S Rajesh runs the rule over players of yesteryear

The best ODI bowlers

Garner and other bowling giants

Even in his own era, Big Bird towered over everyone else as an ODI bowler

S Rajesh

November 21, 2011

Comments: 58 | Text size: A | A

Joel Garner bowls, West Indies v New Zealand, World Cup, 16 June, 1979
Surviving against Joel Garner was tough enough; scoring quickly was almost impossible © PA Photos
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The previous Stats from the Past looked at the best batsmen from different eras of ODI cricket; this time the focus shifts to the bowlers. They're the breed that has always, rather unfairly, played second fiddle in the shorter forms of the game, so here's an attempt to give them the credit they deserve.

Any analysis of players in ODIs must take into account the period during which they performed, for the game has changed significantly since its early years in the 1970s. Then, bowlers could afford to bowl like they did in Tests, secure in the knowledge that batsmen would largely stick to orthodox shots, and that the little bits of innovative strokeplay would only come towards the end of an innings.

In today's version of ODIs, the bowler has no such luxury. Most pitches are loaded in favour of the batsmen, the shorter boundaries help too, especially when fielding restrictions are in place for 40% of the overs, and batsmen have realised that 10 wickets in hand for 50 overs of batting is an equation loaded in their favour. More risks are being taken earlier in the innings, and that's reflected in the kind of totals that have become the norm these days. The decade-wise ODI stats tell the story: in the 1970s, bowlers averaged 27.13 runs per wicket and conceded 3.67 runs per over, on average. Since the beginning of 2010, the economy rate has gone up to 4.91, an increase of 33%. The bowling average has remained more or less constant since the 1980s, but the increase in run rates has changed the benchmark for what's acceptable and what isn't.

To capture that change in the analyses here, the stats for each bowler are assessed against the overall numbers during the period in which he played. During the period in which Joel Garner played his 98 matches, for instance, the overall bowling average was 29.60, and the economy rate was four runs per over. Even against those benchmarks, though, Garner was terrific, averaging less than 19 runs per wicket at a stunning economy rate of 3.09. Multiplying the bowling average and the runs conceded per ball, his bowling index was 9.70, while the overall index during that period was 19.73. Dividing one by the other, it emerges that Garner's index was twice as good as that of the average bowler during the period in which he played.

Even compared to the other great bowlers who played during that era - and there were several - Garner was far ahead of the rest of pack. His height was an obvious advantage, and his unerring accuracy meant that the batsmen had to take all the risks to get him away for runs. Richard Hadlee is next among bowlers of that era, though his ratio is a fair bit lower than that of Garner. Four other top-class bowlers follow them in the table, which isn't much of a surprise, but what is mildly surprising is that Malcolm Marshall's bowling average in ODIs was only 26.96. The norm is for bowlers to have a lower average in ODIs than in Tests, for it's easier to get cheap wickets when batsmen are going for quick runs, but Marshall bucked that trend - his Test average of 20.94 was more than six runs fewer than his ODI one.

Another bowler with similar numbers was Imran Khan. Like Marshall, he is recognised as among the greatest fast bowlers in Test history - he averaged 22.81 in that format - but in ODIs he conceded 26.61 runs per wicket. Both are legends in each format of the game, but they shone a little brighter in Tests than in one-day internationals.

Three of the four great allrounders of the 1980s are mentioned in the table below; the fourth, Ian Botham, had a slightly lower ratio: he averaged 28.54 at an economy rate of 3.96, in an era when the corresponding figures were 30.92 and 4.13. His ratio, thus, came to 1.13, a tad poorer than those of Kapil Dev and Imran.

Top ODI bowlers who bowled mainly in the 1970s and 1980s
Bowler Matches Wickets Ave/ ER Ave*ER/6 Overall ave/ ER Overall ave*ER/6 Ratio
Joel Garner 98 146 18.84/ 3.09 9.70 29.60/ 4.00 19.73 2.03
Richard Hadlee 115 158 21.56/ 3.30 11.86 30.58/ 4.09 20.85 1.76
Michael Holding 102 142 21.36/ 3.32 11.82 29.48/ 3.99 19.60 1.66
Andy Roberts 56 87 20.35/ 3.40 11.53 28.66/ 3.87 18.49 1.60
Dennis Lillee 63 103 20.82/ 3.58 12.42 28.59/ 3.88 18.49 1.49
Malcolm Marshall 136 157 26.96/ 3.53 15.86 31.26/ 4.17 21.73 1.37
Ewen Chatfield 114 140 25.84/ 3.57 15.37 30.71/ 4.11 21.04 1.37
Kapil Dev 225 253 27.45/ 3.71 16.97 31.12/ 4.14 21.47 1.27
Abdul Qadir 104 132 26.16/ 4.06 17.70 31.68/ 4.19 22.12 1.25
Imran Khan 175 182 26.61/ 3.89 17.25 30.78/ 4.12 21.14 1.23

Through that period in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, the overall scoring rates were so low that the overall bowling indexes (bowling average multiplied by runs conceded per ball) stayed in the 18-21 range for bowlers who bowled in that era. For those who started their careers in the late '80s and bowled mostly in the 1990s, though, that index started moving towards the mid-20s, finding a range between 22 and 24. The averages didn't increase that much, but the scoring rates shifted upwards to around 4.5 runs per over. The bowlers who played in that era, thus, need to be compared against that benchmark.

There were several top-flight bowlers who were around during this period, as the table below shows. In terms of stats, the one who did better than everyone else was, again, a tall fast bowler from the West Indies. Curtly Ambrose's bowling average wasn't exceptional - 24.12 was very good, but there were a few others who did better - but the economy rate of 3.48 was terrific, especially when the overall rate during his period was 4.27.

Allan Donald's strength was his wicket-taking ability - he averaged 21.78 runs per wicket, which is why, even though his economy rate was more than four, he still has an excellent index. And then there was Saqlain Mushtaq, who, unlike a couple of names mentioned above, was definitely a more formidable bowler in ODIs: he matched Donald's average in the shorter version but averaged almost 30 in Tests. His ability to bowl the doosra, and his variations in speed and flight, meant he even bowled in the slog overs with plenty of success. His overall index and ratio are a shade better than even Wasim Akram's, which indicates just how proficient he was in ODIs. Among spinners, only Muttiah Muralitharan did better.

Shane Warne is in the list too, but his career strike rate was only 36.3, compared to Saqlain's 30.4. Waqar Younis is the third Pakistan bowler in the table below, and while his average 23.84 is top-class, his economy rate of 4.68 isn't - it's poorer than the overall economy rate during that period, of 4.49.

Top ODI bowlers who bowled mainly in the 1990s and early 2000s
Bowler Matches Wickets Ave/ ER Ave*ER/6 Overall ave/ ER Overall ave*ER/6 Ratio
Curtly Ambrose 176 225 24.12/ 3.48 13.99 32.64/ 4.27 23.23 1.66
Allan Donald 164 272 21.78/ 4.15 15.06 32.45/ 4.51 24.39 1.62
Saqlain Mushtaq 169 288 21.78/ 4.29 15.57 32.44/ 4.59 24.82 1.59
Wasim Akram 356 502 23.52/ 3.89 15.25 32.37/ 4.45 24.01 1.57
Craig McDermott 138 203 24.71/ 4.03 16.60 32.16/ 4.25 22.78 1.37
Shane Warne 194 293 25.73/ 4.25 18.23 32.51/ 4.57 24.76 1.36
Waqar Younis 262 416 23.84/ 4.68 18.60 32.41/ 4.49 24.25 1.30

And then there's the current era of bowlers, who've bowled mainly in the 2000s. It's a period that has been dominated by batsmen, which is apparent in the kind of numbers they've posted. The averages haven't gone up much, but the run rates have increased to around 4.7. That's reflected in the overall bowling index numbers - the product of the bowling average and the runs conceded per ball is more than 25 during the career spans of all the bowlers listed below.

Glenn McGrath and Murali are the two among them who played a fair amount in the 1990s as well, but both of them played less than 50% of their total games in the 1990s. McGrath played 101 out of his 250 matches in the '90s, while for the Murali the number was 129 out of 350.

Both McGrath and Murali are among the top four bowlers in the table, with numbers that are clearly superior to the rest in the list. McGrath, Murali and Shaun Pollock all had economy rates of less than four, which is truly remarkable considering the era they bowled in. Shane Bond, the other bowler in the top four, had an economy rate of 4.28, but he more than made up for that with his wicket-taking ability: his average of 20.88 is bettered only by two bowlers (with a 100-wicket cut-off), both of them legends.

A few other leading wicket-takers in ODIs aren't in the list below, but they deserve an honourable mention. Chaminda Vaas is Sri Lanka's second-highest wicket-taker, and his 400 scalps came at an average of 27.53 and an economy rate of 4.18. Taking his era stats into account, his ratio works out to 1.32, which is better than the likes of Kapil Dev and Imran Khan. Daniel Vettori has an even better economy rate, of 4.12, but an average of 31.48 reduces his ratio to 1.17. Shoaib Akhtar has an excellent average of 24.97, but his economy rate of 4.76 is marginally on the high side. He still manages a fine ratio of 1.29. And here's how the two leading wicket-takers for India fared: Javagal Srinath had a ratio of 1.17 for his 315 wickets (average 28.08, economy rate 4.44), while Anil Kumble managed 1.12, a relatively low ratio largely due to an average of 30.89.

Top ODI bowlers who bowled mainly in the 2000s
Bowler Matches Wickets Ave/ ER Ave*ER/6 Overall ave/ ER Overall ave*ER/6 Ratio
Glenn McGrath 250 381 22.02/ 3.88 14.24 32.52/ 4.63 25.09 1.76
Shane Bond 82 147 20.88/ 4.28 14.89 32.30/ 4.82 25.95 1.74
Shaun Pollock 303 393 24.50/ 3.67 14.99 32.55/ 4.68 25.39 1.69
Muttiah Muralitharan 350 534 23.08/ 3.93 15.12 32.42/ 4.69 25.34 1.68
Brett Lee 205 357 22.89/ 4.70 17.93 32.31/ 4.79 25.79 1.44
Nathan Bracken 116 174 24.36/ 4.41 17.90 32.22/ 4.78 25.67 1.43
Andrew Flintoff 141 169 24.38/ 4.39 17.84 32.18/ 4.72 25.31 1.42
Jason Gillespie 97 142 25.42/ 4.21 17.84 32.52/ 4.64 25.15 1.41
Makhaya Ntini 173 266 24.65/ 4.53 18.61 32.36/ 4.72 25.46 1.37

These ratios have been worked out simply by multiplying batting average and runs conceded per ball, giving equal weightage to both factors. A slight tweak in weightages will alter the list somewhat, but the top ones will still remain unscathed. The list below combines all three eras and picks out the top ten ratios. You'll agree that it's difficult to pick holes with this table of 10 ODI bowlers.

Top ODI bowlers from the 1970s to the early 2000s
Bowler Matches Wickets Ave/ ER Ave*ER/6 Overall ave/ ER Overall ave*ER/6 Ratio
Joel Garner 98 146 18.84/ 3.09 9.70 29.60/ 4.00 19.73 2.03
Glenn McGrath 250 381 22.02/ 3.88 14.24 32.52/ 4.63 25.09 1.76
Richard Hadlee 115 158 21.56/ 3.30 11.86 30.58/ 4.09 20.85 1.76
Shane Bond 82 147 20.88/ 4.28 14.89 32.30/ 4.82 25.95 1.74
Shaun Pollock 303 393 24.50/ 3.67 14.99 32.55/ 4.68 25.39 1.69
Muttiah Muralitharan 350 534 23.08/ 3.93 15.12 32.42/ 4.69 25.34 1.68
Curtly Ambrose 176 225 24.12/ 3.48 13.99 32.64/ 4.27 23.23 1.66
Michael Holding 102 142 21.36/ 3.32 11.82 29.48/ 3.99 19.60 1.66
Allan Donald 164 272 21.78/ 4.15 15.06 32.45/ 4.51 24.39 1.62
Andy Roberts 56 87 20.35/ 3.40 11.53 28.66/ 3.87 18.49 1.60

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Posted by timmyw on (November 24, 2011, 14:09 GMT)

@GetItcorrect - "Let me leave this one with you, Lara and Sachin are better bats than Bradman.". No.

Posted by Cricket_observer_from_1982 on (November 23, 2011, 12:16 GMT)

Imran had hit 20+ for against three of the best, tough to hit ODI bowlers. Garner , Kapildev and Ambrose. Only prabrakar used to trick him in last over, the inswinging ball he could not read properly.

Definetely among bowlers garner is the best ODI bowler ever.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2011, 3:12 GMT)

Very good statistical attempt; some of my thoughts based on the comments for this article: - Yes, Strike rate should be given higher weighting. With wickets you bring down the runs and the run rate. - Because of the pitch conditions, Pollock, who mostly played in green tops is at an unfair advantage, while Akram or Kapil are pulled back. As Shams mentioned, if the stats could be normalized based on the match scores, it would be even better. For ex. an economy rate of 4 in a match total of 400 should be treated equal to an economy rate of 8 in a match involving a total of 800 runs. - Power plays need not be specifically accounted for, because if you are good enough to make it to the top, the bowler would have invariably bowled in the toughest period of the match. So, that should even out, even amongst different eras. Again, good analysis by Rajesh. We understand that any one indicator does not give the complete picture; several combined together does.

Posted by GetItcorrect on (November 23, 2011, 3:09 GMT)

Some of this debate lends itself to not having statistical data. In which case, no comparisons should be made. Some of those players that have been selected as the best this and that, say 'batsman' have had direct influence over the adjudicators of some of the games that they played in, but are we going to extract that kind of data, or can we, when using the comparative method. Besides guys, "one swallow don't make a summer," put differently, it is generally about consistency. Lets go ahead and enjoy the stats, sometimes methodology might seem to lend itself to bias. Let me leave this one with you, Lara and Sachin are better bats than Bradman. The Don was great but as in most cases greater ones would always come along, especially since they were and are more exposed than he was.

Posted by   on (November 23, 2011, 0:30 GMT)

i cant see any indian bowler from 90's and early 2000 ? srinath or prasad ? where are they ...do u really think they dont deserve to be here ... ok i agree with the autor

Posted by timmyw on (November 22, 2011, 22:14 GMT)

Hmm you know I have been thinking about this for a while. I think you should ask the batters who played against all these guys who they would less like to face. I know from speaking with a couple that Joel Garner's name came often. He was a beast, dangerous and quick and accurate. I know stats don't tell the whole story but I have been a cricket tragic since I was 5, I watched these guys play and in this case I think the numbers have it right. I would love to see a test comparison I bet Joel is way up there as well. In fact all those Windies quicks from the late 70s to the early 90s were a nightmare. I remember him hitting Greg Chappel with a short one and believe me THAT did not happen every day.

Posted by BoonBoom on (November 22, 2011, 15:07 GMT)

@nlambda...if your yardstick is to take the first 98 games of other players and compare that with Garner......then take the fisrt 52 games of SRT and compare that with Bradman....then SRT was no where near Bradman....the point is: you can not compare players from two different era.....this is unfair

Posted by BoonBoom on (November 22, 2011, 14:55 GMT)

@nlambda..... Imran did hit 20+ runs off Garner. The ODI # 339 played at Sharjah on 15 November 1985. Garnaer bowled the last over and conceeded 22 runs. He had final bowling figures of 9-1-56-1. Imran hit him three sixes in the last over and finhsed 25 not out off just 9 balls. You can google and find out more info, you can also read match report. I doubt if this is available on youtube. Conclusion: sometime there is no harm accepting the fact that Pakistan has produced some marvellous players!!

Posted by SRT_GENIUS on (November 22, 2011, 8:56 GMT)

@DoubleU: The idea of ratios is that it neutralizes the "era" as you are ratios are calculated against you peers of the same era. @author: This list is awesome but in my personal opinion Wasim Akram is as good as any bowler of any era across any format - and I am certainly not his biggest fan as my moniker would suggest. Perhaps sometimes statistics can't capture everything. Otherwise the list is perfect.

Posted by Venkatb on (November 22, 2011, 3:12 GMT)

While I have seen WI teams from the pre-Garner days on, I think some stats favor Garner - 1. The 70s and 80s were the early days of International 1 day cricket so scoring rates were low, 2. Garner's great height and his bowling hand at or above the sightscreen was always an impediment for bowlers - in today's increasing night cricket, that advantage gets nullified - his ball would be easier to spot today, and 3. Garner was not the fastest bowler on the team - his role was to keep the batsmen pegged down while others fired missiles - the anomaly with Imran Khan and Marshall (Tests vs. ODIs) is intriguing.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.

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