In debates that rage in the backrooms and bars, on web forums and beside water-coolers, the general consensus is that batsmen have it much easier today than in the past eras of black and white photographs. Uncovered wickets, fearsome pace bowlers, no helmets, poor quality of bats – the reasons seem to be incontrovertible. On the YouTube, one winces with each scary clip of Michael Holding pummelling the brave, balding Brian Close, of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson terrorising the ducking, weaving, evading batsmen. All the necessary exhibits are there to make the case of the brave and brilliant past, against the mediocre and magnified present.
Cricket is a game where perceptions generally rule over palpability,fallacies over facts. As shown in articles about biased criticism and mythical shortcomings of cricketers, the reality is often vastly different from the reconstruction carried out by our senses influenced by the filtered information fed to us.
Cricket is also one of the most scrupulously-documented of sports, with a data bank that is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Let us utilise it to see how batsmen have gone about making runs since the inception of Test cricket, whether it has become easier with each decade.
|Span||No. of |
|100s||50s|| No. of |
Stable since the 1920s
Looking at the table, one can immediately derive some logical and correct conclusions and scratch one’s head as other widely held perceptions seem to disappear in the face of facts.
The fourth column is the key here, showing us the average of all batsmen, how the general cricketer scored runs in that decade.
We can see at the beginning, starting with the 1877-1880 and through to 1901-1910, low scores were witnessed, gradually stabilising by the 1910s. It is obvious that before World War 1, the pitches were difficult, not standardised, runs difficult to come by.
However, once the game established itself, tours turned regular, the administration more professional and scoring gradually easier. By the time Warwick Armstrong took his all-conquering team to England in 1921, cricket had evolved to a highly matured state and since then, we see a surprising stability in the decade-wise run scoring. There are variations, but not by any means very significant ones.
In fact, the average scores were the highest during the 1946-50, the period immediately after the Second World War – when Don Bradman bid adieu with a staggering 1903 runs in 18 completed innings, and Frank Worrell, Neil Harvey and Everton Weekes arrived on the scene with huge bangs.
In stark contrast, the decade that followed, 1951-60, saw the most difficult period for batsmen. While this was to some extent driven by a poor Kiwi batting side that averaged an atrocious 18 per innings, the reason is more due to a gamut of phenomenal bowlers arriving on the scene together. In the 50s, Ray Lindwall took 144 wickets at 25.52 and averaged 21st in the list of bowlers who had bagged 30 or more - a testimony to the quality of the times. Jim Laker, Frank Tyson, Richie Benaud, Keith Miller, Brian Statham, Fred Trueman, Alec Bedser, Tony Lock, Wesley Hall, Neil Adcock, Johny Wardle, Fazal Mahmood, Subhas Gupte and a lot of others formed a collection of fast and slow bowlers capable of making any batsman struggle.
What can surprise many is that the two decades of pace bowling dominance, 70s and 80s, don’t really reflect a drastic difference in the figures. Following the cognitive quirk of availability heuristic, we tend to recall the four pronged West Indian attack vividly because of the terror it struck in our hearts. However, we forget the flat pitches of the sub-continent in the same era where draw after draw were played out with huge scores in front of yawning spectators.
The 90s in fact saw a dip in the batting averages, with most of the teams around the world boasting excellent bowling attacks. Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies all conceded only 25-26 runs per wicket; India, Sri Lanka and England gave away around 30 runs apiece, and contrary to popular belief, it was a more difficult time for batsmen than the twenty previous years.
The first decade of the new century has seen an increase in the runs, and also a reduction in the number of required innings for centuries and fifties. All the teams seemed to develop their batting strength while the bowling did not really scale up adequately. The best bowling sides, Australia and Sri Lanka, conceded around 28 runs per wicket.
However, the figures do suggest that the degree of difficulty for Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Don Bradman on the whole were not too different.
Finally, the minnows have played their part in the last 20 years, but they have batted as badly as they have bowled and thus managed to balance things out.