Cricket and convention? Think Marks and Spencer, Morecambe and Wise, Lennon and McCartney, Mutt and Jeff. Games may be quicker, bats thicker and fielders lither, but lunch breaks and tea-breaks are still going strong, ditto coin-tosses, wooden stumps, leather-and-cork balls and butter fingers. And averages as the chief arbiter of quality.
Why this should be so for bowlers is becoming increasingly unsupportable. We’ve moved on, statistically, in so many other respects. Forty years ago, only the most diligent scorers and obsessive anoraks bothered with balls faced and individual run-rates, let alone recorded them for posterity. The advent of shorter forms placed greater emphasis on speed of scoring and economy of bowling; hands up who remembers Muttiah Muralitharan’s ODI average?
Yet bowlers have never been dissed as disdainfully as they are now, nor paid a heftier price for their wickets. Over the past four decades, overall Test batting averages have leapt from 32.80 to 35.23 (a rise of nearly 10%) while run-rates have soared from 2.69 per over to 3.27 (up 21.56%). Blame those chief executive’s/broadcasters’ pitches; blame the aggressive mindsets fostered by limited-overs fixtures; blame the constant flitting between formats; blame those humungous bats; blame those shrinking boundaries; blame the usual suspects (Rupert Murdoch and/or the BCCI): whatever, throwing pies for a living has never been more taxing.
Delve deeper and it doesn’t get much better. In the three years up to the end of the first Test between Sri Lanka and Australia in Galle, 18 bowlers took 30-plus Test wickets at under 30 runs apiece, with Tim Bresnan (41 at 23.60) heading the averages, one of five men paying less than 26 per victim. Any way you cut it, this represents a significant falling-off.
In this century’s first decade, 29 men took at least 30 at under 30, nine of them at less than Bresnan’s mark and 13 at 26 or better. In the 1990s, the respective figures were 42, 12 and 19; in the 1980s, when only six nations played Tests with any regularity, 24, six and 11. A glance at the 10 leading wicket-takers since the start of 2008 (Table 1) underlines the steepness of that decline: no fewer than six average over 30 and only Dale Steyn dips below 27.
Many will brush aside the aforementioned mitigating factors and cite this as an unerringly vivid and accurate indictment of standards. After all, the 1980s’ leading lights included Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Sir Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall, all of whom wound up with 350-plus scalps, plus the not-exactly-rubbish likes of Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Bob Willis. The 1990s and 2000s were blessed with Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Anil Kumble, Glenn McGrath, Muttiah Muralitharan, Shaun Pollock, Shane Warne and Courtney Walsh, all of whom harvested 400-plus, plus the far-from-crap talents of Darren Gough and Waqar Younis. Among bowlers who have begun their five-day careers since the start of the third millennium, by severe and illuminating contrast, only Steyn suggests himself as a shoo-in to reach a quadruple century.
None of this, however, should blind us to the undoubted quality that there is out there, which can be better appreciated if one utilises another stat, one that illustrates how often bowlers fulfil their principal aim, namely sending batsmen packing. Which brings us to strike-rate, and a rather more flattering picture, if hardly a conclusive one.
Of the 36 bowlers in Test history who have aggregated upwards of 30 wickets at fewer than 50 balls per throw, 19 have done so since the turn of the 1950s; of those, six, nearly a third, have been strutting their stuff these past three years – Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif, Doug Bollinger, Bresnan, Steve Finn and Steyn (see Table 2). True, this also reflects the urgency and recklessness of the modern batsman, but then bowlers have always profited at the expense of the daft and the irresponsible.
WHAT’S NEEDED, THEN, IS A BRAND NEW STAT, one that better captures the times. For your delectation, therefore, I submit Economic Strike Rate (ESR) – strike-rate x economy rate, ie. penetration x accuracy. As with averages, it’s a case of the lower the better.
As a barometer of effectiveness, it is an equation, crucially, that nullifies the opportunity factor (why should the rising frequency of Test matches since the 1980s disadvantage previous generations?). What it does not do, cannot do, is account for that great imponderable: pitches.
Until the 1920s, to take the most glaring example, groundsmen had little mechanical support and wickets were almost invariably tricky when they weren’t sticky. The bowlers did much as they pleased, which is why the all-time ESR chart is topped by that 19th Century wunderkind George Lohmann, whose rating, 64.10, is less than half that of Steyn, followed by SF Barnes (98.18), Charlie Turner (98.82) and Bobby Peel (101.65).
Among current players, Steyn has far and away the lowest – ie. best – ESR (see Table 3): his advantage (7.62) over his closest rival, Bresnan, is almost twice as wide as the Yorkshireman’s lead over his hottest pursuer, Chris Tremlett (Graeme Swann, the lone spinner, creeps into the top 10 ahead of Morne Morkel). Indeed, Steyn is already fit to rank among the immortals: discounting the pre-1914 period, the Phalabora Phlinger ranks 11th (see Table 4). No mean feat considering the chaps immediately behind him are Sir Richard Hadlee, Bill O’Reilly, Muralitharan and Imran Khan.
That this particular chart is headed by Johnny Wardle (122.09) and Alan Davidson (122.53), with Neil Adcock (126.48) sixth and Jim Laker seventh, testifies to the fact that the 1950s, the last decade of bowling dominance, skews matters considerably – that quartet all recorded economy rates of under 2.10. If we only count his output during that particular decade, furthermore, Fred Trueman (eighth) would have finished three berths higher. All the same, given the lofty presence of Malcolm Marshall (third), Curtly Ambrose (fourth), Glenn McGrath (ninth) and Allan Donald (10th), it seems fair to say that Steyn is a prominent member of an elite club.
Whether the ESR gains any currency remains to be seen, but the fast bowling fraternity can at least console themselves that this is one hit parade that neither Murali nor Warne can top.
Leading Test wicket-takers 1 Jan 2008 – 5 Sept 2011
|James Anderson (Eng)||178||27.56|
|Mitchell Johnson (Aus)||172||30.07|
|Dale Steyn (SA)||162||22.26|
|Harbhajan Singh (Ind)||155||34.66|
|Graeme Swann (Eng)||153||28.82|
|Stuart Broad (Eng)||131||31.52|
|Ishant Sharma (Ind)||117||34.70|
|Daniel Vettori (NZ)||113||32.47|
|Morne Morkel (SA)||110||30.03|
|Zaheer Khan (Ind)||103||28.77|
Best Test bowling strike-rates (1 Jan 2008 – 5 Sept 2011; min. 30 wickets)
|Player||Wickets||Strike Rate||Economy Rate|
|Dale Steyn (SA)||162||40.2||3.32|
|Steven Finn (Eng)||50||41.4||3.89|
|Chris Tremlett (Eng)||36||47.2||3.07|
|Doug Bollinger (Aus)||50||48||3.23|
|Fidel Edwards (WI)||66||48.3||3.76|
|Tim Bresnan (Eng)||41||49.5||2.85|
|Mohammad Asif (Pak)||55||51.5||2.96|
|Zaheer Khan (Ind)||103||52.6||3.27|
|Ryan Sidebottom (Eng)||50||53.4||2.76|
|Mitchell Johnson (Aus)||172||53.4||3.37|
|Morne Morkel (SA)||110||54.2||3.32|
|James Anderson (Eng)||178||54.2||3.04|
Economic Strike-Rate (1 Jan 2008 – 5 Sept 2011; min. 30 wickets)
|Player||ESR (SR x ER)|
|Dale Steyn (SA)||133.46|
|Tim Bresnan (Eng)||141.08|
|Chris Tremlett (Eng)||144.90|
|Ryan Sidebottom (Eng)||147.38|
|Mohammad Asif (Pak)||152.44|
|Doug Bollinger (Aus)||155.04|
|Steven Finn (Eng)||161.05|
|James Anderson (Eng)||164.77|
|Zaheer Khan (Ind)||172.00|
|Graeme Swann (Eng)||172.58|
Economic Strike-Rate (1920 – 2011; min. 100 wkts)
|Johnny Wardle (Eng)||122.09|
|Alan Davidson (Aus)||122.53|
|Malcolm Marshall (WI)||125.16|
|Curtly Ambrose (WI)||125.35|
|Joel Garner (WI)||125.48|
|Neil Adcock (SA)||126.48|
|Jim Laker (Eng)||127.09|
|Fred Trueman (Eng)||128.93|
|Glenn McGrath (Aus)||129.31|
|Allan Donald (SA)||133.01|
|Dale Steyn (SA)||133.46|
|Richard Hadlee (NZ)||133.60|
|Bill O’Reilly (Aus)||135.02|
|Imran Khan (Pak)||136.99|