2008-11-21

Test cricket's 11 most mediocre batsmen

Like any professional sport, cricket celebrates its greats. Think Bradman, Lillee, Hutton, Gavaskar, Miandad, Muralitharan... great players who have been raised to the top of the game, and deservedly so.

But like all professional sports, these small amount of greats are more than outnumbered by those who have tried and failed, and those who have tried and occasionally succeeded. This second group, the so called "mediocre" players, are neither good nor bad, but it is rare for such players to have an extended career at the top.

But at least 11 batsmen have. Interestingly, 5 of them are openers.

The criteria was simple - look at the records of every Test nation and find out the lowest averages amongst specialist batsmen who have played 75 or more tests. The number 75 was arbitrary, but a line had to be drawn somewhere. Moreover I decided that "mediocre" should be defined as any batting average below 40 (40 being the arbitrary mark of greatness).

As I have stated, mediocrity is to be expected any any professional sport including Test cricket. What is unusual about these players is the sheer length of time they played and remained mediocre.

1. Michael Atherton (England) - 115 Tests, 7728 runs @ 37.69

Mike is Mr Mediocre... unlike Mike Hussey, who is Mr Cricket. No other player has scored so many runs at such an unimpressive average. "But hang on" I hear you say "Athers was a legend". And of course he was... when he was scoring runs. Yet for every magnificent day-long batting effort against Allan Donald there were multiple occasions of being dismissed by Glenn McGrath.

Atherton's figures bear this out well - his fighting qualities against South Africa reveal a batting average of 43.83 while his success against Australia is not as nice - 29.68. Atherton also excelled in the 4th innings of a match - scoring 1375 runs at 41.66. Atherton's talent was obviously brought out in tense circumstances, as his record in scoring runs in the fourth innings of a drawn match (1638 runs @ 52.83) shows. Obviously he was the sort of guy who could draw a match in the face of defeat.

The other thing notable about Atherton is his scoring rate. At 37.31 runs scored off every 100 balls, a team of Mike Athertons would be idling along at 2.24 runs per over.

Atherton's career is also noted for his lack of not outs. Of the 212 times he walked out to bat, 205 of them resulted in him eventually losing his wicket. For those with calculators, it means that he remained not out 3.3% of the time. "Ah yes but Athers was an opener" I hear you say, which is true. Except, of course, really successful openers like Matthew Hayden remained not out 8% of the time. Then again, Hayden averages over 50, which means he's exceptional.

2. Carl Hooper (West Indies) - 102 Tests, 5762 runs @ 36.46

The West Indies had, for 20 years, one of the greatest teams in history. Haynes, Greenidge, Richards, Richard's son, Lloyd... and then it all went ker-splat and things have not been the same since 1995.

But it wasn't as though West Indian cricket ran out of good players after 1995. Think Lara, Chanderpaul and Sarwan.

Carl Hooper, however, was one of those rare players who bridged both eras - the era of world domination and the era of decline. Sadly, his figures show a player who was never as good as his contemporaries when things were great, and who was never able to turn things around for his team when things were going bad.

We can look at Hooper's career as two halves. Up until the 4th Test in Jamaica in 1995 - the test which won Australia the series and is now seen as the moment when West Indies' domination of cricket ended - Hooper had played 47 Tests and scored 2238 runs at 30.65. For a team comprising Richards, Richardson and so on, that's not good. But from that moment on, Hooper's career was transformed and he applied himself better than before, and up until his retirement, he scored 3524 more runs at an average of... 41.46. A far better outcome to be sure, but certainly not enough to impose himself on enough matches to make a difference.

3. Nasser Hussein (England) - 96 Tests, 5764 runs @ 37.18

Back in 2003 I heard a joke about how the US Air Force misread its orders and bombed Nassar Hussein instead of Saddam. My own personal memory of Hussein was his amazing 207 in the first Ashes Test in Birmingham in 1997. After that innings (in his 18th Test), his average had popped up to a very respectable 43.22 - it was never to get that high again. More than that, despite scoring another century in the fourth Test, Hussein ended up only averaging 39.18 for the entire series - a rather downbeat statistic considering the effect a double century would have had upon series figures.

A rather sad little addendum to Hussein's statistics is his failure to score well against Zimbabwe. Yes, you heard me, Zimbabwe, the land of hyperinflation and unmown cricket grounds. In 6 Tests against them, Hussein managed to scrape together just 198 runs at an average of 22. And of those 6 Tests, 4 of them were played in England, where you'd expect him to at least score a few more runs than normal.



4. Arjuna Ranatunga (Sri Lanka) - 93 Tests, 5105 runs @ 35.69

Ranatunga was always a larger-than-life personality. In 1982 at age 18 he played in Sri Lanka's first ever Test match and scored the nation's first Test fifty against Willis, Botham and Underwood, three of England's better bowlers. But Sri Lanka was still a cricketing "minnow" in those days. Ranatunga was no exception, and his batting average never rose above 40 throughout his entire test cricketing career.

There were three major problems with Arjuna Ranatunga. The first was his inability to score runs outside of Sri Lanka. At home, the guy was able to average 40.72. Away, he averaged a paltry 30.87.

His second problem lay in an inability to score centuries. In 93 Tests and 155 innings he managed to pass three figures only four times. His 38 fifties show a 50/100 ratio of 9.5 to 1. At first class level, where he averaged 44.26, the 50/100 ratio was much smaller - 2.52 to 1.

His third problem was that he was not just larger than life, he was also larger than average. This led to a rather comical situation in a one-day match in Australia when he asked for a runner because he was getting too tired. Ian Healy, the Australian Wicket-keeper, responded to Ranatunga's request by saying "You don't get a runner for being an overweight, unfit, fat ***t!".

5. Marvan Atapattu (Sri Lanka) - 90 Tests, 5502 runs @ 39.02

You gotta feel for this bloke. 90 Tests and he ends up just 0.98 runs away from greatness. Atapattu was the guy whose batting career involved being just in reach of a 40+ average but who ultimately didn't get there. Yet Marvan didn't reckon with the law of averages. When he came out to bat for the last time, he needed to make 218 to push his average from 38.72 to 40.00. In the end he only made a pathetic 80 something.

Unlike Nasser Hussein, Atapattu scored heavily against weak sides, taking full advantage of mediocre bowling. His favourite opponent was Zimbabwe (1145 runs @ 95.41). Unlike Ranatunga, he was as equally effective overseas as he was at home (in fact he was a slightly better player away). But, unlike the greats, there were a number of countries who had his measure - none more so than South Africa.

In the 12 tests he played against the Proteas, Atapattu scored 601 runs at an average of 26.13. Worse, his 8 tests against New Zealand (New Zealand!) resulted in 298 runs at 27.09. Yet his average against Australia was higher (31.25).

Atapattu was also a "first innings bully" - he averaged 48.72 in the first innings and 25.13 in the second - almost half. If we add his predilection for first innings runs to his known record against weak test nations, we end up with a player who can score heavily off bad bowling, but was never able to be consistent against good bowling - especially on the worn surfaces of a second innings dig.

6. John Wright (New Zealand) - 82 Tests, 5334 runs @ 37.82

When it comes to dour and mediocre, nothing beats New Zealanders. Think Ewan Chatfield. Think Martin Sneddon. Don't think Richard Hadlee or Martin Crowe, though.

John Wright, though, puts the sour in "dour". Half of his test career was spent trying to keep his average above 30. Wright was the sort of player who made a career of almost saving his team from defeat, but never managing to do so consistently.

Like Ranatunga, Wright's career favoured his home country - especially when you consider that he played 56% his Test matches there. An average of 41.86 in NZ and 33.24 everywhere else does not spell greatness. Wright did respond well to captaincy though, averaging 48.63 in the 14 tests he spent at the helm. Logically, therefore, had Wright batted only in New Zealand and had been made captain immediately he would've become one of the greats.

Wright, as an opener, obviously had his share of problems including a paucity of not outs. Unlike Atapattu, however, he was reasonably consistent in both 1st and 2nd innings. What is interesting is that he averaged 33.34 at no.1 but 43.31 at no.2. In other words, he was never really good facing the first ball and first over in a match, but was very good when facing the second over of the match. I can't for the life of me understand what the difference is between opening at no.1 and opening at no.2. John Wright does though.

7. Nathan Astle (New Zealand) - 81 Tests, 4702 runs @ 37.02


Again proving that mediocrity pervades New Zealand, Nathan Astle provides ample evidence that even the most unamazing of players can produce great things. His 222 off 168 balls against England remains the fastest double century in test cricket and continues a proud New Zealand tradition of doing brave things and still losing.

Against weaker opponents, Astle was generally quite good, blasting 800 runs at over 50 against Zimbabwe but only 55 at 18 against Bangladesh. Interestingly, he averaged over 40 on 3 New Zealand grounds but only 20.20 at Seddon Park. Maybe they didn't like him in Hamilton?

Pakistanis didn't like Astle though. He only played 5 tests against them but scored 22 runs in 7 innings, giving him an average approximate to pi.



8. Ravi Shastri (India) - 80 tests, 3830 runs @ 35.79


Ravi Shastri is an enigma wrapped in mystery placed in a dirty box that is sitting in someone's dusty attic, forgotten. Capable of averaging 41.08 in the 1st innings and just 25.36 in the second, Ravi Shastri rewarded India whenever it was able to bowl out the opposition twice, which wasn't very often.

Shastri's inability to bat in the second half the match is even worse when you look at his 4th innings average - 16.90. Whenever India was up against the wall and struggling to survive, Shastri wasn't able to perform. He certainly helped India win matches - he averaged 44.72 in matches won and 42.83 in drawn matches - but was never able to dig into himself when India needed it most. In fact, he averaged a paltry 19.47 in matches that India lost, which is considerably lower than his more esteemed colleagues. Given a guess, I would say that the pressure got to him a bit.

Mysteriously, Shastri performed best either as an opener (av 44.04) or at number seven (av 42.21). For whatever reason, Shastri shined when opening or when closing - the middle order was just not for him. Another mystery is his ability to score lots of runs in the third test of a series (1308 runs @ 52.32) but not the first (981 runs @ 37.73) or second (737 runs @ 24.56). Again - maybe this was a pressure thing, the third test of the series usually being played after the series has already been decided, more or less.

Nevertheless, Shastri was capable of scoring heavily. In January 1985 he hit six sixes in an over on his way to 200 not out for Bombay against Baroda. Of course the match finished in a draw.

9. Allan Lamb (England) - 79 Tests, 4656 runs @ 36.09


Allan Lamb was the man who stood up against the rampaging West Indians in 1984. He was the man who won a One-Day match against Australia by blasting 18 runs off the final over, bowled by Bruce Reid no less. Yet it was the West Indies and Australia who were his bugbears.

Lamb averaged just over 34 against both these teams, yet averaged over 40 against India and New Zealand (with Hadlee no less). Interestingly, Lamb averaged over 40 during Gooch's colourless and serious captaincy, averaged 35 during Gower's carefree and silly captaincy, and averaged 38 during Willis' carefree yet determined captaincy. He performed well in his own short time as captain, which probably indicates that a team committed to hard work was likely to rub off on Lamb's batting. This is probably a good reason why Gower was never suited to the England captaincy.

Lamb scored six centuries against the West Indians but only one against Australia. Yet he still managed to average 34 against either. For whatever reason Lamb also tended to score lots of runs in the fourth test of a series (av 55.93), while not doing very well in the third test of a series (av 30.64). Lamb also loved scoring runs at Lord's (959 runs @ 43.59) and at Old Trafford (374 runs @ 53.42) but not Birmingham (137 runs @ 13.70).

10. Mike Gatting (England) - 79 Tests, 4409 runs @ 35.55


In the topsy turvy world of professional cricket, Gatting managed to argue with an umpire and would regularly eat a loaf of bread for breakfast. He also enjoyed wine from the Barossa valley. In between those times he would murder bad spin bowling and generally not score enough runs.

In simple terms, Gatting loved spin bowling (1155 runs @ 55 vs India) and hated fast bowling (258 runs @ 15.17 vs West Indies). He also preferred to be in charge (1542 runs @ 44.05 under his own captaincy) though he did prosper under Gower's "hands off" rule (1377 runs @ 57.37).

Reinforcing the idea that he hated pace but loved spin was the fact that he averaged just 28.90 when his team batted first, but averaged 34.00 when his team batted last (obviously on worn pitches with spinners coming in).

There were three basic phases to Gatting's career. The first phase could be described as "young man not scoring many runs", where his first 30 Tests yielded 1144 runs at 23.83. The second phase could be described as "the phase where he scored lots of runs" where he played 30 Tests and scored 2529 runs at 58.81. The third phase could be described as "over the hill and pensioned off" where he played 19 Tests are scored 736 runs at 22.30.

So, essentially, Gatting for one glorious period was one of the world's premier batsmen. But this period was bookended by the young and careless Gatting and the old and cranky Gatting.

11. Mudasser Nazar (Pakistan) - 76 Tests, 4114 runs @ 38.09

Mudasser Nazar was a brilliant batsmen - so long as he played India and so long as he played in Pakistan. His record is quite stark - when he batted against India he scored 1431 runs at 62.21 and when he batted on home pitches in Pakistan he scored 2467 runs at 53.63. Remove him from those conditions and his record is not so great.

In fact, outside his native Pakistan Mudasser failed to even average over 30. His away average was 26.56 and the closest he ever got to a decent record outside of Pakistan was... playing India in India.

Like Atapattu, Mudasser was also a first innings bully. He scored 3177 runs at 44.74 in the first innings but only 937 runs at 25.32 in the second.

And like John Wright, Mudasser as an opener had difficulty with the no. 1 position (1996 runs @ 31.68) but not the no. 2 (1791 runs @ 44.77). Moreover, Mudasser was also like Shastri when confronted with a lost cause, averaging 19.86 in lost matches but 53.96 in won matches.

All this points to a cricketer who seemed to be born and bred to play in Pakistan and to perform well against bowlers on good pitches. But, as we all know, greatness involves more than just performing when things are in your favour.

Honourable Mentions


Stephen Fleming (New Zealand) - 111 Tests, 7172 runs @ 40.06

Fleming's batting average dipped below 40 in his 4th Test and never exceeded 40 again until his 101st Test, and then dipped below 40 again. Entering his final (111th) Test, Fleming had 7047 runs at 39.81. His last two innings were 59 and 66 - just enough to push his average above 40 again and out of mediocrity.

Alec Stewart (England) - 133 Tests, 8463 runs @ 39.54

Who knows how many runs Stewart could've scored had he not been wicket-keeper for 82 of his 133 Tests? His record as a specialist batsman - 3923 runs at 46.70 - speaks volumes. Had Adam Gilchrist not turned up, Stewart would probably have been remembered as the greatest wicket-keeper batsmen in Test history.

Next: Test cricket's most mediocre bowlers.

5 comments:

John Dekker said...

Does Hooper qualify as an all-rounder? Probably not, with an average of 49. But he would have played most of his career as the West Indies' sole spinner.

The Scylding said...

Heh - no SA'cans in that list! But putting Atherton at the top is certainly spot on - I remember well a test he was playing in SA, forgot exactly where - must have been in '94 or thereabouts, in which he played his immoveable style of cricket - the occasional run was almost by accident.

One Salient Oversight said...

John,

You'll discover that both Carl Hooper and Ravi Shastri also appear on the "most mediocre bowler" list as well.

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