Anantha Narayanan

The top 25 Test bowling performances of all time

A definitive list based on an exhaustive and thorough ratings system

Can you believe it? Stuart Broad's reaction as Ben Stokes holds a stunning catch to remove Adam Voges, England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 1st day, August 6, 2015

Stuart Broad's 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge in 2015 against Australia is one of five post-2001 spells to make it to the top 25 Test bowling performances  •  Getty Images

In part one of this feature on ranking the top Test bowling performances, I covered the following topics: the historical perspective; Test ratings for bowling: a brief note on the calculations; the original Wisden 100 table, and subsequent database enhancements; the current basis for analysis; a general view of the Bowler Performance Ratings; and more information on the new tables.
Now I will dive straight into the Top Test Bowling Performances of all time. The table is current up to the West Indies-Sri Lanka St Lucia Test (Test No. 2308). The few readers who responded to my query about how to present the ratings preferred a straightforward, non-grouped method, so that's how I'm presenting it - as a table of the top 25 bowling performances. I call it "The Red Cherry 25".
The opening-day masterclass of Richard Hadlee, who took 9 for 52 against a strong Australian side in 1985-86, and away from home at that, gets the coveted top position in the Bowling Performance ratings. This performance has moved up a few positions from the last time around. A recent tour de force, 8 for 15 by Stuart Broad, at home, against a very strong Australia in 2015, takes second place. If he had dismissed Nathan Lyon slightly earlier in that innings, it could very well have landed Broad the top spot.
Hugh Tayfield's last-day marathon effort of 9 for 113 to defend a middling target against England in 1956-57 almost single-handedly is in third position. This was the top-ranked performance 17 years ago. I would say that Tayfield's performance has stayed in its position and the two first-day performances have just about moved above his. Fanie de Villiers' final-day defence of 117, with a magnificent spell of 6 for 43, at the SCG, against a strong Australian team in 1993-94, gets fourth place. It jumps up a few places from its position last time around.
Jim Laker's final-day sweep of all ten wickets for 53 against Australia in 1956 is fifth. It loses a couple of places, arguably due to the rationalising of the "wickets captured" parameter in the analysis. Another first-day spectacular effort, by Trevor Bailey, 7 for 34 against the very strong West Indian team of 1953-54, in Kingston, deservedly gets into sixth position. The three first-day classics we have already seen were truly match-winning efforts against strong teams.
The top ten is completed by a quartet of unforgettable bowling performances. Muttiah Muralitharan's single-handed match-winning effort of 8 for 70 at Trent Bridge in 2006; Bob Willis' all-time-classic defence of a small target in the famous 1981 Headingley Test with his spectacular 8 for 43; Fazal Mahmood's destruction of England with his 6 for 46 at The Oval in 1954; and finally, Anil Kumble's monumental 10 for 74 against Pakistan.
Tony Greig's terrific effort of 8 for 86 in Port-of-Spain in 1974, the best second-innings effort ever, just misses out on a top-ten position, on a second decimal point difference from Kumble. However, since their displayed numbers are equal, I will treat them as tied for the tenth position.
1. Richard Hadlee, 9 for 52 v Australia, Brisbane, 1985-86
New Zealand won by an innings and 41 runs
First-innings bowling performances were short-changed in the first release of the Wisden 100, and I must accept responsibility for the same. At that time, determining what constitutes a good score in the first innings was difficult to pin down because the algorithm was not comprehensive. Since then I have significantly improved that aspect and now performances across all four innings are treated fairly. This explains the elevation of a few world-class opening-day efforts, including Hadlee's at the Gabba.
In his 9 for 52, Hadlee dismissed Andrew Hilditch for 0, Allan Border for 1, Greg Ritchie for 8 and Greg Matthews for 2. He also got rid of each of the three batsmen who went past 30 just when they looked like taking Australia out of trouble.
The Pitch Quality Index for this match was 55.5, indicating that this pitch was tilted very slightly towards the batsmen. (A quick refresher on PQI: the values run from 1 to 100; 1 indicates a crater-on-the-moon surface, and 100 represents an ultra-smooth highway; 50 would represent a fair, middling pitch that offers assistance to both bowlers and batsmen.) This was proved by the second- and third-innings scores in this match (553 for 7 declared, and 333). Australia were not a very strong team, but this was an away match in a country where New Zealand had not tasted much success.
Hadlee was recently diagnosed with bowel cancer and has had successful surgery for the same. I take this opportunity to wish this giant of a bowler a complete recovery and peaceful life ahead. I also hope that this recognition of his all-time-classic effort will be a tonic for him.
2. Stuart Broad, 8 for 15 v Australia, Trent Bridge, 2015
England won by an innings and 78 runs
While I kept updating the Wisden 100 over the last decade and a half, I never imagined I would add a future performance that would be able to compete for the top spot. The bar was set so high that it would require a truly extraordinary performance to get into this privileged position. And Broad provided exactly that.
Alastair Cook won the toss and surprisingly put Australia in. He would probably have been happy if they had been 80 for 3 at lunch. I don't think he could ever have imagined what would happen in the next two hours.
Australia were bowled out well before lunch for 60, in the fewest balls taken for a first-innings dismissal. The longest partnership, in terms of balls, was 33, for the tenth wicket. In terms of runs, the highest was 13, shared between the eighth and the tenth. It is not often that in an Australian innings, no batsman has outscored the extras
Broad bowled 57 balls, conceded 15 runs off seven of them. There were 50 dots, of which eight were wicket-taking deliveries.
On paper, the Australian batting was very good, if not outstanding. Even though England scored 391, Australia's two totals of 60 and 253 meant that this has to be classified as a bowler-friendly Test. The PQI value was 34.9, and England were playing at home. These two factors devalued Broad's outstanding spell slightly. However, the other aspects were strong enough to keep it innings in second place.
3. Hugh Tayfield, 9 for 113 v England, Johannesburg, 1956-57
South Africa won by 17 runs
Newspaper despatches were the only source of information back in the days of this performance, and this gem remained almost unknown to cricket followers outside African shores. That it was deemed to be the best Test bowling effort in the Wisden 100 added poignancy. Many followers of the game went back to the concerned scorecard and were rewarded when they understood the impact Tayfield had had in the game.
This was one of the greatest series of all time. England, against all odds, had won the first two Tests, and the third was drawn. South Africa had to win this fourth match to stay in the series.
Tayfield, with four wickets, led the bowling attack in the first innings and secured a lead of 89 for South Africa, but they were dismissed for 142, and England had a manageable target of 232. On the fifth day, England started attacking a little bit more, knowing that it was not an easy pitch and that Tayfield was going to be difficult to handle.
Tayfield was indeed a major threat and bowled nearly five hours non-stop. England's strategy was fruitful early on - Tayfield was attacked at the beginning of the day and conceded quite a few runs - and just after lunch they were placed comfortably at 147 for 2, needing only 85 to win. However, Tayfield's skill never wavered, and the sustained excellence of the bowling meant that wickets fell at regular intervals.
The crowning glory of his spell were his dismissals of Trevor Bailey, Peter May and Denis Compton for very low scores. Importantly, it was not a total bowler's wicket, and this is proved by the PQI value of 45.9.
4. Fanie de Villiers, 6 for 43 v Australia, Sydney, 1993-94
South Africa won by 5 runs
Let us look at the factors that catapulted de Villiers into the top four: the strong Australia batting line-up; the low target he was defending: 117; the low margin of victory: by five runs; his dismissal of Michael Slater and Ian Healy for 1 each; the fact it was an away Test win. All these, despite a PQI value of 37.2, indicating a strongly bowler-friendly surface.
5. Muttiah Muralitharan, 8 for 70 v England, Trent Bridge, 2006
Sri Lanka won by 134 runs
England went in to chase their target of 325 an hour after the start on the fourth day, and looked like making a good play for it when they were 84 for no loss. With Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook and Andrew Flintoff yet to bat, it didn't look too steep an ask. It was at this point that Murali struck. It was not an easy pitch for batsmen, with a PQI of 38.9. However, the England batting was of top quality. Their top four in the match are among the best in recent times.
Murali dismissed Cook, Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Flintoff and Geraint Jones for single-digit scores. Readers are bound to compare Murali's equally magnificent effort eight years previously, in his first Test in England. That was a third-innings effort of 9 for 65 that gave Sri Lanka a memorable win over England. The only serious difference between the efforts is the average quality of England's batting in 1998, with not one batsman averaging over 40 at that point. The perpetual underperformers Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash and the non-performing Steve James were in the top six. That Murali spell is a few rating points behind this one but is comfortably placed within the top 25.
6. Jim Laker, 10 for 53 v Australia, Old Trafford, 1956
England won by an innings and 170 runs
A higher rating eluded Laker's spell because of the average quality of the Australian batting. But Laker's accuracy was phenomenal: just around a run per over. What amazes me the most is that Tony Lock bowled more overs, 55, and the other bowlers bowled 44 over together, and they all did not dismiss a single Australian batsman. Almost supernatural, one would say.
England's huge first-innings score of 459 and the fact that Australia lasted 150 overs in their second innings and scored only 205 runs, indicates that this was not that difficult a pitch - a PQI of 42.0.
7. Trevor Bailey, 7 for 34 v West Indies, Kingston, 1953-54)
England won by nine wickets
The profusion of first-innings bowling efforts in this table is testament to the changed methodology.
Bailey was an allrounder of repute. In 61 Tests he took 132 wickets, and on helpful pitches he was very effective. He was an excellent swing bowler and was virtually unplayable in favourable conditions. However, he reserved his best not for English conditions but for a hot Caribbean location.
England needed to win the fifth Test, at Sabina Park, to draw level. They were up against a very strong West Indian batting line-up comprising John Holt, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Denis Atkinson and Gerry Gomez. There was also a scrawny-looking 17-year-old making his debut in this match, batting at No. 9. His name: Garry Sobers.
The final scores reveal that this was a middle-level pitch favouring both batting and bowling - a PQI of 50.2. In my opinion, Bailey's performance is a dark horse. It was placed in the top 50 in 2001; now it has moved into a well-deserved top-ten position.
8. Bob Willis, 8 for 43 v Australia, Headingley, 1981
England won by 18 runs
If Australia had won the famous Headingley Test, would Ian Botham's classic 149 still be hailed as one of the top ten innings ever? Botham went beyond what any batsman could have done and gave his bowlers a total to work with.
Chasing 130, Australia were perilously placed at 75 for 8. They had lost seven wickets for 19 runs; Willis had taken six of these for practically nothing. As a sustained bowling spell, there are very few equals to this ferocious effort. He finished with 8 for 43, having converted a near hopeless situation, one that existed even after Botham's magnificent batting effort, into a match-winning one.
This was not necessarily a low-scoring match. The first and third innings were above 350. The PQI of 42.7 confirms this, indicating a near-even contest, slightly veering towards the bowlers. The target was a very low one and the margin, although not as small as the one in Sydney in 1993-94, was still quite small, at 18. Australia did not really have a great batting outfit and it was a home match for Willis. These two factors tend to dilute the rating just a little.
9. Fazal Mahmood, 6 for 46 v England, The Oval, 1954
Pakistan won by 24 runs
Fazal was the master on matting wickets at home. However, during the 1954 tour of England, he proved also to be a master in unfamiliar surroundings. In each innings at The Oval, he bowled 30 overs, conceded around 50, took six wickets and dismissed Len Hutton, Peter May and Denis Compton.
This was a totally bowler's pitch, the PQI value of 25.2 confirming this, so Fazal's performances are downgraded a little. However, the dismissal of the top-three batsmen for low scores, the strength differential between the teams, the tough situation in which Fazal bowled, the low target he was defending, and his accurate bowling meant that he secured a top-ten position.
10. Anil Kumble, 10 for 74 v Pakistan, Delhi, 1998-99)
India won by 212 runs
In the course of nearly 14 decades of Test cricket, only two bowlers have claimed all ten wickets in an innings. Laker achieved this in the mid-'50s, Kumble just before the dawn of the new millennium.
In Delhi, India put up a moderate first-innings total of 252, which did not look enough against a reasonably strong Pakistan batting line-up. However, Kumble and Harbhajan Singh bowled with a lot of heart and made the total seem much larger than it was. Not one batsman reached 33, and Pakistan were dismissed for 172, giving India a crucial lead of 80. Pakistan were eventually set the daunting task of scoring over 400 to win the Test.
The fourth innings was Kumble's all the way. At 101 for no loss, Pakistan looked likely to make a fist of the tough chase, but Kumble took over. In the 25th over, Shahid Afridi was dismissed, and the one ball later so was Ijaz Ahmed. In the 29th over, Inzamam-ul-Haq, who saved many a Test for Pakistan, was bowled, and a couple of balls later Yousuf Youhana was out lbw. Moin Khan fell in the 37th over, and Saeed Anwar's long vigil ended in the 39th. When Saleem Malik was dismissed with the score at 186, everyone at the ground and those following the match realised that history was waiting to be made.
What pulls down Kumble's performance a little is that Pakistan were not necessarily a formidable batting unit. The match had a low PQI of 37.7, indicating that it was a bowler-centric pitch. Other than India's second-innings 300-plus total, the other three were below 253. The most important factor, however, was that the fourth-innings target for Pakistan was a huge 420 runs, yet to be achieved in Test cricket. There was no pressure at all. Possibly the real pressure lay in the prospect of Javagal Srinath or Harbhajan getting a wicket, and of one of the Pakistani players perhaps gifting their wicket away to these bowlers.
10. Tony Greig, 8 for 86 v West Indies, Port-of-Spain, 1974
England won by 26 runs
England needed to win in Trinidad to draw the series, but their first-innings 267 seemed inadequate against a strong West Indian line-up, led by Sobers and Rohan Kanhai. However, it is worth remembering that Sobers and Kanhai were playing their last Tests. Even though Greig had opened the bowling with medium pace, he later produced one of the greatest spells of offspin bowling, dismissing Lawrence Rowe, Clive Lloyd and then Sobers and Kanhai, finishing with astounding figures of 8 for 86. Single-handedly he had restricted what looked set to be a lead of 150 to just 38.
England's middling score, West Indies' overall batting strength, the low-score dismissals of Sobers (0) and Kanhai (2), the fact that Greig cleaned up the tail, the away location, and the unexpected narrow win pushed the performance high up on the table. The PQI was 40.4, indicating that this was a pitch that provided some assistance to the bowlers. This is the best second-innings bowling performance ever.
To round off the top dozen there's Matthew Hoggard's match-winning fourth-innings performance of 7 for 61, which misses a top-ten place by a hair's breadth. Though the target was a substantial 325, England beat a strong South Africa team in Johannesburg. Hoggard dismissed AB de Villiers for 3, Jacques Rudolph for 2, and Jacques Kallis for 0. With two first-innings scores above 400 and a third-innings score of over 300, this was a pitch helpful to batsmen (PQI of 55.2).
A graphical depiction of the RC25 performances
A timeline chart of the Red Cherry 25 is below. Each performance is presented as a blob.
The graph indicates that the period of 1979-82 saw the greatest number of these unforgettable performances. Each of these four years had one such performance. Note how close three mid-table performances, those of Kumble, Greig and Hoggard, are placed. Also, the graph shows there are four years in which there have been two performances each - 1954, 1956, 1994 and 2015.
The five performances in positions 26-30
Brian Statham's 7 for 39 in the fourth innings against South Africa at Lord's in 1955.
Jack White's 8 for 126 on the last day against Australia in Adelaide in 1928-29.
Abdur Rehman's mesmerising spell of 6 for 25 against England in Dubai in 2011-12 while defending a target of 145.
Colin Croft's opening-day demolition of Pakistan when he took 8 for 29 in Port-of-Spain in 1976-77.
Performances that have moved out of the old top 20
Since the base for bowling analysis underwent a significant change, seven of the top 20 from 2001 have not found a place in the current top 30. However, the more important fact is that 13 of the top 20 have retained their elite spots.
Bill O'Reilly's 7 for 54 at Trent Bridge in 1934.
Arthur Mailey's 9 for 121 against England in Melbourne in 1920-21.
Harbhajan Singh's 8 for 84 against Australia in Chennai in 2000-01.
John Snow's 7 for 40 in Sydney in 1970-71.
Ian Johnson's 7 for 44 in Georgetown in 1955.
Top bowling performances: Drawn matches
A Kumble 749.6 46.5-7-141-8 16802004INDaus2Ad
Kapil Dev 740.9 30.5-7-85-8 947 1983INDpak1Ad
GD McGrath 717.7 20.3-8-38-8 13701997AUSeng1Ad
AV Bedser 711.6 17.2-7-44-7 372 1953ENGaus3Hd
Muralitharan 706.9 10.0-1-39-6 15262000SLKsaf3Ad

Look at Kumble's performance. On a batting beauty (PQI of 76.3), he bowled beautifully to take 8 for 141 and was never mastered. He gave India an outside chance, but Australia batted well to save the day.
Kapil Dev's 8 for 85 in Lahore was a performance on a reasonable batting pitch. He dismissed the three Khans for a combined total of 27 runs.
Glenn McGrath's opening-day devastation of England of 8 for 38 unfortunately did not finish on the winning side, else he would certainly have been in the top 25. He dismissed the top three English batsmen for seven runs.
Top bowling performances: Lost matches
D Bishoo 756.7 13.5-1-49-8 22242016WINpak3Nl
Kapil Dev 743.0 30.3-6-83-9 967 1983INDwin3Hl
DJG Sammy 719.1 21.3-2-66-7 18352007WINeng3Al
MG Hughes 710.7 37.0-9-87-8 11101988AUSwin3Hl
Mohammad Amir 701.9 24.0-6-79-5 19432009PAKaus3Al

Devendra Bishoo's magnificent effort of 8 for 49 was against Pakistan in Dubai. Bowling with a deficit of over 200 runs, he helped dismiss Pakistan for 123, giving West Indies an outside chance. The valiant effort of West Indies went in vain.
Kapil Dev took 9 for 83 against a strong West Indies side, converting a deficit of 40 to an achievable target of 241. However, India fell miserably short.
Because of England's lead of 141 runs, Darren Sammy's single-handed effort of 7 for 88 still meant that the target of 454 was 60 runs too much for a fighting West Indies. The first four performances in this list involve West Indies.
Top bowling performances: Top Bowlers
BowlerTeamTop Bow PerfsSpellsFrequency
SF Barnes England 23 50 2.17
CV Grimmett Australia 23 67 2.91
RJ Hadlee New Zealand45150 3.33
WJ O'Reilly Australia 14 48 3.43
Yasir Shah Pakistan 15 54 3.60
Mohd Asif Pakistan 12 44 3.67
R Ashwin India 29107 3.69
Muralitharan Sri Lanka 61230 3.77
Fazal MahmoodPakistan 14 53 3.79
HMRKB Herath Sri Lanka 39162 4.15

Look at the bowling excellence of Sydney Barnes. Almost every other innings is a qualifying performance. Clarrie Grimmett delivers once every three innings. Hadlee is magnificent, delivering a stunner every 3.33 spells. Bill O'Reilly requires a fraction of a spell more.
Note the presence of three modern bowlers, Yasir Shah, R Ashwin and Rangana Herath in the top ten. Mohammad Asif and Fazal Mahmood are two unheralded Pakistani bowlers adorning this table.
It should be noted that these are only the performances clocking more than 430.1 rating points. The career rating point averages are a different thing altogether and will be discussed elsewhere.
Team-wise split of the top 25 performances
England: 10
Pakistan: 3
Australia: 3
Sri Lanka: 3
South Africa: 2
New Zealand: 2
India: 1
West Indies: 1
The domination of England in this list is mind-boggling. They have cornered 40% of the performances. And, to boot, three of the next six performances are theirs. It is possibly the result of a few factors. It is not often that England have had three or more top bowlers bowling together. Australia and West Indies often fielded three or four match-winning bowlers, who shared the spoils; for England, there were more match-winning performances by individuals. It is also true that, in general, England as a country presents better bowling conditions, which the home bowlers exploited. Pakistan have three performances, but none from their famed trio of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar. Maybe the "sharing the spoils" syndrome has caught up. Australia and Sri Lanka have three performances each. South Africa have two entries. New Zealand secure the top and bottom places in this elite list. The sole representative of West Indies is Curtly Ambrose. However, it is worth noting that Bishoo and Croft are present in the next five places. India have one performance, but their second-best performance, that Agarkar spell, is in the top 30.
This is a team-performance chart. The performances included are those which qualified: 3470 which exceeded 430.1 rating points. Australia has one such performance just over every two innings. This is understandable since Australia has always had strong bowlers and it is difficult to think of a weak Australian bowling side. Then there is a jump and four teams are bracketed within the 2.28 to 2.32 range. All these teams - South Africa, England, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - are known for their bowling skills. Now, there is a further jump and two teams which have blown hot and cold on the bowling front, India and West Indies, come next. The special skills of Hadlee notwithstanding, New Zealand has had average bowling teams and this is reflected in their needing just over three innings per performance. The two late entrants to the Test scene complete the table.
A few interesting facts
-- Laker and Murali are the only bowlers to have two performances each in this list. Of course, Laker's two performances came in the same Test. Murali has another entry in the top 50. Greig, Bailey, Kumble and Broad each have a second entry in the top 50. Finally, Kapil has three entries in the top 50, all in the 41-50 group.
-- The 25 featured bowling performances are split by innings as given below.
First innings: 4
Second innings: 2
Third innings: 7
Fourth innings: 12
While the first innings still is not that well represented, there is compensation in that the top two and the seventh performances came about on the opening day. The second innings continues to be a tough one to crack. If the first team puts up a big total, the bowling group of the second innings clearly has a cushion, but on a tough pitch. On the other hand, if the first team put up a low total, the bowling group of the second innings is bowling on a helpful pitch but not backed by a good total. It is indeed a tough riddle to crack. The third and fourth innings are very well represented. The main reason is that these bowling performances lead the teams to wins. These are the defining innings for bowlers.
-- When we look at the teams against which these bowling performances were scripted, Australia lead the field, with ten. England follow, with seven.
-- In the 16 years since the release of the Wisden 100, five new performances have broken into the Red Cherry 25 list. During this period, 558 Tests were played. This constitutes around 20% of the total number of Tests to date. And, in a satisfactory coincidence, these five performances represent 20% of the list. These are presented below.
  • Stuart Broad's 8 for 15 on the opening day at Trent Bridge against Australia in 2015
  • Murali's match-winning spell of 8 for 70 at Trent Bridge in 2006
  • Hoggard's 7 for 61 on the last day in Johannesburg in 2005
  • Herath's successful single-handed defence of a low target in Galle in 2015 against the strong Indian team
  • Doug Bracewell's magnificent last-day spell at Hobart while successfully defending a low target in 2011
-- Thirteen bowling performances secured the excellent rating level of 800 points. England cornered the majority of these performances, accounting for seven. South Africa were the other team that had two performances in this lot. New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan had one each.
-- A total of 103 bowling performances secured the very good rating level of 700 points. Out of these, seven performances were in drawn matches and six finished on the losing side. Thus, over 12% of the top 103 have come in Tests that did not end in a win for the concerned teams.
-- In the 3470 qualifying performances, there were 714 drawn matches and 648 lost matches. This works out to nearly 40% of the total. This is a clear indication that the result does not play undue importance in the Ratings calculations. It is natural that winning a Test is an important aid for performances to reach the top positions.
The closing statement
Anyone can pose a query about any bowling or any (upcoming) batting effort. However, I will respond only in an abstract manner, indicating a possible position in the top 50, top 100, top 250. I may not provide the actual rating points, nor the exact position, else things will go south quickly, with me forever answering questions like "Why isn't the 7 for 24 in the top 50?" or "Why is the 229 ranked this low?"
Please do not ask "Why does this performance get 805 points while the other one gets 808?" I cannot really answer such questions.
Before sending off a query, please study the scorecards in the light of the nine parameters and you will find the reasons why a performance is placed higher or lower. As I have already said, these are all exceptional performances and should be treated, with respect, as "first among equals".
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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