July 17, 2009

First-Test stars and flops

Batsmen who have stamped their authority on the first Test of a series, and others who have struggled

After England had scored 435 in the first Test of the Ashes series, Australia were under a fair amount of pressure, but Ricky Ponting came out smoking, scored 150, and ensured that the visitors dominated the rest of the contest and almost emerged victorious. The first Test of a series is often the one that sets the tone for the series, and Ponting is a batsman who has historically relished the opportunity to stamp his authority on a series at the first opportunity - he averages an impressive 58.03 in the 39 first Tests that he has played (excluding one-off Tests), which is marginally higher than his overall Test average of 56.68. He has also scored 12 centuries in those 39 Tests; only Sachin Tendulkar, with 14, has scored more hundreds in the opening game of a series.

There are five batsmen, though, who have done even better than Ponting in first Tests (with a cut-off of at least 20 matches), including a couple of Australians who led the team for much of their careers. Greg Chappell averaged more than 63 in his 21 first games, and scored seven hundreds, including his highest Test score of 247 not out against New Zealand in Wellington, a match in which he scored hundreds in both innings. Mark Taylor was almost as impressive, averaging 60.71, with eight centuries in 25 Tests, though in his last four such games he only managed 153 runs in seven innings. Mahela Jayawardene, another batsman who was captain till very recently, is high up on the list as well, while India's Virender Sehwag has an excellent conversion-rate in these games, with seven hundreds out of the nine occasions when he has topped 50.

However, the leader of the group is Ken Barrington, the England middle-order batsman of the 1960s. His career average was an outstanding 58.67, but he was even better in series openers, with an amazing average of 72.59. In 20 matches, he had 15 scores of 50 or more, with centuries in each of his last two first Tests - 148 against Pakistan at Lord's and 143 against West Indies in Port-of-Spain. In fact, his average in first Tests isn't far away from that of Don Bradman, who averaged "only" 79 in the 10 first Tests he played, more than 20 runs below his career average.

Highest averages in first Tests (Qual: 20 matches)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Ken Barrington 20 1960 72.59 8/ 7
Mahela Jayawardene 40 3766 63.83 11/ 16
Greg Chappell 21 1910 63.67 7/ 7
Virender Sehwag 22 2207 63.06 7/ 2
Mark Taylor 25 2368 60.72 8/ 13
Ricky Ponting 39 3424 58.03 12/ 16
Adam Gilchrist 29 2133 57.65 9/ 7
Aravinda de Silva 31 2709 57.64 10/ 8
Jacques Kallis 43 3555 57.34 10/ 20
Javed Miandad 37 2854 57.08 7/ 13
Sachin Tendulkar 51 3895 55.64 14/ 13
Zaheer Abbas 21 1755 54.84 5/ 4
Michael Slater 20 1689 54.48 6/ 4
Andy Flower 26 2176 54.40 7/ 10
Garry Sobers 20 1515 54.11 4/ 7

The difference between Ponting's first-Test average and his overall average isn't much, but for some players the difference is significant. Ian Healy leads the way with a difference of more than 18: in first Tests, his stats would do a regular batsman proud, with an average touching 46. Three of his four centuries were unbeaten ones, which helped his average as well. In other Tests, though, his average dropped by more than 50%, to 22.02, which brought his overall average down to 27.39. The difference is significant for Taylor too, whose career average was only 43.49.

The top ten is again dominated by Australians, with five of them in this list. Michael Slater averaged more than 54 in the first Test of a series, with six centuries in 20 such matches, but his overall average dropped to less than 43. Slater's first-Test numbers were even better in Ashes games, in which he scored 512 runs at 73.14 in four matches. The difference is significant, too, for Adam Gilchrist, whose first-Test average is 10 more than his overall number.

Highest difference between first-Test average and career average
Batsman 1st Tests Average 100s/ 50s Career ave Difference
Ian Healy 30 45.75 4/ 7 27.39 18.36
Mark Taylor 25 60.72 8/ 13 43.49 17.23
Aravinda de Silva 31 57.64 10/ 8 42.97 14.67
Ken Barrington 20 72.59 8/ 7 58.67 13.92
Virender Sehwag 22 63.06 7/ 2 50.06 13.00
Michael Slater 20 54.48 6/ 4 42.83 11.65
Mahela Jayawardene 40 63.83 11/ 16 52.76 11.07
Zaheer Abbas 21 54.84 5/ 4 44.79 10.05
Adam Gilchrist 29 57.65 9/ 7 47.60 10.05
Greg Chappell 21 63.67 7/ 7 53.86 9.81
Marvan Atapattu 34 47.69 8/ 7 39.02 8.67
Graham Gooch 26 50.40 8/ 7 42.58 7.82
Imran Khan 24 43.74 3/ 4 37.69 6.05
Marcus Trescothick 21 49.81 5/ 9 43.79 6.02
Richard Hadlee 29 32.55 1/ 6 27.16 5.39

At the other end of the spectrum are players who've had a tendency to begin series slowly. A couple of West Indians figure prominently on that list: Ramnaresh Sarwan has a career average in excess of 42, but in first Tests it drops to a dismal 28, with five ducks in 25 matches. He did go some way towards rectifying those numbers with a 107 against England at home this year, but scored only 13 and 1 in the return series at Lord's. Brian Lara's stats dropped significantly too in first Tests - eight of his 17 ducks came in the opening encounter. He did finish on a high, though, scoring 61 and 122 in his last such game, against Pakistan in Lahore.

Most Australian captains have done well in opening Tests, but one who didn't was Allan Border, who averaged less than 40 in these matches, compared to a career average of more than 50. The story is similar for the Waugh twins, both of whom averaged much less in first Tests than they did overall, but Steve's first-Test average of 43.31 is still higher than Mark's overall average of 41.81.

Another significant first-Test failure has been India's VVS Laxman, whose first-Test average is a disappointing 35.90, well below his career average. Much of that is due to his abysmal conversion-rate in these games - he has 11 fifty-plus scores, but only one of those is a hundred, against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. In his last 10 such innings, he has only one half-century.

Batsmen who've been slow starters in series (Qual: 20 first Tests)
Batsman 1st Tests Average 100s/ 50s Career ave Difference
Ramnaresh Sarwan 25 28.02 2/ 8 42.32 -14.30
Allan Border 38 39.40 5/ 12 50.56 -11.16
Brian Lara 34 42.14 6/ 12 52.88 -10.74
Wasim Raja 20 25.90 1/ 2 36.16 -10.26
VVS Laxman 36 35.90 1/ 10 45.24 -9.34
Shaun Pollock 35 23.95 0/ 2 32.31 -8.36
Allan Knott 22 24.47 1/ 4 32.75 -8.28
Wally Hammond 20 50.54 4/ 3 58.45 -7.91
John Edrich 21 35.77 2/ 7 43.54 -7.77
Steve Waugh 44 43.31 8/ 11 51.06 -7.75
Mark Waugh 34 34.54 3/ 12 41.81 -7.27
Colin Cowdrey 26 37.09 3/ 8 44.06 -6.97
Richie Richardson 20 37.60 2/ 7 44.39 -6.79
Sourav Ganguly 38 35.58 5/ 7 42.17 -6.59
Mudassar Nazar 22 31.72 3/ 4 38.09 -6.37

And then there are those whose numbers don't change much at all. For Matthew Hayden, for example, the difference is a miniscule 0.07. His conversion-rate in first Tests is something Laxman could learn from - 10 centuries, and only three half-centuries.

Batsmen with least difference between first-Test average and overall average
Batsman 1st Tests Average 100s/ 50s Career average Difference
Matthew Hayden 31 50.66 10/ 3 50.73 -0.07
Graham Thorpe 27 44.56 4/ 9 44.66 -0.10
David Boon 27 43.83 6/ 7 43.65 0.18
Geoff Boycott 27 48.05 3/ 12 47.72 0.33
Saleem Malik 32 44.03 5/ 7 43.69 0.34
Rod Marsh 24 27.00 1/ 3 26.51 0.49
Michael Atherton 26 38.21 3/ 12 37.69 0.52
Allan Lamb 21 35.52 4/ 2 36.09 -0.57
Arjuna Ranatunga 33 36.39 3/ 10 35.69 0.70
Moin Khan 26 29.35 1/ 7 28.55 0.80

Only batsmen with a career average of more than 25 were considered.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo