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A file photo of Rahul Dravid and Shane Warne
A file photo of Rahul Dravid and Shane Warne

Class of nineties outshines others in Test cricket

Cricketers who debuted in the 1990s set more Test records than players from all other decades, and also shaped unique narratives for their countries

When Rangana Herath walks away from international cricket next month, the Sri Lankan spin bowler will take a bow for an individual record that is as distinguished as it gets—he is one of the top 10 wicket-takers in Test cricket. Herath, 40, will also bid adieu for an entire generation of cricketers whose imprint on Test cricket runs wide and deep, for he is the last of the active Test cricketers who debuted in the 1990s.

And what a generation of cricketers this Class of Nineties has been. Six of the top 10 run-getters in Test cricket belong to this generation: Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Mahela Jayawardene. As do five of the top 10 Test wicket-takers: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Glenn McGrath and Herath. Had he not started in 1989, at the age of 16, Sachin Tendulkar, too, would have been in the list.

A prolific presence at the top can be seen for the top eight Test-playing countries in both batting and bowling, especially the former. We took the top 50 run-getters and top 50 wicket-takers for each of these eight countries. That’s 400 batsmen and 400 bowlers. We mapped them by their decade of debut. As one keeps narrowing to the top—from top 20 to top 10 to top 5—the superiority of the Class of Nineties over other decades not only remains, it keeps increasing. For example, if one takes the top 20 run-getters of the eight teams (160 batsmen), 24% of them debuted in the 1990s, the most for any decade. And if one takes the top five run-getters of the eight teams (40 batsmen), the representation of the 1990s increases to 38% (chart 1). It’s partly the nature of sport, and the natural progression of numbers.

Across sports, with greater commercialization, the playing season has become longer. Between 1990 and 2009, 811 Test matches were completed, nearly double the number played during the 1970s and 1980s (464 matches).

The Class of Nineties was the first generation to reap the benefits of a surge in broadcast deals, corporate sponsorships and viewer interest. Yet, what remains remarkable about the Class of Nineties is that it remains a cut above the two decades that preceded it, as well as the one that followed it, most of whose players have already called time on their international careers. For instance, among the top 10 run-getters for the eight teams, the 1990s set has scored more than twice the number of runs as the 1970s and the 1980s set. And, it exceeds the 2000s set by 43%. It’s not that these batsmen averaged more, they together scored much more. Among bowlers, the match-winning quality among the top 10 wicket-takers is stark: They took thrice as many five-wicket hauls as the 1980s set and twice as many as the 2000s set (chart 2).

Beyond numbers, the Class of Nineties shaped unique narratives in the cricketing journeys of their respective countries. For India, this was the generation that started chipping away at the narrative that Indians made for poor travellers. For Australia, this was the generation that drove a gritty side to glory. For South Africa, this was the generation that steered the country’s return to international cricket in 1992 after a 22-year ban for Apartheid. For Sri Lanka, this was the generation that entrenched them into the cricketing mainstream (chart 3).

But for England, Pakistan and West Indies, the 1990s did not hold similar kind of weight. England barely registered on batting and bowling figures, with only Alec Stewart featuring from the 1990s as one of the top five run-getters for the country. Pakistan and West Indies had two batsmen, apiece, from this decade in the top-five, but the blanks in the bowling department is a grim reminder of the bowling stock that preceded this generation in the two countries.

Yet, these remain side notes to a glittering and unique confluence of cricketers, one that will be a hard act to emulate.

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