There is no peer in sight of Don Bradman’s batting average. In an earlier work, trying to isolate the best 80-innings stretches for batsmen, the length of Bradman’s career, and see how these compared to the Don’s otherworldly average. A few months ago, I analysed the best 36-innings streaks by bowling average.
At the end of my analysis by bowling average was a question: while the bowling average is an important measure, another essential gauge of a Test bowler is the wicket-taking ability, usually seen through the bowling strike rate. Should we not include that in our analysis?
While a fair measure, the strike rate is markedly different for spinners and fast bowlers, so I prefer the wickets-per-innings (WPI) measure, dividing the wickets taken by the total number of innings in which a bowler bowled. This automatically talks about bowlers in terms of the most important resource for a Test batting side. The number of balls bowled is of no importance, as long as the bowler gets the wickets.
George Lohmann, the English medium pacer who had a scarcely believable average of 10.75 runs per wicket, used to be the benchmark for the previous analysis. However, he played from 1886 to 1896, the infancy of Test cricket, when run scoring patterns were remarkably different in those times compared to even the first few decades of the 1900s.
Lohmann holds the lowest lifetime Test bowling average
However, considering the WPI metric, Lohmann, the clear outlier by bowling average, falls way behind others, even at 3.11 WPI over his career. That list, is topped by Sydney Barnes, who sits at 3.78 WPI over a considerable period of 50 innings. The next man is Muttiah Muralitharan at 3.48 wickets per innings over his long career, a vast difference.
It is natural to choose Barnes’s career as the yardstick.
So, here is the next comparison: by wickets taken per innings, over the best period of fifty innings in their careers:
Here we see a break in the trend: our yardstick is no longer topping the list. Muralitharan, the man with 800 Test victims pips Barnes, in an astonishing stretch that included 20 five-wicket hauls, capped by a career-best 9/51 against Zimbabwe in Kandy, spinning his side to an innings win. More impressive was the 8/87 against an India side containing Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Sadagoppan Ramesh at the SSC, getting them out for 234 from 87 for no loss. However, he averaged in the mid-30s in England and South Africa.
Muralitharan, the man with 800 Test victims
After the stellar career of Barnes follows Waqar Younis, with 180 wickets in a destructive four-year burst with 19 five-fers out of his career 22, averaging 15.64 in pace-unfriendly Asian conditions. Against New Zealand, he got 56 wickets at 14.3 in just 14 innings, crowned by a scorching 7/76 in Faisalabad, injuring Phil Horne, and accounting for Ken Rutherford with a brilliant yorker. His sense-defying numbers, also mostly in Asia, serve as evidence of his sheer impact.
Next, we have a titanic tussle of two legendary all-rounders. Sir Hadlee takes 3.52 wickets per innings, at an average of 17.81, while Imran Khan has a WPI of 3.3 at a better average of 15.42. Imran’s streak is mostly coincident with his run of 119 wickets at an average of 14.41, as mentioned in the analysis by bowling averages. Sir Hadlee’s best 50 innings run includes his 9/52 against Trans-Tasman rivals Australia in 1985. A fair chunk of his wickets (67) came against them, but he also took 42 wickets at an unbelievable average of 11.54 in Asia.
Imran khan (L) and Sir Hadlee (R): two of the finest all rounders of their time
It is, again, enlightening to look at the batting of the two in the same periods, and here, Imran outdoes Hadlee, with an average of 41.67, two tons and seven fifties, while Sir Hadlee sits at 31. In the battle of all-rounders, it seems Imran comes out on top, with their almost similar bowling figures.
To round up the top 7, we first have Shane Keith Warne, whose streak straddles his one year ban in 2003, before which he ended fourth on the wicket-takers list in the 4-1 Ashes win in 2002, after having taken 27 wickets in 6 innings against Pakistan. His return was like there had been no gap at all: he took 5 wickets in each of the first four innings against Sri Lanka, and another six scalps in the third Test in 2004, earning the player of the series award. In fact, his streak was deflated only by a 30 average in India.
And then, finally, we have a bowler who is beginning to lay claim to being an all-time statistical great: Ravichandaran Ashwin, who took 165 victims on the basis of a rampaging home season in 2017, apart from outfoxing Sri Lanka in their own backyard, also averaging a respectable 27.67 with the bat, with important contributions to India’s lower order.
While showing impressive statistics, it still seems there is no bowling equivalent to the Don in terms of the utter unsurpassable nature of their numbers. We see that Lohmann is still unassailable in terms of averages, although barely so, while Murali’s outstanding streak eclipses Barnes’s in terms of WPI.
Still, in an exercise that sought the best bowling stretches, we have managed to unearth some gasp-worthy sections of achievement , and also, to our pleasant surprise, stumbled upon magnificent shows of all-round ability.