October 27, 2012

Is he any good?

Where does one begin to rate the merits of a batsman in regard to his peers? It can only be a work in progress

There are so many factors to weigh up when comparing two batsmen that it isn't even a case of apples and oranges. It's more like comparing two greengrocers' shops that appeal to entirely different clientele. What are eight pounds of spuds worth when measured in mangoes and galangal?

There are so many different elements that make up the whole that it is almost impossible to form a clear opinion of a batsman's worth while you're actually watching him. Some people seem to reach opinions from a single shot, but to take the above analogy further, that's like carrying out a stock-take from a single glance. You can't even see most of the produce, so you'd do well to count it.

Many of a batsman's most significant attributes are obscured almost constantly. This is compounded by the fact that it's also very easy to avoid looking for them.

We're naturally inclined to place emphasis on the more eye-catching qualities. We see the boundaries first, then perhaps the carefully placed ones and twos, and only then might we stroke our chins and examine defensive technique. However, many batsmen appear to tick all of those boxes without experiencing any great success. Clearly there is a lot more to the art of batting.

How did your 217th forward defensive look?
Key to it all is the fact that batting is not just an art; it is a trade as well. One of the most significant factors influencing a batsman's performance is really rather prosaic. Quite simply, they must do good things reliably. It is a measure of quality to do the right things again and again, more frequently than anyone else. It is not enough to nurdle the ball into the leg side for a single. A batsman must do it repeatedly and without error.

For those of us who can't insert food into our mouths without applying at least some of it to our clothing, this is faintly admirable, but there's little glory in it. There's little to cheer about a forward defensive stroke at the best of times, but no one stands to applaud the execution of 145 successful forward defensives by one batsman compared to 129 by another - not directly at any rate.

As much as we might like to think that being a great batsman is about playing a stroke that makes people gasp, it is actually more about stockpiling moments of competence in industrial quantities. One great shot will earn at most six runs - England's Jonathan Trott knows this, which is why he hasn't as yet deigned to hit one in a Test match. A batsman needs to do far more to have an impact.

Although we get a sense of cumulative competence when watching an innings, we can't see it directly. We don't see percentages - we see individual events. We see the batsman middle his first ball, but can conclude little from this alone. It might be the first of many times he achieves this or it could be the sole occasion. We gain perspective on that shot over the course of the innings.

There are also opaque factors affecting the success rate of any given shot. One of the most obvious is whether that particular stroke should have been played in the first place. It is not just about leaving dangerous balls but about picking the right shot at other times. Again, this is hard to perceive. We don't see the shots a batsman doesn't play, so we don't get much sense of this happening. Shot selection only really becomes striking when it's terminal.

Is your cover drive the same in New Zealand?
Similarly, different shots suit different conditions and different match situations. A player might pick his shots wisely in home conditions, but by playing the exact same way abroad, he could risk ignominy. Even when picking the right shot, he might struggle to play it on unfamiliar pitches. We can almost say that it is impossible to fully judge a batsman's cover drive until we have seen it played all over the world, against every time of bowling, in every format and in every circumstance.

The list of permutations is near-infinite and this is why great batsmen don't materialise in front of us fully formed. Instead, they are revealed to us over time. We may think otherwise but it is just an illusion - history is forever being revised by hindsight.

Every cricket match alters our perceptions of all that has gone before and spectacular early performances only scream of greatness when seen in the light provided by later evidence. There are plenty of players who promised much but let us down; players who, it later transpired, were adept at only one format, or only in home conditions, or who had a glaring weakness against one particular type of delivery.

Does your technique deteriorate?
When a batsman does lose his wicket, experts will often point out poor footwork or improper technique, but the mechanics of batting get less attention when the results are not so catastrophic. Few dwell on a mishit that results in a dot ball, but this too affects a player's final score. Every delivery matters.

When technical analysis is carried out, we are often given the impression that the players are robots, executing identical movements on every occasion, whereas in reality technique is fluid. It changes subtly from one ball to the next and can alter significantly over the course of a longer innings.

As much as we might like to think that being a great batsman is about playing a stroke which makes people gasp, it is actually more about stockpiling moments of competence in industrial quantities

Good footwork is not merely about knowing what to do and doing it, it is also about having the wherewithal. After batting for many hours, a batsman is less likely to spring into the optimal position. Frequently, he will get away with this sluggishness. Occasionally, he will not. The better batsmen are those whose technique deteriorates the least.

One delivery is all it takes to end an innings, and how might that one delivery have panned out were the batsman possessed of better cardiovascular fitness or were he not ever-so-slightly dehydrated? It is very hard to see how a batsman is feeling, but weariness can prove just as costly as a fundamental flaw in technique because the results - poor footwork or imperfect head position - are often the same.

How well do you recover?
In the modern cricket world, a batsman's physical fitness is perhaps more important than ever before. They say of old batsmen that their eyes are going, but it's fair to wonder whether it's more often their feet. It isn't just a case of staying sharp throughout the course of a single innings. Tests, one-dayers, T20s - there isn't much time to rest nowadays, and fatigue is cumulative. It is not just about how long you last but how well you recover.

If a batsman never fully recovers from each match, the situation will compound itself and deterioration will come into play earlier and earlier in each subsequent innings. A lack of zest, a slightly stiff hamstring - either could spell disaster. These are mundane problems compared to a 150kph inswinging yorker, but they too must be conquered. It's not about how good a batsman looks in reaching 40 or 50, it's how he looks from then on and whether he's even still there.

In order to do what's necessary to combat fatigue, a player must retain a certain enthusiasm for the game. This too is an invisible attribute. Efforts and sacrifices must be made, and when that motivation fades, the death knell for a career is invariably sounded.

At that point, we have all the evidence we are ever going to get about a batsman and we have in essence completed the stock-take mentioned earlier. By necessity, this process has taken years. This is because ability to hit the ball cleanly is not an end in itself - it is merely an entry requirement.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mustafa on October 29, 2012, 22:32 GMT

    Mr Bowden, Great article. Just a small correction: You mentioned that Jonathan Trott "hasn't as yet deigned" to hit a six in a test match. I remember Jonathan Trott coming down the track and having an almighty heave at Paul Harris once when England toured SA in 09, only to get clean bowled. Only time i i can recall seeing him attempt such a stroke. Here's the commentary: http://www.espncricinfo.com/rsaveng09/engine/match/387570.html?innings=2;page=1;view=commentary Last ball of the 42nd over

  • Rajesh on October 29, 2012, 18:37 GMT

    @selassie whatever you tell, a yardstick for foreign batsman is to score in sub-continent pitches...look at ricky ponting..he is always dominant in australia and other fast tracks...same ricky ponting always dancing to the spinners in the subcontinent,just look at his average in india...same goes for bradman if he plays in subcontinent...in other words BRADMAN is not tested unlike sachin who was tested and certified in all conditions...so all cases goes in favour of sachin...

  • Rayner on October 29, 2012, 16:34 GMT

    alos @ CptnMeanster - So I haven't seen any of the modern players playing in Norway or Russia for example, we may play cricket in these places in 50 years time, do the players of today instantly become worse beacuse the never had the opportunity to play there? Do they now become worse than Mr X who plays in the future and averages 30, like many other players of that age do but should become more highly rated beacuse they have had a wider variety of pithces? also back with uncovered pitches, you'd often get dust bowls and rank turners in Australia.

  • Rayner on October 29, 2012, 16:14 GMT

    Rajesh_india_1990 - I think you may need to do some reading on Bradman, he still played 52 tests - more than enopugh to be measured by, and averaged all but 100 on uncovered pitches, much worse pitches than our players play on these days. If you ever watch some footage of him, he was simply amazing, into position so quickly he could easily pull good length balls. His average is 40% higher than anyone who ever played test cricket. He also scored quickly too and ran between the wickets with ferocious speed, I have no doubt that he would have been good at ODI and T20 had he played today. He simply didn't have the chance to play the number of tests that current players do (He still averaged 95 in 280 FC matches and had a war in the middle fo his career). Taking nothing away from the little master but there are many other players around today with similar averages, no one is near bradman's.

  • Peter on October 29, 2012, 12:39 GMT

    Rajesh - Bradman played through the Great Depression, and basically single handedly carried the hopes of the nation. The England team were so fearful of him they created the bodyline tactic specifically to combat him. Bradman played 80 innings, so your logic of one innings of 200 is flawed. Bradman scored a century every 2.75 innings. Across tests and ODIs Sachin averages a century every 7.76 innings, so basically by the time Sachin has one century Bradman has made 3. Bradman made 12 double centuries, twice passing 300 and one score of 299. How many has Sachin scored? Bradman also captained one of the greatest teams in history, nicknamed "The Invincibles". Lets not forget one of his more remarkable feats of winning a 5 match test series 3-2 after being 2-0 down. No other captain or team has done this. Sachin is no doubt a brilliant player, arguably the best of modern times. But he is in no way better than Bradman sorry to tell you.

  • Rajesh on October 29, 2012, 10:52 GMT

    Bradman is not a greatest batsman ever.......a yardstick for the overseas batsman is to play well in the SUBCONTINENT...he never played in subcontinent(look at australia's ponting whose average in india is very poor) and maintains his average and also he played one format only and played very less tests...for example if i play one test and score 200 runs in one innings and my average will be 200...can i say i am the greatest batsman ever because my average is 200..the greatest batsman ever to hold the bat is absolutely SACHIN RAMESH TENDULKAR..more than 190 tests with 15k runs with 55average,450+odis with 18k runs with 44 average,and an unimaginable 100 centuries..played in all conditions, averages more or less 50 in all conditions,played against all time great bowlers,played against more than 200 bowlers,played over 23 years (which is my age)...with huge expectations,media pressure and in all aspects sachin the greatest batsman ever to play the game..period..please publish

  • V on October 29, 2012, 9:34 GMT

    To Cpt Meanster and Asher,if batting was much easier during Bradman's era and before,how come no other batsmen during that time came anywhere near his average or his feats ? And I am referring to batsmen of the calibre of Hutton,Hammond,Ponsford and others who were his peers.If anything,batting has become a touch easier in the modern era with even a Samaraweera maintaining a 50 plus average.

    There is no point asking a "what if" question with regards to Bradman.He was phenomenal against whatever was bowled to him.What if Tendulkar had to bat without a helmet on uncovered wickets ? These kind of hypothetical questions are meaningless. Bradman is unique and peerless and I have no hestitation saying that as an Indian.

  • Peter on October 29, 2012, 7:32 GMT

    Bradman is the greatest - no argument. Sure, he only played in Aus and Eng, but that is no fault of his own. The fact that he averaged more away from home tells me he can adapt to the match situation. Also, against Indian bowlers he averaged 201.5, and against SA 178.75. You can't nullify someone who significantly outperformed every player of his generation just because he didn't play somewhere. Putting aside all controversy, does Murali not get called one of the greatest spinners because he took 176 wickets at an average of 14 against Zim and Bang? The players don't have a say who they play against and where they play, so you can really only judge them by how they perform with what's thrown up in front of them. And Bradman excelled like no man has or probably ever will.

  • Dayne on October 29, 2012, 6:46 GMT

    @Cpt.Meanster - Now before you split hairs and say 'I didn't reference Tendulkar', it's not about that. I referenced him as he is a well-known superstar of modern cricket. A batting champion. Bradman averages 63.92% higher than his closest peer on the list of averages (RG Pollock). The fact that nobody in the history of test cricket has an average of over 61 (at least with a substantial amount of innings under their belt) yet Bradman averaged 99.94 means that there is nothing further to say. As I said, he is statistically acknowledged as not only the best batsman of all-time but the best sportsman. The fact he is more than 50% superior to his absolute next rival should be enough evidence, but country-based bias will always come into play. Only 40 players in the history of the game average over 50. It is an elite club. Only 4 men average over 60, making that an elite club within an elite club. And only one man averages 99.94, 63.92% higher than his next in line. The best of all-time.

  • Dayne on October 29, 2012, 6:39 GMT

    @Cpt.Meanster - keep dreaming. To put Bradman into perspective, relative to how much higher he was than his peers and also batsmen in future generations, I'll review his average alongside Tendulkar's. Bradman's average was 81.5% higher. To file that down, it would be like comparing Tendulkar with someone who averaged 30.35 as though they were peers. They aren't, and a gap as large as 81.5% will render any attempt to diminish such a sizeable difference ultimately futile. Sure Bradman played in Eng and Aus only, but the pitches weren't covered, the protective equipment was considerably poorer, as were the bats. He isn't just the best batsman ever, by a country mile, he is, statistically, the best sportsman ever. For example, if Tiger Woods goes around 18 holes in 63 shots, Bradman would have done it in 34.7, that's how far ahead of his peers he was. The only mockery here is your vain attempt to undermine an obvious fact. The numbers he produced are incredible, peerless, and undeniable.

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