At the beginning of the year, I read the excellent biography of VVS Laxman, 281 and Beyond, a beautifully collaborated book that is as much Laxman's creation as it is of the co-author, R Kaushik. One aspect of Laxman's career that came through clearly was his anguish at being dropped at regular intervals at the beginning and end of his career.
That led me to the idea for this article: about how steady or topsy-turvy players' careers are over their duration.
Let me first present the cut-off criteria. I have set 50 Tests and a batting average of 25 as the cut-off for batsmen, and 40 Tests and a sub-40 bowling average for bowlers. There is no point in looking at Shane Warne as a batsman just because he scored runs; or at bowlers who took two wickets per Test, like Carl Hooper did. Unfortunately these criteria rule out players like Claire Grimmett, Sydney Barnes, Victor Trumper and Everton Weekes.
The graphs presented their own challenges. In order to present a snapshot of a player's career, I need to show the entire span of his career, from first Test to last. The longest span of Tests is that of Sachin Tendulkar, whose 200 matches came in a sequence of 217 Tests for India. And I needed to show no fewer than ten players in a single graph, so that readers could make visual comparisons. All in all, this turned out to be a fine-tuned exercise of space management on the visual presentation. My thanks to TS Girish from ESPNcricinfo for his valuable inputs.
Before going on to the tables and graphs, let me first define what counts as a "break" in a player's career. A player may be absent for one Test through illness, injury, not being selected, and so on. He might miss an overseas series of, say, four Tests. He might make himself unavailable for ten Tests. He might make his debut and then miss 20 Tests. All these are considered as one break. However, I will also present a value of the Tests the player figured in as a percentage of the Tests played by their team during his career span. The tables below contain all the players who qualify, while the graphs contain selected players, so that all important players can be covered.
Careers of batsmen
Let us first look at batsmen who had very stable and virtually uninterrupted careers. This graph is proof that batsmen can have long careers with fewer disruptions, relative to bowlers. The contrast will be vivid lower down in the article.
Only one batsman, Brendon McCullum, has had a career of over 100 Tests and not missed a single one played by his team in that time. It helped that he was the premier wicketkeeper and the captain. Adam Gilchrist had a similar career, missing the hundred by four Tests. Michael Hussey made his debut after he turned 30 but then made up by playing in 79 consecutive Tests. Tony Greig and John Reid (Sr) had similar careers but with fewer Tests. (It must be said that the number of Tests played was lower in the middle of the 20th century than in decades since.)
There are a number of batsmen who have had a single break each. I have selected only a few of the important ones to feature in the graph. The table has a complete list of such batsmen. Allan Border missed a single Test, right at the beginning of his career. Similarly, Gundappa Viswanath missed two Tests very early. Joe Root missed a Test during his first year. Michael Slater had only one break in his career, in the mid-1990s, but that turned out to be a 20-Test stretch. Though Slater missed those 20 matches, he played uninterrupted before and after. Sunil Gavaskar missed four Tests but split into two, at either end of his career.
Now a look at batsmen who missed the most Tests.
As the great humourist PG Wodehouse said: "He went in and came out so fast that he almost met himself going in." Some of these players might have felt likewise. Shivnarine Chanderpaul had 18 breaks (adding up to 41 Tests) in his long career. Why this should have been the case is difficult to answer. Colin Cowdrey (16 breaks and 80 Tests) made a comeback after retiring. That lowered his share of Tests he played for the team in that period. Why did he have so many breaks in his main career? Maybe it is to do with Cowdrey not touring some countries. Mike Gatting (15 breaks and a whopping 101 Tests) had long breaks right through his career. Look at the end of his career - he missed 33 Tests at one stage. Immediately after his debut, Mohinder Amarnath (14 breaks and 66 Tests) missed 21 Tests; and he did not play during a long stretch of 23 Tests when he was at his peak. Sanath Jayasuriya (13 breaks and 32 Tests) is a surprising name here. Was it because of the way he played?
Geoff Boycott missed no fewer than 64 Tests in his career. The long break of 30 Tests in the middle was caused by his self-imposed exile. As for VVS Laxman (12 breaks and 29 Tests), it looks like he was justified in his feelings about the number of times he missed Tests. In a career of 134 matches, the longest uninterrupted stretch was of 43 Tests. After playing his first two Tests Graham Gooch (84 Tests in 12 breaks) missed 25 Tests. Finally, I have included Don Bradman here since there is no other logical place. Four breaks but only the first was because he was dropped; the rest were by his own choice.
Finally, a selection from among batsmen who have played many Tests.
The top four players above have had a reasonable number of breaks. However, Sachin Tendulkar's seven breaks (17 Tests missed) is indeed a surprise, especially as he was never dropped. The visual inspection shows a number of breaks of two or three matches each, indicating that these are series from which Tendulkar chose to stay out. Similarly surprising are the high number of breaks for the next three batsmen. In case of all these players - Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis - there were longish breaks early in their careers. Then comes Rahul Dravid, with just two breaks.
Alastair Cook missed a single Test after he played two Tests. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene had reasonably stable careers, especially Jayawardene, who missed seven Tests immediately after his debut and then settled in for the long haul. Brian Lara missed 27 Tests, including ten right after his debut. Mark Waugh, despite a late start, had just two breaks of one Test each - both early in his career.
Careers of bowlers
We now move on to bowlers who had stable careers. Because of how bowlers are more susceptible to injuries than batsmen, they do not get anywhere near the stability that batsmen achieve.
Unlike batsmen, only two bowlers have had unbroken careers. We have already seen that Tony Greig played 56 consecutive Tests. Monty Noble played in 40 consecutive matches. It took him 11 years to play these Tests. Kapil Dev missed a single Test because of a quirky decision by the captain, Sunil Gavaskar, that Kapil should be penalised for a rash shot he played. Unfortunate indeed. Moeen Ali has had only two breaks. (This is before the Lord's Test against Australia, for which Moeen has been dropped.) Keith Miller missed a single Test each twice in his career. It took Miller ten years to play his 55 Tests.
The next four bowlers have had three breaks each. Like Bradman, Garry Sobers was dropped after he played in a single Test. Nathan Lyon has had a very stable career, with only three breaks, all in his first two years. Trent Boult and Graeme Swann have had similar careers. Brett Lee missed 17 Tests at a stretch in the middle of his career, mainly because of team requirements.
Why did Brian Statham, a terrific fast bowler, play only around half the Tests England played when he was active? A quote might be relevant here. Sobers once said that Statham was too accurate and had to get the good batsmen out early or he could bowl them into form. He was never the spearhead of the attack and was a foil to Frank Tyson and Fred Trueman.
With the kind of start he had, did Harbhajan Singh need to miss 69 Tests across 20 breaks? The end was painful for him. What about James Anderson - 18 breaks and 59 Tests - who continues to miss Tests? Injuries have played a part too. In the case of Zaheer Khan (18 breaks and 53 Tests), it was a question of him missing out on many Tests played in India. On the other hand, Rangana Herath missing 80 of the first 100 Tests Sri Lanka played during his span is easily explained by the presence of Muttiah Muralitharan in the side.
It is a similar case with Stuart MacGill. The presence of Shane Warne in the side meant that MacGill played in only 37% of the Tests Australia played. Mitchell Starc's figures are mind-boggling. Maybe he missed out on occasion because he did not fit into the Australian scheme of things. It is also true that he had an average of only three wickets per Test at the beginning of his career.
The three Pakistani bowlers in the graph above are all exceptional. However, as happens with many Pakistani players, they were in and out of the team for reasons not often clear. Shoaib Akhtar's graph is especially painful - he played in less than half the matches Pakistan played in his time.
Finally a selection from among bowlers who have played many Tests.
In Shane Warne's case, the real break is the sequence of 14 Tests he missed in 2003, when he was banned for a year. That he earned the ban is clear. However, this ban was instrumental in his missing a chance to come close to Muttiah Muralitharan. Warne also missed seven Tests earlier in his career.
Muralitharan himself missed Tests often in his career. But never more than four at a stretch. Compared to that, Courtney Walsh had a steady career.
There was no real reason for Anil Kumble to be dropped for 11 Tests in a row during 2000-01. This and a long break at the beginning cost him quite a few Tests. Glenn McGrath had a long stretch of nine Tests missed around 2003. And he missed a few towards the end of his career because of the Australian policy of resting/rotating players.
Wasim Akram had 14 breaks. Ian Botham missed many Tests at the end of his career. Curtly Ambrose and Richard Hadlee had steady careers compared to the others. Dale Steyn missed many Tests recently due to injuries and earlier this month called his glittering career to a close. These ten bowlers have had nearly 100 breaks between them. In contrast, the featured ten batsmen had 54 breaks between them.
In conclusion, it can be seen that batsmen have careers that are steadier than bowlers. It is very tough for bowlers to play over 100 Tests without many breaks. The exception is, of course, Kapil Dev, who would have had an uninterrupted 130-Test career but for the capriciousness of Gavaskar.
The Test Championship
A long-awaited event has just completed its first contest at Edgbaston. This provides Test cricket a boost - one that it needs to survive against other eye-catching formats and gross apathy from many stakeholders, including spectators. I hope it goes through well to the conclusion of the first cycle two years from now.
Though it is too late to make any changes in the current cycle, here are some problems that should be addressed.
All teams should play all other teams. I know the only impediment to this is the fact that India would not play Pakistan. But then, India did play Pakistan a few weeks earlier, in the World Cup, at Old Trafford. Why can India not play Pakistan in the UAE or anywhere else - say, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, England or Australia?
If that can be sorted out, there could be eight series for each team.
It is very disappointing to note that each India-Bangladesh Test carries 60 points and each England-Australia Test is worth 24 points. To be fair, all Tests must carry equal weight. This could have been the case if there had been the courage and conviction to make all series of equal length - say, three Tests each. Each Test could carry 40 points, each team would play 24 matches, and the total number of points at stake would be 960 for all teams. Of course, schedules would have been a problem but then the T20 windows could have been shortened. Why should the IPL take nearly 15% of the total time available, year after year?
I would like to suggest a few minor tweaks to the points-distribution methodology.
A tie has come about twice in the last 60 years. Ties deserve more recognition than just 50% of the points for a win. In my Test Teams Performance work, I assign two-thirds of the value of a win to a tie. It could even be three-fifths. Taking both teams together, I don't mind the total points awarded for a tie exceeding the points for a win.
A draw where the team batting last scores 300 for 8, chasing 350, surely deserves more than two-fifths of the points. A possible tweak could be that a draw in which the two first innings are not completed could get two-fifths of the points, and a competitive draw half the points. I understand that ICC's idea is to reward a 1-1 draw more than a 0-0 draw. But draws are unique and an integral part of this beautiful game and need more recognition. Surely two well-contested draws should be viewed in the same light as two one-sided wins.
It is also possible to consider something similar to the ratings system in my Test Team Performance analysis. A draw that is a nailbiter, like the 2014 England-Sri Lanka Lord's Test (with scores of 575 for 9, 453, 267 for 8 and 201 for 9) is allotted 98.9 performance rating points, while a boring draw (like the Pakistan-India Test in Lahore in 2005-06, where the team scores were 679 for 7 and 410 for 1) is allotted only 38.2 points.
How will the ICC identify a sub-standard pitch in order to apply penalties? Cricketing sense and common sense are not enough. It is necessary to use a metric like my PQI (Pitch Quality Index). This is derived using a combination of the following factors:
- Expected runs from batsmen playing
- Actual runs scored by batsmen
- Expected wickets from bowlers playing
- Actual wickets taken by bowlers
- Match RpW weighted by quality of wickets lost
The net result is a very sound value. For the recent Lord's Test between England and Ireland, the PQI was measured at 25.4, indicating a difficult, but not monstrous, pitch. In general if there are two reasonable innings, we cannot term a pitch as "terrible". The first Ashes Test this year, at Edgbaston, had a PQI of 53.6.
In the past 20 years, the lowest PQI value was 21.3, for the Hamilton pitch in 2002 in which India made 99 and 154, and New Zealand managed 94 and 160 for 6. The India-Australia Test in Mumbai in 2004 clocked in at a PQI value of 23.4, and the Pakistan capitulation (59 and 53) in Sharjah in 2002 comes in at 24.0.
This works well at the other end of the spectrum too. The really high-scoring pitches should also be penalised. The India-New Zealand match in New Delhi in 1955 (where the innings scores were 450for 2, 531for 7 and 112for 1) had a PQI of 93.7. The Pakistan-India bat-athon in Lahore in 2006 referred to above fetched a PQI of 88.6.
(Added on August 19: The Lord's Test which ended on Sunday is a perfect example of what I have mentioned about the competitive draw. That the two teams could produce such a great Test despite losing nearly two days of play and be allotted just 8 points each is a travesty of justice. The least they deserve is 12 points each.)
Steven Smith's all-time great innings of 144 in the first innings of the Edgbaston Test moved comfortably into the top 15 in my Golden Willow 25 table of the top Test batting performances of all time. The following factors influenced the entry of the innings into the list:
- Smith came in at 17 for 2, after which the innings slumped to 112 for 6 and 122 for 8, and finally finished at 284. He added 172 runs with the late-order batsmen. Out of these, 162 runs were added with the last two batsmen.
- Chris Woakes, with a tally of 60 home wickets at 22, was a big factor in the high quality of England's bowling attack. To some extent this was discounted by Anderson bowling only four overs.
- The PQI was 53, mainly because of the middle two innings.
- But the real clincher, worth well over 100 points, was that the innings resulted in an away win against a very strong England team. (Australia's own strength was not that great, because of the presence of Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Matthew Wade and Peter Siddle.)
An image of the current GW25 table is shown below. It can be seen that Smith's 144 pushes Cheteshwar Pujara's Adelaide classic of 123 out of the top 25.
Smith's twin 140s at Edgbaston fetched him over 1320 rating points, and took his match performances into the best-ever match batting performance position, jumping over Jack Russell's 140 and 111 in 1923 against South Africa, which gathered just over 1300 points.
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