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Great cricketing nurseries: Which provinces have produced the best Test players?

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Roar Rookie
4 days ago
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In recent weeks, The Roar ran a great series on the best-ever Sheffield Shield dream teams by Matth, based on performances in the Shield itself.

This article extends that theme to the global level, but takes a different angle by asking the question: which first-class provinces states from all around the world have bred or nurtured the best cricketers, based on their records in Tests?

Here we define players’ provinces on a State of Origin basis – i.e., by the province they represented first, rather than the one they ended up playing for most often. In the vast majority of cases, this turns out to be the place they grew up and learned their cricket.

Using this criterion Don Bradman, Adam Gilchrist and Allan Border come from New South Wales; Simon Katich and Stuart MacGill are Sandgropers; English Test players Kevin Pietersen and Robin Smith count towards KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, not Hampshire; Clarrie Grimmett is from Wellington, New Zealand, not South Australia.

We use players’ averages as a uniform statistical measure in order to compare the collective historical strengths of the various provinces.

Firstly, we find the best batsmen, wicket keepers and bowlers with the best averages from each province who have played Test cricket. We add together the total batting averages of the XI to give a projected average innings score by the fantasy team.

From the batting total we deduct the average opposition batting total (excluding extras) by extrapolating from the combined averages of the frontline bowlers.

The method used and other criteria for selection are set out at the end of the article.* The bigger this ‘average differential’ – average score for minus average score against – the better the dream team.

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The period covered starts from immediately after the First World War, i.e. 1920, in order to use reasonably comparable statistics. The magnitude of total scores and averages in Tests has stayed pretty similar over the last hundred years, whereas prior to WWI, they were much lower.

Moreover, only three countries played Tests before 1914.

But we have included the few pre-1914 batsmen, such as Clem Hill of South Australia and Stanley Jackson of Yorkshire, whose numbers were good enough to make their all-time provincial team.

Career averages clearly don’t tell the full story when comparing individuals. In particular, they may not reflect what how they played in their peak years, or other measures like how they performed in the clutch, against the best teams on all tracks around the world.

Raw averages also don’t capture other things, e.g. a wicketkeeper’s glovework, or the impact that a batting allrounder might have on a team. Nevertheless, averages seem as good a measure as any to rate the collective strength of the best all-time players from a province.

The top five provinces worldwide came out as follows. Batting or bowling averages (rounded) are shown for each player depending on his specialty, with both averages shown for all-rounders.

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1. New South Wales
Batsmen: Arthur Morris (46), Bob Simpson (47), Don Bradman (100), Steve Smith (64), Allan Border (51), Steve Waugh (51). Keeper: Adam Gilchrist (47)
Bowlers: Alan Davidson (21), Pat Cummins (21), Bill O’Reilly (23), Glenn McGrath (22).
Average Differential: 471-219 = 252

The NSW dream team, according to this method, would run up a hypothetical average lead of 252 in each innings, playing against a full range of the teams its members encountered – a winning margin over 500 per match!

Bradman’s stratospheric average contributes over half of their margin above the next best province.

But few provinces can match the rest of NSW’s top order, led by Steve Smith, while its bowlers own three of the top eight averages among all quicks who have played at least twenty Tests since 1920 (Glenn McGrath, Pat Cummins and Alan Davidson) plus one of the three most miserly spinners (Bill O’Reilly).

Steve Smith and Don Bradman

A couple of NSW old boys (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

In fact, the strength in depth of NSW is shown by the fact that a NSW Second XI would rank seventh on this table (see below) with greats such as Lindwall, Benaud and McCabe, and would have a better average differential than the best-ever national teams of New Zealand or Sri Lanka.

A NSW Third XI (ranked 22nd) rates better on paper than any of the Indian and Sri Lankan provincial dream sides and most English, Pakistani and New Zealand ones.

And there is no question about origins – every member of the top two NSW teams was born and bred in the state, roughly half in Sydney and half in country areas, though all came through the Sydney grade competition at some point.

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2. KwaZulu Natal
Batsmen: Barry Richards (60?), Jackie McGlew (42), Hashim Amla (47), Dudley Nourse (54), Kevin Pietersen (47), Robin Smith (44), Keeper: Billy Wade (28)
Bowlers: Shaun Pollock (23 – 32 bat), Trevor Goddard (26 – 35 bat), Mike Procter (21?), Hugh Tayfield (26).
Average Difference: 431-241 = 191

I should confess at the outset to a little sleight-of-hand here in including two Natal players, Barry Richards and Mike Procter, whose Test careers ended prematurely with South Africa’s isolation from 1970. It would seem unfair to Natal’s credentials as a breeding ground to exclude them for playing so few Tests, but also unsound to use the extraordinary figures they put up in that brief period (Richards’s batting average of 74 in four Tests, Procter’s bowling average of 15 in seven, all against Australia).

On the basis of their subsequent first class careers and performances in World Series Cricket in 1977-79 (where Richards led all batsmen) it is hard not to envisage them ending up near the top of the all-time averages if they had played on.

So we have given Richards a proxy batting average of 60 and Procter a bowling figure of 21. But even if we omitted Richards and Procter, or ascribed less generous figures to them, Natal would have stayed in second place.

A possible explanation for Natal’s prominence on the list is that for a long time South African cricket was dominated by white English speakers rather than Afrikaners, and Natal and Durban was the most British part of the country.

It has been less dominant in producing top Test cricketers since 1994, but still accounts for the likes of Shaun Pollock, Hashim Amla and Pietersen.

Other South African provinces figure well in the rankings, with Gauteng/Transvaal in 10th place, Northerns and its predecessors 12th, and Western Cape/Western Province 14th.

Kevin Pietersen walks back to the pavilion

Kevin Pietersen. (AP Photo/Theron Kirkman, file)

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3. Barbados
Batsmen: Gordon Greenidge (45), Desmond Haynes (42), Everton Weekes (59), Seymour Nurse (49), Gary Sobers (58 – bowl 34), Frank Worrell (49) Keeper: Clyde Walcott (57)
Bowlers: Malcolm Marshall (21) Wes Hall (26) Joel Garner (21) Kemar Roach (27).
Ave Difference: 423-262 = 165

Barbados has been the outstanding province (and nation) worldwide relative to population size. Numbering only some 300,000 people today, Barbados is a lot smaller than the other main Caribbean cricketing nations – Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana.

Yet it would arguably provide at least half the all time West-Indian team in the guise of Sobers, Weekes, Walcott, Marshall, Garner and possibly Worrell or Greenidge.

Gary Sobers (l) batting (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Barbados ranks way ahead of the next best Caribbean province – Jamaica at 17th.

Equally striking is that nearly all the top Barbados players emerged during a thirty year period from the late ‘40s to the late ‘70s. The story behind that would require another article, and author!

4. Yorkshire
Batsmen: Geoff Boycott (48), Herbert Sutcliffe (61), Len Hutton (57), Joe Root (48), Maurice Leyland (46), Stanley Jackson (49) Keeper: Jonny Bairstow (35)
Bowlers: Johnny Wardle (20), Fred Trueman (22), Darren Gough (28), Bill Bowes (22).
Average Difference: 395-231 = 164

Yorkshire has produced some of the greatest England players, plus a couple who had fantastic averages without being so well known – notably Bowes and Wardle, both of whom had relatively short careers.

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Left-armer Johnny Wardle has the best average of all Test spinners since 1920 appearing in a minimum 20 Tests, but he only played four Tests against Australia in his span from 1948-57: he was never a certain selection when competing with the likes of Jim Laker and Tony Lock for an English spin spot.

Historically Yorkshire was the county in English cricket that put the greatest weight on local origin: you had to be born in Yorkshire to play for the county until 1992, when the rule was relaxed to select Michael Vaughan, who had moved there when only six.

Yorkshire has also amassed by far the most County Championship titles.

5. Victoria
Bats: Bill Lawry (47), Bill Ponsford (48), Neil Harvey (48), Lindsay Hassett (47), Bob Cowper (47) Jack Ryder (52). Keeper: Jack Blackham (16)
Bowlers: Keith Miller (23. – bat 37), Shane Warne (25), Damien Fleming (27), Bill Johnston (24).
Average Difference: 141

It is not so surprising that a second Australian state makes the top five given that Australia is the only country with a positive win-loss record against all other Test nations, each by a decent margin.

Victoria has some great players in this list, including Ponsford, Miller and Warne, but didn’t have as many batsmen averaging in the 50s as NSW, and the bowling averages were a couple of notches higher than their NSW counterparts.

Shane Warne bowls

Shane Warne, the king of spin (Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

The Victorian second XI is also very handy, with the likes of Bill Woodfull, Dean Jones and Merv Hughes. It ranks 14th, ahead of the best-ever sides from Western Province (SA), Jamaica or Middlesex.

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There is a rough correlation overall between the population size of states in Australia and the quality of the best cricketers they have produced, except for Queensland – our third biggest state – which at 25th ranks well behind Western Australia (ninth) and South Australia (13th).

Best of the rest: 6. Surrey (139) 7. NSW 2 (136) 8. Lahore (107) 9. Western Australia (102) 10. Gauteng/Transvaal (90)
The line-ups of the above fifth to tenth placed dream teams are shown below, followed by the teams placed 11-20th.

Surrey at sixth is very close on the heels of Victoria. It is a little tricky judging the English counties other than Yorkshire in the same way as first class provinces elsewhere.

There are eighteen cricketing counties, a lot more provinces than in Australia, South Africa, the West Indies or New Zealand – although England has had a lot bigger population base to draw on.

Those Championship counties account for less than half the more than forty “historic” counties in England and Wales and thus quite a few players in the main county teams originate from the other “Minor” Counties.

This is particularly true of the counties covering parts of Greater London- Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Kent – which have acted as a magnet for players in Southern England – a bit like Sydney for country NSW.

In the case of Surrey, two of its greatest batsmen came from Minor Counties – Jack Hobbs, from Cambridge and Ken Barrington, who grew up in Reading, Berkshire, next door to Surrey.

But most of the best Surrey players were local products, and the same was true of the next best English counties, Lancashire and Middlesex.

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The top four English counties were also the biggest in terms of population, although not in the same order (Lancashire shading Yorkshire and Surrey).

Lahore at no.8 is easily the best ranked Asian province, with greats like Imran Khan and Wasim Akram.

In rating Pakistan teams we’ve made some assumptions: their first class competition has changed a lot over the years, sometimes featuring two or more teams from both Lahore and Karachi (with names like Blues, Whites and Greens) and non-geographical teams like Railways or National Bank.

The main assumption here has been to treat all players who started with a Lahore or Karachi team as coming from that city/province.

Mumbai is the next best South Asian province, coming in at 23, followed by Karnataka (Bangalore’s state) at 24 and Karachi at 26th.

Mumbai boasts Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Rohit Sharma, but no bowlers averaging under 30, which blows out the average opposition score.

sachin tendulkar celebrates century

Sachin Tendulkar. (Photo by Duif du Toit / Gallo Images/Getty Images)

India is at something of a disadvantage in this exercise, having a total of 37 first class teams, mostly representing the Indian states.

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While India has a big population, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka it came into Test cricket later than others, and it was later still that it had the resources and depth to produce significant numbers of elite Test players.

In fact, Lahore, Mumbai, Karnataka (Bangalore’s state) and Karachi are the only South Asian teams to break even – that is, their best ever batting line-up would average as much as or better than the projected opposition total projected from their bowling averages.

As with Mumbai, a dearth of leading Test bowlers is the Achilles heel for most of these teams. The top Sri Lankan first class team here is Nondescripts, with Kumar Sangakkara, and Aravinda da Silva.

The top Kiwi province is Canterbury at 16th, powered by Richard Hadlee’s bowling, with Auckland and Wellington the only others to “break even”.

Five West Indian teams broke even: Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad made it to the top 20, and the Leeward Islands (Viv Richards, Curley Ambrose et al) came in at 26th – not bad for a population under 300,000, if not quite at Barbados’s stratospheric level in punching above its weight.

This analysis doesn’t pretend to any ironclad proof of who is the best or better, but hopefully it sheds some light on which provinces have been the most fertile breeding grounds of elite Test players.

Another angle could have been to ignore the criteria used here, and just look at the sheer number of players from each province who achieved a certain average or other figure, rather than specifying a “dream team” makeup of batsmen, bowlers and keepers.

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My gut feeling is that many of the same teams would feature near the top, although some Indian states might be higher and Barbados would rank lower as its depth drops away sharply after the dream team listed above.

One alternative to applying averages would have been to use the official ICC player rating numbers. The latter assess the top sustained performance of players in their peak years, and have been calculated retrospectively back to 1877.

However, they only capture a peak few years and undersell a player’s output over a longer career. Even so, doing a quick run through using the ICC ratings, I ended up with a similar ranking at the top: NSW well in front, followed by Barbados, Natal, Surrey, Yorkshire and Victoria.

Places 6-10
6. Surrey: Jack Hobbs, Douglas Jardine, Ken Barrington, Peter May, Graham Thorpe, John Edrich, Alec Stewart (wk), Alec Bedser, Jim Laker, Bob Willis, Geoff Arnold. Diff: 139

7. New South Wales 2: David Warner, Herbie Collins, Michael Clarke, Stan McCabe, Norm O’Neill, Doug Walters, Brad Haddin (wk), Richie Benaud, Ray Lindwall, Josh Hazlewood, Stuart Clark. Difference: 136

8. Lahore: Majid Khan, Wasim Raja, Azhar Ali, Saleem Malik, Ahmed Shahzad, Saeed Ahmed, Imran Khan, Kamran Akmal (wk), Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir, Fazal Mahmood. Diff: 107

9. Western Australia: Justin Langer, Chris Rogers, Simon Katich, Mike Hussey, Damien Martyn, Adam Voges, Rod Marsh (wk), Dennis Lillee, Terry Alderman, Stuart MacGill, Bruce Reid. Diff: 92

10. Gauteng/Transvaal: Graeme Smith, Eric Rowan, Eddie Barlow, Bruce Mitchell, Aubrey Faulkner, Brian McMillan, Quentin de Kock (wk), Andrew Hall, Cyril Vincent, Kagiso Rabada, Neil Adcock. Diff: 90

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Places 11-20
11. Lancashire (Diff: 89) 12. Northerns/Northern Transvaal (77) 13. South Australia (76)
14. Victoria 2 (74) 15. Western/Cape Province (73) 16. Canterbury, New Zealand (72)
17. Jamaica (72) 18. Middlesex (66) 19. Guyana (60) 20. Trinidad (58).

*Method and Criteria

The average differential = the difference between the hypothetical average innings score when batting, excluding Extras, and the average runs scored by opponents in reply, excluding Extras.
It is calculated as follows:

= Sum of the batting averages of all eleven players in each dream team.
= Sum of the bowling averages of the four (or five) front line bowlers
= B divided by 4 [if four bowlers, or by 5 if five) = ave. runs per wicket in each innings
= C x 10 = ave opposition runs conceded by bowlers [e.g. if each bowler’s average is 25, the average total conceded per innings is 250.
Average differential = A – D.

Eligibility: A minimum of twenty Tests was used for eligibility, or fifteen for teams other than Australia and England prior to 1970 given the relative infrequency of Test series. If there weren’t enough players from the province fulfilling those criteria, then players with fewer Tests were used.

In identifying the six best batsmen from each province, we included the two best opening batsmen, unless they were none who managed a respectable average, defined as over 35.

The bowlers comprise the three pacemen with the lowest averages and one spinner, or two spinners for South Asian teams if their averages are better.

If one of the top six batsmen qualifies as the only spinner (eg Garfield Sobers for Barbados) or one of the best four bowlers, then the averages of five bowlers are used.