My April article was titled "Who's the better ODI batsman: Richards or Tendulkar or Kohli?" and some readers assumed it was an analysis to determine the best ODI batsman of all time. In that piece I took two important measures - the Weighted Batting Average (WBA) and the Strike Rate (SR) - and adjusted those values across five periods. I also wrote at the time that many other factors needed to be taken into account to determine the best ODI batsman of all time. Quite a few readers did not read those sections of the article and were upset with the conclusions. So let me make it clear now: this is the article that determines the best ODI batsman ever, using the adjusted WBA and SR values and a host of other factors.
Any analysis of who the best batsman is must not look only at performance figures or at accumulation figures. You need a judicious combination of both. The overall weight of performance-related metrics has to be higher. The analysis has to recognise a WBA of 50 as well as an aggregate of 15,000 runs. It should be acknowledged that to maintain a high WBA across 200 matches is a great achievement. To play over 400 matches is equally great. It is wrong to assume that one can turn up to play in 400 matches and the runs will automatically accumulate.
It is important to also recognise the importance of winning tournaments, the quality of bowling faced, and the context in which the runs were scored. In addition, there are minor factors, such as whether the runs came while opening the batting (especially in difficult conditions) or finishing the innings, the quality of support available, etc. The final analysis should give equal opportunity to a batsman with 6000 career runs and a batsman with a middling WBA of around 35 (but over a long period of time) to finish in the top ten.
My analysis is current up to the Sydney ODI between Australia and New Zealand on March 13, 2020. The cut-off is 3000 runs. Anything lower will dilute the analysis. Anything higher and we will miss some important batsmen.
The parameters used to determine the best ODI batsman of all time is below. Each is explained in detail later.
1. Weighted Batting Average (adjusted)
2. Strike rate (adjusted)
3. Rating points
4. Average quality of bowling faced in career
5. Number of runs scored
6. Major cup-related achievements (World Cup, ICC trophies and six-nation tournaments)
7. Runs scored in important cup matches
8. X factors: MoM awards; opening the batting; finishing the innings; quality of batting support available; quality of bowling support available
The acronym PRP (Player Rating Points) will be used to denote the weightage for each parameter.
1. Weighted Batting Average (adjusted) - 25 PRPs
Please click here for full details of WBA and the adjustment methodology.
There is no doubt that this is the most important performance measure and carries the most weight. A WBA value of 35 translates to a batting average of around 40, and a WBA of 45 into an average of about 55. To play over 100 matches and have a WBA of anything above 35 is terrific. No batsman has been awarded the highest value possible for each parameter, barring one, so that there is room for some future batsman-to-beat-all-batsmen to arrive on the scene and be rewarded.
2. Strike rate (adjusted) - 15 PRPs
The career strike rate is the second most important measurement. Shahid Afridi might have a relatively low WBA of 23.5, however, he has scored over 8000 career runs at an adjusted SR of 118. This would have won many matches for Pakistan. Coming in at No. 7 or 8 means that such batsmen often have to go for the runs and take risks. This decreases their WBA values. Glenn Maxwell has to score 123 more runs to get into the list.
3. Rating points - 10 PRPs
Last month I analysed the all-time best innings in ODIs. The rating-points parameter is based on two metrics - the highest-rated innings for the batsman concerned (2.5 PRPs) and the average rating points per weighted innings in matches won by the team (7.5 PRPs). All contextual parameters are considered in the innings-ratings calculation - runs scored, when the batsman came in, what the innings situation was, what the target was, how strong the bowling attack was, the importance of the match, where the match was played, the result, etc. That way, the full context is built in.
I have only considered matches won when determining the average, to make the relevance to context strong. I know that many classic innings were played in defeats. They received recognition in the earlier analysis. Here, the player's contribution to wins is considered more relevant.
4. Average quality of bowling faced by batsman in his career - 5 PRPs
The average bowling quality is a very accurate weighted compilation using two key factors: who bowled how many balls in the innings, and what his bowling average was when that match was played. It clearly depicts the actual quality of bowling faced by the batsman in his career. If, for instance, Wasim Akram played but did not bowl, his average will not be included. Over a long career, this value evens out. This is a tight band between 32.2 and 38.7, but it is still a very good measure.
These four performance-based parameters total up to 55 PRPs. Now for the accumulation-based parameters.
5. Number of runs scored - 15 PRPs
Four batsmen have played over 400 ODIs. It requires outstanding talent, supreme fitness, fantastic stamina, dedication, and great skill to play that many games. It is essential to recognise these long-term warriors and the runs they have scored. Runs do not come simply through the volume of matches played. Each run has to be earned. Some runs might come easy (like while opening on a flat deck in India) and some might be very difficult to get - like when opening on a greentop in New Zealand. This factor evens out across all matches.
6. Major cup-related achievements (World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy and six-nation tournaments) - 12.5 PRPs
To win or reach the final of major knockout tournaments is the pinnacle of a player's career. There have been 2244 matches played as part of bilateral series. In the 1980s, a pair of teams might have played a bilateral series against each other once in two years, while today they might play three a year. Similarly, there are too many three-nation tournaments (134) and most are eminently forgettable. There might be great innings in a preliminary match in one of these series, like Sachin Tendulkar's 143 in Sharjah, but in reality these tournaments mean very little and are treated at par with bilaterals.
This is the only parameter for which there is no scaling of values. The points earned go directly as the batsman's PRP, so these can be considered platinum points. To get any points, the team must reach the final of a major tournament.
This is not a performance-related parameter since the player gets the PRPs for being part of the team that achieved it. It's a difficult-to-define quasi-performance measure. It does not matter what the player scored in the final. It is the team win that matters. The player's runs are considered in the next parameter.
7. Runs scored in important cup matches - 5 PRPs
In this case, I considered all the runs scored by the batsman in key knockout matches. Each score is weighted by the match importance index, with a maximum of 150% for a World Cup final. The overall summary is given below.
@@@: Many group matches are inconsequential, but it is difficult to exclude any match since there is the chance of a surprise elimination (like with India and Pakistan in 2007, and South Africa in 2003). A total of 31 non-Test playing teams (as at the time of the last World Cup) have played in World Cups. The 2019 edition is the only World Cup in which all participating teams were Test-playing countries. To a lesser extent, these are applicable to the two other major tournaments as well.
8. X factors - 12.5 PRPs (2.5 PRPs for each X-factor):
MoM awards A straightforward compilation based on Man-of-the-Match awards won by the batsman.
Opening the batting This is based on two factors: in how many matches has the batsman opened (1.0 PRP), and what is his Weighted Batting Average while opening the batting (1.5 PRP)? While determining the latter, the runs scored by the batsman while opening are adjusted by how easy or tough it was to open in the country in which the match was played. The average opening partnership ranges from 32.0 in the West Indies to 39.3 in India. A century when opening the batting in the West Indies is weighted at around 22% more than a hundred scored in India.
Finishing the innings This is based on a complex analysis and is a compilation of runs scored while finishing innings. For this purpose, even the instances of batting first are considered if the matches are closely contested. Care is taken to exclude instances where teams won with plenty to spare, whether in terms of runs, balls remaining, or wickets in hand. In general, "finishing" runs are scored in the latter overs and by middle-order batsmen.
Quality of bowling support available This is based on the career-to-date bowling averages of the active bowlers in the team in each match. Viv Richards had the best support - 23.9 - and so gets the fewest points on this count.
Quality of batting support available Based on the career-to-date batting averages of the top seven batsmen.
Only three parameters in the table above need some explanation. Ricky Ponting's 12.5 PRPs for performances in major tournaments are secured from three World Cup wins, one runners-up position, and two Champions Trophy wins. Adam Gilchrist has three World Cup wins and one Champions Trophy win.
As explained, the Ratings value comprises two components. The highest-rated innings carries a maximum of 2.5 PRPs. Richards, whose unbeaten 189 at Old Trafford had an Innings Ratings value of 90.4, gets top marks on this parameter: around 2.38 PRPs. Kapil Dev's unbeaten 175 at Tunbridge Wells gets 2.36 PRPs, and Gilchrist's 149 in Bridgetown gets 2.19 PRPs. On the other hand, Ravi Shastri's best innings (rated at 55.9) will get only 1.47 points. So, it can be seen that the spread is not very wide, but the masterclasses are rewarded.
The other part of the Ratings value, the Average Rating points per weighted innings in matches won, carries 7.5 PRPs. Babar Azam, who averaged 41.31 per weighted innings in matches won by Pakistan, gets the highest value on this count: around 7.0 PRPs. Overall, he gets the maximum PRP value on the Ratings value count, of 8.74 PRPs.
The opening parameter (under X factors) has two components. A maximum of one point is given for the number of matches the batsman opened in: Sanath Jayasuriya, with 383 matches, gets 0.96 PRPs; 1.5 PRPs are given for the Opening WBA. Rohit Sharma, whose weighted and location-adjusted average while opening is 49.81, gets 1.49 PRPs. His unadjusted average is 58.1. He has scored many runs in easy conditions. However, overall Sachin Tendulkar walks away with the highest PRP value here - 2.14 PRPs. The Average PRP will kick in only if the batsman has scored over 1000 runs opening the batting.
Let us now move on to the list of greatest ODI batsmen of all time.
Over the past 20 years, I have always maintained that Tendulkar's Test career was nowhere as great as his ODI career. In Test cricket he was way behind many batsmen in the competition for second place, while in ODIs he was the favourite to be crowned the best ever batsman. He was competing with Richards, to start with, and recently, Virat Kohli has also thrown his hat into this ring. Ponting and Gilchrist also come into contention here, since I have provided for recognition of World Cup performances.
However, there is no doubt when we peruse the final list. Tendulkar is the best ever ODI batsman. He is ahead of the next best batsman by over 10%. This indicates that irrespective of the parameters chosen, the weight allotted, the adjustments made to the two key parameters, and the way in which the tournament-related parameters are determined, Tendulkar will be in first place.
If he had played 50 matches fewer, scored 2000 runs fewer, and we lowered his WBA by one point, he would still be at the top. He tops the table on three of the main parameters - runs scored, cup runs, and X factor. He also tops in two minor parameters - MoMs and opening the batting. On the performance-related parameters, he is in the top quartile.
Ponting would not have been a contender for a top-three place in an earlier ratings analysis. Now that I have introduced the very significant major-cups related parameter, he deservedly comes in in second place. He clocked the full 12.5 PRPs possible for this parameter, which made the difference. However, he could not have done it without excellent numbers for the other parameters - 13,704 runs at a WBA of nearly 39 and an SR of 80. And above-average values for most other criteria. Ponting has a 5% lead over the next best.
Kohli is the only active cricketer to feature in the top ten. As such, he is the only batsman who could displace the two at the top. It is almost certain that he will surpass Ponting as he scores more runs and stays close to his current levels on the other performance measures. His outstanding WBA of 49.67 keeps him on top for that all-important parameter by a wide margin. His strike rate of 86 could be improved slightly. As he plays more matches, he is likely to accumulate more runs, and important cup-related runs and MoM awards.
Will Kohli do enough to displace Tendulkar? That seems difficult. He has to make up more than ten PRPs. Another 5000 runs would give him four PRPs and another 2000 cup-related runs will add one PRP. What he really needs are those platinum points. Maybe a World Cup win or two. Unfortunately, the Champions Trophy has been shelved and there are likely going to be no more of those mega one-day tournaments. A World Cup win and a runners-up position might help Kohli, but my prediction for him rising on that section of these rankings: quite unlikely.
Viv Richards. What does one say of this colossus? With just 6721 runs, he has managed to beat eight batsmen with 10,000-plus runs in the top 20. The strike-rate adjustment was crucial. Richards' three World Cup finals, including two wins, helped too. He picked up very little in the X-factor category. No opening-position related PRPs, not many finishing runs (maybe because West Indies were so strong), and terrific bowling support (the best ever) gave him only 2.9 PRPs. But overall, a well-deserved inclusion in the elite group.
Gilchrist's case is somewhat like that of Ponting. A huge haul of ten PRPs on the major-tournaments parameter favoured him. But his other credentials are strong too - 9619 runs at an impressive WBA of 32 and an excellent SR of 97. Gilchrist does well on the opening-position parameter, but gets almost nothing in the finishing category. Can anyone ever forget his explosive match-winning innings of 149 in the 2007 World Cup final, which is the third-highest-rated innings of all time? A worthy placement, indeed.
Let us now look at the next five batsmen in the top ten.
Jayasuriya redefined ODI batting, especially the opening positions. He had an average start but came into his own once he began to open the innings for Sri Lanka. His tally of 13,000-plus runs and an imposing SR of over 92 more than compensated for the sub-par WBA. The cup performances and opening-position credits helped.
Jayasuriya's Sri Lanka team-mate, Kumar Sangakkara, follows him close behind. Over 14,000 runs at a fair WBA of over 38, compensated for the somewhat low SR. His reasonably good cup performances also helped.
Next comes another modern great - MS Dhoni, whose WBA is brought down to a fair value of 38; his SR is a middling 83. However, he has well over 10,000 runs and a very good finishing-runs parameter value.
Virender Sehwag's ODI career seems to have been overshadowed by his achievements in Tests. However, he did achieve a lot in ODIs: one of two batsmen with a 100-plus SR in the top ten, and very good opening-position performances place him at No. 9.
Brian Lara is another batsman whose Test feats overshadow his ODI achievements. But all his base numbers are good. He gained on the ratings parameter, and his consistent contributions in weak West Indies teams helped him a lot.
Sourav Ganguly misses the top ten by the proverbial whisker - 0.03 PRP. A sub-par SR was probably the cause. AB de Villiers could have easily got into the top ten but for his zero major-cups value. It is a pity that in the past few years South Africa have not even reached the final of an important tournament. But look at de Villiers' WBA and SR. Rohit Sharma is in 13th place, and I am confident he will move into the top ten in the next year or two. His opening-position WBA average of 49-plus is simply astounding. However, he has to improve his performances away from home. Mahela Jayawardene's low performance numbers have cost him a lot. Michael Bevan, the finisher par excellence, had a sub-par SR, which meant he is not a contender for a higher rank.
Tillakaratne Dilshan was the quiet performer, and he gets a well-deserved position. Yuvraj Singh achieved a lot in the ODI arena - particularly his feats in the 2011 World Cup. Aravinda de Silva was the rock on which the successful Sri Lankan team of the 1990s was built. Who can forget his innings in the 1996 World Cup semi-final and final? Gordon Greenidge, despite a low SR, manages to get into the top 20, no doubt helped by a high WBA and two World Cup wins. Inzamam-ul-Haq completes the line-up. A mere 0.18 PRP separates five batsmen in this group, so one should work on the basis that these five batsmen and the next four are nearly at the same level.
The top ten contains four Indian batsmen and two each from Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies, all of them greats who fully deserve their places. In the top 20 there are seven Indians, five Sri Lankans, three Australians, three West Indians, and one each from South Africa and Pakistan. New Zealand are not represented. However, Ross Taylor is in 22nd place and could move into the top 20 with good future performances.
Kohli has the highest PRP value on performance-related parameters (44.5), because of his outstanding WBA and high figures for the other three parameters. Richards is just a few decimal points behind him. Ponting leads the accumulated PRPs value, mainly on the basis of his major-cups performance.
Tendulkar leads in the X factor category. In the five X-factor values, he leads in the opening-batting and MoM parameters. As expected, Dhoni leads in the finishing-runs category. Elton Chigumbura has the most points in terms of the quality of own bowling support and Upul Tharanga on the quality of batting support. That last one is a surprise, but the reason why is clear when we see that only Sangakkara and Dilshan have WBA values exceeding 35. Jayasuriya and Jayawardene have WBA values below 32. No one else from those Sri Lankan teams has a 30-plus value. In fact, I did a summary calculation to verify this. The Sri Lankan overall WBA average is three to four runs lower than those of the top countries.
My predictions for a similar exercise in, say, 2024: Kohli will move into second place, but he is not likely to displace the Little Master. Sharma will move into the top ten. His basic numbers are very good. Whether de Villiers also moves into the top ten depends on how South Africa perform in the next World Cup and whether de Villiers plays in it. Taylor and David Warner (currently in 25th position) have every chance of moving into the top 20.
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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