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Test cricket’s progressive bowling average records

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Roar Guru
7th June, 2021
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Most cricket followers around the world will instantly know what I’m talking about when I write 99.94. Significantly fewer will recognise 10.75.

These two numbers signify the highest Test batting and bowling averages using a cut-off of 20 innings for batsmen and 100 wickets for bowlers. The batsman is of course Sir Donald Bradman. The bower is the less celebrated 19th century Englishman, George Lohmann.

However if there were no innings or wickets cut-off points, neither Bradman nor Lohmann actually possess the best averages.

Last time I looked at the progressive batting averages. This time I will move on to the bowlers.

Firstly a note on the methodology. Using minimum matches or innings as a cut-off is a little tricky for bowlers since conceptually you would be reading a lot about Alastair Cook, who played 161 Tests and took one wicket for seven runs. It would be a bit unfair to call that history’s greatest bowling average. Therefore I have gone with wickets as the measuring stick.

By the same token, minimum runs would not work on the batting side. My last article would have been pretty soul-destroying if I started with best average for one career run and worked my way up!

There are three players who took a single wicket for no runs and therefore hold the one wicket average record of 0.0. We could call them equal champions, but I’m much more pedantic than that, so here they are in order of balls bowled.

Murali

(Photo by Rebecca Naden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

One wicket – Wilf Barber (England) 0.0 – two balls bowled
Barber played two Tests in 1935 against the touring South Africans as a top order batsman. With a top score of only 44 from two drawn Tests, Barber would have faded into obscurity, except that he was thrown the ball at the conclusion of the first Test. The eighth bowler tried, with his second delivery Barber broke an 83-run stand between South African captain Herby Wade and wicketkeeper Jock Cameron that had steered the tourists to safety. Stumps were promptly called and Barber never bowled in a Test again. The Yorkshire professional did take 16 wickets across a 373-game first class career where he won eight county championships.

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One wicket – Bruce Murray (New Zealand) 0.0 – six balls bowled
Bruce Murray had an unremarkable 13-Test career as an opening batsman for New Zealand in the late 1960s, averaging just under 24. His moment of glory came in the third home Test against India in 1968. New Zealand had been bamboozled by the great Indian off spinner Erapalli Prasanna, whose eight wickets for the match left India with a chase of just 59 for victory. Murray’s leg breaks were called on as the seventh bowler. He proceeded to bowl a wicket maiden, having opener Syed Abid Ali caught behind with two runs left to get. Who knows what could have happened if Murray had opened the bowling! Murray took 30 wickets at an average under 30 across his first class career, so was no slouch with the ball. Murray’s career was curtailed somewhat because he refused to play on Sundays for religious reasons. He did however write geography textbooks.

One wicket – Albert ‘Monkey’ Hornby (England) 0.0 – a whopping 28 balls bowled
Hornby played in the late 19th Century and scored only 21 runs in six innings as a batsman. He played in the famous Ashes Test at the Oval in 1882 and was one of Fred Spofforth’s many victims in both innings. Spofforth actually clean bowled Hornby in each of his first four Test innings. Hornby’s bowling career peaked early – his one for zero from seven overs came on his debut in the third ever Test. He never bowled in another Test. Hornby is one of the few people to captain England at both cricket and rugby. Now we get moving.

Two to four wickets – Arthur Hill (England) 2.0
Hill was an all-rounder in the late 1800s who played three Tests on England’s 1896 tour of South Africa. He only bowled in one innings, in his final Test. A weak South African team, newly admitted to Test cricket, were bowled out for less than 120 in each innings. Hill came on as the fifth and final bowler in the second innings and took the last four wickets for only eight runs. He finished the series and his Test career with a batting average of 62.75 and a bowling average of two. At first class level, Hill scored over 10,300 runs and took 305 wickets in 221 matches. In addition to touring South Africa, Hill also travelled with various England or MCC sides on pioneering tours to India, America and Argentina.

Five to seven wickets – Sir Aubrey Smith (England) 8.71
Aubrey Smith has the unusual record of playing just a single Test, but playing as captain. This occurred on England’s 1899 tour of South Africa. Smith batting in the lower order and scored just three, however only one player in the entire match scored more than 30 in an innings, so the matting pitch must have been challenging. Such was the quality of the game that it was only awarded Test status many years later. Smith came on at first change in South Africa’s first innings and took five wickets for 19 as the hosts were toppled for 84. The fast medium bowler backed up with 2-42 in the second innings. But all of this pales into insignificance, as does Smith’s 346 first class wickets. Smith’s later career was as an actor in Hollywood, where he appeared in films with Elizabeth Taylor and Clark Gable. Smith founded the Hollywood Cricket Club in 1932 and played with such celebrities as David Niven, Errol Flynn and Laurence Olivier.

Generic cricket balls.

(Credit: Swamibu/CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Eight to 11 wickets – Charles Marriott (England) 8.72
‘Father’ Charles Marriott was primarily a school teacher who played cricket for Kent in the holidays. He did this enough to take over 700 first class wickets and his single Test appearance in 1933 against the West Indies was enough to place him on this list. A leg spin bowler, Marriott was nearly 38 years old when picked at the Oval and he bamboozled the West Indies to the tune of 11 wickets for 96, including having the great George Headley stumped for nine in the first innings. These remain the sixth best match figures for a player on debut. Marriott was a genuine batting bunny (first class average of 4.4) and thankfully only had to bat once in the match, clean bowled for a duck.

12 to 14 wickets – Fred Martin (England) 10.07
‘Nutty’ Martin was a left arm quickish spin bowler in the late 1800s who took an eye-watering 1317 career first class wickets for Kent. He played two Tests – in 1890 at the Oval against Australia, and two years later against South Africa in Cape Town. Martin’s match figures of 12-102 against Australia were the best on debut for 70 years and still rank third. In a nail biter, England won by just two wickets. Martin was the nervous player sitting in the pavilion as the match ended, hoping not to come out at number 11.

Another two wickets for 39 runs in his final Test were enough to place him on this list. Martin’s international career was stunted by being ranked behind Johnny Briggs and Bobby Peel as England’s pre-eminent left-arm bowlers of the time and his home Test only came about due to an injury to Briggs and Yorkshire refusing to let Peel play the Test. His presence on the South African tour was due to it running at the same time as a tour of Australia, which included most of the top players. Martin was named as one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year in 1892.

Now it gets interesting as we head into current and completed careers of significance.

15 to 27 wickets, and counting – Axar Patel (India) 10.59
Axar Patel is the latest Indian wonder spinner, with three home Tests to his name so far, all against those renowned players of spin, the English. Patel took seven, 11 and nine wickets in his three matches as India thrashed the tourists twice by an innings and once by ten wickets. To show he had a hold over the entire team, Patel dismissed 14 difference batsmen over the course of the three-match series, finishing with 27 wickets. It remains to be seen if this remarkable start to his career can be sustained, especially away from the comforts of home.

India flag

(Photo by Simon Cross/Getty Images)

28 to 112 wickets – George Lohmann (England) 10.75
Axar Patel is doing his best, but in the end Lohmann’s record will be safe! Lohmann was a master of 19th century bowling, averaging 14.55 at home and a scarcely believable 8.96 away over an 18-Test career. The medium pace seam bowler achieved these remarkable stats after taking only a single wicket across his first two Tests. Lohmann was particularly lethal on the matting wickets of South Africa. Against modest opposition in 1896 he took 35 wickets at 5.8 across a three-match series. Tragically, Lohmann had contracted tuberculosis in 1892. He last played in 1896 and died only five years later at the age of 36.

113 to 189 wickets – SF Barnes (England) 16.43
Taking over from George Lohmann is a player many consider to be the best of all time. Sidney Barnes tormented bowlers over a 13-year Test career and was still destroying opposition batsman at 56 years old for Staffordshire. The West Indies’ touring side of 1928 came up against Barnes in his mid-50s in a tour match and believed him to be the best bowler they faced in the country at that time. Barnes was a master of spin, seam and swing and deadly both home and away. His greatest feat was on the matting pitches of South Africa, where he took 49 wickets in four Tests, before refusing to play in the fifth because of a financial dispute. A true professional cricketer, Barnes only appeared semi-regularly in county and Test cricket, preferring to ply his trade in the lower leagues as a pro.

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190 to 376 wickets – Malcolm Marshall (West Indies) 20.94
Malcolm Marshall holds the record for the next 186 wickets. Marshall was a truly brilliant all-conditions bowler and was consistent wherever he went, averaging 20.1 at home and 21.6 away. This included 71 wickets at 23 in the traditional pace bowlers graveyards of the sub-continent. Marshall made this list by a mere 0.05. He was so very nearly swamped by his great countryman below.

377 wickets to 405 wickets – Curtly Ambrose (West Indies) 20.99
Big Curtly was a completely different prospect to his countryman. Around 237 feet tall, with a menacing silent scowl that took wickets all by itself, Ambrose formed a lethal partnership with Courtney Walsh in the twilight of West Indian cricket dominance. His height and accuracy made scoring extremely difficult. Ambrose actually averaged better away than at home and took his sub-continent wickets at just 22.5.

Curtly Ambrose

(Photo by Rebecca Naden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

406 to 563 wickets – Glenn McGrath (Australia) 21.64
Australia’s human metronome takes over from big Curtly. Glenn McGrath was the master of doing just enough. Suffocatingly accurate, McGrath operated on the fourth stump line for nearly 15 years, forcing batsmen to play and using his height to generate troubling bounce.

564 to 800 wickets – Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) 22.72
And finally we have the Sri Lankan rubber-wristed genius Muttiah Muralitharan. Only six players since World War II, pace or spin, have a better home average than Muralitharan and he did it for at least double the number of Tests than any of them. His away record was not quite as imposing, but was still top shelf and his seven ten-wicket hauls away from home is a world record. A quote from the great English fast bowler Fred Trueman sums up Murali’s remarkable career. When asked if anyone would beat his (at the time) world wicket taking record: “Aye, but whoever does will be bloody tired”.

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