Some will deem it heresy, but as Kevin Pietersen basks in the glow of one of the game’s greatest match-turning innings, his 151 in Colombo, the question cannot be ducked for much longer: has England ever boasted a finer batsman?
In a month’s time, Pietersen should collect the four runs he requires to become just the third man to pass 12,000 runs for England across all international formats (he also made 18 for the Rest of the World against Australia in 2005). Only Graham Gooch (13,190) and Alec Stewart (13,140) stand ahead of him (see Table 1). Another, more celebrated landmark also lies within reach.
Having hit 20, 19 and 19 Test centuries respectively, this summer could see Pietersen, Alastair Cook and/or Andrew Strauss break cricket’s most drawn-out stalemate. Since 22 August 1939, the national record tally of Test hundreds has stood at 22. Wally Hammond set it that day, since when Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Boycott have taken turns to match it, though Boycott would have the record all to himself had the 1970 series against the Rest of the World not lost its official status. Call it an inauspicious omen if you like, but 22 August 1939 was also the day Adolf Hitler authorised a non-aggression pact with Russia, rendering the Second World War inevitable.
Age prevented Cowdrey from overhauling Hammond (he was 41 when he played his final Test in 1975); Boycott was denied by Wisden as well as his eagerness to take the apartheid-funded shilling; Gooch (20) was similarly diverted; Hutton and Hammond himself lost key years to war; Ken Barrington (20) fell foul of a heart condition; Marcus Trescothick (14) can cite depression, David Gower (18) class prejudice, Michael Vaughan (18) a dodgy knee, Stewart (15) deftness with the gloves; now Strauss has been stuck on 19 for nearly 18 months. The superstitious might call it a curse.
So far as the rest of civilisation is concerned, England’s contribution to the all-time Batting Hall of Fame comprises the Three Hs, Hammond, Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton, together with Barrington, Denis Compton, Herbert Sutcliffe, Boycott, Gooch and Gower. Let’s deal with them all, in global as well as local terms, together with their closest rivals.
From the moment he took guard for his first Test hundred, in March 1910, until his average reached a career peak of 61.28 in August 1928, Hobbs totted up 3811 runs at 65.70. Over that span, his trustiest opening partner, the much younger Sutcliffe (2092 at 67.48), actually averaged more. So far were they ahead of the pack, during a period when just 14 other batsmen of any hue passed 1000 runs, that the next most prolific, Australia’s Charlie MacCartney, made 1710 at 51.10.
From Christmas 1948 until the end of the 1954 Caribbean expedition, Hutton turned out 3835 runs at 71.01; Cyril Washbrook (1125 at 46.87), Peter May (876 at 41.71), Trevor Bailey (1091 at 40.40) and Tom Graveney (1003 at 40.12) were the only colleagues to exceed 800 at 40-plus. Hutton made 12 hundreds during that back-breaking stint; he was hardly surrounded by slouches yet collected as many as Graveney, May, Washbrook and Compton combined. Among the 19 batsmen worldwide who exceeded 1000 runs in those five-and-a-half years, only Everton Weekes (2303 at 60.60) came remotely close to Hutton for reliability.
Hammond’s reign, nonetheless, was twice as long. In the 11 years separating the outset of his first Test century (251 v Australia, Sydney 1928) and England setting sail for home after that infamous 10-day stalemate in Durban, he amassed 6100 runs at 64.89. Among colleagues with 600-plus runs, his closest rival, Eddie Paynter, made 1465 at 63.69; Sutcliffe ranked second in average among those with 1500-plus (56.97); the next highest aggregate was Maurice Leyland’s 2764. During that period Hammond also struck 21 hundreds, more than Leyland (9) and Sutcliffe (9) combined. Unfortunately, in terms of global appreciation, his star was dimmed by one DG Bradman: in that span the Don averaged a little matter of 101.
For the first eight years of the 1960s, Barrington matched Hammond in everything but double-hundreds. No countryman came within 1800 runs of his haul of 6082; of those appearing in 20 Tests the next highest average behind his 62.06 was Ted Dexter’s 51.68 (Graveney’s 1561 came at 65.04, underlining the folly of his consistent exclusion). Barrington’s 20 centuries in that span left his hottest pursuer, Cowdrey, trailing by eight. The only batsman on the planet who averaged more than the walking Union Jack during those years, Garry Sobers (65.70), scored the best part of 3000 runs fewer.
Gooch, too, enjoyed a prolonged stay at the summit, albeit one barely a third as long as Hammond’s. From that career-lifting 333 against India at Lord’s in 1990 until his final three-figure score four summers later (210 v against New Zealand at Trent Bridge) he piled up 3529 runs at 63.01, including a dozen tons; Robin Smith was next in aggregate and centuries (2632, seven), Gower in average (848 at 53). Of the 32 batsmen from all nations who scored 1000-plus runs across those four years, only Brian Lara (1628 at 62.61) averaged more. Gower, nonetheless, wound up with the higher career average, set a national record for runs by a captain in an Ashes series (732 in 1985) and racked up nine Ashes hundreds, a post-Hobbs peak.
Boycott and Cowdrey never hoisted themselves far above the rest, if at all. From the unbeaten but painstaking 246 against India at Leeds in 1967 until his series-saving 112 in Trinidad in 1974, the Yorkshireman headed aggregates and averages among those playing 20-plus innings – 2997 at 51.67 – but Graveney, Dennis Amiss, John Edrich and Tony Greig all mustered 1200-plus at 41 or better. In his prime, from July 1957 – when his average scaled 40 for the first time – to January 1966, Cowdrey tallied 4320 at 51.42, second in average to Barrington (5177 at 59.50) and third in aggregate (Dexter totted up 4405).
Again, there is no sense of prolonged dominance, but the measure of Pietersen’s greatness comes when we broaden the canvas. In that Colombo Test he overhauled Gooch with a national-record 29th international century (see Table 2). He and Brendon McCullum, furthermore, are alone among all-comers in making 1000 runs in each of the three formats – and even the redoubtable New Zealander would not claim to be in Pietersen’s class over the longer hauls. As a multi-faceted performer with a yen for innovation, this country has never known his like.
Now consider that propensity for substance. Three Test double-centuries leave Pietersen behind only Hammond (seven) and Hutton (four); nobody else has forged more than two for England; Mike Atherton, Cowdrey, Dexter, Stewart and Sutcliffe didn’t make any. Only Hammond and Hutton (10 times apiece), moreover, have reached 150 more often than Pietersen (that 151 in Colombo made it nine, surpassing Dennis Amiss, Gooch and Gower). Table 3 illustrates the appetite of the oft-neglected Amiss, who reached 150 in eight of his 11 Test hundreds, a whopping 72.73% – even better than Virender Sehwag (63.64%) and Bradman (62.07%).
Granted, Pietersen has had the good fortune to play in an era that has seen the bat rule in a way unseen since Hammond’s heyday. At the same time, as with Sehwag, his attacking mindset runs roughshod over traditional notions of how to build an innings. Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff might have pulled off the sort of audacious rabbit-up-my-sleevery Pietersen conjured up in Colombo, but only on an exceedingly extraordinary day. What sets Pietersen apart is the feeling, almost any time he prowls to the crease, flexing those muscles and walking that walk, that he could do something imperishably wonderful. To fulfil those demands as often as he does constitutes a minor miracle.
So there you have it: the insatiability of Hammond and Hutton, the consistency of Sutcliffe, the flair of Gower and the fearlessness of Botham and Flintoff. Not a bad package. And the best, almost unthinkably, may be yet to come.
TABLE 1: Most International runs for England
TABLE 2: Most international centuries for England
TABLE 3: Most Test scores of 150-plus for England
|Player||100+||200+||150+||% of 150-plus|
All figures as at 10 April 2012