If ever there were a dictionary that taught by anecdote and example, the definition of the term 'statistical outlier' would surely be the numbers of one DG Bradman. A career average of 99.94, which stands out like an Olympus among the hills of Test batting and lies about 40 runs higher than the next challenger. Moreover, this near-100 average was maintained over a stretch of 80 innings spanning a twenty-year career punctuated by the Second World War.
Bradman's untouchable supremacy in terms of numbers captivates the imagination of cricket such that it has its own adjective: 'Bradmanesque', used commonly by commentators and fans to describe streaks of sheer dominance by a batsman. For instance, Michael Hussey's stellar start to his Test career had an average of 84.8 over the first 33 innings, and was labelled Bradmanesque.
Rather than using this term of high praise loosely whenever a run of performances exceeds the casual limits of what is very good, what if we were to analyse, using cold numbers, how close other batsmen came to being truly Bradmanesque over their careers?
There are two astonishing dimensions of the Don's run: the magnitude of his average, and also the large number of innings over which he maintained that. His career was essentially an 80-innings chain of unbroken brilliance. Keeping these in mind, let us look at Test batsmen through two methods.
The first one, which is this article, will extract the best 80-innings streak of the top batsmen, and compare it with Bradman's career. If one were to pick the very best phase of a batsman's career, would that, at least, be comparable to Bradman, over the same number of innings?
The best 80-innings chunks in a batsman's statistics. We sort by batting average during the 80-innings streak.
Perhaps the most underrated batsman of the Ponting-Lara-Tendulkar generation, Jacques Kallis tops the list with a glorious five-year streak starting from September 2001, when he averaged 57.9 in Australia, facing McGrath, Warne, Lee and Gillespie at their most domineering. At home, he came mighty close to Bradman: an average of 87, with 21 50+ scores in 22 Tests. In New Zealand, he played 6 innings averaging 70.8, which included a 92 on a rainy first morning at Hamilton in 2004, followed up by a gritty 150* on a withering pitch with an actual hole in the middle, facing a 100-run deficit. In India, he played just four innings in 2004, brightening up his side's abject defeat with a 121 and then a second-innings 55 against a rampaging Harbhajan Singh at Kolkata.
Kallis is followed on the list by Ricky Ponting, a player most would argue was miles better than his peers when in his best form. Scarcely believable on home surfaces, he bettered Kallis with an average of 89 over 44 innings, including three double tons, and another 196 against England at the Gabba in 2006. In South Africa, he played just six innings, which included twin hundreds at Durban in a 112-run win, against a combination of Pollock, Ntini and Nel. His streak loses points in comparison to Kallis's however, as he played 44 innings at home (Kallis had 35), and averaged a paltry (by our current standards) 39.9 in England over nine innings, and 33 in Sri Lanka. He hardly played in India during this time (23 runs in two innings).
The best streak of Sobers began in 1958, when he was just 21, a year in which he averaged 155 over 12 innings. In the third innings in that run, he plundered a bruised Pakistan attack for his record 365*, and then went on to score three centuries in India, albeit against an attack of Ramchand, Umrigar and Borde that was of little challenge. Most strikingly, he averaged 69.6 in England over this period, crossing 50 eight times and 150 three times. His run was punctured by an underwhelming Pakistan tour of 1959, where he scored 160 runs over five dismissals.
A string of modern-day behemoths follows Sobers. Shiv Chanderpaul was a late bloomer, but his streak included averages of 56.6 in India, 82 in South Africa and 75 in England. His run was only brought down a meagre 187 runs over 8 innings in Australia and Sri Lanka. Sangakkara's numbers were inflated by an average of about 80 over 50 innings in Pakistan, UAE and Sri Lanka, all familiar conditions. Rahul Dravid's run from 2002 is amazing in the fact that he averages 71 away over 47 out of those 80 knocks, with average of 101 in England, 91 in Australia and 69 in the Caribbean.
Those attempting to account for Bradman's staggeringly high average offer the explanation that Bradman played in just two countries, against just four teams.
Those attempting to account for Bradman's staggeringly high average offer the explanation that Bradman played in just two countries, against just four teams. The preceding dissection of the best streaks of some other batsmen lends credence to this thesis: most batsmen have played in a wide variety of conditions, and playing in certain ones works to bring high averages down. Over more varied careers, averages are more prone to encountering normalising influences, while the averages in one or two countries might remain very high.
Here we have tried to examine how close some top batsmen came to emulating Bradman, granted the concession of choosing their best periods. The top player after him falls short of the Don by a whopping 25% in terms of batting average, and a bracket of high 60s to mid 70s seems the standard for the very top batsmen of the modern era, whose averages suffer in comparison, from playing in different conditions.
In Part 2, we will look at the application of the ‘Bradmanesque’ label from another angle: if we were to divide a career into streaks of Bradmanesque average, what portion of a career would a player truly be ‘Bradmanesque’?