Given that both actual and fantasy-team selectors customise bowling attacks for individual ground conditions, should they also apply that thought process to batting line-ups?
During the past six months a hugely enjoyable number of ‘best-ever’ teams have been published with varying selection criteria. While each was chosen for generic conditions, arguably any team should reflect its match’s location. Four fast bowlers for the WACA, two leg spinners for the SCG, three seamers for Headingley and so on.
Cricket, like tennis, is a different game on a different surface.
Individual leather flingers are clearly more expendable than batsmen. Medium-pace and wrist spin bowlers in particular are at the mercy of selectors and the elements. And regardless of a quartet’s success as a bowling unit, any of its four members might lose his place to another of a completely different style for the very next match.
Contrastingly it’s generally accepted that a stable top six is preferable. The best batsmen should be able to score runs in all conditions. Form is temporary but class is permanent. Batsmen don’t require workload management. And five batsmen can carry a struggling sixth in a way that three bowlers cannot a fourth. George Bailey recently kept his spot during a 5-0 series whitewash despite averaging 26.14 with a highest score of 53, as did Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor during lean spells.
So while underperforming batsmen often retain their places during a series of brief innings until they inevitably prosper again, bowlers are sometimes discarded simply due to a change of venue or after their temporary lack of form has been exposed during far longer stints at the crease.
Which begs the question: should selectors be as ruthless with batsmen as they are with bowlers and more frequently pick and drop them on the basis of past performances at the next match venue? Or should they prioritise top-order stability and so base selection on performances elsewhere?
To put it another way, when it comes to top orders, should they select horses for courses more often?
It is tempting to speculate that if selectors were aware of a batsman’s lack of previous success at a specific venue, they would simply reassure themselves that by the law of averages he was now due for a big score there. And it is conceded that as conditions Australia-wide become more uniform due to the increasing use of drop-in pitches and other technological advances, the answer to this question does become less important.
However, an analysis of the 30 best-performed Australian batsmen since World War II does reveal a huge ground-by-ground disparity in many player statistics. Surely random chance cannot completely explain every such disparity. Perhaps technique, temperament and overall suitability also play some part.
This article picks out the most notable findings of that analysis and leaves it to you to draw your own conclusions.
A favourite tradition of mine used to be watching the first delivery and session of every summer in the staffroom with workmates. Michael Slater always seemed to demoralise Australia’s opponent with a quickfire century. He did in fact average 84.37 at the Gabba, twice his career average of 42.83. Against England he scored 176 on the first day in 1994-95, then another 113 four years later.
Against Pakistan in 1999-2000 he scored 169 and shared a 269-run opening partnership with Greg Blewett. It assisted him that opening partner Mark Taylor averaged 57.00 there. Slater did average only 30.10 at the MCG and 31.58 in Adelaide, but by then Australia had generally wrapped up a series and he had done his job. To cap off his Gabba feats he averaged 63.00 at the WACA.
Greg Chappell relished his adopted home ground similarly, with 1006 runs at 111.77, including five centuries and four half-centuries in just 11 innings. In his first Test as captain he scored 123 and 109 not out against the West Indies in 1975-76. He also scored 124 in the following Frank Worrell Trophy series and 201 and 150 not out in separate Pakistan series.
Michael Clarke also scored five Gabba centuries and a 98 among 1030 runs at 103.00. His first Test innings on Australian soil was 141 against New Zealand in 2004-05, and he subsequently scored 145 not out against Sri Lanka in 2007-08. Then as captain in consecutive season openers he scored 139 against New Zealand in 2011-12, 259 not out against South Africa in 2012-13 and 113 against England in 2013-14.
Doug Walters averaged 85.16 at the Gabba, where his first four innings were 155 on debut against England in 1965-66, then 93 and 62 not out against India in 1967-68 and 112 against England in 1970-71.
Away from his first home ground the Don scored 27 centuries and averaged 108.50, including 107.77 in Adelaide, 105.14 at the Gabba and 128.53 at the MCG.
However, his record in eight matches at the SCG was far from Bradmanesque. He scored only 703 runs at 58.58 and his only centuries were 112 against a weak South Africa in 1931-32 and 234 against a weak and ageing England in 1946-47. The latter innings was made batting at No. 6 in a team score of 8(dec)-659 with leg spinners Doug Wright and Peter Smith snaring 1-169 and 2-172 respectively.
For context, at the SCG his teammate Stan McCabe averaged 62.66, while in only five matches his rival Wally Hammond scored 808 runs at 161.60 with four centuries. On raw statistics alone one could even dare suggest his exclusion from a best-ever Australian team if its match were to be played at the SCG rather than almost anywhere else in the world!
At first glance Matthew Hayden is the epitome of consistency, with an average at each ground ranging between 49.93 at the WACA and 68.93 at the MCG. However, statistics can be misleading. His only century in Perth was the mammoth 380 against Zimbabwe in 2003-04. In 14 other innings there he amassed only 369 runs at 26.36 with just three half-centuries.
The WACA is a place of extremes when it comes to batting records. It is by a considerable margin both the venue where the greatest number of batsmen achieved their highest average anywhere in Australia (Ian Chappell, Adam Gilchrist, Dean Jones, Ian Redpath, Bob Simpson, David Warner and Mark Waugh). It is also the one where the most achieved their lowest average (Michael Clarke, Matthew Hayden, Kim Hughes, Bill Lawry, Ricky Ponting, Mark Taylor and Doug Walters).
Fittingly for a proud Victorian, the MCG was the venue for Bill Lawry’s best performances on Australian soil. In eight matches there he scored 1023 runs at 78.69. Those runs included four of his eight centuries in Australia and one of the only two sixes that he struck on home soil. In his 13 innings at the ground he was never dismissed in single figures and never out leg before wicket. After warming up with 157 against South Africa in 1963-64 he later scored 108, 100 and 205 in successive Tests at the MCG against England, India and the West Indies.
Adopted Sandgroper Adam Gilchrist might have struggled for runs at the Adelaide Oval and the MCG, averaging only 29.25 and 30.36 respectively with no century at either ground. However, at the WACA he scored 603 runs at 60.30, with two centuries and an average strike rate of 95.41. Both centuries were dominant ones, with 113 not out from 94 balls against Zimbabwe in 2003-04 and 102 not out from only 59 deliveries against England in 2006-07.
Invincibles and Australian Cricket Board team of the century member Arthur Morris played at 16 different Test grounds, averaging 46.48 with 12 centuries. Unfortunately his beloved SCG was his least-successful venue. In seven matches there he scored only 170 runs at 17.00, with 57 against England in 1946-47 his sole half-century. In contrast he scored three centuries at the Adelaide Oval and a further two at the MCG. Ironically, on first-class debut at the SCG in 1940-41 when aged only 18 he scored 148 and 111 for New South Wales against Queensland.
Like Morris, renowned Australian captain and No. 3 batsman Ian Chappell struggled for runs at the SCG. At every other home ground he averaged between 44.40 and 55.80. But in ten Tests in Sydney his record was a bare 332 runs at 17.47, with 53 against England in 1974-75 his only half-century. Ten of his 19 innings at the SCG ended in single figures.
The sadly departed Dean Jones was dominant in Perth, Adelaide and Sydney with career averages of 81.33, 60.30 and 57.50 respectively and one sizeable three-figure score at each ground. However, at the Gabba he scored only 121 runs at 17.28 with a highest innings of 38 not out. And at his spiritual home the MCG his figures in six Tests were only 251 runs at 25.10 with two half-centuries and a highest score of 59.
Finally, Shane Watson averaged 73.85 in five Tests at the MCG but struggled for runs in his native Brisbane. His record in six Tests at the Gabba was 152 runs at 16.88 with a highest score of 41 not out.
It speaks volumes of Steve Smith that he averages 113.50 at the MCG and also 61.37 or higher at each of Adelaide Oval, the Gabba, the SCG and the WACA. He hasn’t reached those levels in his two matches at Bellerive Oval and one at Perth Stadium to date but will surely rectify each of those blemishes at his next opportunity.
Neil Harvey was similarly consistent around Australia, averaging between 41.31 and 48.00 at each of the then-four Test grounds and scoring one or more centuries at each venue. But, unusually for an Australian batsman, he enjoyed more success overseas than at home.
If raw statistics were the only criteria, these are the top-orders that selectors would pick for all-time sides:
Michael Slater (84.37), Bill Lawry (71.00), Don Bradman (105.14), Greg Chappell (111.77), Michael Clarke (103.00), Doug Walters (85.16), Adam Gilchrist (55.22).
Michael Slater (63.00), David Warner (82.50), Steve Smith (67.44), Mark Waugh (51.06), Dean Jones (81.33), Damien Martyn (51.28), Adam Gilchrist (60.30).
David Warner (80.38), Bob Simpson (73.18), Don Bradman (107.77), Michael Clarke (94.26), Michael Hussey (74.45), Doug Walters (70.55), Brad Haddin (99.60).
Bill Lawry (78.69), Matthew Hayden (68.93), Don Bradman (128.53), Steve Smith (113.50), Warwick Armstrong (61.20), Shane Watson (73.85), Brad Haddin (30.66).
Usman Khawaja (70.40), David Warner (66.54), Ricky Ponting (67.27), Steve Smith (67.88), Michael Hussey (94.00), Keith Miller (65.00), Adam Gilchrist (52.14).