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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on February 23, 2014, 8:14 GMT

    Or you could follow the tried-and-tested youth development position in Australia - just look down the list until you find your favourite player. Hint: He'll always be at the top of the list. As an analytical method, it seems to work for some.

  • victoria on February 22, 2014, 16:25 GMT

    Rob, I'm a bit late on this one. Your rebuttal to Martin Crowe's "Man-of-the-Series' (MoS) statement about Kevin Pietersen is excellent. Your sarcastic conclusion, "our concept of greatness might need re-evaluation" in this regard is also brilliant. I must confess though, that once, I too thought that MoS ratios should be the most appropriate yardstick to use to judge greatness; but I quickly discovered that it would be affected by too many variables to be fair: Eg: A player may begin a 3 or 5 match series, but gets an injury after taking the Man-of-the-Match (MoM) award in the first match, and never plays in that series again; yet that series would be included in his analysis, if this criteria is used. Or he may only play one match; etc. Eg. Ryan Harris and Watson hardly complete a series. On the other hand, each player has to account for his individual performance in every match that he plays. Hence, I think MoM ratios should be the most correct yardstick used to determine greatness.

  • Dummy4 on February 20, 2014, 11:14 GMT

    No SevereCritic, 51 centuries from 200 tests is NOT a century every 3½ tests. To be exact it is one every 3.92 tests, i.e. one every four tests. If you look a little deeper, you will find that Hayden and Dravid had far more match-defining innings than either of your favourites. While SRT, RTP and BCL were indeed great players, they were not the greatest of their generation. That honour belongs to Jacques Kallis (best cricketer since Sobers whom he equals - and remember that Bradman rated Sobers a better cricketer than himself), Matthew Hayden and Rahul Dravid.

  • Andrew on February 20, 2014, 5:45 GMT

    I wonder if the ICC or wisden could retrospectively award man of the match & series awards. Gather half a dozen experts (Richie Benaud has to be one, whilst he is still firm of mind), & trawl thru reports & scorecards. This would give us a much better database to use these things to ascertain greatness. == == == I will agree with the authors conclusion that Imran Khan is the MVP of the professional era of cricket. Not only does (IMO) being captain provide the edge in a tie break - being captain of the rabble that is Pakistan makes it beyond doubt! (From an Ozzy perspective). == == == @Charles Davis - FANTASTIC post!

  • Aditya on February 20, 2014, 4:38 GMT

    Well you do need bowlers in your team to make your batting contributions count towards MOS. Which would explain the reason why we dont have Lara and Sachin featuring in many.

  • VIKAS on February 20, 2014, 4:18 GMT

    Tendulkar played 200 Tests and series mentioned in the table is 108, an average of less than 2 Tests per series. I doubt there is some mistake in the statistics.

  • Android on February 20, 2014, 3:57 GMT

    I think sa can com back if de kock ealger and parnel in .sa can destroy aus bating

  • K. on February 20, 2014, 3:30 GMT

    As others have mentioned when you have Staus, Butcher, Clake etc. higher up on a "best of the best" list than the Tendulkars and Laras - it should be a red flag. It seems to imply players who are more "form" players. i.e when comparing like-to-like. i.e pure batsmen-to-batsmen or bowlers-to-bowlers it seems to imply players who make it count when in form.

  • Sepathie on February 20, 2014, 3:08 GMT

    Hi To "BradmanBestEver" Do you Know Bradman never had a Century outside Australia or England? He only played in pitches which is friendly for him.

  • K. on February 20, 2014, 3:08 GMT

    ... 4) A series is a single arbitrary data point . Any one data point is essentially of not much use unless it is considerably superior to a contemporaries. For eg. Bradman's average.

    Also, the point about consistency is that the "match losing" innings should also be taken into account.i.e innings wherein a frontline batsman may have helped a team avoid a loss had be scored around his average.For eg. in the 2004 series WI Lara had a string of 23,0,0,8,36,33 in the first 3 live Tests for an avg of 14, only to score 400* in the 4th Test and end up with a "series" avg. of 83. This match winning( or saving) knock came after 3 "match losing" knocks. It may be argued that had he scored a 50 in the prior 6 innings and then a 100 the team may have benefited much more. So the "match losing" innings ( where a team loses if a batsman scores well below par) should be counterweighted with the matchwinning ones . Only if this ratio is in the batsman's favour may he be considered "matchwinning".