February 19, 2014

All hail the Man of the Series

In modern times, the most accurate method of anointing the best of the best is surely an analysis of those who have been voted top performers in series most often

His Mitchness: four Man-of-the-Match awards in six Tests © Associated Press

This is getting ridiculous. Fifty-seven Tests, nine Man-of-the-Match awards. Never mind Sheila, Morrissey dear: Mitchell Johnson take a bow, a bloody great, feathered-hat flourish of a bow. Vernon Philander's five in 21 outings may yet bloom into something equally extraordinary, perhaps even a havoc-wreaking record to match Wasim Akram's 17 in 104, but neither has matched His Mitchness' current astounding streaks: thanks to those 49 wickets, he's picked up four in six.

The field, of course, is narrowed by time, custom and manufacturers of outsize cheques: not until Test cricket was a century old were such individual baubles distributed (since you asked, Derek Randall was the first recipient, in the 1977 Centenary bash). Given the relentlessness with which they dominated their respective eras, George Lohmann, Don Bradman and Sydney Barnes would have harvested truckloads, as might Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly; Dennis Lillee, who averaged six scalps per outing over his first 50, would doubtless have swagged a whole lot more. But four MoMs in six?

Wasim and Ian Botham both pulled off a hat-trick - awards in three consecutive Tests - and Malcolm Marshall and Jacques Kallis reeled off three in four. Three in a series, so far as I can ascertain, has been accomplished only by Botham (in the 1981 Ashes) and Johnson, although many of us would argue that the second member of Botham's trio could and probably should have gone to John Emburey. Kallis once went on a roll of five in 13, but four in six? Call it greedy if you like, but I'm thinking phenomenal. Which it is, even if Muttiah Muralitharan did once grab four in five.

His Mitchness is certainly keeping up with the cream of the Joneses: only five men have taken 250-plus Test wickets at a better strike rate than his 49.88 - Marshall, Allan Donald, Dale Steyn, Fred Trueman and Waqar Younis. Which makes him nothing less remarkable than the most incisive Australian, not to mention - sorry Wasim - the most lethal left-armer.

As someone who likes to think he goaded His Mitchness into his current purple patch with some stern and possibly provocative words on the eve of the last Ashes debate - in reality, the odds of him having read that particular column are probably less attractive than a million to one against - it gives this Pom enormous if slightly guilty pleasure to note his ascent to the honourable company of all-time masters. An ascent, moreover, that stirs up that timeless sporting argument: is reliability more valuable than brilliance?

Let's put it a slightly different way. Is there truly a distinction - as drawn recently by Messrs Atherton and Crowe in downplaying Kevin Pietersen's place in the pantheon - between a great batsman and a creator of great innings? The former suggests consistent high quality, the latter mercurial genius, and Atherton and Crowe both seem to have concluded that dependability means more to a team than the capacity to win matches. Much as I hesitate to take issue with such sagacious judges, I can't resist.

Pietersen's greatness actually lies as much in his reliable brilliance across all formats as that thrilling sense of adventure

Imagine you're a coach. If you had a player at your disposal who could be relied upon to put on a match-winning performance every dozen games and do decently in half the rest - a 40-plus average with the bat or a strike rate of under 60 with the ball, or under 70 if he's a spinner - you'd pick him and keep picking him, right? Eleven of those and you'd be laughing. Five and you'd be pretty damned pleased with yourself: MoM awards almost always coincide with victory, and there is a not unreasonable chance that one or two of the other six will also come to the party at some juncture. And if you had one who had made more than 100 appearances and averaged such an award once every ten games, even at a time when the side had five other proven if lesser match-winners, you'd be extremely reluctant to ditch him, right?

It seems fair to suggest, therefore, that KP has reason to be miffed. That said, when five of those six match-winners have a bad trot simultaneously, as he, Anderson, Cook, Prior and Swann did in Australia, it is easy to conclude that the best alternative to throwing babies out with bathwater is to chuck out the one who strikes you as the most problematic. Not that this suffices as any form of consolation for those of us who feel saddened and betrayed: with the exception of Graeme Swann, all the other key contributors to England's most prosperous period for half a century were empowered to give us a chance to say goodbye.


Still, while we're here, let's delve deeper. In modern times, the most accurate method of anointing the best of the best is surely an analysis of the top bananas: the men of the series. Granted, accolades of this ilk are not scientific, but there is even less likelihood of a miscarriage of justice when performances are assessed over a period of time.

And if I told you that, according to this measure, Messrs Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Dravid and Kallis have all been eclipsed by a Pom, you would presumably accuse me of chronic myopia and wonder about the number of marbles in my possession. Well, consider the following Top 12 - compiled from those who have participated in more than 15 rubbers - and weep:

Player MoS Series played %
Imran Khan 8 28 28.57
Malcolm Marshall 6 21 28.57
Richard Hadlee 8 33 24.24
Curtly Ambrose 6 27 22.22
Muttiah Muralitharan 11 61 18.03
Shane Warne 8 46 17.39
Andrew Strauss 5 29 17.24
Wasim Akram 7 43 16.28
Andrew Flintoff 4 25 16.00
Mark Butcher 3 20 15.00
Jacques Kallis 9 61 14.75
Michael Clarle 5 34 14.71
Graham Gooch 5 34 14.71

I'm not sure you could ask for a more illuminating, easy-to-follow ranking system - nor a louder affirmation of that ancient adage: when it comes to resolving outcomes, bowlers are more important than batsmen. Maintaining such an impact over a couple of decades is patently more impressive but it seems unfair to penalise those obliged to run rather than walk to the stumps. It is also worth mentioning that the aforementioned luminaries are currently being pursued not only by Saeed Ajmal (three MoS awards in 15 series) but also by Ravichandran Ashwin, who would top a condition-free chart on the basis of his three in seven. That's right, the chap India saw fit to omit in New Zealand.

By way of instructive comparison, the corresponding ODI top ten numbers contain not a single out-and-out bowler:

Player MoS Series played %
Kepler Wessels 4 21 19.05
Viv Richards 7 40 17.50
Shaun Pollock 9 60 15.00
Hashim Amla 4 27 14.81
Sachin Tendulkar 15 108 13.89
Shakib Al Hasan 5 38 13.16
David Gower 4 32 12.50
Shahriar Nafees 3 24 12.50
Chris Gayle 7 61 11.48
AB de Villiers 5 44 11.36

Tendulkar's figures are extraordinary, as are those compiled by Richards. Time, though, to dilute that ancient adage: bowlers are more important than batsmen so long as the regulations aren't stacked against them.

Even more revealing than the preponderance of them in that elite Test list, though, is the fact that the leading specialist batsman is Strauss. For the record, Lara's ratio is 10.76%, comfortably ahead of Ponting (6.8%), Tendulkar (6.76%) and Dravid (6.67%). All four, in fact, trail behind the second tier of batsmen: Steve Waugh (11.11%), Matty Hayden (11.76%), de Villiers (12.12%), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (12.50%), Virender Sehwag (12.82%) and Atherton (12.90%). Bet you're glad I decided to pick an argument with you, Athers.

All of which, I grudgingly concede, reinforces his and Crowe's point about KP, who failed to glean a Man-of-the-Series award against Australia, India, Pakistan or South Africa. In this particular classification, however, four of the five undisputed "great" batsmen of the age have markedly inferior records to purported lesser mortals. Even if the laws of regression decree as much, it still suggests that our concept of greatness might need re-evaluation.

Furthermore, it can also be stated, without the vaguest fear of contradiction, that England would not have achieved their most significant and celebrated Test successes over the past decade - against Australia in 2005 and India last winter - without KP; and that, but for his sumptuous century in Colombo, the 2011-12 rubber in Sri Lanka would have been lost rather than drawn. All three cases underline the inestimable value of a great innings: one four-hour salvo can reverberate for weeks, reviving, enthusing and emboldening.

That two of the aforementioned knocks more than adequately answer the question "What have you done for us lately?" is this column's penultimate contribution to this debate. The final one is to stress that Pietersen's greatness actually lies as much in his reliable brilliance across all formats as that thrilling sense of adventure: no other batsman has averaged 45 in Tests and 40 in ODIs while totting up more than 1000 runs in T20 internationals at a strike rate of 140 while averaging over 35.

Anyway, let's not miss the wider picture painted by those charts: the most valuable cricketer over the past decade has been de Villiers - no one else has exceeded 11% in both lists - and the most valuable Test combatants over the past 35 years have been Imran and Marshall. Let captaincy be the tie-breaker and we have our No. 1. Talk about messing with the consensus.

Then again, we can always go back to conventional stats and assert that a billion Indians can be wrong there, too: for sustained team-carrying brilliance, Murali's still the man.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport