Anantha Narayanan

Which are the toughest bowling spells in Test cricket?

Ever wonder which are the top bowling performances in conditions that were the most difficult for bowlers?

Michael Holding bowled 33 overs and took 8 for 92 in the first innings against England at the Oval in 1976  •  Getty Images

Michael Holding bowled 33 overs and took 8 for 92 in the first innings against England at the Oval in 1976  •  Getty Images

To start with, the now customary cricket-related segment of prose/poetry/anecdote segment for readers to savour. This is from 10 for 66 And All That by Arthur Mailey. A very young Mailey bowled to his boyhood hero, Victor Trumper, in a grade cricket match and beat him, while playing an attacking shot, with a googly. Con Hayes was about to stump the great Trumper.
Vic made no attempt to scramble back. He knew the ball had beaten him and was prepared to pay the penalty, and although he had little chance of regaining the crease on this occasion I think he would have acted similarly if his back foot had been an inch away from safety. As he walked past me he smiled, patted the back of his bat and said, 'It was too good for me.' There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure. I felt like a boy who had killed a dove.
This article is in two parts. In the first, I describe a major change I have made to my Team Strength Analysis (Batting, Bowling and Team) method.
Previously the Team Bowling Strength was determined using the career-to-date values of the bowlers who bowled in a particular innings. Many readers felt that it needed to be based on all the bowlers who were available to bowl and not just on the ones who bowled. In addition, there was a suggestion that I ought to use the recent form of players. Both these suggestions have a lot of merit. My special thanks to the commenters who go by the nicknames Attitudemonger, Frostyinstruction and CoolJeeves. This is the second major change I will be carrying out to the Red Cherry 25 / Golden Willow 25 base parameters.
In the second part of the article, I will complete an analysis of the really tough bowling spells bowled on difficult pitches, using the newly developed dual-Pitch Quality Indexes. This analysis has completely different dynamics as compared to last month's evaluation of the toughest Test innings. It was difficult for me to work out the algorithms but it was worth it.

Part one: a completely re-worked Team Strength analysis, using Recent Form

Until now I worked with two distinct Team Strength processes. A main one with CTX (Career-to-date-Home/Away/Full) values for Team, Batting and Bowling. Another specific, weighted one was for the innings concerned - taking into account the bowlers who bowled in the innings. If Wasim Akram did not bowl (as in Test No. 1584, his last innings), he was not included. The latter was the main parameter used for the Golden Willow 25 work.
After much deliberation and thought, I have now decided to consolidate these two processes into one. I will have a single set of well conceived and developed Batting, Bowling and Team Strength indices. These will be used in all processes - GW25 and RC25 included. These will be more inclusive and balanced indices and will serve all requirements well. They are briefly explained below.
Let me also say that the CTX calculations are among the most complex I have ever attempted. I have to account for, among other things, hit-the-roof starts, very poor starts, the first few Tests at some venues, and short careers - both poor and outstanding.
Readers should be able to better understand the difference between PQI and Team Bowling Strength, after these important tweaks. The PQI is a pointer to the quality of the pitch during the match. The Bowling Index is the quality of the bowlers who took the field; it is an index measured before the match and has nothing to do with these bowlers' performances during the match.
- I will give 66.7% weight to the CTX (Career-to-date) values.
- For bowling, I will use the almost-perfect measure of Bowling Average. The Bowling Team Strength index will be based on the best four bowlers.
- The pre-1900 and the 1900-1914 bowling averages are increased substantially with appropriate values. Similarly, the batting figures during these two periods are increased.
- The Batting Team Strength index will be based on the best seven batsmen. For batting, I will not use the obviously flawed Batting Average. Instead, I will use the Weighted Batting Average (WBA), a metric I created (previously called RpAI), which many readers will be familiar with. In summary:
a) All innings ending in dismissals are counted as 1
b) All not-out innings above the average RpI are counted as 1
c) All not-out innings below the average RpI are assigned proportionate innings values between 0 and 1.0
This negates the huge disadvantage faced by top-order batsmen; it is based on a sound principle. The required tweaks are done to account for early matches in a player's career.
- There will be no change to the CTH (Career-to-date-Home) calculations. The players tend to accumulate home Tests quickly and the home numbers are normally relevant.
- However, the CTA (Career-to-date-Away) will be split into Asia and Rest of the World. When Joe Root or Kane Williamson play in India / Sri Lanka / Pakistan / Bangladesh / UAE, their CTA1 (Asia) values will be used. When Angelo Mathews or Shakib-Al-Hasan play in Australia / England / West Indies / South Africa / New Zealand / Zimbabwe / Ireland, their CTA2 (RoW) value will be used. Since there is a significant differential in the CTA1 and CTA2 values for most players, this change will be effective.
A few caveats here:
Test No. 1768, the only Test ever between Australia and an ICC World XI, is treated as a home game for the Australian players and Away-RoW for the 11 non-Australians. I will ignore suggestions that this Test not be treated as official; I am not going to take away six wickets from Shane Warne, five from Muttiah Muralitharan, 188 runs from Matthew Hayden, and 83 runs from Jacques Kallis' career figures. When Australia played South Africa in England in 1912 or Sri Lanka played Pakistan in Bangladesh in 1999, it is clear that the location is "neutral". In other words, "away" for both teams.
However, a situation exists now where Tests are played in the UAE between Pakistan and a host of other teams. It is clear that these are "away" locations for the other teams, but how do we treat this location for Pakistan? For all practical purposes, these are "home" for them, especially as India are unlikely to play Tests in the UAE. Hence, I have treated these matches likewise. In a similar vein, the seven Tests Pakistan played in Dacca during the 1950s are treated as "home" matches for them.
A few bits of interesting information about CTX values.
- Don Bradman's CTA-WBA in Test No. 197 in 1930 was 145.6, the highest in history. The highest CTH-WBA was 93.42, also by Bradman, in Test No. 221 (1933).
- Leaving Bradman aside, the next three batsmen with high CTX values are Javed Miandad (91.96), George Headley (84.86) and Doug Walters (81.05) - all at home.
- The next highest CTA-WBA value is that of Herbert Sutcliffe, at 78.79 (Test No. 170).
- Despite the Pre-World War I adjustments, the lowest CTA-Bowling Average is that of George Lohmann, at 9.45 in Test No. 35 (1892).
- The lowest CTH-Bowling Average is that of Johnny Briggs, at 9.57 (Test No. 30).
- The lowest values among modern bowlers are Bill Johnston (10.38 - Home), Ian Botham (10.86 - Asia) and Bob Massie (10.90 - RoW).
- In the last few decades, Vernon Philander, Rodney Hogg, Courtney Walsh, Narendra Hirwani, Fred Trueman, and Mohammad Abbas have had sub-15 values.
This is also a tricky area, since there are many uncertainties involved. I will briefly describe the concept.
- I will give 33.3% weight to the Recent Form measure values. This is fair. The more important CTX values have twice the weightage allotted to the shorter-term RF. At the same time, the one-third weight given to RF is still substantial and has a profound impact on the final values.
- I will use only the most recent ten innings / spells, within the last ten Tests played by the player, to determine RF.
- I will not use batting or bowling averages to determine RF. Instead, I will only use runs scored and wickets taken. The reason is simple. Two players who score around 800 runs in ten innings should be treated equally. Both are in great form. The fact that one has three more not-outs matters little. Similarly, two bowlers who take 15 wickets in ten Tests are both in indifferent form. The fact that one conceded fewer runs should not really matter, especially in Test matches.
- Time lapsed does not come into the equation. This is to take care of situations such as that of Bradman, who in Brisbane in 1946 had not played a Test for eight years. I cannot, in all fairness, start him at zero. This delay was caused by circumstances beyond anyone's control. So, Bradman's RF will be pegged at 1111 runs in ten innings, these having been played eight or more years before. And let us face it, he scored 187 in that 1946 Test, justifying that RF value.
- Finally, where does this leave players who missed a number of Tests due to absence through injuries, not being picked, or other unforeseen happenings? I have taken a simple way out. I will take the last ten innings / spells, irrespective of when they were played. Common logic states that if a player is dropped, his performances have been sub-par and the numbers will not be great. He is unlikely to bring great numbers to the table on his return.
I have given below the top five RF values for both batsmen and bowlers, with no repetitions. If you draw up a list of the top absolute values, Bradman has the top seven. These are the top five players rather than top five values.
- Don Bradman (Test No. 208): 1370 runs
- Kumar Sangakkara (Test No. 1853): 1185
- Garry Sobers (Test No. 465): 1115
- Alastair Cook (Test No. 1996): 1101
- Viv Richards (Test No. 797): 1093.
Mohammad Yousuf and Kallis follow.
- Sydney Barnes (Test No. 132): 55 wickets
- Muttiah Muralitharan (Test No. 1820): 51
- Richard Hadlee (Test No. 1040): 49
- George Lohmann (Test No. 50): 49
- Tom Richardson (Test No. 52): 48
Rangana Herath and Waqar Younis follow.
Now let us take a peek at the top five teams in each category: Batting, Bowling and Team.
The teams with top Team Strength values
458 1958ENGHomeNz 47.79Statham, Trueman, Laker, Lock
38 1892ENGAwayAus47.15Attewell, Briggs, Lohmann, Peel
222 1933AUSHomeEng46.86Ironmonger, O'Reilly, Wall, Grimmett
875 1980WI AwayNz 46.12Croft, Holding, Garner, Roberts
1554 2001AUSHomeWi 45.19McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, Warne
1768 2005ICCAwayAus47.97Graeme Smith, Sehwag, Dravid, Lara, Kallis, Inzamam, Flintoff
1855 2007AUSHomeInd46.90Jaques, Hayden, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, Symonds, Gilchrist
947 1983PAKHomeInd46.86Mohsin, Mudassar, Majid, Miandad, Zaheer, Malik, Imran
1964 2010INDAwaySl 46.81Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Yuvraj, Dhoni
294 1948AUSHomeInd45.86Barnes, Morris, Bradman, Hassett, Miller, Harvey, McCool
947 1983PAKHomeInd90.86Mohsin, Mudassar, Majid, Miandad, Zaheer, Malik, Imran, Bari, Sarfraz, Qadir, Qasim
1768 2005ICCAwayAus87.19Graeme Smith, Sehwag, Dravid, Lara, Kallis, Inzamam, Flintoff, Boucher, Vettori, Harmison, Muralitharan
1780 2006AUSHomeSa 86.33Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Hodge, Hussey, Symonds, Gilchrist, Warne, Lee, MacGill, McGrath
294 1948AUSHomeInd85.90Barnes, Morris, Bradman, Hassett, Miller, Harvey, McCool, Johnson, Lindwall, Tallon, Toshack
222 1933AUSHomeEng84.64Fingleton, Woodfull, Bradman, McCabe, Ponsford, Richardson, Oldfield, Grimmett, Wall, O'Reilly, Ironmonger
An index of 50 represents a truly outstanding team. No team has reached that mark. To reach a Team Strength-Batting value of 50, a team has to have an average WBA of 50 (this has been reached by couple of teams) and a RF-Average of 650-plus runs (not yet reached). To reach a Team Strength-Bowling of 50, a team has to have an average Bowling average of 15 (reached by a few teams) and a RF-Average of 30-plus wickets (not yet reached). Similarly, a Team index of 100, as yet unscaled, represents the pinnacle. The value of the RF is evident in the top-bowling-team identification. I have taken care to have the teams be quite independent, and excluded all teams where there has been just a minimal change of players between line-ups.
Tony Lock came into Test No. 458 on fire, having taken 42 wickets in his previous ten spells. This has an important role in placing the English bowling line-up of that Test at the top, with 47.8 index points.
Similarly, Bert Ironmonger came in with 35 wickets behind him. The 1950 Australians are in second place more because of their excellent CTX figures than RF values.
There is one pre-World War I team in the mix. It is not rocket science to deduce that any team with Lohmann, Briggs and Peel, with their sub-15 averages, is bound to be at the top.
And how can we have a table of the top five bowling combinations without the West Indian quartet of 1980 and the 2001 Australian foursome?
In batting, the ICC team is placed first. They were outstanding as a batting unit and accumulated 48.0 index points. It is another matter that these star batsmen did not deliver.
The second-placed team needs no explanation, especially with Michael Hussey's 1397 CTH runs at an average of 93.1. Hayden and Ricky Ponting had averages of 60-plus.
Pakistan in third place might be a surprise. However, they were kings at home - as evidenced by the 1348 at 81.0 of Javed Miandad and 60-plus averages of Mohsin Khan, Mudassar Nazar and Zaheer Abbas. It can be seen that these three teams are separated only at the second decimal place.
In fourth place is the Indian team of recent vintage, away, in Sri Lanka. The top four in that side are magnificent and the next three are reasonable. The RF of all the batsmen, including MS Dhoni, was very good. Virender Sehwag's huge numbers made up for the drop caused by Yuvraj Singh taking over from Sourav Ganguly.
In fifth place is the team most readers might have expected to be on top - The 1948 Australian team. However, there were weak spots in the form of Neil Harvey, playing his debut Test, and Colin McCool.
The 1983 Pakistani side, playing at home, was the top team of all time, with an imposing 90.9 points. There was no weak spot.
As expected, the ICC team of 2005 is in next position. It is no surprise that the 1948 Australian team follows next. Then come the Australians of 2006. And finally, the Bradman-led team of 1933.
The South African quartet inat the recently concluded Wanderers Test was almost certainly the greatest bowling attack over the past 100-odd years. All four bowlers had CTH values below 21. However, their RF - especially that of Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn - was below par, and this lowered their index value to 44.3, still good enough to be in the top 20.

Part two: the tough-as-steel bowling spells

The bowling dynamics are very different to the batting scenarios. It was relatively easy to select the tough batting performances by setting a low threshold of PQI and using the High-Scoring Index (HSI). Bowling is not that clear-cut. At the top, it is easy to set a high PQI value of, say, 70. Then comes the problem. What do I base the selection of the spells on: the wickets, the bowling accuracy, the comparisons with team performance, or a combination of these? I shortlisted about 50 performances and then selected based on certain cut-offs and a visual inspection of the scorecards. In addition, I included certain spells, amazingly accurate, with PQI values above 50.
The tough-as-steel bowling spells
781 1976Holding WI Eng33.0 - 9 - 92 - 8 78.0435/103.542.79 1.3
1680 2004Kumble INDAus46.5 - 7 - 141 - 8 78.3474/104.693.01 1.6
64 1899Lockwood ENGAus40.3 - 17 - 71 - 7 70.4352/103.272.10 1.6
1079 1987Abdul Qadir PAKEng44.4 - 15 - 96 - 7 75.5232/102.472.15 1.2
753 1975Gibbs WI Ind59.0 - 20 - 98 - 7 77.7406/102.521.66 1.5
1819 2006Hoggard ENGAus42.0 - 6 - 109 - 7 79.9513/103.272.60 1.3
564 1964McKenzie AUSEng60.0 - 15 - 153 - 781.9611/101.962.55 0.8
1420 1998Donald SA Eng40.0 - 14 - 88 - 6 73.7369/ 92.152.20 1.0
43 1895Giffen AUSEng78.2 - 21 - 155 - 675.2475/102.581.98 1.3
503 1961Haseeb AhsanPAKInd84.0 - 19 - 202 - 677.6539/ 92.362.40 1.0
180 1929Geary ENGAus81.0 - 36 - 105 - 570.2491/102.031.30 1.6
339 1951Mankad INDEng76.0 - 47 - 58 - 4 63.4368/ 62.140.76 2.8
763 1975DK Lillee AUSEng52.0 - 18 - 91 - 4 76.5538/102.461.75 1.4
2140 2014Johnson AUSPak31.0 - 18 - 39 - 3 56.0454/103.641.26 2.9
The bowling performances are listed in order of the number of wickets captured.
Michael Holding's performance at The Oval in 1976 could be termed as one of the greatest, and it was almost certainly the bravest bowling display of all time. Note the numbers: near 700 runs and over 400 in the first two innings, indicating a paved cement road for a pitch (PQI of 78.0). No other bowler did anything of note. Holding's second-innings spell came in a PQI environment of 53.6. Overall, one could say that he produced, inarguably, the toughest match bowling performance of all time.
Anil Kumble's marathon bowling innings in Sydney in 2004 came after an innings of 705 for 7. That Australia also scored 474 meant that the PQI hit the roof, at 78.3. The other bowling performances in the innings where Kumble took eight were 2 for 80 and 0 for 100-plus runs.
Bill Lockwood's performance 7 for 71 at The Oval in 1899 was in an innings score of 352 after England had scored 576.
Even though Abdul Qadir took his seven wickets in a low-scoring innings of 232 at The Oval in 1987, the fact that the other two innings were 708 and 315 for 4 indicates the true value of his spell. The match PQI was over 75.
In the Bombay Test of 1975, West Indies reached the mammoth total of 604 for 6. India scored 406, and this took the applicable PQI to over 77. Lance Gibbs bowled with great stamina to take 7 for 98.
In Adelaide in 2006, England declared at 551 for 6, following which Australia too passed 500. These 1000 runs took the PQI to nearly 80. Amid the carnage, Matthew Hoggard's magnificent 7 for 109 stands out like a beacon.
In the 1964 Ashes run feast in Manchester, both teams went past 600 - one of only five instances in Test history. In this bowlers' graveyard (PQI 81.9), Graham McKenzie stood out with a memorable 7 for 153.
At Old Trafford in 1998, South Africa scored 552 for 5 and narrowly missed out on an innings win. England finished level on runs with a single wicket left to fall. The PQI was 74. Allan Donald's was the sole notable performance among all the bowlers: he took 6 for 88.
At the MCG in 1895, it was a match of two contrasting halves. The first two innings produced 75 and 123 and the PQI was 23.6. The latter two innings produced 475 and 333 and the PQI changed dramatically to 75.2. In the innings of 475, George Giffen performed wonders with a long spell of 6 for 155.
In Madras in 1961, in one of the most boring Tests of all time, Pakistan made 448 for 8 in 182.5 overs and India replied with 539 for 9 in 227 overs. Haseeb Ahsan bowled 84 overs and took 6 for 202 in that India innings. If for nothing else, he has to be given credit for his staying power.
In the Oval Test of 1975, Australia made England follow on after they secured a lead of 341 runs. England saved the Test with a 233.5-over marathon, scoring 538. One bowler stood out: Dennis Lillee bowled 52 overs and took 4 for 91, on a pitch which had gone completely flat.
Now for a few performances in which the PQI requirement has been waived.
A bowling effort par excellence of recent vintage. In Dubai in 2014, in Pakistan's first innings of 454, on a pitch with virtually no help for fast bowlers, Mitchell Johnson produced a bowling effort to be remembered for years. His 3 for 39 off 31 overs was magnificent.
When England visited India in 1951, they were dismissed for 203 in Delhi. India declared with a 215-run lead. England batted for 221 overs in their second innings to force a draw. Vinoo Mankad ended with 76-47-58-4.
Finally, a couple of performances I listened to, in their entirety, from the Madras Test of 1964. India's 457 for 7 declared was answered by England's painfully slow 317 in 190.4 overs. Chandu Borde had figures of 67.4-30-88-5. Bapu Nadkarni's 32-27-5-0 in that game is mentioned for a single reason: the Bowling Accuracy ratio of 12.6 between the Team's RpO and the bowler's RpO is the highest in Test history.
Readers will have their own picks and I would love to hear from them. I am sure we could make a list of a dozen other such tough performances. Please make sure that the conditions are more or less fulfilled.
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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