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Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Kallis & Steve Waugh prove 20 Tests eligibility criterion is flawed in evaluating greatness

Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Kallis & Steve Waugh prove 20 Tests eligibility criterion is flawed in evaluating greatness

Of the modern greats, Jacques Kallis averaged just 31.73 in his first 20 Tests, Sachin Tendulkar (above) 37.41, Mohammad Yousuf 34.14 and Steve Waugh a strikingly low 26.25 © Getty Images

Graeme Pollock and George Headley usually follow Don Bradman when the greatest batsmen are listed according to career averages. Normally 20 Tests is considered as the eligibility criterion when preparing such lists. Arunabha Sengupta points out that this method is flawed because careers are prone to major fluctuations during the early stages, and 20 Tests is a very poor indicator of the final quality of a batsman.

If we look at the list of highest averages in Test cricket, we come across an unsettling realisation that three of the top five played very few matches.

Most often, 20 Tests is assumed to be the minimum criterion to qualify to enable batsmen to get on this list. As a result, while Don Bradman’s phenomenal 99.94 unequivocally heads every such list, we find Graeme Pollock (23 Tests), George Headley (22 Tests) and Eddie Paynter (20 Tests) waltz into the top five.

While a stratospheric average after 52 Tests, as in the case of The Don, is indeed a sign of greatness, and Herbert Sutcliffe’s presence at number four with 60.73 from 54 Tests also seems justified, does a high average after 20 Tests really signify greatness?

The answer seems to be an unequivocal ‘no’.

We have conducted a simple exercise to analyse the batsmen with the highest averages (all Test cricketers with averages over 50) considering the same 20 Test criterion.

And we have followed it up by finding the average of the same batsmen at the completion of the 20th Test of their career. The results are tabulated in the table below.

It indeed is an eye-opener. We find plenty of examples of batsmen who had mediocre careers till the 20th Test and then gradually evolved to become great batsmen. And on the other hand, we have others who were exceptional in their first 20 Tests and then their career averages plummeted to regions of normalcy.

For example, Ken Barrington, 6th on the all time list, averaged just 42.80 after 20 Tests and improved his performance by 37% by the time he completed his 82 Test career with 58.67. If he had retired after at the 20 Test mark, he would have been remembered, at the most, as a useful batsman.

Of the modern greats, Jacques Kallis averaged just 31.73 in his first 20 Tests, Sachin Tendulkar 37.41, Mohammad Yousuf 34.14 and Steve Waugh a strikingly low 26.25.

On the other hand, Bradman would have ended his career with 2798 runs at 111.92 if he had decided to call it a day after 20 Tests. Javed Miandad would have landed up in the top most group with 67.32, Denis Compton and Jonathan Trott likewise in their 60s – and the position after Bradman would have been usurped by Michael Hussey with a phenomenal 84.80.

It is indeed revealing that Compton and Hussey just manage to break into the 50 plus club now, with their initial brilliance tempered down by the effects of time.

We also find interesting examples among people who could not make the 50 plus list.

Doug Walters averaged a stupendous 67.46 at the 20 Test mark although he ended with 48.26 from 74 Tests. Neil Harvey scored at 58.10 during the same tenure, and finished with 48.41. Perhaps the most remarkable of all is Jimmy Adams, who nosedived from 68.73 in 20 Tests to 41.26 in 54.

On the other hand, Zaheer Abbas averaged in the low thirties for the first 20 Tests before hauling it up into the mid-40s by the end of a sterling career. Similarly VVS Laxman dragged his figures up from 27 to 45.

How the best batsmen fared

 

Batsmen

Full Career

After 20 Tests

Post 20 Test Deviation

Tests

Runs

Ave

C

F

Runs

Ave

C

F

DG Bradman (Aus)

52

6996

99.94

29

13

2798

111.92

13

2

-11%

RG Pollock (SA)

23

2256

60.97

7

11

1838

57.43

6

9

6%

GA Headley (WI)

22

2190

60.83

10

5

2171

65.78

10

5

-8%

H Sutcliffe (Eng)

54

4555

60.73

16

23

1927

68.82

7

9

-12%

E Paynter (Eng)

20

1540

59.23

4

7

1540

59.23

4

7

-

KF Barrington (Eng)

82

6806

58.67

20

35

1284

42.80

2

9

37%

ED Weekes (WI)

48

4455

58.61

15

19

1715

53.59

6

8

9%

WR Hammond (Eng)

85

7249

58.45

22

24

1919

61.90

7

5

-6%

GS Sobers (WI)

93

8032

57.78

26

30

1663

57.34

4

6

1%

JB Hobbs (Eng)

61

5410

56.94

15

28

1828

57.12

5

10

0%

JH Kallis (ICC/SA)

155

12641

56.94

43

55

952

31.73

2

5

79%

KC Sangakkara (SL)

111

9872

56.73

30

39

1537

53.00

4

7

7%

CL Walcott (WI)

44

3798

56.68

15

14

1279

42.63

4

5

33%

L Hutton (Eng)

79

6971

56.67

19

33

1763

55.09

5

6

3%

SR Tendulkar (India)

190

15533

55.08

51

65

1085

37.41

4

4

47%

GS Chappell (Aus)

87

7110

53.86

24

31

1332

45.93

5

6

17%

AD Nourse (SA)

34

2960

53.81

9

14

1787

54.15

5

9

-1%

BC Lara (ICC/WI)

131

11953

52.88

34

48

1828

55.39

3

10

-5%

RT Ponting (Aus)

165

13346

52.75

41

62

1183

39.43

2

7

34%

Javed Miandad (Pak)

124

8832

52.57

23

43

1683

67.32

5

8

-22%

R Dravid (ICC/India)

164

13288

52.31

36

63

1528

52.68

1

14

-1%

Mohammad Yousuf (Pak)

90

7530

52.29

24

33

1195

34.14

2

10

53%

Younis Khan (Pak)

79

6565

51.69

20

26

1344

44.80

5

6

15%

J Ryder (Aus)

20

1394

51.62

3

9

1394

51.62

3

9

-

A Flower (Zim)

63

4794

51.54

12

27

1198

41.31

2

9

25%

TT Samaraweera (SL)

76

5283

51.29

14

29

1092

54.60

3

6

-6%

SM Gavaskar (India)

125

10122

51.12

34

45

1733

50.97

6

10

0%

SR Waugh (Aus)

168

10927

51.06

32

50

709

26.25

0

6

95%

ML Hayden (Aus)

103

8625

50.73

30

29

1251

37.90

3

4

34%

V Sehwag (ICC/India)

98

8306

50.64

22

32

1513

45.84

5

5

10%

AR Border (Aus)

156

11174

50.56

27

63

1655

51.71

5

9

-2%

IJL Trott (Eng)

34

2676

50.49

7

12

1863

64.24

6

6

-21%

DPMD Jayawardene (SL)

133

10540

50.43

31

42

1245

40.16

2

7

26%

IVA Richards (WI)

121

8540

50.23

24

45

1890

57.27

7

6

-12%

S Chanderpaul (WI)

144

10342

50.20

25

61

1396

51.70

1

13

-3%

MEK Hussey (Aus)

73

5708

50.07

16

28

2120

84.80

8

8

-41%

DCS Compton (Eng)

78

5807

50.06

17

28

1668

64.15

7

7

-22%

Indeed, the first 20 Tests is not at all a good indicator of the final returns of a long career. The correlation coefficient (+1 positive, -1 negative, 0 neutral) between the average after 20 Tests and the finished career yields a value of 0.63 – which is positive but not in any way fool-proof.

The above can be underlined by looking at two careers with identical end statistics that have traced very different paths on the way to their final destinations. For example, Dilip Vengsarkar finished scored at 42.13 from 116 Tests while Sourav Ganguly averaged 42.17 from 113. In the first 20 Tests, however, they had drastically different averages – Vengsarkar a pedestrian 34.74 while Ganguly a high 51.13.

That early in a career a single big innings can change the average by a great degree. It is evident from the career of George Headley whose average came down from 65.78 to 60.83 in the course of just two Tests. Similarly a couple of failures can also cause immense fluctuations with so few Tests to balance things out. Norman O’Neill’s average was shot down from 59 to 54 in his 20th Test.

If we look at Brian Lara, he managed a high average of 55.39 at the 20 Test stage even though he had just three big innings till then. Fortunately for him, two of them were huge – 277 and 375.

As a career progresses, single innings have less bearing on the end average and consistency gets more and more weightage.

A list of batting greats across generations is inevitable as adherents discuss and dissect performances, and the game has a rich storehouse of data for us to analyse and interpret.

However, it will perhaps be prudent to exercise caution while attributing greatness to batsmen who have played very few Tests.

In a list of all-time greatest batsmen Graeme Pollock, George Headley and Eddie Paynter can be included only if accompanied by big asterisks, lengthy footnotes and exhaustive disclaimers.

(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)

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