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Looking for the Greatest Bowler
26 September 2005 

By the time Sir Donald George Bradman retired from cricket he had done enough to secure his place at the top of the heap. There have been debates and discussions about the greatest batsman in history, and while WG Grace, Victor Trumper and Sir Jack Hobbs enter the fray, invariably the Don is regarded as the best. An average of 99.94 is hard to argue with, and 29 centuries in 52 matches certainly help the cause.

When it comes bowlers, on the other hand, the jury is still out. There are many contenders to the title of the greatest bowler – Dennis Lillee, Andy Roberts, Sir  Richard Hadlee, Muthaih Muralitharan and Wasim Akram among others. The most popular choice is probably Shane Warne with Wisden including him in the Five Cricketers of the Century, and the English and Australian media completely supporting this claim. But are these judgments biased by the recency effect?  

To effectively compare bowlers across era we need a statistic that is as ‘unbiased’ as possible. While complex weighted averages are employed in numerous rating systems that keep popping up everywhere, what we need is to find one effective statistic that is a close approximate for a bowler’s ability and efficacy. For batsmen the batting average works rather well because at the end of the day we want our batsmen to score as many runs as possible. But the bowling average doesn’t work quite as well. It unfairly penalizes bowlers who cleverly ‘buy’ their wickets – world-class spinners who flight the ball inviting batsmen to attack while seducing them to their demise. A bowler’s strike rate has a similar bias. Typically a spinner bowls many more balls to get a wicket, and hence will typically have a higher strike rate.

A more robust option appears to be the average number of wickets a bowler takes for each test match that he plays. Every team aims at taking 20 wickets in a test and the advantage of considering ‘wickets per match’ is that it measures a bowler’s efficacy in helping his team achieve this goal. The other benefit is that it does not penalize spinners for the fact that they often have to bowl more balls and concede more runs for each wicket that they take.  

Figure 1 shows the 20 top bowlers by wickets taken per test match amongst those who have taken at least 100 test wickets. Sydney Barnes is the clear leader, a fair way ahead of George Lohmann and Charlie Turner, and Muthaiah Muralitharan is the best active bowler according to this statistic. The graph also shows how spinners consistently have a higher average and strike rate than their seaming peers.

Figure 1: Top 20 bowlers – by Wickets/ Match

 Top 20 Bowlers by 'Wickets per Match'

 

While the choice of Sydney Barnes as the greatest bowler of all time may be unexpected it is certainly not surprising. Stories about Barnes’ deadly accuracy and ability to wipe out a batting line up are legendary. He had the unique ability to bowl off-spin and leg-spin at significant pace and he combined this with swing to offer batsmen of his time with the most challenging of tests. His most potent weapon was the ball the swung from off to leg and the spun violently and very quickly towards off stump.

Barnes played most of his cricket for Staffordshire and is the only cricketer to be regularly selected for the English team while playing minor league cricket. For Staffordshire he took 1441 wickets at 8.15 runs per wicket. In test matches Barnes was just as amazing. He had a bowling average of 16.43 and a strike rate of 41.65 – both of which are second only to George Lohmann amongst bowlers with at least 100 wickets. He took an astounding 7 wickets per test match, which means the other bowlers in the team needed to pick up just 13 wickets between them. He also took a phenomenal 24 five wicket hauls in just 27 matches. Compare that to Bradman’s 29 centuries in 52 tests and you get an idea of just how crucial Barnes really was to his team. And that’s not all. In a test series against South Africa, Barnes took 49 wickets – a world record that still stands – even though he played only 4 of the 5 matches in the series.  

The ‘wickets per match’ yardstick leads to some other interesting conclusions. Six of the top 20 bowlers are still playing cricket – which is commendable given the fairly easy batting conditions that exist today. Statistics are a measure of efficacy as opposed to raw talent and three bowlers in particular – Anil Kumble, Danish Kaneria and Stuart MacGill – are on this list because of how effective they have been.

Debates about greatness are unending, and opinions vary vastly affected by patriotic fervour, personal experience and media coverage. Try telling Mike Gatting that Warne is not the greatest bowler ever! But through the fairly neutral lens of statistics, one man, Sydney Barnes, who played in an era before the advent of the ‘Cricket Superstar’, is the strongest contender for the title of the ‘Greatest Bowler of all Time’.

 

 

TABLE USED FOR THIS ARTICLE

Table 1: Top 20 bowlers – by Wickets/ Match

 Player 

Team

Career Span

Average

Strike Rate

Wickets/ Match

Sydney Barnes

England

1901 – 1914

16.43

41.6

7.00

George Lohmann

England

1886 – 1896

10.76

34.1

6.22

Charlie Turner

Australia

1887 – 1895

16.53

51.2

5.94

Muthaih Muralitharan

Sri Lanka

1992 –

22.14

56.6

5.94

Clarrie Grimmett

Australia

1925 – 1936

24.22

67.1

5.84

Bill O'Reilly

Australia

1932 – 1946

22.60

69.6

5.33

Colin Blythe

England

1901 – 1910

18.63

45.4

5.26

Dennis Lillee

Australia

1971 – 1984

23.92

52.0

5.07

Robert Peel

England

1884 – 1896

16.98

51.6

5.05

Richard Hadlee

New Zealand

1973 – 1990

22.30

50.8

5.01

Shane Warne

Australia

1992 –

25.16

57.7

4.87

Stuart MacGill

Australia

1998 –

28.83

54.6

4.85

Anil Kumble

India

1990 –

28.30

65.9

4.83

Danish Kaneria

Pakistan

2000 –

30.11

60.2

4.71

Malcolm Marshall

West Indies

1978 – 1991 

20.95

46.7

4.64

Colin Croft

West Indies

1977 – 1982

23.30

49.3

4.63

Alec Bedser

England

1946 – 1955

24.90

67.4

4.63

Glen McGrath

Australia

1993 –

21.30

50.7

4.63

Hugh Tayfield

South Africa

1949 – 1960

25.91

79.8

4.59

Allan Donald

South Africa

1992 – 2002

22.25

47.0

4.58

 


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