bowlers would try many things and succeed sometimes, it isn't the case anymore. If the batsman is good enough, then he will succeed initially, will falter for a while after being 'found out', and then if he is made of sterner stuff- will come back and succeed. Warner and Amla are good examples.

Posted by ygkd on (July 24, 2014, 5:11 GMT)

I agree with AlexPG. I'm not sure bowlers are as good at sussing out opposition batsmen as they used to be. Too much coaching and third-party analysis perhaps? Time and again I've seen young batsmen let off the hook by pace bowling, mostly by poor use of the short ball, or it's complete absence. Youth today have never batted without a helmet (well, a few have but not in official training or games - they're not allowed to). Quite rightly we don't want them hurt but it does engender a certain over-confidence in their own abilities. We've lost some of the art of shaking them up to see how they handle it. Today, if a rising ball hits the splice of a high-held bat only to fly back down just as sharply, teens react as if they've taken a wicket! Then its back to allowing them to shove their front foot forward and swing through the line of the ball with impunity. For if the youth have never batted without a helmet, then too have the bowlers not so bowled at the helmet-less and learnt from it.

Posted by   on (July 24, 2014, 2:12 GMT)

id say tht the bowling quality has decreased and the bat sizes r a jk but batsmen have evolved and so have the bowlers. the issue is bowlers do nt think on their feet thereby allowing batsmen to score. if bhuvi and shami can score fifties against an england attack on a green pitch then there is gt to be some problem with the bowlers. even ishant attributed the short pitch tactic to dhoni which shows tht bowlers r nt thinkin. of the current seam bowlers id say bhuvi, steyn,morkel, malinga johnson zak, know wht they r bowling and where they want their fielders every over. the rest follow the plans they laid out by the management.

Posted by Chrishan on (July 24, 2014, 1:00 GMT)

Simply scoring a Test century in your first 5 matches doesn't mean a batsman has matured quickly. What has happened to Cook and Stokes, does it mean that they have become immature now? Greats like Dravid, Sanga, Kallis, Ponting are not even on this list, but we all know they played mature resposible knocks from the word go. Looking at centuries scored in your first 5 matches is a poor indication of maturity. Scoring zero runs with your side nine down, but not giving away your wicket to draw or win a Test is a much better indication of maturity.

Posted by Boycotts_Bat on (July 23, 2014, 23:47 GMT)

Generally, bowling quality has declined in the last decade. There's only one bowler to genuinely fear on earth now and that's Steyn. Take Alastair Cook - last 18 months notwithstanding, does anybody seriously think he'd have made double figures against the Windies in the 70's-90's or Oz in their last purple patch (Pidgeon, Gippo, Matthews , Warne)? It's laughable - players like him would have been worked out in a couple of overs and bombed out properly by the former lot (not this weak nonsense we see from Broad and Plunkett) or caught behind somewhere to the latter.

Posted by ygkd on (July 23, 2014, 22:15 GMT)

I think modern players are more familiar and less over-awed about international cricket. Once-upon-a-time talented kids didn't see such saturation media coverage and there are so many short-form games now to go and see. Also, introversion is seen as something almost akin to mental illness in some quarters these days. Extroversion probably helps as you move up (I'm sure it helps get you noticed), but I'm not sure it's such an aid as time goes by. Bowlers, coaches and captains work you out (with the same media coverage). So, early success is no guarantee of lasting success. What I find strange is that, with all the media footage available, it takes so long for bowlers etc to change their plan of attack? Are bowlers now more reliant on coaches to do that job for them? Can they not think on their feet like bowlers of yesteryear? There is also a joker-in-the-room and that is the modern bat. Many young blokes today would struggle with old-time bats. Their technique is just not up to it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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