Graham gooch

Graham Gooch, with 5 hundreds and 13 half-centuries and 2,197 at an average of nearly 45, emerges as the best bat in the period of study of batsmen against the West Indies fast bowlers © Getty Images

It is widely accepted that the most difficult bowling attack ever was the four-pronged West Indian pace machine that dominated world cricket for nearly 20 years. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the numbers to see who the best batsmen were against fearsome fast bowling.

Few will dispute the fact that the most devastating bowling attack over sustained and long periods in the history of cricket was the four-pronged West Indies pace machine  in the seventies and eighties. In 1976 started the period of fast bowling dominance. The West Indian juggernaut, spearheaded by four fearsome fast men, crushed every opposition in its path, before Mark Taylor’s Australians finally halted the march in April 1995.

Successful batsmen of this era are considered to have been fearless men with excellent technique, who did not flinch as lightning quick deliveries made for their noble chins. But who were the top performers against the raw West Indian pace?

Pacy perceptions

Whenever we discuss the best against searing pace, the names that crop up most frequently are Sunil Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Mohinder Amaranth. Well, a few — mostly Englishmen — do mention Allan Lamb. Javed Miandad too finds himself included once in a while.

Gavaskar famously scored 13 hundreds against the West Indians, that too without a helmet, and his playing days coincided with peak of the West Indies pace domination. Boycott had excellent defence and enjoyed some great tours of the Caribbean. Amarnath bravely stood up against their bowling while Greg Chappell averaged 56 against the West Indians and played largely during that period. Miandad, according to most, stands out as the eternal street fighter who refused to back down against intimidation.

Well, cricket history is tricky — especially when past eras come into consideration. We have seen the modern men live on our television sets and web streams. However, our perceptions about the days gone by are formed by reports, scorecards and tales that gain colour with every retelling. The evidence is flaky as well.

While we have watched every struggle and play and miss of a Ricky Ponting on satellite television, only classical on-drives of Greg Chappell greet us when we invoke YouTube. The perception gets more grainy with old films and glittery with the Neville Cardus eulogies when we go back in time and look at Neil Harvey. The numbers may match, but the present greats look distinctly more mortal while the past players gather gold dust as we roll back the years.

The heroes, whose deeds used to ring in on wireless from the distant shores, assumed proportions of near-mythical warriors. With time, different periods of the game are juxtaposed in our memories, the chronological sequences mixed up and the resulting image is a warped version of actual history, realistic images of a falsified past.

Hence, when actual numbers are placed against vaunted reputations, the result is often shocking. So, let us see what the figures tell us about the bravest batsmen.

The era of pace dominance

The four-pronged pace attack took off when Clive Lloyd decided to draw the battlelines against India at Jamaica in April 1976. The machinery was still in the testing phase –- the blinding pace of Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel was aided by the less hostile Vanburn Holder and Bernard Julien. Yet Holding was menacing enough to force Bishan Bedi to declare with just five wickets down, as a protest against intimidation.

Lloyd had been driven to the edge, after Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had terrorised his batsmen earlier that season. The last straw was perhaps dealt when India famously chased down more than four hundred to square the series at Port of Spain. In the final Test, on a grassy Kingston wicket, the strategy was revolutionised. Balls reared up and flew in ways seldom seen since Bodyline.

When the men from Caribbean travelled to England in the summer, heart-chilling thunderbolts were hurled at batsmen in response to Tony Greig’s ‘grovel’ remark. The machine had been perfected.

Through the next 19 years, Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop were produced as if by an amazing assembly line of speed. Even the lesser names such as Patrick Patterson, Winston Davis, Wayne Daniel, Kenneth Benjamin and Winston Benjamin were bowlers of genuine pace and high quality. All of them terrorised the world in groups of three or four, relentlessly bowling over after over at scorching pace.

So, we consider that the West Indian pace driven sovereignty was kicked off in April 1976 and carried on for 19 years, till April 1995.This was interrupted for a couple of series when World Series Cricket intervened and Alvin Kallicharran led a second string side at home against Australia and then on tour in India. Our analysis ignores those two series played with second-string sides.

Who was the bravest of them all?

Listed below are the handful of batsmen with more than 1,000 runs against the fearsome West Indians of that period.

Batsmen with more than 1,000 runs against West Indian pace dominance*

Player

T

Runs

Avge

100s

50s

Graham Gooch

26

2197

44.83

5

13

Allan Border

31

2052

39.46

3

14

David Boon

22

1437

39.91

3

8

Allan Lamb

22

1342

34.41

6

2

Dilip Vengsarkar

18

1179

42.10

4

6

David Gower

19

1149

32.82

1

6

Robin Smith

15

1028

44.69

3

6

Steve Waugh

16

1020

44.34

2

6

Surprisingly, none of the batsmen discussed in the first section makes the list. Lamb does, but at an average of 34.41 which looks strange beside his 6 hundreds.

A few do remember the brave efforts of Graham Gooch, Dilip Vengsarkar, and Robin Smith, but above table is guaranteed to shock many. Indeed, four names from England, a side trounced repeatedly by the West Indians in the eighties, are likely to raise eyebrows.

If one is sceptical about some low averages, the alternate list is even more shocking:

Batsmen with 40+ averages against WI pace dominance (over 500 runs)*

Batsman

T

Runs

Avge

100s

50s

Wasim Raja

9

763

58.69

1

7

Martin Crowe

7

544

45.33

3

1

Mark Waugh

14

947

45.09

3

5

Bruce Laird

6

540

45.00

0

6

Graham Gooch

26

2197

44.83

5

13

Robin Smith

15

1028

44.69

3

6

Kepler Wessels

8

670

44.66

1

6

Steve Waugh

16

1020

44.34

2

6

Majid Khan

9

684

42.75

1

4

Alec Stewart

10

716

42.11

2

2

Dilip Vengsarkar

18

1179

42.10

4

6

Geoff Boycott

9

663

41.43

1

4

Sunil Gavaskar

12

813

40.65

3

2

Wasim Raja

Among batsmen with 40-plus averages and with a minimum of 500 runs against the West Indies pace dominance of the period in discussion, Wasim Raja emerges as the surprise topper with an average of 58.69 ©  Getty Images

The list is headed — and by a long, long way — by the largely unfancied Wasim Raja. It was no fluke performance by the attractive left-handed stroke-player. His runs were gathered uniformly over two series against high-class bowling, home and abroad.

Along with him, unsung, some perhaps unknown, but brave soldiers like Bruce Laird and Alec Stewart also emerge from the numbers.

Of all the names we discussed earlier, Boycott and Gavaskar do make the list, but only just.

We find the Indian opener low down, with just three hundreds and an average that just manages to creep over 40. Great and courageous though he was as a batsman, we tend to overlook that as many as e8 of his 13 hundreds against the West Indies came against relatively weak attack of 1970-71 and Kallicharran’s side in 1978-79, whose pace power was nowhere near the feared combination that dominated world cricket.

During the 1975-76 tour he scored 2 centuries as well, but they came in separate Tests at Port-of-Spain, on tracks more suited for spin. The last hundred in fact was scored with Clive Lloyd playing the role of the third seamer and 88 overs being shared by spinners Raphick Jumadeen and Albert Padmore.

Miandad fared worse, with 834 runs in this period at 29.78. And although Mohinder Amarnath did have high returns in the West Indies, his figures at home against the fast men are atrocious — 57 runs in 11 innings — giving him an overall aggregate of 754 runs at 34.27.

Greg Chappell had a superb tour in 1972-73 and an extraordinary home series as both batsman and captain in 1975-76, but he scored just 356 runs in 6 Tests at 29.67 when the West Indies pace-men operated in fiery groups of four.

On West Indian pitches during this era the list is headed by Steve Waugh.

Batsmen averaging 40+ in West Indies during pace dominance (at least 300 runs)*

Batsman

T

Runs

Avge

100s

50s

Steve Waugh

6

461

76.83

1

3

Mohinder Amarnath

6

697

63.36

2

5

Wasim Raja

5

517

57.44

1

5

Mike Atherton

5

510

56.66

2

2

Allan Border

10

796

53.06

1

5

Majid Khan

5

530

53.00

1

3

Mark Waugh

9

607

50.58

2

3

David Gower

9

746

43.88

1

4

Graham Gooch

11

864

41.14

2

6

Alec Stewart

9

647

40.43

2

2

Again, the absence of Gavaskar may surprise many – since the Caribbean islands have gone down in history as the happy hunting grounds of the legend. But, the master scored just 308 runs at 30.80 on those pitches during the heydays of Windies dominance, with one solitary hundred – the century coming in an inconsequential Georgetown Test, largely washed out by rain.

In fact, the Indian name that follows Amarnath in the averages list will come as a real shocker — Ravi Shastri with 406 runs at 33.83 and 2 hundreds.

Of the modern greats, only Sachin Tendulkar made his debut before the West Indian dominance had ended. He played just one series against the West Indies while they were still at the peak — at home in 1994-95 — and managed 402 runs in 3 Tests at an average of 67 with a highest of 179. The figures are superb, but the bowling — Walsh, Kenny Benjamin, Cameron Cuffy and Anderson Cummins — was perhaps not the best West Indies combination.

The occupational hazard

The job of a historian is sometimes fraught with associated hazards, especially when he digs out facts that jar discordantly with long held perceptions.

When this writer argued that sticky wickets and inadequate protection against fast bowling did not make a lot of difference in the Don Bradman era, many concluded it as direct disrespect to Bradman the batsman. Let me add that nowhere in the article was the Don’s supremacy as a batsman questioned.

Cricket breeds religious fervour — uniformly across Kolkata, Mumbai and Sydney.

And this analysis has all the ingredients of a long-drawn out ‘skull-cap and floppy hat versus helmet’ duel.

Let me point out in advance that the numbers are scripted by the cricketers themselves down the years. The historian has little to do with the data.

The least we can do is to delve into the numerical footprints and form an accurate picture of history.

* – The period considered for analysis is April 21, 1976 to April 29, 1995 apart from eleven Tests played by a depleted side between March 3, 1978 and February 2, 1979.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)