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Masterly Batting

Mathematical, with humanity

A collection of fine cricket writing on great cricket feats, and never mind the omissions

Alan Gardner

November 24, 2013

Comments: 66 | Text size: A | A

It is both an invidious and a beguiling task. The urge to rank things runs deep - in cricket, in sport, in life (though it is perhaps something males delight in more). Inevitably, the impulse to disagree is just as hardwired, a patellar reflex of the socialised human brain. "You think that is the best...?" In compiling Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries, Patrick Ferriday and Dave Wilson, assisted by an able band of co-conspirators, have struck up a pub debate liable to exercise pedants, inflame nationalists and, perhaps worst of all, provoke the Twitterati to fresh displays of mandrill pomposity. There could be broken glass.

This is no back-of-a-beer-mat musing, however. The authors have come tooled up. The research has been rigorous, their soundings far and wide (former Wisden editor John Woodcock is one of the first to be credited in the acknowledgements). In setting out the project's aims, Ferriday is awake to the difficulty, both rousing and daunting. Ranking the 100 greatest Test hundreds - for that is what they have done, or attempted, despite the enigmatic subtitle - is not a matter of irrefutable fact, but rather falls into the category "where no such certainty can bring the debate to a crushing and indelible conclusion. And it is precisely these latter cases that are the most stimulating; opinion is reinforced by fact, fact is questioned, opinion reinforced or, where open minds prevail, altered."

The danger of having an open mind, of course, is that your brain falls out. But Masterly Batting should find the thoughtful audience it deserves. The methodology is explained in the introduction, with ten categories - size, conditions, bowling attack, percentage, chances, speed, series impact, match impact, intangibles, compatibility - weighed against each other. The precise formula is not revealed but we can assume it is quite exacting, as there are several tied positions. The prospect of sifting through over 2000 possible candidates would leave many to conclude that pure maths was the only way to go, but Ferriday and Wilson have brought humanity to the numbers by stirring in contemporaneous reportage and the wisdom of numerous cricket judges.

The top ten

  • 1 Graham Gooch, 154* v WI, Headingley 1991
  • 2 Brian Lara, 153* v Australia, Bridgetown 1999
  • 3 Graeme Smith, 154* v England, Edgbaston 2008
  • 4 Kevin Pietersen, 186 v India, Mumbai 2012
  • 5 Mark Butcher, 173* v Australia, Headingley 2001
  • 6 Clem Hill, 188 v England, Melbourne 1898
  • 7 Marcus Trescothick, 180 v SA, Johannesburg 2005
  • 8 Adam Gilchrist, 149* v Pakistan, Hobart 1999
  • 9 Don Bradman, 212 v England, Adelaide 1937
  • 10 Herbert Sutcliffe, 161 v Australia, The Oval 1926

The order is, in many ways, subordinate to the higher purpose, which is to collate great cricket writing on great cricket feats. Measuring centuries against each other was settled upon as a "valid and achievable goal" but the effect is to paint vivid pictures of a different kind of century - more than 100 years of Test batting. This is particularly true with regard to the top 25 innings, which are given extended treatment and take up more than half of the book.

Never mind the run-making, the keystrokes are just as impressive. There are some fabulous pieces in the book by a variety of writers, including David Frith, Stephen Chalke, Telford Vice and Rob Smyth. Chalke provides a superb portrait of Herbert Sutcliffe, Daniel Harris on Gordon Greenidge fizzes and crackles with an apposite energy, while Vice's essay on Jacques Kallis - "He has fashioned one of the great careers with the passion he might have brought to mowing the lawn" - is full of good lines. Ferriday himself worships thrice at the altar of Brian Lara, while the comic-book vitality of Kevin Pietersen's 186 in Mumbai is another example of the multitudes contained within.

The result is richly satisfying, a kaleidoscope of dogged rearguards, effervescent counter-attacking and dreadnought destruction. Absence is what makes the heart grow harder. Each reader will come to Masterly Batting in search of particular favourites, some of whom are bound to be disappointed. No Atherton in Johannesburg, no Dravid in Adelaide? It is the relative dearth of Asian representatives that will cause most debate: seven Indian entries, five Pakistani and three Sri Lankan, plus Mohammad Ashraful. Virender Sehwag's 293 in Mumbai is the highest ranked, at No. 15, while Ashraful comes well ahead of Sachin Tendulkar, whose single worthy effort - 155 not out against Australia in Chennai - is deemed "great" enough to creep in at No. 100. This may seem doubly controversial in the prevailing climate of Sachinalia, although it is interesting to note that a similar exercise in 2001, the Wisden 100, found no room for Tendulkar at all.

Perhaps a greater oversight is the lack of Asian voices - Rahul Bhattacharya is quoted in the opening pages, but that is as close as an Indian writer gets to the book. The subcontinent stretches far across cricket's globe, however, and this might have been better reflected. On the matter of which innings did and didn't make the cut, Ferriday is happy to engage and he would doubtless provide a sound argument for the inclusion of both Kallis hundreds in Cape Town in 2011 when Tendulkar's in the same match misses out.

But they are still serving at the bar and argument will continue long into the night. In a publishing landscape that is dominated by turgid autobiographies and glossy compilations, Masterly Batting stands out like a Laxman cover drive. And where does Kolkata 2001 rank next to Bradman on a sticky MCG pitch or Mark Butcher's Headingley heroics? Time for me to get my coat.

Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries
Compiled and edited by Patrick Ferriday and Dave Wilson
Von Krumm Publishing
290 pages; £15

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (November 28, 2013, 0:55 GMT)

Ok cats, enough of all this, kudos to the authors for stepping up and taking everyone's questions (and invective). Beyond a point, if Hanifs innings and Laxmans innings are top 10 on your list and my list and KPs 180 against Govinda and Mithun feature on absolutely noone's list - it doesnt matter. There is still lots of great stuff written about lots of great knocks. And if your favorite knocks arent on there, write your own book on all the great knocks they missed and your addressable market is 1/7th of the worlds population.

Posted by lardster on (November 27, 2013, 9:06 GMT)

PhilCkt - you have a point about pitches. It is quite subjective but what is the alternative? Ignore pitch conditions? That would be absurd as I think we all agree this is one of the crucial factors. So you do your best, rather like using ICC date specific ratings to get an initial reading on the bowling attack. Not perfect but the best on offer. We did read a lot of match reports to judge conditions and the rating was always done by 2 people to try and cut out any obvious errors. Hence it is a mixture of stats and subjective assessment. Look what stats only produced (Wisden 2000). We worked hard on the method but the writin g is the point of the book otherwise I'd not have bothered getting Frith, Chalke, Manthorp, Smyth, Pringle etc to contribute.

Posted by lardster on (November 27, 2013, 8:57 GMT)

Sorry, did answer this but post didn't go through. I do think the SRT JK tons show a weakness, namely that all the centuries in the book are so closely ranked that one incident, such as a dropped catch, can lead to a plummet in position. I think you could look at Hobbs and Sutcliffe in 1926 - not dissimilar and we have Sutcliffe at 10 and Hobbs at 110. Similar story here - you've alighted on some fair points although I disagree on the injury; it might concentrate the mind but one you can't move properly it's hardly a help. The real difference is the ICC bowling ratings on this date, of course Steyn is rated clear top but a 4-man attack with Harris and Tsotsobe didn't get a good figure. For better or worse the Indian attack rated higher; they were slightly downgraded for moderate bowling at stages. You may disagree with ICC date specific ratings but they are a tool we chose to use. Also SRT was dropped (very hard chance) in the 90s - he isn't downgraded for his pieces of good fortune.

Posted by peter56 on (November 26, 2013, 19:08 GMT)

Lardster there is one question you are going out of your way to avoid answering SRT wins the award for the greatest test innings of 2011. Yet your criteria rate his 146 behind both of JHK centuries in the same test. In the first innings both teams had to bat on essentially the same bowler friendly strip. Everyone knows that the SA attack was vastly superior than the indian attack and in the first innings the worlds best bowler Dale Steyn was operating at his absolute peak and virtually unplayable to all but SRT.in the second SA innings the pitch had eased and the indians compounded this by bowling tripe.and still the JHK 109 is rated higher than the 146.this is the ultimate proof that at the very least one of your critetia is ridiculously over weighted and it must be players batting with an injury.this criteria should be deleted completely.Why nothing concentrates the mind like pain so heightened concentration is a godsend for a batsman.

Posted by ramesh_sound on (November 26, 2013, 8:50 GMT)

Consider these facts

1. Opposition is on a world record 17 consecutive test wins. 2. Only thrice in test history, has a team in the situation ( follow on) has gone on to win the test. 3. The score made ( 281) was the highest ever in India till that date. 4. Australia were 250/8 and were again bowled out for 210 or so. India did not cross 200 in the first knock. 5. Dravid at # 6 came in after Laxman had scored 150 runs for the match.

In a match where 37 wickets fell, how does one get convinced that the batting conditions were so pristine that the 281 is an inferior innings to those of Mark Butcher or Graeme Smith?

Posted by lardster on (November 26, 2013, 8:11 GMT)

In answer to last 3 posts: The result wasn't included mindlessly. The match impact measures the state of The game at the beginning and end of the innings and subsequent events affect only series impact. Sure, it did make a difference but not hugely so hence Botham's 149 is only #50. There are defeats in this list including Lara and Clarke in the top 25. Speed is a tricky one and we did make adjustments to innings where speed was not a factor at all but these are quite rare. I don't think speed is only a factor in a run chase or setting up a declaration. It almost always helps to score faster - sets fields back, demoralises bowlers, makes the job of team-mates easier, sets up a winning position etc. Just sometimes (Atherton, Hanif M, Sutcliffe) it was really of no relevance and so we then uipped the figure. Yes, Lara was amazing

Posted by archiemac on (November 26, 2013, 7:13 GMT)

to Philcrt

I struggle to understand your point. It seems to be based on what if?

What if Walsh was dismissed? What if the SAs didn't play their shots in relation to the Trescothic innings?

What ifs could be applied to all cricket innings and happenings. how about this one: what if Bradman decided to play tennis instead of cricket?

What ifs were not taken into account and rightly so. Surely you can only base a book such as this on what actually happened and not what if?

H Singh Only official Tests were considered although I agree WCS matches were played against great attacks

Posted by PhilCkt on (November 26, 2013, 5:51 GMT)

Lardster,

>> pitch (worn and tricky especially before lunch), ... Add to that chanceless.

How do you take these into account in the computation ? You could not possibly compare the state of the pitch for (for eg) Ranji's 154* and Buthcer's 173*. The definition of a chances or a half chances in reports are extremely unreliable, especially when comparing the writings over the course of 130 years.

Posted by PhilCkt on (November 26, 2013, 3:27 GMT)

The result of the match has again been given a large weightage mindlessly and without considering the context. In Trescothick's case, South Africa had to play just two sessions in what had been a high scoring match (411-419-332). On almost any other day, they would have comfortably done so. Just because SA threw away the wickets, Trescothick is in the top 10. If SA had played out time, I suppose he wouldn't be in the top-100.

It is a recurring theme. If Viswanath was sent in early, or even immediately after Gavaskar's wicket, SMG's 221 would probably suddenly enter into top-10 list. Or if Walsh managed to get out at Bridgetown, Lara may not be in the top-10. The same explains for the absence of Trumper's 185*, two of McCabe's innings and so on. The present logic, if there is one, doesn't make a great deal of sense.

Posted by   on (November 26, 2013, 2:11 GMT)

Without making any comment on the presence or absence of particular innings, I do wonder - why is 'speed' included as one of the categories? This is a list of Test innings, not T20. Most Tests have been played over five days, some over six or even timeless. Speed is only really of any importance if the team is either chasing a target in the fourth innings with a limited number of overs, or aiming for a third innings declaration to give as much time as possible to bowl the opposition out. It is often the precise opposite - crease occupation - which is most important; Hanif's 337 or Gary Kirsten's 275 would have scored zero for speed, but they did exactly what was required in the circumstances. Both secured draws, when batting more quickly would probably have led to defeat. It could be argued that a century scored in one session demoralises the bowling team, but being kept in the field for hours without looking like dismissing a batsman is, if anything, even more demoralising.

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