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Stats Analysis

How do the top players compare with Don Bradman and Sydney Barnes?

A look at the best streaks of elite batters and bowlers versus the gold standard

Steven Smith punches one off the back foot, Australia vs India, 3rd Test, Sydney, 2nd day, January 8, 2021

Steven Smith is certainly Bradmanesque in his appetite for run-scoring  •  Getty Images

Over seven years ago I analysed how the best batting and bowling streaks in players' careers measure up to the careers of Don Bradman and Sydney Barnes. Since then, a lot has changed. Better measures have emerged, as have new, high-quality players, and there are better methods of presentation of data. Also, the standout players of recent times all seem to be in the second halves of their careers, which contributes to making this the right time to revisit this fascinating theme.
This following analysis is more robust in that I have determined the streaks in each of the parameters independently.
Bradman played 52 Tests in his truly remarkable and out-of-the-world career. One could argue that his career spanned 49 Tests, since he did not bat in two Tests and scored a zero in his last, but as a complete career, it lasted 52 Tests, and so, taking that as the platinum standard, I will look for the best 52-Test stretches of all qualifying batters.
It must be understood that I am only determining the single best streak of each qualifying player and not necessarily all qualifying independent streaks for each player. The latter is a totally different exercise; someone like Sachin Tendulkar could have three independent streaks.
As is usual, I have set cut-offs.
The first one is that a batter should have played 52 or more Tests. It is possible to consider career aggregates for some excellent batters who have played fewer than 52 Tests, but that won't work with the WBA (Weighted Batting Average). It is not fair to compare a 40-Test average with a 52-Test average. My sincere apologies to Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Dennis Amiss, Arthur Morris, Frank Worrell, Victor Trumper, Navjot Sidhu, etc for not including them in this analysis. Jonty Rhodes, Jonathan Trott and Dean Jones are among those who just made it.
The second cut-off is 2000 Test runs. Since this is a 52-Test analysis, this limit is mostly irrelevant, but it's there.
The third cut-off is that the batter should have a WBA of 20 and above - so that we can remove bowlers like Chaminda Vaas and Shane Warne from the mix.
A total of 204 batters qualify. The first analysis looks at runs scored in 52 consecutive Tests, with the average runs per Test (RpT) as an auxiliary measure. Let us look at the results.
Above we see a significant new addition to this list. Steven Smith is in second place with an amazing aggregate of 6003 runs - the only player other than Bradman to accumulate over 6000 runs in 52 Tests. His average runs per Test is a staggering 115, although that is still behind Bradman by nearly 20. Smith's streak ran from 2014 (Sydney) to 2019 (The Oval). Ricky Ponting is placed third, with 5857 runs, and a RpT value of just over 112. His run started in 2002 (Durban) and ended in 2006 (Adelaide).
Kumar Sangakkara follows with 5699 runs. Brian Lara's early 2000s golden period realised 5576 runs. His run started with that glorious summer in Sri Lanka and included the record-breaking unbeaten 400. Garry Sobers' early career run began just before he scored the record unbeaten 365. Jacques Kallis' and Mohammad Yousuf's streaks ran in parallel, and both accumulated over 5200 runs in them. Finally, Tendulkar's 5236 runs spanned the millennium.
These nine batters averaged 100 runs or more per Test. Virat Kohli's recent sequence fell one run short. Kane Williamson follows next, but his run is very recent and could change if he scores big in the next few Tests.
Sixteen batters passed 5000 runs in their streaks. The last of them is Sunil Gavaskar during his early years. Smith's best streak stands at just about 86% of Bradman's aggregate of 6996 runs.
The second measure for analysis is WBA - a far better measure than the plain batting average. You can read about it here. In 2014, once I determined the highest-run-aggregate streak, I decided to take that as the key streak and based my WBA/average work on that sequence. Now I have made a significant change: I have determined the best streaks for each measure, run aggregate and WBA, independently.
Is there a need to mention Bradman's WBA? Maybe, since only his batting average of 99.94 is well known. Bradman's WBA is 89.55. Ponting comes second, with a WBA of 65.62, and Smith is only a fraction behind, with 65.43. Both achieved this feat in the same streaks as their aggregate ones. Ponting is placed at a low 73% of Bradman. He improved his career WBA from 40.50 to 53.48 during this period, while Smith's moved from 31.86 to 57.06 - a huge increase, indeed.
Then there is a huge gap. Sobers had a WBA of 62.94 during his streak, which started in 1955. Sangakkara and Yousuf achieved almost identical WBAs, a fraction either side of 61.75 during the early 2000s. Tendulkar's WBA was around 61, while Kohli achieved a 60-plus value recently. Finally, Viv Richards is the last (ninth) batter to have a WBA above 60. Lara just missed 60 by 0.04 of a point. Among the current four great batters, only Joe Root does not feature in these tables.
Now I come to two special analyses. The first looks at the batter's contribution to the team - Contribution Analysis, which I developed along with Milind Pandit. This is non-contextual - purely numbers-based. A complex five-stage allocation process assigns points for a Match, Teams, Innings, Functions, and Players, with a cornerstone assumption that the two tied Test matches should be placed at 50.0-50.0. Here I will refer to the batting contributions, but I will write a comprehensive separate article on this fascinating topic in the next few months.
Some explanations are in order. The player's contribution in the match is assessed in terms of batting only. The value featured in the bar for each player, is the percentage of this value to the team total (batting, bowling and fielding). The figure in the third column is the ratio of this value to the total contribution made by all the batters.
Considering there are 11 players in a team, the average contribution by any player is expected to be between 8% and 10%. Bradman's contribution of 16.2 means he has punched well above his weight. On average there are six to seven main batters in a team, followed by four late-order batters. This means that on average, a top-order batter is expected to share around 15-18% of the batting contribution. Bradman's 26.4% represents a figure way above this estimate.
Len Hutton is second on the table with percentage values of 13.5 and 22.8 respectively. He is placed at a rather high 83% of Bradman. Smith follows next, with values of 12.9% and 22.2%, which is a bit of surprise since this sort of high individual contribution isn't common in Australia. However, the team has not been the usual force recently. In fact, in terms of percentage contribution to the team, hardly anything separates Smith, Graham Gooch and Lara - they are all between 12.8 and 12.9%.
The next measure is a newly developed one called "Significant innings". I set a cut-off of 50 runs and determine the average of scores above that bar. I also determine the frequency of such occurrences. The first figure tells us how high the batter went once he crossed the 50 mark. The latter indicates how often he crossed this mark.
When Bradman crossed 50, his runs per innings is a huge 150. That means that once he crossed this mark, he scored really big. He also achieved this mark in 42 out of his 80 innings, which is 52.5%. Out of these 42 significant innings, 29 were centuries. It is not a surprise that Lara, whose penchant for big scores is well known, comes next. His runs-per-significant-innings figure is 128, and about 39% of his innings in the streak were significant. The triple and quadruple no doubt helped. There were 19 hundreds in this streak. Mahela Jayawardene is next, at 126 runs - a figure matched by Kohli. Jayawardene crossed the 100 mark 17 times and Kohli, 20 times.
The presence of Wally Hammond is to be expected, as also the position of Virender Sehwag, with his three scores above 290. Alastair Cook's position is a bit of surprise, as also that of Marvan Atapattu - maybe all those double-hundreds helped. The top eight batters on this list have runs-per-innings exceeding 120. Smith, who comes in around 20th place, has the highest frequency after Bradman, having played 46 significant innings out of 93. He is also second to Bradman on the number of hundreds, with 24 in 52 Tests. Ponting, who appears just before Smith, had 23 three-figure scores.
Wasim Akram's case is intriguing. In his 52-Test streak, he played five significant innings, including a score of 257, and averaged 113. However, I have not featured him, to ensure a specialist batter gets in instead.
The last batting graph is an outlier. It is somewhat similar to the first one, except that I look at the other end of the spectrum - batters who scored the least runs in their streaks of 52 Tests.
Akram scored only 1134 runs in 52 Tests. That is around a sixth of Bradman's aggregate. And this streak started from his first Test. Daniel Vettori managed to score a few more runs, but mostly at the start of his career, when he was struggling to make his mark as a batter. The others on the list too are mostly bowling allrounders, or wicketkeepers.
Let me summarise the batting tables. In the first four tables, Bradman is at the top. The second positions have been secured by Smith, Ponting, Hutton and Lara. The average of these four values is 83%, which means Bradman, on average, is ahead of the next best streak by over 17%. Let us not forget that these are the batters' best streaks, while Bradman's is a full career with its typical ups and downs. That shows you how far ahead of the other batters Bradman was.
Usually, those who criticise Bradman's superiority try to put forward a few arguments. One is that Bradman faced poorer bowlers. Really? Hedley Verity, Harold Larwood, Bill Bowes, Bill Voce, Maurice Tate, Alec Bedser, Learie Constantine et al do not make that poor a collection of Test bowlers. The detractors also say that he faced only one team for a majority of his Tests, but they forget that that was a strong England team. However, the real counter lies in this fact: if the bowling Australia faced was average, then there should have been a few other Australian batters in that era with averages of 50 to 60. No contemporary of Bradman's has a 50-plus average. Stan McCabe averaged 48.2, Bill Ponsford 48.2, Bill Brown 46.8, Bill Woodfull 46.0, Lindsay Hassett 46.6, and so on. I did a special analysis without the 52-Test limit to confirm.
It is time to acknowledge that Bradman was head and shoulders above the rest, not just on the runs scored but also on WBA, Contribution and Significant Scores Average.
Smith has one second, one third and one fourth place. Lara has one second, one third and one fifth place. Ponting has one second and one third place. On balance, considering that the Aggregate Runs and WBA tables are the more important ones, I would put Smith in second place overall and Lara in third. (I will emphasise that this conclusion is based only on the analyses done in this article and on no other factor.)

Bowling streaks

Let us now move on to the bowlers. The reference career here is that of Sydney Barnes, the gold standard - although possibly a bit more reachable compared to that of Bradman. But let us accept it - 189 wickets at 16.43 in 27 Tests is some level of achievement. Anyone who exceeds any of these numbers will certainly be among the greatest bowlers ever.
Now for the cut-offs. The first is that the bowler should have played 27 Tests or more. It is possible to do the aggregate wickets analysis with bowlers who have played close to and fewer than 27 Tests, but that won't work with the Bowling Average. It will not be fair to compare a 20-Test average with a 27-Test average. My apologies to George Lohmann, Charlie Turner, Colin Blythe, Bobby Peel, and a few latter-day bowlers like Neil Adcock, Pragyan Ojha and Mohammad Asif. Bill O'Reilly, Colin Croft, Ryan Harris and Bruce Reid just about made it.
The second cut-off is 100 wickets. A total of 185 bowlers qualify. Let us look at the tables.
What do we see here? One would expect that Barnes' seven wickets per Test was unlikely to be crossed. However, Muthiah Muralidaran, in a magnificent 27-Test streak, took more than seven wickets per Test - over 200 wickets in the streak, which started in 2003 (Galle) and ended in 2006 (Christchurch). And in the next four Tests, he took 36 wickets. And let us not forget that that this is Murali's best streak. He might have had other streaks in which he took 189 wickets or more. It is time to salute the magician from Kandy.
Here Barnes is in second place, unlike Bradman, who never moved off his pedestal. Still, it is a magnificent achievement. Then comes Waqar Younis, who took 177 wickets in 27 Tests between 1990 (Karachi) and 1994 (Karachi). This happened right at the beginning of his career. Shane Warne was excellent between 2002 (Colombo) and 2005 (The Oval). During those golden years, he maintained a rate of 6.4 wickets per Test. It is very nice that this streak ended at the end of that Ashes series. Unlike Waqar, this streak came towards the end of Warne's career.
Two modern stalwarts come next, almost matching each other. Legspinner Yasir Shah and offspinner R Ashwin secured either side of 170 wickets during their 27-Test overlapping streaks.
Look at the galaxy of great bowlers who come after. The two other modern stalwarts who find place on the list are Rangana Herath and Dale Steyn.
We move on to the table of Bowling Averages. Another huge surprise awaits us. During a golden five-year period between 1981 (Perth) and 1986 (Karachi), the peerless Imran Khan took 154 wickets in 27 Tests, at a pre-war-seeming average of 14.85. And Imran played Tests all around the world, including against the strong West Indies line-up. His career bowling average came down from a middling 29.45 to a terrific 21.48 during this period.
Barnes averaged 16.43, but it is necessary to understand that sub-20 averages were the norm in the period before the First World War. There is a huge surprise in the third place. With so many top bowlers around, it is Shaun Pollock who gets in with an average of 16.88, while taking 128 wickets. This was achieved during the stretch between 1998 (Headingley) and 2001 (Centurion), when he lowered his career bowling average from 24.94 to 20.05.
Malcolm Marshall, Jim Laker and Waqar had memorable streaks averaging around 17. Murali and Richard Hadlee had sub-18-average streaks. Curtly Ambrose and James Anderson complete the top 11, with averages just above 18.
Johnny Briggs is a special case. He played 33 Tests and took 118 wickets at 17.75. But barring an eight-over spell, he did not bowl in his first six Tests. That leaves us with his last 27 Tests, in which he took these 118 wickets, so I have considered this streak as the more meaningful one, though he had a terrible end to his career, taking 16 wickets at 44.8 apiece in his last six Tests. However, he started bowling only from his seventh Test onwards, so it makes sense to take his streak as being from his seventh Test to his 33rd.
Waqar and Laker represent the opposite ends of spectrum as far as strike rate and economy are concerned. Waqar has the best strike rate (33 balls per wicket) and the worst economy rate (RpO of 3.14). Laker, on the other hand, took more than ten overs to take a wicket but conceded only 1.68 runs per over. The net result of this is that both have similar bowling averages.
On average, there are six to seven batters in a team. In addition, the bowlers, batting between Nos. 7 and 11, also score runs often. But in terms of wickets, normally only three to four bowlers share the spoils. There may be a fifth bowler taking a wicket here and there, but because all the batters don't bowl, fewer bowlers share the available points. All these facts mean that the bowlers' contribution numbers are expected to be higher than that of the batters. One would expect a bowler to take between 25 to 30% of the bowling share of the team points.
It is still a huge surprise to see that Murali takes a whopping 19.9% of the total team points and 44.7% of the bowling share of contribution points. Despite being just one bowler out of four, he took just below half the bowler points. And as one player out of 11, he took just short of a fifth of the total points. As figures go, these are higher than those of Bradman. Barnes follows with figures of 17.6% and 39.3%. Both are quite high figures.
Imran comes in in third position with figures of 16.67% (exactly one-sixth) and 37.1% in the bowling share. Then comes Hadlee, whose team share is 16.5% but whose bowling share is 39.6% - the second highest in this elite collection of bowlers. Finally, Fazal Mahmood rounds out the top five, with figures just behind those of Hadlee.
This analysis deals with the significant spells the bowlers bowled. (I have defined a spell as an entire innings of bowling, so Barnes' 50 spells means he bowled in 50 innings in his 27-Test career.) Because fewer bowlers are there to share the spoils, I have raised the bar for my definition of a significant spell. The approximate bowling equivalent of the 50 runs that defined the significant batting innings is two wickets. However, I felt that was too small and made it three wickets or more to be considered a significant contribution.
Finally, Barnes finds his feet here. In his career, he bowled in 50 innings, in which he took three or more wickets a mind-blowing 33 times - that is 66%. That significant-contribution percentage is way above what anyone else - batter or bowler - has achieved. Barnes took 172 wickets in these 33 innings, averaging 5.2 wickets per innings. Those are unbelievable numbers. There were 24 five-wicket hauls in his career - almost one every Test. Hadlee is in second place, with numbers of 29 out of 46 and 4.9 wickets per innings. Hadlee's streak started in 1984 (Colombo) and ended in 1988 (Mumbai). He took a five-for in 18 innings out of 46. It should be remembered that these numbers are wickets per innings - not Tests.
Mahmood, that peerless seam bowler from Pakistan, is in third place with numbers of 22 significant performances in 44 innings and averaging 4.8 wickets per innings. The 44 innings is a surprise. In those early days, Pakistan often did not bowl in a second innings - they either won or lost by an innings, or the match was a high-scoring draw. Consequently, Mahmood reached the five-wicket mark only 12 times. Recently Ashwin took three or more wickets in 30 out of 52 innings, and averaged 4.7 wickets per innings. Matching him with the exact same average is the classic legspinner from India, Subhash Gupte, back in the 1950s. Ashwin had 17 five-fors and Gupte, only 11.
Murali, who just manages to get on the list, averaged 4.6 wickets and took five wickets no fewer than 20 times - second only to Barnes. He also reached the three-wicket mark in 41 out of the 51 spells he bowled - a truly unbelievable 80% ratio.
I was so amazed to see the numbers in the chart above that I checked the top ten manually myself. It is true, but unbelievable. Carl Hooper took 11 wickets in 27 Tests at the beginning of his career. Wilfred Rhodes fared only slightly better, with 15 wickets. Sobers, the allrounder extraordinaire, took only 24 wickets at the beginning of his career when he played as a batter. But it looks like he bowled in quite a few matches during this period. Kallis also took 24 wickets in a 27-Test streak, but almost at the end of his career, when his bowling had lost its sting. These four bowlers had sub-one-wicket hauls per Test - sobering numbers.
Now for the bowling summary. Unlike Bradman, who led in each of the four tables by a mile, Barnes leads in only one. Murali leads in two, is in the top ten on the Bowling Average table and in the top 15 on the Significant Spells table. There is no doubt that he is the best bowler if we consider these tables. No one can dispute Barnes' second place. He has three second places and one first. For third position, I would plump for Imran, if for no other reason than his out-of-the-world streak of 27 Tests. He is also third on the Contribution table.
Finally, I can only repeat what I have mentioned in my first article on this subject. Considering the measure of performances across a series of Tests, I have carefully pondered this. In my opinion, Murali and Imran achieved two of the greatest bowling feats ever. It is 100% true that in all eras, there have been weak teams, that bowlers do well in their backyards, and that some venues are their Waterloos. Over careers lasting a certain number of Tests, these factors even out. The batters have to have WBAs of around 70 or score at around 140 runs per Test to match these two great bowling runs.
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Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems