July 22, 2014

Are Test batsmen maturing quicker these days?

Of late Rahane, Robson, Ballance and Stokes have all made hundreds in their first five Tests. Does that point to a larger trend?

County cricket must not have too much wrong with it if it is able to produce Test-ready batsmen like Gary Ballance © Getty Images

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