What England’s greatest ever batsman tells us about how to use statistics

Cricket fans will be delighted that Joe Root is establishing himself this summer as a truly great batsman. His Test match batting average of 55.49 is bettered by only 16 players from across the world since Test cricket began in 1877. Root currently sits seventh in the England career batting averages, and he clearly has the ability to improve. But who is the greatest English batsman of all time?

The question is interesting in its own right to cricket fans. But it also raises general issues around the need to understand the background to statistics, how they are produced, and in what context they appear.

That said, statistics alone are decisive in determining the greatest Test batsman. That laurel falls unequivocally to Don Bradman. In terms of players whose careers have ended, only four have an average exceeding 60. Three of these are between 60 and 61. Bradman averaged 99.94.

But judging the best English batsman ever is a bit more tricky. Geoff Boycott, who bore the brunt of ferocious West Indian attacks in the 1970s, can clearly be ruled out. His average of 47.72 falls too far short of those with averages in the high 50s to be explained away by circumstances.

One candidate is the Surrey opening batsman Jack Hobbs. In the course of a long career between 1905 and 1934, he not only averaged 56.94 in Tests, but accumulated the highest number of first class career runs of anyone in the world, a total of 61,760. It is hard to see this latter record being broken. Careers are shorter than they used to be, and Hobbs’s three decades were not then untypical. And there are a lot more Test matches, which reduces the opportunities for top batsmen to make big scores against the weaker sides in the county championship. Only two out of the top 20 run makers ended their career after 1990.

Hobbs’s opening partner for England during much of the interwar period was the Yorkshire man Herbert Sutcliffe. In a career lasting from 1919 to 1945, he registered the best Test average of all England players, 60.73, and notched up a grand total of 50,607 runs at a slightly better average than Hobbs. Not as well-known as the Surrey man, Sutcliffe seems to have the edge.

But delving under the stats, my own vote goes to Len Hutton. Only sixth on the all-time list of England averages at 56.67 and scorer of “only” 40,140 runs, as a 21 year old, he set a new individual world record, with 364 against Australia at the Oval in 1938. As important context, his best years were cut off by the war. Not only that, he received a serious war injury to his arm, forcing him to alter his batting style. When Test cricket resumed, he had to face the demon combination of Lindwall and Miller, part of the great Australian team of the late 1940s, the strongest side in history until that date.

Statistics on their own, whether in cricket or in economics, often do not tell the full story.

Paul Ormerod

As published in CITY AM on Wednesday 10th August 2016.

Image: You’re out by Graham Dean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Share this post