The Friday column March 31, 2006

Langer's landmark, and Ponting the pulveriser

As a crowd-puller, Justin Langer doesn't rank among the top names in a star-studded line-up, but his contribution to the juggernaut called the Australian cricket team has been immense

Justin Langer: 100 Tests old, and many more to come © Getty Images

As a crowd-puller, Justin Langer doesn't rank among the top names in a star-studded line-up, but his contribution to the juggernaut called the Australian cricket team has been immense. Thirteen years after his debut, Langer will finally play his 100th Test when he turns up at Johannesburg against South Africa, and when he looks back at his career, he will see a few troughs, especially early on, but a consistent peak over the last six years.

Langer's initiation into Test cricket was under extremely trying circumstances - the debut was against a West Indian side that included Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop, and while his performance was encouraging - 20 and 54 from No.3, after being struck on the helmet - the result was a heartbreaker - Australia lost by 1 run. Since then, Langer has had a few setbacks, but each time he has returned a stronger player.

As the table below shows, Langer's start as a Test cricketer wasn't a particularly distinguished one - in his first 13 innings he had four ducks - including a pair against New Zealand at Auckland - and after 20 matches the average was an ordinary 35. The next 20 matches saw the stats improve marginally, but the dramatic rise came after that, when he hit up 1780 runs in his next 20 Tests at 61, with seven centuries. Early in that period - in his 42nd Test - came the moment that completely changed his career and took his batting to a higher level: in the last Test of the 2001 Ashes, Michael Slater was dropped, and Langer was brought into the side as opener, only his second match in that position. Langer made an unbeaten 102, and hasn't looked back since.

Langer's progress to 100 Tests
After ... Runs Average 100s/ 50s
20 Tests 1210 35.58 3/ 8
40 Tests 2521 39.39 7/ 12
60 Tests 4301 46.24 14/ 17
80 Tests 5716 43.96 19/ 22
99 Tests 7393 45.35 22/ 29

Since that game, Langer has batted at the top of the order in every innings except one, and has averaged 49.64, with 15 hundreds in 58 matches. In fact, Langer has been one of the best openers of this decade - only four batsmen have an average higher than his.

Best openers since 2000 (Min 15 Tests)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Matthew Hayden 74 6955 57.48 25/ 25
Virender Sehwag 40 3370 54.35 10/ 9
Herschelle Gibbs 47 4084 53.74 12/ 15
Graeme Smith 42 3451 51.51 11/ 10
Justin Langer 58 4798 49.46 15/ 17

Perhaps a reason why Langer's contributions haven't been noticed as much is that, unlike Ponting or Hayden, Langer hasn't consistently made major contributions in victories. While Ponting averages 64.76 and Hayden 59.63 in matches won, Langer's corresponding stat is 48.77, only marginally higher than his career average. In games drawn, on the other hand, he scores 56 runs per innings, with seven centuries in 18 matches. (Click here for Langer's career summary.)

With Hayden, Langer has formed an opening combination which has been at the forefront of Australian success. Their aggregate of 5314 runs is second only to Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes's 6482, but the 52.61 they put together per partnership is higher than the West Indians' average of 47.31. Among opening pairs with more than 3000 runs, Hayden and Langer lie in fourth place in the all-time list.

Best opening pairs (Min 3000 runs)
Pair Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
Hobbs/ Sutcliffe 3249 87.81 15/ 10
Lawry/ Simpson 3596 60.95 9/ 18
Gavaskar/ Chauhan 3010 53.75 10/ 10
Hayden/ Langer 5314 52.61 14/ 22
Slater/ Taylor 3887 51.14 10/ 16

Ponting the pulveriser
The best Australian batsman since Don Bradman? It's a tempting statement to make, so impressive has Ricky Ponting been with the willow over the last six years. Bradman notched up 29 centuries in a mere 52 Tests; Ponting, in his last 51 matches (since 2002), has gone past three figures 21 times - not quite up there with the Don, but mighty impressive nevertheless. Over the last four years, Ponting's average of 71 is well clear of anyone else. What makes Ponting even more lethal is his ability to score a lot of runs and score them quickly, unlike the next two names in the list, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid, who seldom dominate bowlers: since 2002, Ponting has scored his runs at a rate of 62 per 100 balls; for Kallis and Dravid, the corresponding numbers are 48 and 44.

Best batsmen since 2002 (Min 25 Tests)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Ricky Ponting 50 5365 71.53 21/ 18
Jacques Kallis 42 4027 67.11 15/ 18
Rahul Dravid 47 4296 65.09 13/ 19
Inzamam-ul-Haq 34 2952 60.24 10/ 12
Mohammad Yousuf 32 2840 59.16 9/ 13

When he took over as captain, the concern was that the added responsibility would hurt his batting ability. Initially, that fear seemed justified, as Ponting went nine Tests (17 innings) without a hundred. He broke that barren spell with a sparkling 207 against Pakistan at Sydney, and since then it's been a deluge. Ponting now averages 63.39 in his 27 matches as captain, second only to Bradman.

Best batsmen as captains
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Don Bradman 24 3147 101.51 14/ 7
Ricky Ponting 27 2726 63.39 10/ 12
Inzamam-ul-Haq 20 1835 61.16 7/ 10
Brian Lara 40 4026 59.20 11/ 18
Garry Sobers 39 3528 58.79 11/ 15
Graham Gooch 34 3582 58.72 11/ 16

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo. For some of the stats, he was helped by Arun Gopalakrishnan.