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Photo: Kunal Patil/HT
Photo: Kunal Patil/HT

If the world’s fate rested on a cricket match, who would make the team?

A history-combing look at batsmen who outperformed their peers in run-chases and setting targets

The year is 2030. A group of aliens have landed on Earth and made their way to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)'s headquarters. For some unknown reason, they’re interested in the game of cricket. 

Since this hypothetical situation is set in the world of cricket, India happens to be at the centre of the universe. Therefore, this time, we will imagine that a big spaceship landed in the middle of Madhya Pradesh rather than somewhere in the US as Hollywood portrays all the time. 

In 2030, citizens are waking up to newspaper editorials bemoaning the absence of a genteel, father figure-like Virat Kohli from the Indian team and are wondering what the world has come to with the boisterous, unruly bunch dotting the lineup. Bangladesh have become the second-best team in Asia and are challenging the big teams regularly in all formats. 

The structure of international cricket has changed, with the BCCI pulling the plug on international engagements and expanding the IPL to include Test and one-day formats. The international game now has friendlies and the big tournaments; T20 is still king of club cricket though.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore are yet to win a title—both sets of fans (their supporters and their opponents) give vent to their contrasting feelings through communal drinking. Perhaps this was Vijay Mallya’s business plan all along. 

Somehow, in the midst of all this, and rather incredibly, the ODI format is still in vogue. It has withstood the onslaught of the shorter format. Some things haven’t still changed: Australia is still an annoying team that everybody hates, England is yet to win a World Cup, Bishan Singh Bedi is still critical of the establishment and there is still no distinction between the English and South African teams either on the field or on matters of birth—they both choke at the final hurdle with regularity. 

The aliens barge into the BCCI office and throw a cricketing challenge: the best alien players will face off against Earth’s best in a winner-takes-all ODI series. And since the aliens wish to be taken very seriously, they make sure that they go through the Supreme Court lest their intentions are mistaken to be frivolous. 

The stakes are high in this hypothetical series. The all-powerful aliens would spare Earth of its subjugation if the earthlings were to win—teen guna lagaan and all that. The heads of various cricketing establishments get together to assemble a team of Earth’s mightiest heroes to fight the aliens in an Avengers-meet-Armageddon premise. Since this would be mediated by the Supreme Court, it is perhaps more appropriate to call it the Justice League. 

This hypothetical fanboy exercise is a culmination of parts one and two in this series, where we looked at batsmen who outperformed their peers in a run-chase and setting a target respectively. Who would make the cut among the batsmen culled from the history of the ODI format? Could we use analytical techniques to arrive at this bevy of bewitching batsmen?

What do we already know about ODI batting? 

The ODI format hasn’t been a structural monolith, but has continuously evolved with time. As a case in point, Sunil Gavaskar infamously batted through 174 balls for his 36* in pursuit of England's 334 in 60 overs in the inaugural world cup; though other openers of the time didn't follow the soporific approach, they largely batted with an aim to preserve wickets at the top of the order. It is hard to imagine today's ODI openers having the same approach. Run rates have been on a continuous upward climb since the 1992 World Cup, and so have been the attitude of batsmen at the top of the order.

An ODI batsman has to master two variables during his stint in the middle: one, the wickets remaining; two, the balls remaining. For a batsman facing a target, the runs to get forms the third variable which determines his approach. Therefore, in general, the effectiveness of an ODI batsman is determined by how many runs he scores per dismissal (batting average) and how fast he scores his runs per 100 balls (strike rate).

The product of the two—labelled the batting index (BI)—has been used by ESPNcricinfo and others as an index to benchmark batsmen against the average batsman of their times. By dividing a batsman's BI with the corresponding product of an average batsman (positions 1 to 7) during their career (BI baseline), a BI ratio has been used to ascertain the various levels at which various batsmen outperformed their peers in a particular era.

As it can be seen in the below tables, the BI baseline has seen a continuous increase with each era at all batting positions.

Additionally, the analyses from the first two parts revealed several other insights. Firstly, it has shown that chasing a target and setting one are two different propositions with respect to the BI. Secondly, in the first three eras of the ODI, the middle order was the best place to bat. In the present day, the BI values are more or less flat across the top five.

In the previous two exercises, this BI concept was further developed to see which batsmen dominated the world with their performances during different ODI eras (nine in total) by computing and comparing BI ratios while setting and chasing ODI targets. A BI ratio of 1.4 implies that a batsman’s BI is 40% higher than the BI baseline during a particular era. A BI ratio level of 1.4 is extremely rare, and less than 20 players have achieved it during each era (with a minimum runs scored cut-off, of course) either while setting the target or chasing one. 

Many batsmen have shone in one particular era but have struggled to maintain their lofty heights in other eras—barring a few batting maestros. A champion batting team has boasted of a handful of these players—in the form of their lives—and has generally tasted international success during the era.

Now would this ODI series be played with fielding restrictions? Under lights? Two balls? 50 overs? Will Tendulkar be marked as the marauding player of the late nineties or as the player who would time the ball and nudge around for boundaries in the mid-noughties? Would this ODI series be played with fielding restrictions? Under lights? Two balls? Fifty overs? Would Rohit Sharma be considered as an opener or as a middle-order player? Why is he considered at all? So many questions. 

Therefore, any exercise that compares a player from say, 20 years ago, with a current one is fraught with difficulty and some ground rules must be set. A cut-off of at least 75 innings at 30 runs/dismissal until 31 December 2016 seems reasonable as it brings 143 batsmen under scrutiny, the least among these having scored 1,874 runs. The individual metrics used to obtain BI are the traditionally used batting average (runs/dismissal) and strike rate (runs/100 balls) with runs made in all international ODI matches until 31 December 2016 being used in the analysis.

Rather than just ground-breaking statistical peaks, the duration for which the batsmen dominated the rest of the field will be given its due (readers can peruse era-centric values in the earlier pieces) unless the lofty peaks cannot be overlooked. And the analytical criteria has to take the vagaries of setting and chasing, ODI eras and the batting position into consideration. 

The method used in the first two parts of this series (using a common BI baseline across the board for a particular era) is a good first cut, but it heavily favours the middle-order batsmen. How fair is it to use the same BI baseline for Vivian Richards (a middle-order batsman) and Gordon Greenidge (an opener) when the BI baseline for openers is about 30% lower than that of a middle-order batsman in the first era? 

Traditionally, the BI baselines for middle-order batsmen are the highest, but this method divides everyone’s BI with the average batsman’s (1-7) BI. The BIs of batsmen batting at 6 and 7 are especially lower than the top five, and hence are under-represented in the various tables in parts one and two. 

So what about players like Kapil Dev, who batted at the end of the middle order for most of their career? What about batsmen like Kohli who’ve been fantastic in the chase but merely good while setting the target? Hence, a tweak has to be applied to the BI baseline, which is based on the batting opportunities that the batsman got during his career. 

The average batting position (ABP) is a number representing the average of all the batting positions batted by the batsman. While the ABP alone can’t be taken as a sacrosanct figure (as a similar ABP can be manufactured with different mash-ups of batting position distributions), it does have its utility as it can give a rough indication of a batsman’s most frequent batting position. 

Using the same principle, the fraction of innings batted at each position, era and set/chase can be multiplied with the respective BI of all batsmen who batted in similar circumstances (tables 1 and 2), which can then be summed to get the BI baseline (weighted) for that batsman. In a sense, we would be comparing the particular batsman’s BI with a hypothetical, composite, average batsman—one that would have batted in identical conditions with respect to batting positions, set/chase and ODI eras during his career.

Now to the selection of the batsmen. 

Up until 31 December 2016, an ODI match has produced about 54,000 wickets in about 2 million deliveries bowled—or a wicket every 37 balls. Top ODI batsmen average about 40-50 runs per dismissal at a strike rate of about 90, and hence seven such capable batsmen would suffice for the heavy lifting.

Ideally, the batting order should comprise of seven competent batsmen with one of them being a wicket-keeper and one of them should also serve as the fifth bowler (and two more in the batting order should be able to bowl a few overs as backup). The seventh player could also be a bowler or a bowling all-rounder, but for the purpose of this exercise we will be looking at all-rounders who were primarily known for their batting prowess but could also bowl the full quota of their overs. 

The selected batsmen would mostly bat in and around their most popular batting positions. The selection will be divided into different phases—openers, numbers three and four and numbers five, six and seven, based on BI baseline similitude in different eras.

The peerless Sachin Tendulkar leads the way among batsmen who have batted primarily in the opening slots. His overall performance is nearly 1.6 times a hypothetical batsman afforded similar batting opportunities during the course of Tendulkar’s career eras. What is even more remarkable is that Tendulkar had a middling record as a middle-order batsman until 1994, and his overall numbers have to be seen in this context. 

A notch below him are Greenidge and Hashim Amla, separated by the third decimal point. It must be noted that Amla is an active batsman (as are David Warner and Quinton de Kock) who has batted in 147 innings, compared to Greenidge’s 127, and there is no saying which way his career statistics would move over the next few years. His innings/50+ score is among the highest and hence he would shade Greenidge on this count. Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Virender Sehwag have had fantastic records as well. 

The number three batsman needs to be a pivot onto the middle order, and be able bat in a variety of ways; if an early wicket should fall, he must be able to compensate by scoring big, or if given a good opening stand, provide a stable platform and take the match to the end. Scoring ability and way to keep the scoreboard ticking are key attributes. 

In a relatively short career span, Virat Kohli has separated himself from the rest of the chasing pack, followed by Dean Jones. Kohli towers over contemporaries such as Kane Williamson and Joe Root, who have good credentials at number three. Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis have excellent numbers in spite of their lengthy careers. A special note needs to be made about Pakistan’s Zaheer Abbas, who outperformed his peers at a very high level but didn’t make the cut as he batted in only 60 innings. 

The middle order is backed by two batting bulwarks who select themselves without a semblance of a contest. Keep in mind, many of the players in the other tables have batted in a variety of positions from 3 to 6 all through their career. 

Due to the BI baseline (weighted) tweak, Richards climbs down from his top position and is overtaken by A.B. de Villiers. Perhaps we have an answer to which current day batsman is closest to Richards’s level of performance, which was two decades ahead of its time. Richards’s illustrious contemporaries like Greg Chappell and Clive Lloyd have played fewer innings than the cut-off (and have much lower ratios). 

M.S. Dhoni shades Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey for the number six slot due to his high BI ratio, his finishing ability and his big-hitting capabilities. He’s also the favourite to take the wicket-keeping position ahead of Gilchrist. 

Now for the last batsman, who should be able to hit the ball a mile from the word go. There is also the small matter of the selection of an all-rounder who can bowl a bit. Where would this all-rounder play? At the top? In the middle order? Or at the end?

Lance Klusener has outperformed his BI baseline at levels higher than the middle-order champions; 75-innings-old Jos Buttler has made a promising start to his career as well but his selection would be based on future feats. Who knows, he may be able to displace Dhoni from the wicket-keeper’s slot. Other all-rounders such as Andrew Symmonds, Shane Watson, Kapil Dev and Kallis are multiple notches below Klusener’s levels of performance. Richards and Tendulkar would be able to roll their arms over in times of bowling need. 

There you have it: the cricketing world’s version of the Avengers to avenge the earth. The batting order would read: Amla, Tendulkar, Kohli, Richards, de Villiers, Dhoni (wk) and Klusener. Fancy a bowl against these mighty men?

PaajivsPunter is an anonymous collaborative blog. They seek to write original, well-researched and thought-provoking articles. So far, they’ve written opinion pieces, commentary, perspectives, satire, analytical features and long-form narratives on cricket.

Previously in this series: Is R. Ashwin the all-rounder India has been dreaming of? and 2003 World Cup final: If only India had chosen to bat first...

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