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
New Zealand 38
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
New Zealand 33
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
New Zealand 38
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
New Zealand 53
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?