Off the Crossbar: Reevaluating cricket player benchmarks

By Omar Al-Ubaydli

At first sight, the coveted five-wicket haul seems the ideal analogue to the batsman’s century for signalling a bowler’s match-winning performance. Yet closer inspection reveals that such statistics, or rather their absence, should be taken with a slight pinch of salt.

The essence of the incomparability of centuries and five-wicket hauls is that bowlers have to compete with their teammates for wickets while batsmen do not compete for runs. In any inning, as long as three bowlers get at least a wicket, no more than one can get a five-wicket haul. In contrast, the sight of two or more batsmen on the same team scoring centuries is not uncommon. Two tests perfectly illustrate this divide. Firstly, consider West Indies versus South Africa in Antigua, April 2005 (Figure 1).

In a ground best remembered for Brian Lara’s phenomenal 400 not-out, there were four South African centurions. Even more remarkable was that the West Indian response was a 747 all-out innings that included another four centurions, and by the time the inevitable draw was reached on day five, Graham Smith and Abraham de Villiers had added another couple of half-centuries.

Now look at the bowling scorecard from New Zealand versus Australia in Auckland, March 2005 (Figure 2).

In a nine-wicket rout of the home side, Glen McGrath’s bowling was exceptional, with an economy rate of 1.44 off 34 overs. Still, he snared only three wickets, and that probably had something to do with Shane Warne bowling a tidy innings of his own. Jason Gillespie, too, bowled well, but unlike Smith, et al., the record books will remember none of their performances, as their squabbling over the pie ultimately led to it shrinking their respective pieces.

The implication is that comparing the achievements of two batsmen from different teams is far easier than that of two bowlers: In the latter case, counting five-wicket hauls favors bowlers who have weaker bowling partners since they have less competition for wickets.

To illustrate this point, consider another pair of comparisons. Australian Steve Waugh and Indian Sachin Tendulkar are two of only four batsmen to have surpassed the 10,000-run mark in tests. Waugh has 32 centuries at an average of 51.1 compared to 34 centuries, at an average of 57.3, for Tendulkar. There is little to choose between this magnificent pair. Crucially, these figures stand despite the fact that Waugh played in arguably the best cricket side ever for over 10 years, while Tendulkar scrapped around in an infuriatingly inconsistent Indian team.

Now take the two highest wicket-takers in history: Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and the Australian leg-spinner, Warne. Muralitharan’s 532 scalps have come at an average of 22.9, with a jaw-dropping 44 five-wicket hauls. Warne’s 533 victims have come at a slightly higher cost of 25.5, but his collection of 29 five-wicket hauls looks anaemic in comparison.

In fact, Muralitharan’s total is almost as much as Warne and McGrath’s totals put together! Yet this is totally apt, since the Australian pair has kept each other company for the last 12 years as they tormented batting lineups under Waugh’s highly successful captaincy.

Muralitharan, in contrast, has been surrounded by a bunch of pie-throwers, and that’s why some of his five-wicket hauls are less than impressive: 5-173 against Australia, March 2004; 5-162 against India, January 1994; and 5-153 against Australia, March 2004.

The bottom line is that when Muralitharan plays well, he gets a five-wicket haul, but on many occasions, Warne will play superbly only to find McGrath and others playing well too, and so the wickets must be shared.

So next time your favorite bowler fails to take five victims, before you conclude that he wasn’t a match-winner, take a proper look at the bowling scorecard. In an era where willow dominates leather before stumps, we can still keep the field level afterwards.