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Is batting average the clue to finding the next Dhoni?

By S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath

Truly great and enduring Test teams like Lloyd's West Indies of the 1980s and Steve Waugh’s Aussies of the 1990s were a unique combination of great batsmen and great bowlers. India climbed to the top largely because of its legendary batsmen. The magnificent heroes, after a decade of stirring exploits that helped India reach the top, are at the end of their illustrious careers.

And so we need to begin all over again. It is going to be arduous and painful; we will slip further down before we can climb again. And the Indian fan, impatient and mercurial, will add more pressure and heat than anywhere else.

How difficult this is going to be can be gauged from the fact that in the 80 years since India started playing cricket, we have only 14 batsmen with an average of over 40 and at least 2000 Test runs. Six of these 14 batsmen - Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman, Gambhir and Ganguly – as though by some divine benediction, came together at the same time in the last decade.

Very interestingly, today’s situation has a parallel with the late sixties. As Manjrekar, Pataudi, Borde, Sardesai, Jaisimha and Durani (all fine batsmen but none with an average of over 40) were ebbing away, Vijay Merchant – as bold a selector as he was conservative as a batsman – threw in a slew of youngsters into the team for the home series against New Zealand and Australia and later for the tour to West Indies.

Sharma needs to make the most of his chances. Reuters

Sharma needs to make the most of his chances. Reuters

Viswanath, Solkar, Chauhan, Ambar Roy, Gandotra, Ashok Mankad, Mohinder Amaranth, Gavaskar and many more were tried out in a frenetic hurry. In that stampede, some got washed away after a couple of chances, others like Viswanath, Amarnath and Gavaskar, clicked and stayed on to be counted among India’s and the world’s finest.

Obviously, one need not go down that path of Russian roulette but we must be able to identify a set of batsmen and give them a decent run. Give them the assurance and security and hope they vindicate that trust. Yet, how long is fair enough? How short a run is unfair?

We decided to massage data on Test batsmen to see if we can answer the questions and our analysis showed some pretty interesting results:

1. There are just 34 batsmen in test history with an average of over 50 among those with over 2000 test runs. 29 out of these 34 batsmen showed very early signs of greatness - within their first five or at best 10 tests they were averaging above 40. Of the five batsmen whose initial 10 tests were not so productive, three had at least a century to show.

2. Those five batsmen who did not set cricket grounds on fire with their batting in their first ten tests were Sobers, Kallis, Sangakkara, Steve Waugh and Hayden. Of these, remember, Sobers, started as a bowling all-rounder and Sangakkara as a wicket-keeper batsman. Therefore only Kallis and Steve Waugh truly are the exceptions. Hayden, as cricket followers may remember was dropped for a few years after an unsuccessful start and his career only took off from his massive scores in India in 2001.

3. If a batting average of 50 is too steep a cut off, let us bring the bar down to 45. That allows 47 more batsmen to join the fun and games with this analysis. But here again, these fine batsmen did not need a prolonged series of chances to prove their worth. 24 of these batsmen had an average of over 50 in their first 5 or first 10 tests and 38 (80%) had an average of over 35 in their first 10 tests.

4. Admittedly, the list of nine batsmen who had relatively modest starts contains some stunning names: Inzamam, Kanhai, Laxman, Amla, Simpson, Hassett, Martin Crowe, Langer and Gary Kirsten. Of these nine batsmen who had relatively slower starts (less than an average of 35) four had a century to show that they had promise. The truly slow starters among them with averages in the 20s and no century to show were, Kanhai, Simpson and Laxman. Indian readers, with justification, will point out that Laxman was a middle order batsman forced to play all his early tests as an opener; after he reverted to middle order, success came his way.

5. Let us take this analysis to the next plane – to look more closely and specifically at India’s batsmen. There are just 28 Indian batsmen who have over 2000 runs and an average of over 30. Of these 28, 14 have an average of over 40 – the six modern batsmen Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly and the others – Umrigar, Hazare, Gavaskar, Viswanath, Vengsarkar, Amarnath, Azharuddin and Sidhu.

6. Only three of these 14 batsmen had slow starts. Laxman we have discussed earlier; Vengsarkar, who too forced to open, failed and came back to the middle order where he so eminently belonged. Umrigar is one stunning exception, and we were taken aback to realize that he had such a slow start.

India's Raina and Manoj Tiwary are potential stars as well. But they will need to prove themselves. Reuters

India's Raina and Manoj Tiwary are potential stars as well. But they will need to prove themselves. Reuters

7. Everyone would agree that 30 is a modest average. If we had batsmen with that average in our line up there is no way we will go anywhere near the top of test rankings. Proof? When the great spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat created winning opportunities for India we just did not have enough batting to muscle our way to victories. Our batting began with Gavaskar and ended with Viswanath. By the time Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar strengthened the batting, the spin quartet had faded away.

8. Our analysis shows that batsmen who end up with an average below 40 are also not likely to show much promise in their first 5 or 10 tests. In other words, if they are not scorching the scoreboard early, it seems unlikely they will do it when given a longer rope. Of the 14 Indian batsmen with an average below 40, only 3 batsmen began well. Jaisimha, who had an average of 50 in his first 10 tests and was treated whimsically for the rest of career; Sanjay Manjrekar, technically the finest batsman before Dravid arrived, had an average of 52 with double centuries against fearsome attacks overseas. The third batsman who showed early promise was, well, Kapil Dev, the all-rounder. Now that says something – an all-rounder rather than another batsman is all we can throw up as an exception. Search some more and you will find Dhoni (an all-rounder again) as the next nearest example.

9. So summing up this section, one can be reasonably certain that if Indian batsmen are not averaging in the range of 40 plus, in their early tests, they will end up as only moderately successful batsmen. Greatness will evade them (Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad, Brijesh Patel, Krish Srikkant come to mind – more than a hundred tests between them for very modest returns).

10. The scenario need not have been so grim or barren. India had a number of batsmen who began well, averaging over 40 but just did not get enough chances. The most bizarre case is that of Deepak Shodhan, a superb left-hander who played just three Test matches, averaged 60-plus, had a century on debut and yet was ignored for ever after. In a country where we were desperate for good openers we found Madhav Apte and yet he played just 7 Tests. He averaged almost 50 with a century to boot but never played for India again. Abbas Ali Baig, century on debut, average of 44 in his first five Tests was dropped after he failed in a couple of Tests against Pakistan. Hanumant Singh, averaged 40 in his first 10 Tests and Kripal Singh, averaged 36 after 10 tests. Both of them like Shodhan and Baig hit centuries on debut. But Hanumant was dropped summarily and Kripal played 14 Tests over a nine-year period when he should have played 20 Tests in his prime. Sadagopan Ramesh averaged 56 in his first five tests and 47 in his first 10 tests and had 2 centuries. We ignored these numbers, pontificated that his feet do not move properly and lost a potential “plus 40” opener for ever. Praveen Amre (again century on debut) and Sandip Patil were also potential “plus 40” batsmen that India never tapped into fully. Incidentally, two of our finest batsmen, Rusi Modi and Vijay Merchant played just 10 tests each but averaged over 46.

We hope this exercise helps in understanding the picture. We are saying that most batsmen who end up successful show signs of success early, within their first 10 tests. If one gives too long a rope to batsmen who have not been successful, we may be wasting time and robbing others of their chances. On the other hand, if someone strikes early stick with him, chances are he will make good. India has had a number of batsmen who started well but were not given chances. Don’t do that mistake.

Perhaps over the next two years, a Merchant type formula, but more carefully calibrated is required where as many batsmen as feasible are given a continuous run of five to seven tests on the trot (not a test every rubber for five years as meted out to Kripal Singh and Gopinath). Where you want to ‘bet’ on genuine class, like Viswanath or Hanumant Singh tell them you believe in them and give them ten tests. If they make the grade fine, or else cut your losses and move on to newer players. This is the path – fair and firm – that we need to take with Raina, Pujara, Yuvraj (he will come back soon much stronger), Badrinath, Rohit Sharma, Abhinav Mukund, Kohli, Bist, Pandey, Rahane and other promising youngsters. The next two years will determine whether we will be able to create a batting might that will take us to the top again.