The year is 2030. A group of aliens have landed on Earth and made their way to the BCCI 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 United States as Hollywood portrays it 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 have expanded the IPL to include the test and one day internationals. 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 fanbase and their opponents) regularly give vent their contrastive feelings through communal drinking. Perhaps this was Mallya’s business plan all the way along.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, rather incredibly, the one day international (ODI) format is still in vogue. It has withstood the onslaught of the shorter format. Some things haven’t still changed though: Australia are still an annoying team that everybody hates; England are yet to win a World Cup; Bishan Singh Bedi is still critical of the establishment; there is still no distinction between the English and South African teams either on the field or 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 to parts 1 and 2, where we’ve looked at batsmen who outperformed their peers in a run chase and setting a target respectively. Who would make the cut amongst the batsmen culled from the history of the ODI format? Could we use analytical techniques to come to arrive at this bevy of bewitching batmen?
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 1-7) during their career (BI baseline), a BI ratio has been used to ascertain the various levels at which various batsmen outperformed their peers. 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. One, it has shown that chasing a target and setting one are two different propositions with respect to the BI. Two, 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 5.
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 (9 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 cutoff, 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 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 amongst these having scored 1874 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/chasing, ODI eras, and the batting position into consideration.
The method used in the first two parts (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 ~30% lesser 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 seen in parts 1 and 2. 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 ABPs can be manufactured with different mashups 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 (values in 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 ~54k wickets in ~2 million deliveries bowled—or a wicket every 37 balls. Top ODI batsmen average ~40-50 runs per dismissal at a ~90 strike rate, and hence 7 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 5th bowler (and two more in the batting order should be able to bowl a few overs as a 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 3, 4 & 5, 6, 7 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 Gordon Greenidge and Hashim Amla, separated by the third decimal point. It must be noted that Amla is an active batsman (as are Warner and 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 amongst the highest and hence he would shade Greenidge on this count. Gilchrist, Hayden and Sehwag have had fantastic records as well.
The number 3 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 endgame. A big 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 his contemporaries such as Williamson and Root who have good credentials at number 3. Ponting, Lara and 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 de Villiers. Perhaps we have an answer to which current day batsman is closest to Richards’ level of performance which was two decades ahead of its time. Richards’ illustrious contemporaries like Greg Chappell and Clive Lloyd have played lesser innings than the cut-off (and have much lower ratios).
India’s MS Dhoni shades Bevan and 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 Adam 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 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 slot. Other all-rounders such as Symmonds, Watson, Kapil Dev and Kallis are multiple notches below Klusener’s levels of performance. Viv 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?