Test Cricket’s greatest all-rounders

Billy Bates, the best test cricket all-rounder EVAR.Back in the 1980s four all-rounders dominated the world test cricket scene: Ian Botham from England, Kapil Dev from India, Imran Khan (now a very prominent politician) from Pakistan, and Richard Hadlee from New Zealand. Much ink was spilled in the debate on who was the best, and how they compared with great all-rounders from the past such as Australia’s Keith Miller and Garfield Sobers from the West Indies. Many years ago I came up with a good way of evaluating all-rounders based on their statistics, and finally I have been able to crunch the numbers and come up with the results.

I should clarify a few things. This whole article relates only to men’s test cricket, though it would also apply to any other format. More importantly, the whole idea of rating players based on statistics is obviously flawed, as stats don’t capture everything about a player. But as long as we allow for that and don’t try to be too precise, I think we can gain some useful and interesting insights.

Rating players

One of the most-used ways of scoring all-rounders was simply batting average minus bowling average, but there are at least two major problems with this. First, it favours batting over bowling. The global average for batting and bowling are both about 30. Now, bowling averages almost never go lower than about 20, but batting averages over 50 are numerous. As a result, Sobers scores very highly on this scale on the strength of his batting, even though his bowling was decidedly mediocre.

The root of this problem is that the scale doesn’t actually measure anything sensible. Batting average is just runs scored / dismissals, and bowling average is runs conceded / wickets. So batting average minus bowling average equals (I hope you’re sitting down):

(runs scored × wickets – runs conceded × dismissals) / (dismissals × wickets)

It should be fairly obvious that this is completely bonkers: it doesn’t measure anything even remotely meaningful.

The second problem with this measure is common to other measures such as the batting average: it fails to take into account the quality of the opposition. For example, people have suggested that Jacques Kallis’s impressive averages come from his playing so many matches against weak Zimbabwe teams. (I don’t think the stats actually bear this out — it’s just an example.)

I always thought that the two problems could be solved separately, but as it happened, my solution to the first problem also solved the second. So now not only can we decide who, according to statistics, was the best all-rounder in the 1980s, we can decide who was best overall. We can even decide other questions such as who was the best bowler of all time, whether Don Bradman really is as much of a statistical outlier as he seems, and even whether Ricky Ponting (as a batsman) was as good as Glenn McGrath (as a bowler).

My plan was to come up with measures for batting and bowling that have the following qualities:

  • They should point in the same direction. With the current batting average, higher is better, but bowling averages work the other way.
  • They should be comparable, so a batting score of (say) 25 should indicate the same level of ability as a bowling score of 25.

The bowling rating

My initial idea was to leave the batting average as it was, but change the bowling average by taking its reciprocal with respect to the global overall bowling average. For example, suppose the global bowling average for all bowlers is 30. Then suppose a given bowler has an average of 20. That’s 2/3 of the average. So to get his bowling score, just invert that fraction and multiply it by the global average. So that would be 3/2 × 30, giving a bowling score of 45. Such a bowler would then be as good a player as a batsman with an average of 45.

The hard part then becomes: how do we calculate the global bowling average? We can’t just calculate the average over all test matches for the last 130-odd years, because bowling averages vary over the years: they were lower last century when many matches were played on bowler-friendly uncovered pitches. So when calculating a player’s bowling score, I use the global bowling average during the period of that player’s career. This makes sense because we are essentially measuring where our bowler sits amongst his contemporaries.

This also takes into account the other variable, which is the quality of batsmen our bowler has to bowl at. If there are a lot of good batsmen around, then the global bowling average over that period will be worse. Our bowler’s score will not be unfairly reduced by the fact that he has to bowl against superior batsmen — because all the other bowlers at that time had to also.

So this gives us a superior measure of bowling, which goes in a sensible direction (higher is better) and takes into account the quality of the opposition. To make it easy to evaluate, I thought it would be better to normalise it so that, say, an average bowler would have a score of 100. Then a poor part-time bowler might have a score of 50, while Murali would probably be up around 150. It’s easy to use this to compare two bowlers, even if they played in different centuries.

The batting rating

From here, the obvious next step is simply to do the same thing for batting, yielding a batting score where 100 is average, less is worse and more is better. It seems odd that the batting score doesn’t directly relate to runs actually scored, but that’s not what it’s for. If you want to know how many runs the batsman scored, look at the old batting average. But that depends on the quality of bowling attack he has faced. So if you want to know how good the batsman is, the batting rating will tell you.

The all-round rating

Once we have batting and bowling ratings, normalised to the same scale, determining an all-round rating is simple. You do not try to take the average of the two. After all, if you’re an average bowler but a great batsman, then improving your batting doesn’t make you a better all-rounder: it just makes you a better batsman. This is why Viv Richards was not an all-rounder: his stupendous batting could never make up for his lacklustre bowling. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so the all-rounder rating is the minimum of the batting and bowling ratings.

Qualification

Almost done. We still have to set minimum limits for play, to avoid the Andy Ganteaume Problem (he scored 112 in his only test innings, so his average is higher than The Don’s). Let’s impose a minimum number of notional full matches. Five is not enough — that could be just a single series — so let’s say 10. Ten full matches means 20 innings, so we’ll say a batsman must have 20 innings to have a batting rating.

Bowling is a bit trickier — we can’t set a minimum number of innings since a bowler’s innings can be of any length. So let’s simply require our bowlers to have bowled in 20 full notional innings. I guess that on average, each proper bowler bowls 20 overs in an innings. (Actually, I just calculated this: ignoring insignificant 1-2 over contributions, which will largely be part-time bowlers having a go, bowlers average 19 overs per innings.) So our requirement to have a bowling rating is to have bowled 400 overs. (This seems a bit high, but if it’s reduced we can get some anomalies: Darren Lehmann end up being one of the top 5 all-rounders in history, on the strength of his quite good part-time bowling average.)

(I can’t remember if 8-ball overs were ever used in Test cricket, but I also don’t really care.)

Finally, how do we recognise a true all-rounder, rather than a bowler who can bat or vice versa? I say a player can’t be a true all-rounder if he’s below average in batting or bowling. So to qualify as an all-rounder, a player’s batting and bowling ratings must both be at least 100; in other words, his all-round rating must be at least 100. This doesn’t sound that hard, but I was surprised to discover that according to this standard, only 24 true all-rounders have ever played test cricket.

The All-round Hall of Fame

Based on all this, here’s the list of 24 test all-rounders up till the beginning of 2011. (My stats, from Idle Summers, are not up to date. I hope somebody will update them soon, because I don’t have time to.) I’ve also included a few notable players who didn’t qualify.

Overall Batting Bowling
Name Career Team Allround Rating Average Innings Runs Rating Average Overs Wickets
1 W Bates 1881-87 Eng 130.0 137.2 27.33 26 656 130.0 16.42 589 50
2 KR Miller 1946-56 Aus 125.4 125.4 36.98 87 2958 135.4 22.98 1491 170
3 Imran Khan 1971-92 Pak 124.0 124.0 37.69 126 3807 141.0 22.81 3082 362
4 W Barnes 1880-90 Eng 122.8 130.5 23.39 33 725 122.8 15.55 566 51
5 TL Goddard 1955-70 SA 116.7 116.7 34.47 78 2516 117.6 26.23 1759 123
6 SR Watson 2005-11 Aus 115.1 128.9 42.64 47 1919 115.1 30.53 426 43
7 Asif Iqbal 1964-80 Pak 112.2 127.5 38.86 99 3575 112.2 28.34 613 53
8 IT Botham 1977-92 Eng 111.6 111.6 33.55 162 5200 112.3 28.40 3528 383
9 CL Cairns 1989-2004 NZ 110.5 110.7 33.54 104 3320 110.5 29.40 1938 218
10 Mushtaq
Mohammad
1959-79 Pak 108.9 128.3 39.17 100 3643 108.9 29.23 790 79
11 W Rhodes 1899-1930 Eng 108.2 108.2 30.19 98 2325 108.3 26.97 1387 127
12 CG Macartney 1907-26 Aus 108.1 148.4 41.78 55 2131 108.1 27.56 591 45
13 KD Walters 1965-81 Aus 107.8 161.3 48.26 125 5357 107.8 29.08 446 49
14 JDP Oram 2002-09 NZ 105.3 110.9 36.33 59 1780 105.3 33.05 824 60
15 JH Kallis 1995-2011 SA 105.1 183.4 57.31 244 11864 105.1 31.99 3034 269
16 SM Pollock 1995-2007 SA 105.0 105.0 32.32 156 3781 143.6 23.12 4039 421
17 WJ Cronje 1992-2000 SA 104.8 124.5 36.41 111 3714 104.8 29.95 628 43
18 RM Cowper 1964-68 Aus 104.4 149.5 46.84 46 2061 104.4 31.64 457 36
19 GA Faulkner 1906-24 SA 103.7 156.0 40.79 47 1754 103.7 26.59 699 82
20 JM Gregory 1920-28 Aus 103.6 120.4 36.97 36 1146 103.6 31.15 858 85
21 N Kapil Dev 1978-94 Ind 102.4 102.4 31.05 184 5248 108.5 29.65 4602 434
22 MA Noble 1898-1909 Aus 102.2 124.8 30.26 73 1997 102.2 25.00 1218 121
23 A Flintoff 1998-2009 Eng 101.0 101.0 31.89 129 3795 101.1 33.35 2451 219
24 TE Bailey 1949-59 Eng 100.3 105.9 29.74 91 2290 100.3 29.21 1491 132
28 DL Vettori 1997-2011 NZ 95.9 95.9 30.36 160 4159 99.9 33.76 4435 344
29 Shahid Afridi 1998-2010 Pak 95.2 114.9 36.51 48 1716 95.2 35.60 529 48
40 GS Sobers 1954-74 WI 91.4 195.1 57.78 160 8032 91.4 34.04 3423 235
45 RJ Hadlee 1973-90 NZ 89.0 89.0 27.17 134 3124 144.7 22.30 3437 431

So Billy Bates, the English offspinner from the late 19th century, heads the list. His batting average seems unimpressive, but batting was harder back in those days of uncovered pitches. Second in the list is the great Australian Keith Miller, and third is the answer to my question as to who was the best of the 1980s super-allrounders: Imran Khan.

Sixth in the list is the best all-rounder of the 21st century: Australia’s Shane Watson. Further down are two South Africans with greatly contrasting stats: Jacques Kallis (brilliant batsman, very good bowler) and Shaun Pollock (vice versa).

Of the other ’80s super-allrounders, Ian Botham is in the top ten as expected. Kapil Dev only just makes the cut, but Richard Hadlee doesn’t quite count as an all-rounder. He’s one of the best test bowlers, but he tended to bat too far down the order to have any sustained impact with his batting.

Hadlee was always a great bowler who batted rather than a true all-rounder (at least in tests). But as a Kiwi, I am pleased to see two recent NZers are true all-rounders: Chris Cairns makes the top 10, and the underrated Jacob Oram is at #14. Some recent players don’t quite make it to the list, such as former NZ captain Daniel Vettori and dynamic Pakistani legspinner and big hitter Shahid Afridi.

As I always suspected, Gary Sobers wasn’t really an all-rounder. An excellent batsman but a below-average bowler, whose bowling aggregate is much more impressive than his bowling average.

I’m going to spend a little more time juggling all these numbers to find out similar information about batsmen and bowlers, and maybe some other interesting tidbits too. I will probably revisit the all-rounder calculations too, since I can already see a few ways they can be improved. It’s a shame there’s no Test cricket on at the moment — radio cricket commentary makes the perfect soundtrack for number-crunching.

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