Matches (15)
T20 World Cup (5)
IND v SA [W] (1)
T20 Blast (6)
CE Cup (3)
Stats Analysis

What is the greatest bowling performance of all time in Tests?

Is it Hadlee's 9 for 52? Or Broad's 8 for 15? Or is it neither of those? A comprehensive rating system reveals all

Stuart Broad bowls in his final Test match, England vs Australia, 5th men's Ashes Test, The Oval, 4th day, July 30, 2023

Stuart Broad has two entries in this list of the top 25 Test bowling performances of all time  •  ECB via Getty Images

This article is a complete overhaul of the historic and epochal Wisden 100 list of best Test bowling performances released in 2001, and the revised version, called the Red Cherry 25, published on ESPNcricinfo in 2018. During the 22 years since the publication of that first list, there have been many insights, suggestions, data revelations, and a far better understanding of this unique concept has been developed. This new list, called Bowl-100, incorporates many improvements, conceptually, contextually, and in terms of coverage, both in terms of breadth and depth.
The basic idea remains the same: a bouquet of the 100 best Test bowling performances ever. It is recommended that any reader who has not gone through my last article, which provided a detailed blueprint for the process by which the Bowl-100 list was generated, does so before reading this article. Otherwise they will not know the base on which these lists are drawn up.
Let us now move on to the tables. First, the most important one: the revised Bowl-100 table.
There is possibly a surprise at the top.
The South Africa team was returning from the sporting wilderness and playing Australia at the SCG in 1993-94. A poor first-innings score of 169, a deficit of well over 100 runs, and a moderate third innings meant that the strong Australian line-up needed only 117 to win. Fast bowler Fanie de Villiers took the first three wickets and then dismissed the nightwatchman, Tim May. The next day, Allan Donald took three wickets and Australia were reduced to 75 for 8. But Craig McDermott swung hard and Australia looked likely to emerge winners at 110 for 8. At this point, Donald dismissed Damien Martyn and de Villiers dismissed Glenn McGrath with the target a mere stroke away. de Villiers' performance ticks all the boxes and is deservedly the best ever bowling performance, with 914.9 rating points. His performance was against a strong team, away from home, and while defending a very low target.
Next we come to an expected spell and one of more recent vintage. In Nottingham in 2015, England won the toss and put Australia in to bat on a typical English overcast day. What followed was a massacre. David Warner was dismissed by Mark Wood and Peter Nevill by Steven Finn. The other eight wickets were picked up by Stuart Broad - Chris Rogers and Shaun Marsh for 0, Steven Smith for 6, Michael Clarke for 10, Adam Voges for 1. After 57 balls of utter destruction, Broad finished with figures of 8 for 15. A big win against a strong Australia gets him this exalted second position, with 888.8 points. His Wicket-Level-Points (points given for each wicket taking into account batter quality, score and match context) aggregate of 162.2 points is the highest in all Tests.
Third place honours a performance that has gone under the radar in almost all bowling discussions, possibly because it was in the third innings. After two 300-plus innings scores, South Africa went to bat in their second innings at The Oval in 1994 with a useful lead of 28 runs. Then fast bowler Devon Malcolm changed the course of the game. Peter Kirsten was dismissed for 1, Gary Kirsten and Hanse Cronje for 0, and the late order was polished off when it showed signs of resistance. Malcolm eventually finished with terrific figures of 9 for 57. His WLP total is 161.6, just behind Broad's. That bowling performance could have been in vain if the batters had failed, but England ran away comfortable winners, chasing down a target of 204 for the loss of just two wickets. Malcolm's magnum opus clocks in at 881.2 points.
The fourth-placed performance is also a surprise - coming as it does from an allrounder known for the slowest fifty in Test cricket. When England visited the West Indies in 1954, they faced a very strong home batting line-up with the three Ws in full bloom. West Indies batted first in Kingston, expecting to put up a match-winning total. Instead, Trevor Bailey, opening the bowling along with Fred Trueman, ripped the West Indies top order to shreds. Bailey's 7 for 34 was one of the greatest first-day bowling efforts ever and secures 877.4 points. The dismissal of top-order batters for low scores, the 40-plus batting index, and the away win are the main reasons for Bailey's high position.
When I published the Red Cherry 25 list in 2018, Richard Hadlee's opening-day masterpiece of 9 for 52 in Brisbane took the top spot. In the current analysis, it has moved to No. 5. Hadlee's nine wickets included the first seven batters and two of the last three wickets. It must be said that the quality of the Australian batters in that match was not all that good, and they were coming off a sub-par run. These two factors might have cost Hadlee some points, but the comfortable away win fetched him 870.0 points.
Sixth place is taken by Doug Bracewell for his terrific defence of a decent target in Hobart in 2011-12. This effort is reminiscent of de Villiers' performance in many ways, except that the target was higher in Bracewell's case. After the first two wickets were taken by Chris Martin and Trent Boult, Bracewell ran through the very strong home-team line-up. Australia were 199 for 9 when David Warner and Nathan Lyon mounted a strong stand that looked like it would take them home. Then Bracewell dismissed Lyon and New Zealand won by seven runs. Bracewell got 868.2 points for his magnificent spell of 6 for 40.
Next up is the first second-innings performance in the top ten - an all-time classic by Tony Greig in Port-of-Spain in April 1974. After England scored 267, the West Indian openers added 110. Pat Pocock took the first two wickets and then Greig took the next eight for 86 runs. This was a very strong West Indian batting side. Greig's figures fetched him 860.8 points and is the best second-innings performance ever.
Another fourth-innings classic appears next - Muthiah Muralidaran's match-winning spell of 8 for 70 against England at Trent Bridge in 2006. After two matching low totals in the first innings, Sri Lanka batted very well and set England a target of over 300. An opening stand of 84 gave the impression that England were on their way to a win. Then Murali struck, taking seven of the first eight wickets to fall and reducing England to 153 for 9 - they eventually lost by 134 runs. Six of these wickets were for single-digit scores. Murali's magnificent spell was rewarded with 857.5 points.
In ninth place is seamer Fazal Mahmood's 6 for 46 in the fourth innings at The Oval in 1954. It was a very low-scoring game and Pakistan set a strong English team a target of 168. Mahmood ran through the English batting line-up, dismissing four of the top five batters and claiming key late-order wickets. In 30 magnificent overs, he helped dismiss England for 143 and draw the series. His performance gets 849.7 points. Fazal's 6 for 53 in the first innings also fetched a good number of points.
In tenth place is the unforgettable defence of 129 in the last innings at Headingley in 1981 by Bob Willis with his magical spell of 8 for 43. This wonderful, single-handed tour de force normally gets overshadowed by Ian Botham's 149 in the third innings. However, without this spell, Australia would have won comfortably. When Ray Bright and Dennis Lillee carved out a stand of 35 for the ninth wicket, it was Willis who secured the last two wickets in a hurry. His all-time-classic spell gathers 847.0 points.
And now, a line on some of the other performances that make up the top 25:
- A fourth-innings defence by Abdur Rehman against England in Abu Dhabi in 2011-12 gets a well-deserved 11th place.
- Another Broad spell, 6 for 17 in the third innings in Johannesburg in 2015-16. Broad is one of three bowlers with two entries in the top 25, the others being Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hoggard.
- In the famous 2005 Ashes series, Australia scored only 190 at Lord's. Then Glenn McGrath dismissed Marcus Trescothick for 4, Andrew Strauss for 2, Michael Vaughan for 3, Ian Bell for 6, and Andrew Flintoff for 0. This collection of five wickets puts McGrath in 14th place, the highest-placed five-wicket haul.
- In 17th place is Bill Voce's amazing four-wicket spell at the SCG in 1936-37. Voce dismissed Jack Fingleton for 12, and Leo O'Brien, Don Bradman and Stan McCabe all for 0 each. This unbelievable collection of wickets makes this the highest-placed four-wicket haul in Test history.
- Following Voce's performance is Ajit Agarkar's day in the sun at Adelaide Oval in 2003-04. His 6 for 41 followed Australia's 556 and India's reply of 523. Australia were dismissed for 196 and lost the Test.
- Lance Gibbs' 6 for 60 in the last innings at Bourda in 1967-68 is the highest performance in a drawn match.
- Curtly Ambrose's opening-day masterclass of 7 for 25 in Perth in 1992-93 is in 24th position.
- McGrath's effort 8 for 38 at Lord's in 1997 completes the top 25.
Here is the "Bowl-100" Excel file, which contains the top 100.
Here is the "Bowl-100 Qualifying Performances" file. This is the list of the 12,606 bowling performances that qualify. These spells have secured either 400 rating points or more, or are of three wickets or more.
The graph above plots the wickets against the Bowl-100 rating points for the top 25 performances. Three of the top 25 are four- or five-wicket hauls. There are no fewer than eight six-wicket performances, but only two nine-wicket performances. Not one of the three ten-wicket spells in Test cricket has found its place in the top 25. The sheer range of wickets - four to nine - is a clear indication that the Bowl-100 recognition is very fair and is spread across the wicket ranges. Interestingly, the rating points for Ambrose and Matthew Hoggard's Christchurch 2002 performance are identical, as are those of Saeed Ajmal and Gibbs, are identical.
Displayed here are the top five performances in each innings. It is easy to dispose of the fourth innings: all five performances from that innings have already been covered since these are in the top ten of the top-25 table.
Similarly, three of the top first-innings performances have already been described. The other two are Peter Lever's first-day spell of 6 for 38 in Melbourne in 1974-75 (he took four of the top five batters for a total of two runs), and Saeed Ajmal's 7 for 55 in Dubai against England in 2011-12.
When we move to the second innings, Greig's Port-of-Spain performance has been featured, and I have already talked about McGrath's and Voce's spells at Lord's and the SCG respectively. Then come Hoggard's Christchurch spell of 7 for 63 and Fred Trueman 5 for 35 in Port-of-Spain in 1959-60.
Finally, we move on to the third innings. Malcolm's mid-Test match-winning spell, Broad's Wanderers efforts, and the amazing Agarkar spell have already been described. The other two places have been taken by Mohammad Asif's Kandy demolition job of 5 for 27, and Botham's 7 for 48 in the Jubilee Test in Bombay in 1979-80.
Just look at the collection of top performances in drawn matches. As I have already explained, it is difficult for a bowler to put in an effort that's responsible for drawing a match, unlike for batters. As such, we have to look, in general, for good performances in drawn matches. We have already mentioned Gibbs' valiant effort in Georgetown.
Norman Cowans helped England draw the 1983-84 Lahore Test with 5 for 42. Sikandar Bakht took 8 for 69 in Delhi in 1979-80 to dismiss India for 126 and give Pakistan a 147-run lead. McGrath's opening-day salvo against England at Lord's in 1997 wasn't enough to help Australia win a rain-affected match. Wes Hall is recognised for his lion-hearted efforts in the Brisbane tie in 1960-61.
In Durban in 1949-50, Hugh Tayfield's magnificent 7 for 23 was trumped by Neil Harvey's superb 151, a Bat-100 top-ten performance. Nathan Lyon's opening-day effort of 8 for 50 in Bengaluru in 2016-17 was in vain because of R Ashwin's unplayable spell on the last day. Similarly, Ravi Ratnayeke's 8 for 83 could not make up for Sri Lanka's twin batting failures in Sialkot in 1985-86.
An interesting presence in the lost-matches sub-category is Kagiso Rabada's performance in last year's Brisbane Test. Australia needed only 34 to win and Rabada's 4 for 13 in that innings gets high rating points. Some might say that the diluted context does not warrant such a high rating, but a deeper look reveals more. I watched the match and I can honestly say that I have never seen the Australians so nervous and jittery. Another 30 or 40 runs more to chase might have resulted in one of the greatest upsets of all time. Rabada was bowling like a man possessed and scoring even a run was difficult. There were 19 extras. Against a very strong, high-flying Australia, away, four top wickets in 24 balls, defending 34 runs - I think Rabada deserves all those points for converting a totally hopeless situation into something that gave the opponents a real fright. It reminded me of Nathan Astle's Christchurch classic.
This table is divided into two: one based on the absolute rating points, and the other based on the average rating points per wicket. McGrath's 5 for 53, already featured, leads the ratings-points table with 844.4 points. Asif's 5 for 27 in Kandy is in second place. After conceding a near-100-run lead, Pakistan destroyed Sri Lanka thanks to a devastating Asif burst in which he took five of the top six wickets for virtually nothing, leading to a comfortable Pakistan win. In third place is Voce's famous spell, followed by Trueman's incisive five-wicket haul in Port-of-Spain in 1959-60. In fifth place is Cowans' very effective five-wicket burst in Lahore.
Voce is the only bowler to exceed 200 rating points per wicket. Next comes Iqbal Qasim's four-wicket haul in Bangalore in Sunil Gavaskar's farewell Test in March 1987. Close behind comes Henry Olonga's top-order destruction of the Pakistani batters in a memorable away win in Peshawar in 1998-99.
This table lists matches in which bowlers lit up the stage in both innings. These are the bowlers who secured the highest Bowl-100 rating points in a match. It is not a surprise that Greig's 8 for 86 and 5 for 70 in Port-of-Spain head the table. Both are Bowl-100 performances and secured a massive 1662 points in total. Similarly Mahmood's 6 for 53 and 6 for 46 at The Oval in 1954 are both Bowl-100 performances and secured a total of 1640 points. Next comes Jim Laker's 19-wicket performances. The 9 for 37 was a Bowl-100 performance while the 10 for 53 just missed it. His total is 1583 points. This is followed by Alec Bedser's two seven-wicket hauls at Trent Bridge in the 1953 Ashes series. Finally, appropriately, to round off, we have de Villiers' Bowl-100-topping performance supported by his 4 for 80 in the first innings. The match total for de Villiers was 1577 points.
The table above is self-explanatory. The eight top performances that lead the featured teams are McGrath's 5 for 53, Broad's 8 for 15, Agarkar's 6 for 41, Fazal's 6 for 46, Gibbs' 6 for 60, de Villiers' 6 for 43, Hadlee's 9 for 52, and Murali's 8 for 70. All these bowling performances are in the top-25 table.
Now we move on to some classifications of the top-100 innings. Three performances each by Mahmood and Vernon Philander feature in the Bowl-100.
The four innings have been well represented, with the decisive fourth innings slightly ahead. Three losses and 15 draws are part of the Bowl-100.
Many more away performances, understandably, have been selected, as opposed to home ones.
About a third of the 100 performances come from the past two decades.
No fewer than 23 five- and four-wicket hauls have been picked.
Only seven nine-wicket hauls make their way in.
Understandably, fast bowlers account for nearly three-fourths of the entries.
I have added a new table for Bowl-100 in which I aggregate the Bowl-100 points for all the performances by a single player and divide the same by the number of Tests played. This table is ordered on the average rating points per match. The criteria are that the bowler should have taken 100 wickets and played 20 or more Tests.
It should not surprise anyone that England's legendary pre-war bowler Sydney Barnes leads this table. His high-level consistency and an almost totally failure-free record is reflected in the high average of just over 820 points per match. He is over 50 points per match ahead of the next-placed bowler, Saeed Ajmal, whose presence too is well deserved, reflecting an excellent career. And who can complain about Murali in third position? He averages over 750 points - that too in 133 Tests. I doubt whether any words will be enough for this level of sustained performance across these many Tests.
In fourth place is Asif, with an average of 742 across only 23 matches. Then we see the two Australian spin greats, Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly, with almost 740-level averages. Then comes Lillee, the great Australian fast bowler, and a well-deserved place for offspinner Ashwin, with around 720 points. The top ten is rounded off by Colin Croft and McGrath. The average rating points per wicket is given as an additional insight.

Potpourri

- Among the grounds, Lord's has nine Bowl-100 performances. Melbourne, The Oval, and Trent Bridge have seven each, while Port-of-Spain has six.
- Twenty-nine of these bowling classics have occurred in England, 22 in Australia and 15 in India.
- There were five performances in 1998, the most in any calendar year. The year 1954 had four performances.
- The Mean of the Bowl-100 performances is 809.7. The Median performance is 804.2. This indicates a reasonably balanced distribution. The last-placed performance in Bowl-100 is clocked at around 776 points.
- In the England-West Indies match in Port-of-Spain in 1973-74, Greig had two bowling performances that exceeded 800 rating points. This is the only such instance. Laker, Mahmood, Massie, and Asif had one performance exceeding 800 and the other exceeding 700 points in a match.
- In eight innings there were two performances exceeding 700 points.
- In four matches, there were three performances exceeding 700 points: the Ashes Test at the SCG in 1946-47, the 1986-87 India-Pakistan Test in Bangalore, the Ashes Test at The Oval in 1997, and the Pakistan-Australia Test in Lahore in March 2022.
- Finally, a combined feat. There have been both Bat-100 and Bowl-100 performances in nine Tests. However, only in two matches have there been Bat-100 and Bowl-100 performances exceeding 800 rating points. In Durban in 1949-50, Harvey secured 836 points for his match-winning innings, and Tayfield secured 805 points for his seven wickets. It was unfortunate that Tayfield finished on the losing side. Similarly at Headingley in 1981, Botham secured 827 points and Willis, 847 points. Both were in a winning cause.
A concluding note on the responses. If a reader makes a query about one or more bowling performances without digging deep and understanding the performance well, it is quite unlikely that I will respond to them. If required, please refer to the previous article to understand how the rating points are calculated. It is possible that the reader many have watched an innspell and think it is great but it has to pass quite a few other, more stringent, criteria.
Talking Cricket Group
Any reader who wishes to join my general-purpose cricket-ideas-exchange group of this name can email me a request for inclusion, providing their name, place of residence, and what they do.
Email me your comments and I will respond. This email id is to be used only for sending in comments. Please note that readers whose emails are derogatory to the author or any player will be permanently blocked from sending in any feedback in future.

Anantha Narayanan has written for ESPNcricinfo and CastrolCricket and worked with a number of companies on their cricket performance ratings-related systems