Who’s The ‘Greatest’? Cook, Trott, Pietersen or Bell

Thanks to everyone who joined our debate about Alastair Cook last week. It certainly got pulses racing! Our skipper seems to be cricketing marmite at the moment. Some people despise him (which seems a tad extreme), whereas others swear blind that he walks on water (which seems equally bizarre). Remind you of anyone else in particular?

Although many thought my article was a personal attack on Cook – which was more than slightly exasperating – it was actually an attempt to analyse his career dispassionately. Had the data disproved my contention that he’s a good batsman, but one whose vulnerability against elite pace bowling makes him short of ‘great’, I would have said so. Indeed, researching today’s article has changed my mind about quite a few things.

I also accept my analysis, while pretty thorough, had some weaknesses. For example, I didn’t compare Cook to his England contemporaries. While my article demonstrated that Cook has scored few hundreds against top class seam bowling – in other words, attacks that contained two or more bowlers averaging less than thirty in test cricket – it’s perfectly fair to say ‘he can only score runs against the opposition in front of him’.

While Cook has struggled against the few world class fast bowlers he’s actually faced – thus making me sceptical he’s a ‘great’ batsman – I failed to compare Cook’s record to that of his teammates. Because I took a historic perspective – partly in response to Stuart Broad’s assertion that Cook is the greatest run scorer in England’s history – I neglected the contemporary angle. This is the wrong I’m going to right today.

Below you’ll see how Cook compares to Trott, Pietersen and Bell. These are obviously the other established batsmen who took England (albeit briefly) to the top of the world rankings. As these batsmen generally faced the same bowlers as Cook, in the same conditions, this analysis should reveal who England’s greatest batsman of recent times actually is.

This time, rather then merely focusing on the hundreds each batsman has made, I’m going to examine their averages against all the major test nations. Rather than putting the opposition in alphabetical order, I’ve listed them according to how strong each country’s bowling has been in recent years. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it makes it easier to assess ‘tough runs’ at a glance.


Alastair Cook Batting Average By Opponent (Career Av 46)

South Africa 40

Australia 40

Pakistan 36

New Zealand 38

India 54

Sri Lanka 51

West Indies 58


Centuries against elite attacks: 5 out of 25

118 Sri Lanka, Galle 2007 – Vaas, Malinga, Welegedara, Murali

118 South Africa, Durban 2009 – Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, Kallis

116 Australia, Perth 2006 – McGrath, Lee, Clarke, Warne

115 South Africa, The Oval 2012 – Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Kallis

110 Pakistan, The Oval 2010 – Amir, Asif, Riaz, Ajmal

NB I won’t dwell on this too much (it’s in my Cook article), but three of these tons were made in series where Cook otherwise struggled very badly.


What these averages show is that Cook’s record against the better bowling attacks is worse than his overall career average. There is a clear trend with no anomalies: the poorer the bowling attack, the better Cook performs. Cook has really cashed in against India and the West Indies, but his record against Australia, South Africa and Pakistan – while certainly not disastrous – is relatively poor by comparison.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be altogether surprising. It’s harder to score runs against better bowlers, so it makes sense that his averages should be lower. But do his teammates’ careers follow a similar pattern? Let’s see …


Ian Bell Average By Opponent (Career Av 45)

South Africa 42

Australia 37

Pakistan 46

New Zealand 33

India 42

Sri Lanka 58

West Indies 55


Centuries Against Elite Attacks: 4 out of 21

199 South Africa, Lord’s 2008 – Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, Kallis

140 South Africa, Durban 2009 – Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, Kallis

113 Australia, Durham 2013 – Harris, Bird, Siddle, Watson*

109 Australia, Lord’s 2013 – Harris, Pattinson, Siddle, Watson

*Surprisingly enough, Jackson Bird averages 23 in test cricket (although it’s a small sample size). I evened things up by not including Bell’s century at Nottingham in the same series, nor his excellent ton in Faisalabad in 2006 against a pumped up Shoaib Akhtar.


The centuries comparison is a little tough on Bell because he’s batted at five or six for much of his career; therefore he hasn’t had quite the same opportunity to score hundreds as Cook, Trott and Pietersen.

Overall, in terms of his averages, we can see a similar pattern to Cook: Bell has scored more heavily against the weaker attacks. Having said that, the pattern is not so pronounced: Bell has done well against Pakistan but not nearly so well against India.

In fairness to Bell, his Ashes record also suffered from playing one series more than Cook against McGrath and Warne. He struggled quite badly in 2005 and shouldn’t really have been playing – Thorpe and Pietersen should have been selected as England’s four and five in that series. Fletcher and Graveney made a mistake.


Kevin Pietersen Average By Opponent (Career Av 47)

South Africa 45

Australia 45

Pakistan 30

New Zealand 38

India 59

Sri Lanka 51

West Indies 56


Centuries Against Elite Attacks: 7.5 out of 23

158 Australia, The Oval 2005 – McGrath, Lee, Tait, Warne

158 Sri Lanka, Lord’s 2006 – Vaas, Maharoof, Kulasekara, Murali

158 Australia, Adelaide 2006 – McGrath, Lee, Clarke, Warne

152 South Africa, Lord’s 2008 – Steyn, Ntini, Morkel, Kallis

149 South Africa, Leeds 2012 – Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Kallis

142 Sri Lanka, Edgbaston 2006 – Vaas, Malinga, Maharoof, Murali

113 Australia, Manchester 2013 – Harris, Starc, Siddle, Watson (*)

100 South Africa, The Oval 2008 – Morkel, Ntini, Nel, Kallis

* The innings in 2013 only counts as a half, because Starc’s test average is over thirty and he wasn’t the same bowler then as he is now.


Unsurprisingly, Pietersen’s average against the stronger attacks is also lower; like Cook and Bell he’s really cashed in against the weak teams. However, Pietersen’s performances against South Africa and Australia are pretty much in line with his overall career record. He’s done significantly better against the best bowlers in the world than his teammates – especially when one considers he played that extra Ashes series against Warne and McGrath in 2005.

The curious aspect of KP’s career is his weak performance against Pakistan. This is an anomaly I cannot explain. He’s had struggles against left arm spin, but his strong performance against India and Sri Lanka suggests this hasn’t actually bothered him too much.

In terms of centuries, KP has scored a third of his test hundreds against top class bowling attacks. This is an appreciably higher proportion than his teammates. I should point out that my list doesn’t include his match winning performances in either Mumbai or Colombo. These were superb innings, but they weren’t scored against elite attacks (i.e. teams that contained two bowlers averaging less than thirty). I’ve also omitted his century against Shoaib Akhtar in Faisalabad (made in the same game as Bell’s).


Jonathan Trott Average By Opponent (Career Av 46)

South Africa 34

Australia 48

Pakistan 47

New Zealand 53

India 36

Sri Lanka 57

West Indies 35


Centuries against Elite Attacks: 2.5 out of 9

184 Pakistan, Lord’s 2010 – Amir, Asif, Riaz, Ajmal

121 New Zealand, Wellington 2013 – Southee, Boult, Wagner, Martin (*)

119 Australia, The Oval 2009 – Hilfenhaus, Siddle, Clarke, Johnson


What’s striking about Trott’s career is that he bucks the trend. He averages more against Australia and Pakistan than he does against India and the West Indies. Although he’s struggled against the Proteas, his record against the better attacks is pretty impressive. This shows us that batting success isn’t always relative to the strength of the opposition.

In terms of centuries against top bowling attacks, it’s hard to compare Trott’s record because he’s only played 49 test matches. The others have all played over 100 times. However, his aggregate of 2.5 suggests he scores tough tons at approximately the same rate as Cook and Bell.


So Who’s The Greatest?

Unless we define what ‘great’ actually means it’s difficult to say. What the evidence above does show, however, is that Pietersen was the ‘best’ batsman of England’s recent past: he has the highest career average, has scored the most tons against elite opposition, and averages more against England’s traditional foes (the Aussies and Proteas) than his contemporaries. His record is actually a bit better than I thought it was.

In terms of cashing in against the poor attacks – and really filling one’s boots – I think Cook is probably the best of the rest. However, as an opener he undoubtedly had more opportunity to get stuck in for long periods. I’m also concerned by his relative lack of success against the best opponents – a criticism that also applies to Bell (to a lesser extent). One should also note that none of Cook’s ‘Daddy hundreds’ have come against elite attacks.

I find Trott’s career stats the most interesting. It’s a shame, in many ways, that he hasn’t played as many matches as Cook. Had he done so it would be interesting to compare their careers. Trott has scored 3763 at 46.5 in 49 tests, whereas Cook has scored 8423 at 46 in 109 games; therefore they’ve accumulated their runs at approximately the same rate.

One is tempted to say that Cook and Trott are batsmen of remarkably similar ability. It’s certainly unfair to characterise one of them as England’s best ever batsman without giving the other due consideration – unless, of course, longevity is considered a key factor.

Looking at the statistics, I would place Bell alongside these two as very good players who are just short of world class. One can split hairs as to what ‘world class’ actually means, but I don’t believe either Cook, Bell or Trott are on the same level as guys like Amla, De Villiers, Michael Clarke or Kumar Sangakkara i.e. batsmen that average more than the modern benchmark of 50.

But what of Pietersen? Does Pietersen’s record suggest he’s an all time great, or even England’s greatest ever batsman? I’m uncertain to be honest. I’ll let other people argue about that. KP’s statistics suggest he was an extremely good player, but a lesser player than the Pontings or Jayawardenes of this world.

Then again, statistics certainly don’t mean everything: they don’t take into account whether runs were made at crucial times or how good these runs were to watch. Ian Bell might be considered a superior player to Cook and Trott (despite their similar averages) because his method is so pleasing on the eye.

What I will say, however, is that I don’t accept the argument that aggregate runs equals greatness. If one argues that Pietersen is great because he’s scored more runs that anyone else across all formats, then one must simultaneous accept that Cook is also a great player (and Trott might have become one too). Instead, I prefer to look at who a batsman’s runs were scored against.

Consequently, if I was going to argue that KP was great, I would do so on the basis of his seven/eight tons against top class opposition – plus the fact he was so entertaining to watch. The problem with that, however, is that players from England’s past have scored just as many, if not more test tons, against fearsome bowlers.

Overall, however, I think it’s a shame that England haven’t produced an indisputably great batsmen for decades. The West Indies had Lara, the Australians Ponting, the Indians Tendulkar, the South Africans Kallis and the Sri Lankan’s Sangakkara. In some cases these nations have produced multiple world-class talents.

Kevin Pietersen is a brilliant player – certainly England’s best for some time – but most consider him a player of great innings rather than a great player. The thing is, if Pietersen cannot be termed ‘great’, then what does that say about Cook, Trott and Bell?

The bottom line is that England have produced plenty of very good batsmen over the years, but none that would qualify as all time greats. I’d be interested to know whether you all agree?

James Morgan



  • As far as I am concerned it would be wrong to label any of Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Trott as a great batsman. The word “great” should be saved for the likes of Bradman, Hobbs, Sobers, Viv Richards and the like.

    On the other hand, there is one amongst Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Trott who can be called “greatly watchable” and he is amongst the most watchable batsmen in cricket history.

    We all know who he is and he may well bat for England once again.

  • Good stats breakout guys. Interesting reading. I always believed trott was actually the ‘best’ batsmen for England. Kp close behind, then a big gap to bell and a big gap again to cook. Stats disprove it as you pointed out but stats vs big guns start to,prove it. Depends if you want to count runs vs weak oppos

    • Trott’s average against Australia might not be so high had he stuck around for the entire series last time.

      Maybe you should add another 80 runs and 8 more dismissals to his record and see how it looks.

      • Can we remove cooks only good series then against a aus attack of hildenhaus, diddle and a half baked Harris ?? Cook beat on a weak aus team, what’s his avg in 2006/7??2009? 2013? 2013/14??

  • This whole attempt to ‘rank’ different batsmen in a team is a bit of a pointless exercise if you ask me James. It’s like asking whether Martin Johnson, Richard Hill, Jonny Wilkinson or Jason Robinson was more important in England’s 2003 rugby team, or Henry greater than Bergkamp, Vieira or Tony Adams for Arsenal. They were all vital cogs in a team, which when it was going well, performed fantastically well.

    They’ve all arrived at similar test averages via different methods, although I dispute the subjective way you’ve dismissed some of Cook’s efforts, particularly the 750 runs in the Ashes in 2010/2011. 750 runs in a series is a feat achieved only twice since Lara’s golden 1995, and less than 20 times in test history, and all the names on that list are fairly special. I would add that walking out to bat in Brisbane 2nd innings over 200 runs behind with 15 overs and two days to play and batting the way he did (which I think set up England for the series) was a monumental effort. He batted for something like 22 hours in the first two tests for 400+ runs – the Aussies were shot by the end of it. You’ve dismissed virtually the same Aussie attack that destroyed England 4 years on – Harris played in 3 tests in 2010 – Cook scored 270 odd runs in 4 innings in those tests – not exactly shabby.

    In its own pedestrian way, Cook’s batting was as demoralising to the opposition as any KP firework display or Mitchell Johnson thunderbolts. I would love to get that version of Cook back – I fear we won’t.

    Before I get jumped on by those that see any praise of Cook as some kind of slight against KP, nobody is disputing his place as the most gifted and destructive batsman of his generation, however I would say that KP benefited from Cook, Strauss and Trott’s solidity at the top – the 227 in Adelaide, the 186 in Mumbai grab the headlines – few remember that Cook was accumulating centuries at the other end, less sexy, but just as important. Last year’s Ashes showed how much England lost when both Cook and Trott were failing at the top of the order.

    This is all a bit ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’…

    • When you call KP ‘the most gifted and most destructive batsman of his generation’, you are presumably confining that to English batsmen only?

    • Thanks for getting involved Hamish. I’ve not ‘subjectively dismissed’ Cook’s efforts in Australia at all. Those were not runs made against world class attacks that contained two bowlers who averaged less than 30 in test cricket at the time (which is the benchmark I set beforehand and stuck to religiously, regardless of which batsman I was analysing). That’s why some of KP’s most famous innings were omitted too

      I’m afraid this is a fact. Mitchell Johnson’s average was just over 30 in that series, and he bowled very poorly. I dealt with this subject in more detail in the original article. The mainstays of Australia’s attack in that series were Hilfenhaus and Siddle I recall. Harris played in 3 games, but two of Cook’s tons occurred in the games Harris missed.

      I take your point about the batsmen being different cogs in the machine though. This is a perfectly valid argument.

      • By setting the 30 average benchmark, you remove bowlers like Harbajan, Brett Lee, Vettori, Hoggard, Kallis, Qadir, Sobers – none of whom would be classed as poor bowlers.

        To take an alternative look at Johnson, in 2010 his career strike rate was around 53 (it’s now 50) – that’s better than Akram, Ambrose, Roberts, Morkel, Hoggard, Botham, Imran, Pollock, Anderson, Merv, Snow, Alderman amongst seamers – some would say Strike Rate is surely as effective a method of determining a fast bowler’s effectiveness as average.

        But I go back to my previous point – as an opener, walking out after 2 days in the field with a deficit of over 200, a tricky 15 over spell and then 2 full days to bat to save a match and scoring an unbeaten double ton cannot be classed as a ‘poor’ century. The match situation (not to mention that it’s a 1st Ashes test away from home) demands that it is classified a high quality innings.

        The other point about your original analysis is that historically, openers have a lower average (10-15%) than middle order – a consequence of facing the new ball and fresh fast bowlers. In recent times, only Hayden and Sehwag have averaged 50 at the top (based on a decent amount of innings). Therefore direct comparison of average between openers and middle order is slightly flawed.

        • I think you’re missing the point a little. I’m by no means dismissing Cook’s runs as ‘poor runs’. That would be daft. I’m merely trying to assess who is the best player based upon their performances against the very best bowlers.

          As for opening having a negative affect on career averages, I think I’d argue that the disadvantage of opening against top bowling is offset by the advantage of having more time to score big daddy hundreds (particularly advantageous against the poorer attacks) when a team may declare with only 4 or 5 wickets down.

          In terms of English batsmen, I don’t think openers have historically had lower averages than middle order players (in recent decades anyway). Atherton & Stewart averaged the same as Hussain, Strauss the same as Collingwood, while Gooch averaged more than Lamb etc. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you’re suggesting. Similarly our two great allrounders, Botham and Flintoff, only averaged in the low 30s batting at 6. Perhaps it’s not as advantageous to bat in the middle order in England as it is in the subcontinent where pitches go flat and bowlers tire more easily (I’m just guessing here). Good debate mind! That’s what the article hoped for. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth.

          • It’s great debate James – .it’s refreshing to make cricketing points without being accused of being an ECB apologist or anti-Pietersen!

            Although trying to rank innings based on the quality of 2 of the opposition bowlers and not taking into account match situation is a bit of a lopsided exercise

            The overall average for opening batsmen in test cricket is 35.9, no 3 c40, no 4 c41, no 5 c38 and no 6 32. Openers are more likely to get out for low scores because they face the new ball. I would maintain that Atherton was a much better batsman than Hussain, likewise Gooch over Lamb.

            • It’s an interesting point. All the bowlers you mentioned above (Harby, Kallis, Hoggard) were all good bowlers but not ones that struck fear into the opposition. Match situation / scoreboard pressure are much more extreme when there’s a Steyn running in at you rather than a Siddle. I take your point about historic averaged by position, but the game has changed a lot in recent years. Pitches are now flatter, the kookaburra ball has a less pronounced seam, and thee has been a paucity of top class bowlers like Ambrose, Wasim, Donald etc playing the game. Opening is generally not the hazardous exercise it has been historically.

              • Your rule would eliminate the England attack of 2005 (only Jones had an average below 30), an attack many of the Australians thought was one of – if not the – best all-round pace attacks they’d ever faced.

                Not to say it’s an entirely bad rule, but there are clearly flaws/loopholes.

              • I thought someone might bring that up! If you look back into the distant past, I think you may find that both Harrison and Hoggard averaged under 30 at the time those matches were played. There were a couple of other cases like this I highlighted in the first article e.g. Mitchell Johnson averages in the low 20s now, but at the time of the 2010/11 Ashes he was just over 30; therefore he didn’t count as world class at the time, although he definitely would now (if you see what I mean).

                Harmison and Hoggard’s careers suffered a little after 2005, which might have adversely effected their overall records. I have no idea why Flintoff averaged over 30. It’s one of the great mysteries of our time :-)

                Overall though, I take your point. No method of analysis is perfect and mine certainly has flaws as well as benefits.

              • Flintoff didn’t actually take that many wickets in tests barring his golden couple of years between 2003 and 2005. Think he only has about 4 or 5 5 wicket hauls

                He was a much better one day bowler.

        • On Test openers and averaging fifty, 14 batsmen have played 20 Tests or more as opener and averaged 50+. Gavaskar and Amiss are two of not so distant vintage to add to Hayden and Sehwag. Warner currently averages 49.3 so could well join that group in time.

          There are more than double the number of batsmen who played at Nos. 3 and 4 who have managed the same feat.

          • James here. Interesting stats. I think No3s might average more because traditionally the best player in the side bats 3 (or possibly 4). Tendulkar, Lara, Ponting, Kallis etc. It’s not always the way, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

            • Upping the number of matches required, only six openers ever have opened in 50+ Tests and averaged 50 (Sutcliffe, Hobbs, Hutton, Sehwag, Hayden, Gavaskar).

              Sixteen Nos. 3 and 4 have managed it.

          • To counter your other argument James, in the last 15-20 years openers averages have gone up less than 3,4 and 5 batsmen who are all in excess of 40.

            An opener is more susceptible to low scores because he faces a new ball and fresh bowlers – even mediocre bowlers can bowl unplayable deliveries with a new cherry. I think Atherton had more ducks than any other English player.

            The other figures I looked at showed that South Africa is a graveyard for openers – since they were re-admitted in 1992, openers (SA & oppo) average 32 against an overall test average of 36. In the last 10 years, that figure goes down to 30, against an worldwide average of 36.3. Compare that to the worldwide average of batters 3-5 of 43 which only goes down to 42 in South Africa. Harder to open in SA than anywhere else in the world.

            As an opener, Cook’s figures against South Africa are pretty good – he’s passed 50 in 8 out of 20 innings, but only gone on to three figures twice.

            I get your point – I don’t think anybody sensible labels Cook as England’s ‘greatest ever’ (does anybody take Stuart Broad’s utterances seriously?), but you can’t deny his run-scoring feats. The problem I have with your article is that assessing bowlers by average doesn’t present the full picture, which is evident by the innings of all four batsmen that are not included, and even Cook’s tons against quality attacks come with the dig about him struggling in the rest of the series.

    • Before I get jumped on by those that see any praise of Cook as some kind of slight against KP

      Not I.

      I think few on here would dismiss Cook’s record.
      It is his failure as a captain, and (possibly) his persistence in the team in the face of a long and severe decline in form that irks.

      One other thought – you wouldn’t want to see Pietersen open for the test side any more than you might wish to see an in form Cook bat at 4.

  • Very crisply written and astutely analysed.

    But surely we don’t need to get too bogged down in the stats to make a couple of plain observations.

    I’d have thought it quite clear that Pietersen has Cook, Trott and Bell covered in the ‘modern great’ stakes.

    I’d have thought it equally clear that all four lag behind Hutton, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Barrington and Hobbs in the big picture.

    Aren’t these pretty much the only English batsmen to average 50-plus over a proper career?

    If so, why should we anoint one of the current crop ‘the greatest’?

    I realise this discussion arose out of Broad’s absurd arse-licking, but shouldn’t that just be dismissed out of hand? Otherwise it’s just another regrettable instalment in the trend of assuming the new stuff is the ‘best ever’. It’s dumb.

    I remember when Tendulkar claimed the Test record and some dickheads decided it meant he had surpassed Bradman. Complete horseshit, of course.

    It should go without saying that mere aggregate doesn’t immediately constitute greatness. By way of example, Mark Waugh scored over 8000 Test runs, marginally fewer than Cook and KP, but wouldn’t get anywhere near a ‘Greatest Australian XI’ of the past 30 years.

    But maybe that says more about the difference between England and Australia than anything else.

    • Thanks. Of course, one could argue that comparisons are a waste of time. It’s just talking points really. cricket is all about opinion.

      • Not at all, James. I wasn’t suggesting for a second it was a waste of time. I hope that wasn’t the impression I conveyed. I was actually agreeing with you – but in a long-winded way. And of course indulging in some gentle Australian ribbing.

        I’m merely surprised that you needed to defend the claim that Cook isn’t actually England’s greatest batsman. For mine, that is self-evidently true. That assertion, made by Broad, was obviously ridiculous.

        Sometimes, it’s not “all about opinion”. The rubber hits the road eventually.

  • James,

    I didn’t comment on your previous post because it was just a stat too far for me proving to that addage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Your stats and obvious objectivity as displayed in today’s excellent analysis remedied the unintended biases that you seemed to have incorporated in to your previous statistical survey of batting “greatness.”

    To my eternal shame, I have completed a considerably less comprehensive analysis to underpin our (endless) family discussions over the Cookie:KP debate over recent months. I think it’s probably fair (statistically fair!) to say that selecting data points, averaging conditions, terms, opposition capabilities, points in career and a portmanteau of other factors would probably allow both Cook and Pietersen supporters (?disciples?) to justify their positions.

    This, therefore, is my slightly unexpected conclusion (disclosure: as the avowed Cookie supporter in the household!) “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’m reasonably objective in general. I will accept (without further statistical reference or debate) that Cookie’s batting is in the top league, but perhaps not at the top of the top league of English or World batsmen and that KP’s record is similarly impressive but (differently) flawed. They are both “current greats” who have taken breath-takingly brilliant advantage of different capabilities, temperaments and opportunities at different times and in different manners, but Bradman they are not.

    Both, however, suffer from the modern game’s and very specifically the modern English game’s reliance on precisely that feature which I have come to believe represent our most significant handicaps: poor management and statistical reliance. As a modestly-talented mathematician and analyst myself I have come to believe that what we (England) must try to avoid is too much analysis. Although brought up in the Wisden tradition of cradle-to-grave statistics with the modern additions of online data and spreadsheet modelling tools to “perfect” this science, what has bedevilled England’s performance over the last 20 years at least has been too much reliance on the statistics.

    What I have come to believe is that English cricket has gradually been losing its passion and, with that, much of its support and its cultural position in the centre, at the heart of English sporting culture. It upsets me enormously. From every dissection of a bowler’s action to selection based on spreadsheet modelling, we have upended the natural requirement for us to make our national game function as a leader-defined team sport in which aggression and wily strategy play varying and unequal parts in a meld of capabilities, physical and mental, social and personal.

    Is there a place for awkward characters? Surely. The GLY, the veritable Duke of Boycott himself surely amply demonstrates how and why cricket XI’s can and should accommodate sturdy individualists (both from Yorkshire, and, whisper it, even elsewhere!) Should we be able to incorporate “selfish” players in to the squad? Certainly? Can a team afford to carry and keep players through periods of poor “form” (that most-elusive of statistical terms)? They must (and learn how not to destroy the basic capabilities that led to their initial consideration and selection in the process of returning them to “form”.) Have we (as supporters, players, managers, whatever) got to back our leaders in difficult times? We certainly must.

    So. Let’s end the statistical debate – while thanking you for a notable, objective and finely balanced contribution to it. Cook and Pietersen are very different but great batsmen and it ill-behoves us playing-pygmies (I speak only for myself) to criticise their performances too much. We won’t rebuild our national game and take our nation’s XI back to winning performance by too much statistical work.

    Let’s change the structure of our game and its development, acknowledging what complete pants our approach to the limited over varieties of the game has been and what a total and indefensible shower our “managers” have been for the last decade at least. The biggest cheer should have gone up around the country at Downton’s departure (sad though that must be for him, who I am sure “did his best”) and that should be only the start of the cleansing of the Augean stables of cricket leadership. I’m really not a vengeful man, but their should be heads on sticks in the Long Room. Perhaps 11 would be an appropriate number.

    Beyond this, Cook is a fine leader – whether a “great” or merely a “good” batsman. This is not the place to re-hash our history endlessly (enjoyable though that might be) but who would not have continued to select Mike Brearley as Captain despite his appallingly middling record with the bat? (OK – Titmus and “Henry” Edmonds I guess!) Look what happened to Beefy’s form when he took over as Captain despite his unquestionable, eternal brilliance. Thoughts of his capabilities can bring grown men to tears, but the Captaincy was not his thing. Cook is a fine Captain (not a Brearley by any means) but an inspirational poster-boy for our national game and a good (who knows, maybe “great” leader in the field and in the dressing room.) He was treated diabolically by our appalling “management” in his retention and then dismissal as one-day captain last year. Root may be a Captain for the future, but it would be an irresponsible absurdity not to dedicate ourselves to Cook’s continuing Captaincy for the next 2-3 years, barring unfortunate incident and $)(£*$)@(£-well getting behind him. The mix of inspiration and perspiration may not be to everyone’s “leadership” menu, defiance versus acceptance of orders can be questioned, but in the context of supporting a Captain in charge of steering us towards victory (again!) while re-finding the personal form that we all know that he is capable of.

    As for KP, surely he’s a good batsman too. Perhaps even “greater” than Cookie. He’s “doing his time” with Surrey and if he delivers (as even those of us who declare ourselves as Cookie supporters must still wish for) he should be selected on his merits – despite the fact that he appears to have as much team spirit as a serrated-edged knife and the PR skills (and team surrounding him) to cause heartache for all and for his Captain particularly. Talented bloody-minded individuals have a place in cricket XI’s and represent a particular problem that “great” Captains must be able to adopt and obtain the best results from. That a South African should commit himself to England so passionately and whole-heartedly should be a cause for celebration not small-minded national chauvinism and exclusionary thinking.

    So, James, please forgive this peroration. I think that you have done a fine job statistically. But the point must surely be that as a national game we need to understand the statistics and then put them (firmly) behind and beneath us as we re-purpose our game for a new generation, and a new generation that will be formed in large part by inspirational leadership. What we need are “great” leaders, which come in all sorts of flavours. I’d vote for the Cook flavour and then give him our hearts and souls and damn the stats.

    With thanks and affectionate regard from a fellow statistician struggling to keep that tendency under control….and a moment (possibly too extended!) of passion over analysis, which it remains my belief is the most pressing need of our national game.

    • it would be an irresponsible absurdity not to dedicate ourselves to Cook’s continuing Captaincy for the next 2-3 years…




    • You lost me at “Cook is a fine leader.”

      We can debate his batting, but he ain’t a good captain. Hence they have to keep telling us what a nice chap he is, and what a good family he comes from.

      Funny, I never remember being told about Brearleys family.

    • Thanks for your comment Xan B. You’ve covered a lot of ground there! I’m aware of the irony of using stats when I’ve been a critic of England using them too often ;-) I certainly agree that cricket sides should contain contrasting characters. It’s part of the fabric of the sport, and it’s a shame that cricket now boasts less colourful personalities likes Tufnell / Devon Malcolm etc as it’s become more professional.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I think it’s right that teams should include contrasting characters. Just as this blog welcomes contrasting opinions (or tries to!). Always nice to hear from new posters.

    • That was really interesting Xan. Statistics are, for many, one of the fascinations of following cricket but I agree it’s more about reflection. KP may have got out a number of times to SLAs but that doesn’t mean he’ll get out to the next one.

      I can’t agree that Cook is a fine leader. May be the best the current team have got but I don’t notice him doing special things out on the field.

      I feel for Botham. He was given two series against the great WI team for his first captaincy experience.

      Yes, indeed, new England would benefit most from inspirational leadership – captain or coach or both. The incumbents haven’t shown inspiration or the results we’d hope for. I’d say that what we dearly need is a hero – a Botham, a Warne, a Freddie, a Hutton. KP at his best and being uncontentious is nearly it but is running out of time.

    • “an inspirational poster-boy for our national game”.

      This has to be some sort of a joke, right? Since when has being a poster-boy been part of captaincy? Most would rate Nasser our best captain of the last quarter century and he was nobody’s poster-boy!

      Also, on the use of stats you’ve conflated two different issues. One is the use of stats by the team management. Many would agree that has gone too far (I wouldn’t, by the way). The other, the use of stats by commentators and fans to support an argument, is a completely different issue. James’s measure seems to me a valid one although not of course the only way of looking at the issue. Those who wish to look at it differently can conduct research as diligent and submit their findings.

      • Selectors often do go for the poster boy though. Thats why Botham became captain after Brearley and why Flintoff was given the captaincy for a stint over Strauss.

        • Add KP to that list as well – Strauss should have been captain straight after Vaughan.

          Botham was made captain because he had pretty much carried all before him in his first 2 years in test cricket so it seemed a logical next step……don’t think anybody could have foreseen it affecting his form quite as badly as it did.

    • You lost me when you put Cook and Leader in the same sentance without the words ‘poor’. You sound like a ECB PR machine

  • I don’t think any of them are what I would call genuinely great.

    One of the interesting aspects of the last Ashes was the revelation that real quality fast bowling is still very hard to play against. There had been a food of thought that fast bowling had become nulified by a combination of modern protective clothing, restrictions on bouncers, and flat pitches. The so called ” cheif executive pitches” that stay flat on day 4 and 5.

    What happened was that when the modern players came up against class, accurate and hostile bowling they were found wanting. Only one player Stokes averaged over 30 in the series. And he didn’t play in most of the matches.

    I am not at all confident that any of the players you name would have been able to to suceed against the great fast bowling attacks of the WI in the 70s & 80s. Or Lillie and Thompson in 74. Or the Pakistan quicks of the early 90s. Also very few of these players scored big runs against both Warne and Murali. 2 top spin bowlers. KP and Bell the only two who played much against Warne.

    I have great respect for the likes of Atherton and Stewart, and Thorpe, and Gooch who played against much better quality bowling attacks. As always with sport comparisons I can’t prove a word of what I’ve said. It is all just opinion. But I did see England batsman going out against Lillie and Thompson and Holding and Roberts with just cloth caps on and basic protection. It was a different world. Maybe the tragic death of Phil Hughes will make modern batsman more cautious of fast bowling.

    • “One of the interesting aspects of the last Ashes was the revelation that real quality fast bowling is still very hard to play against.”

      The other revelation was that England weren’t quite as good as they thought they were.

      • In a way that’s my point. Maybe Cook, Trott, Bell and KP aren’t as good as we like to think. Their averages certainly aren’t outstanding in a modern context. Many great players raise their game when the heat is on, and they’ve got a Donald, Ambrose or Steyn bowling at them. Pietersen is the possibly the only one of the four who falls into this category.

  • I’d question ranking Pakistan so far above India in terms of bowling attacks. Indeed, I’d question the whole methodology. It’s very fast-bowler focused. That’s not the only challenge a batsman faces.

    Cook made a ton, on debut, in India against an attack boasting Kumble and Harby. That is a great innings.

    Cook is an all time /great/ player of spin. (As is KP, come to think of it. Has /anyone/ played Murali like him).

    One should not forget how hard it has been for English players to score in India and hardly any have a record to match Cook’s.

    In short, he’s an exceptional player of spin and a great accumulator in difficult (for Englishmen) conditions.

    His record clearly shows he’s not a great player of quality pace/seam/swing. Few openers are, of course, but he’s quite a way short of being great in this area.

    He’d probably not have enjoyed the 90s.

  • Oh, and I went to YouTube t’other day to hear again Richie’s last words of commentary in England. They ran over a montage of KP’s 158 at The Oval, ending (movingly) when KP was dismissed by McGrath.

    I’d forgotten just what a great innings that 158 is. And what we owe to it.

    Anyone who slags KP off as a mercenary or any of the other slights that get thrown his way should be forced to watch that innings, in whole, on loop, for about 3 days.

    English cricket would be a fraction of the game it is today without that remarkable performance. Cook, Flower and everyone else owe a huge debt to it. (and that’s ignoring the India 186 etc.)

  • The think the stats support my assertion that Pakistan have had better bowlers than India in recent years. Kumble’s test average was 30 and Harby’s was 32. Saeed Ajmal, on the other hand, averages 28. Pakistan have also been much stronger in seam bowling. Shoaib Akhtar averaged in the low 20s and Mohammad Asif averaged 24! No India seamer comes close, although Srinath was a fine bowler. The centuries list does take account of great spinners like Warne and Murali.

  • And also in tribute to the great man, one G. Swann demonstrates the point of his advice to fellow pundits, ‘engage brain before mouth’ –

    “I’m completely flabbergasted by the West Indies’ decision to bowl first. The wicket looks an absolute belter. There’s no grass, so it’s a very strange option

  • I get you had to draw a line somewhere with the averages, in order to do an analysis.
    However it should be redrawn in order to include Bells ton at Nottingham in 13, that was a superb innings.

    • It was a very fine innings, but Australia’s attack in that game was Pattinson, Starc, Siddle and Agar. Only Pattinson averages under 30 in test cricket. Sorry! :-)

      • Yeah I understand that there had to be a criteria. But that’s the problem when just judging on stats.
        But remember the pressure of the game, the pitch, the match situation. It was a blinding innings.

        • Yes that’s definitely a weakness in my analysis. It would be exhaustive to do analysis that deep! I don’t think data is available for match situation, pressure etc. Then again, one could argue that great bowling is one of the main factors that raises pressure. Scoreboard pressure is easier to deal with if Corey Collymore is bowling at you rather than Courtney Walsh :-)

  • The biggest question raised here is: why haven’t we produced greats in all this time? Nobody with a Test average even approaching 50 (remember, the difference between averaging 46 or 47 and 50 over 100 tests or more is big, so 47 = nowhere close to 50 in this context).

    Meanwhile, other countries have produced Hayden, Ponting, Clarke, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Shiv, Sanga & Mahela, Amla, Kallis, de Villiers etc. within the same period, plus guys who look like they’re about to become greats (Warner, Smith, McCullum, Williamson etc.).

    Root could be our first great in many years if his average sticks above 50. Same for Ballance (potentially).

    • ” why haven’t we produced greats in all this time?”

      All England cricketers are GREAT by birth – especially if born into the ‘right sort of family’ – they are unequally able to be entitled under the ECB definition of what a ‘great’ is – English through and true!! The stats don’t matter, the ability to play well doesn’t matter, it is all about breeding and the English elite breed …

      • Speaking of Right-sort-of-family Man, Cook has just failed YET AGAIN vs the Windies!

        #passenger #getLythin

  • Without looking at any of the stats (sorry) but having been at the Oval in 2005, I have to say KP. He is a great, for me. That 158 meant so much.

    I love what Trott did for four years but I fear for him at international level now. Bell does well a lot of the time, and he should do well for a few years yet. Cooky, though…

    Whatever positivity I had for his batting qualities went over a year and a half ago. If he wasn’t captain he’d be playing for Essex. He shouldn’t be captain based on results and what your eyes tell you. He was good – deffo – and played some great innings at times. Then he got found out. But he has friends in higher places. He ain’t great, he is the definition of entitled.

    [Glad the pop-ups have gone now]

    • Sorry, M-sie: if he doesn’t average 50, he’s not a great. Call it an arbitrary statistic if you want, but it’s as close as we’re ever going to get to an objective definition of a “great”. And if “great” isn’t defined objectively, then anyone can be great, so the word loses all meaning.

      • Aw well, can’t argue with 50!

        Stuff all the England players, then… I’m going with Sir Viv.

  • Stats do not indicate greatness: they are simple a convenient measure of the score attained against a variety of opposition over time. Greatness has that ethereal quality that can not be judged on numbers. Sobers and Marshall were greats – I’m not sure of their stats but I know they were great because that’s how I felt when I watched them. None of those mentioned would fall into the category of great (I’m puzzled why Broad’s opinion of Cook warrants such analysis – the man was just expressing an opinion as many do about other players). However, out of the four I’d pick Cook to cheer for in a match: he has struggled terribly and also been vilified horribly – his is the better story and when eventually he does start to score big, the pleasure in watching it will be the greater because of all the abuse he has suffered. Maybe it’s because of the behaviour of his detractors but Cook is definitely the one I care for the most, which is not an indication of his greatness as a player, but does show that emotion is relevant in watching a sport like cricket.

    • he’s suffered alright, never dropped, always selected irrespective of form, no leadership qualities yet still captain, handy at backstabbing, good at blaming others whilst ignoring his own role in things, good at rewriting history, full of ‘I am’ platitudes and a very weak individual – it’s about time Cookie was put out of his misery and strong selectors would do that, it’s about time we were put out of our misery, a very unpleasant human being! …. next ………entitled and all that

      • I think the truth lies somewhere between your and Mrs Brundle’s opinions.

        But those big doe eyes do bring out the mothering instinct.

        • What a patronising and incredibly sexist remark. It is not mothering but an opinion just like everyone else’s. Just because I want Cook to get back to scoring runs and not have to suffer abuse from trolls, does not mean I am mothering him. I happen to believe cricket should not descend to the level of personal abuse that soccer does. And I’m no more interested in Cook’s ‘big doe eyes’ than the utter cobblers that some blokes write about cricket. Maybe you want to ‘mother’ every sportsman you support, but I can assure you that women (just like most men) actually just enjoy the game for the skill, competition and drama that is displayed.

  • Who the hell judges the greatness of a player on stats. As for judging them on the opposition bowlers being elite – bowlers such as Mitch Johnson are erratic to say the least: Brett Lees bowling figures in England for example are horrendous (his average is over 40), but I’d still not want to face him at his best. Likewise, you have to judge match situation, conditions along with the opposition ability. For example, Cook opens the batting and faces the bowlers when they are fresh and the ball is new – that is very different to coming in and facing the bowler in the 50th over with 200/3 on the board or coming in with 39/3 as Root had to on the first day of the present test against the Windies. Basically, it’s a stupid argument/debate – like whichever player you want and let others enjoy the crickets they admire – that is what cricket is all about.

    • Fair point. Stats don’t tell us everything. But I bet you can’t name me a truly great cricketer who doesn’t also have bloody good stats.

  • I wouldn’t regard any of the four as being “great” all time batsmen. I think was was great for England was that the side got four (five if you include Strauss as well) reasonably good batsmen all at the same time. This helped to lift the side without needing a Kallis, Tendulker or Ponting class of batsman. The four seem of fairly close standard to me and deciding which of them is the best really depends on when, where and what circumstances you look at. The first poster ZB at the top I think is quite right, but having 4(5) reasonably good batsmen is something to be proud of. In the NZ test side at the moment we have three reasonably good batsmen – Taylor, McCullum and Williamson – and its great. ,

  • Current England players (some not current) and player of the match stats:

    K Pietersen: 10 (104 Matches)

    S Broad: 7 (74 Matches)

    J Anderson: 7 (99 Matches)

    G Swann: 6 (60 Matches)

    A Cook: 5 (109 Matches)

    I Bell: 3 (105 Matches)

    J Trott: 2 (49 Matches)

    A Strauss: 2 (100 Matches)

    Whilst player of the match is subjective, it still gives a better idea of who made a leading contribution to the direction of the match. It does not tell if any player was great but it does show who at least made consistent leading contributions to the team.

    • Interestingly, Strauss has only two MoM awards yet 5 series awards. KP has 10 match awards yet only 2 series awards.

      The massive caveat is that you do get some weird choices.

      • Well not really. If you score 70 in every innings of a 5 match series, assuming 10 innings are played then you would have 700 runs. A 70 is never going to get you a man of the match award however scoring 700 runs in a series would almost guarantee you man of the series.

        • What I meant was, that there are some weird choices made for match and series awards, the subjective judgement and whim of whoever’s choosing.

          I think series performances are a great barometer of performance, given that a team’s objective is to come out on top at the end of the summer. It’s why I rate Cook’s performances in Australia and India highly, as well as Bell’s Ashes of 2013, where he almost fought a lone hand.

          It’s one of my frustrations about Pietersen that he didn’t dominate series in the manner that he possibly should have.

          • Bell didn’t win a man of the match award in any of those games. Anderson, Root and Broad took the gongs.

  • it wasn’t always thus for Test cricket, especially not in England. In 2005, it encountered a perfect storm, the conditions for which can never be recreated. That summer’s Ashes was the heavyweight championship of the world, the undefeated holders against the eager young challengers in five rounds of ceaselessly gripping action. This was cricketainment as no marketeer could ever have conceived – the perfect blend of talent and personality, drama and narrative, played out on national free-to-air television across an entire summer, like a soap opera or a prime-time reality TV show, only better because it served the needs of diehard fans and casual consumers alike. It ought to have been the springboard to new and greater things for Test cricket. Instead the sport shrivelled, almost from the moment the ticker tape had been cleared from Trafalgar Square, and England found themselves being outplayed in front of deserted stadiums on their subsequent tour to Pakistan. The loss of terrestrial coverage was critical, of course, but the loss of nerve was more galling. “Test cricket is marketed like medicine, or broccoli,” says Gillis. “The message is ‘get it down you, it’s good for you’. The people and organisations running it display a fundamental lack of confidence in the product.” Who has the gumption to sugar Test cricket’s pill? As Sanjay Manjrekar once astutely noted: “For Test cricket to survive, Rahul Dravid must earn more money playing Tests than Suresh Raina does playing T20.”

    worth a read


  • I’d be interested to see the same analysis applied to some past players and the sort who always get wheeled out as England’s greatest ever. In particular, I would like to see how Barrington, Compton, Hammond, Hutton on the one hand and Gower, Gooch and Thorpe on the other stack up against each other. I have a suspicion that Barrjngton would do well even if he was fearfully dull at times to watch. And I guess you better include Sir Geoffrey.

    Incidentally there was another tall, fearless South African import who divided opinion, by the name of AW Greig. He made hundreds against Lillee and Thomson (in a series that cruelly exposed Amiss, Denness, Lloyd and several others who batted above him) and v Lloyds West Indians (though he otherwise had a poor series).

    As a control test, would your rating of great bowling have included Lillee and Thomson in 1974/5? If not (becaus the supporting attack wasn’t as good) I’m afraid that is a problem.

  • An interesting analysis. I remember discussing Pietersen and one argument was he only did it when England were in a good position. This, of course, can be considered incorrect. In order to prove him wrong, I looked at the state of the game KP came into bat and scored a century. The scores are below.

    158 v Australia (Oval 2005) – 67/3 (NET 73/3)
    100 v Pakistan (Faisalabad 2005) – 107/3
    158 v Sri Lanka (Lord’s 2006) – 312/3
    142 v Sri Lanka (Edgbaston 2006) – 125/3 (No other batsman scored more than 30 in the England innings)
    135 v Pakistan (Headingley 2006) – 110/3
    158 v Australia (Adelaide 2006) – 158/3
    109 v West Indies (Lord’s 2007) – 51/2 (NET 167/2)
    226 v West Indies (Headingley 2007) – 91/2
    134 v India (Lord’s 2007) – 43/2 (NET 140/2)
    101 v India (Oval 2007) – 86/2
    129 v New Zealand (Napier 2008) – 4/2 (Made over 50% of the runs in this innings)
    115 v New Zealand (Trent Bridge 2008) – 44/2 (England were also 86/5)
    152 v South Africa (Lord’s 2008) – 117/2
    100 v South Africa (Oval 2008) – 51/2
    144 v India (Mohali 2008) – 1/2
    102 v West Indies (Port of Spain 2009) – 27/2 (NET 29/2)
    227 v Australia (Adelaide 2010) – 176/2
    202 v India (Lord’s 2011) – 62/2
    175 v India (Oval 2011) – 97/2
    151 v Sri Lanka (Colombo 2012) – 213/2
    149 v South Africa (Headingley 2012) – 85/2
    186 v India (Mumbai 2012) – 68/2
    113 v Australia (Old Trafford 2013) – 64/3

    Of course, these stats would be more difficult to interpret for Cook who opens the batting. Bell, on the other hand, was criticised until a few years ago for not scoring the first century of an innings.


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