x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Just the runs do not rate batsmen

Do we live in an age of great batsmanship, or of pitches that have increasingly reduced bowlers to peripheral figures?

South Africa's Hashim Amla.
South Africa's Hashim Amla.

Do we live in an age of great batsmanship, or of pitches that have increasingly reduced bowlers to peripheral figures?

A look at the list of batsmen with the highest averages in the game's history is certainly instructive. Test cricket has been played for 135 years, and only 40 batsmen have averaged more than 50 an innings in that time. Of those, exactly half have played at least part of their careers in the past two decades.

There are others, such as Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith, Kevin Pietersen and Michael Clarke, who average just less than 50, who may well go on to break into the elite club in future.

On the bowling side, only Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath, Shane Bond and Allan Donald in this period make the all-time top 40 on career average. A fifth, Vernon Philander, has only played 10 Tests and one season. His inclusion in the list must come with an asterisk.

How we rate numbers, especially averages, becomes important when we look at the careers of two men born in early November.

Victor Trumper, perhaps Australian cricket's first batting legend, was born in the same year that Test cricket began. He averaged 39 over 48 Test matches. Search for the literature of the time though, and you will seldom find anything other than superlatives to describe Trumper's batting.

Like most true greats, he was at his best in times of crisis. At Old Trafford in Manchester in 1902, he made 104 on a wet pitch as Australia edged home by three runs against England. Just over a year later, he made 74 out of just 122 in another Ashes Test. Against South Africa in 1910, he made 159 out of 327 as Australia overturned a first-innings deficit of 158.

Yet, next to the modern-day Titans, Trumper's numbers - he made just eight hundreds - are as thin as the bats he used.

Nearly 100 years after Trumper, there was another man, born on November 1, who also seemed to derive most inspiration from difficult situations.

VVS Laxman's first Test hundred came at Trumper's home venue, the Sydney Cricket Ground, in January 2000. He made 167. No other Indian scored more than 25.

His 281 at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata a year later is guaranteed a mention each time historians discuss the greatest Test innings. And even a decade later, in the twilight of his career, Laxman was unsurpassed when it came to salvage operations.

At Mohali in 2010, against Australia, he made 73 not out to lead India past a victory target of 216 after they had slumped to 124 for eight. A few months later, he made a masterful 96 in Durban as India won a low-scoring game. No one else in the match crossed 40.

Yet, for all those heroics, he retired with an average of 45.97. A generation ago, that might have been considered exceptional. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the record books to show the relative worth of different innings. Conventional statistics fail miserably in that regard.

In sports such as American Football, you can look at the number of fourth-quarter comebacks that quarterbacks like Joe Montana, John Elway and Peyton Manning inspired to recognise their greatness. It is hard to contemplate a similar exercise in cricket.

Even today, on the verge of the 24th season of his international career, Sachin Tendulkar rates his 114 in Perth [January 1992] as one of his finest innings. Statistically, it was one of his smaller centuries and that too in a match that India lost by 300 runs. But in conditions where most of his teammates looked as shaky as leaves in a gale, he was a little colossus.

Numbers matter, in every sport. But devoid of context, they mean nothing.

The feats of the two boys of November, Trumper and Laxman, prove that.

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