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The greatest ‘come-from-behind’ batsmen in cricket history

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Roar Rookie
30th June, 2021
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In this sequel to ‘Australia’s great come-from-behind batsmen’, we look abroad to examine the world’s finest exponents in this genre, in the 145-year history of Test cricket.

For those unfamiliar with the methodology, data is collected from two particular situations: one, performances in matches lost (excluding the game’s first innings); two, performances in matches won after trailing by one hundred at the halfway mark.

The objective is to capture as many come-from-behind situations as possible while at the same time eliminating bias.

Of course, this system is not without flaw and it is acknowledged that approximately 20 per cent of innings collected in this way do not belong in the category of a come-from-behind.

Roughly 15 per cent of the data set represents matches lost after leading for most of the game, and another five per cent signifies positions so lop-sided that the contest was effectively over (like trailing by 400 in a match that will be decided).

Another difficulty is what to do with batsmen who are part of a very mediocre line-up. Since I have chosen to compare each batsman directly with peers, cricketers like George Headley and Aubrey Faulkner, whose colleagues averaged 15.6 and 18.7, respectively, have a massive advantage.

My analysis of over 50 players reveals that in strong teams, peer averages are north of 24. Apart from these two, others who belong in this category include Andy Flower (peers 22.7), David Warner (23.1), David Gower (22.3), Kane Williamson (23.5) and AB De Villiers (22.9).

Consequently, I have decided to ameliorate this anomaly in the following way: when the peer average is below 24, I will substitute a peer average of 25 (to simulate a strong line-up).

For example, rather than compare Headley’s 30.8 with the 15.6 of his West Indian colleagues, I will compare him with a decent line-up, who would, presumably, average something close to 25. In the table, this will appear as a peer average of 25*.

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Here are the 20 best batsmen in come-from-behind situations, in the history of Test cricket.

Batsman Matches Runs- dismissals Average Scores above 150 (%) above peers
Star Peers Star Peers
VT Trumper 16 1122-18 3228-130 62,3 24,8 214*, 185*, 166, 159, sticky wicket 74 151,3%
L Hutton 20 1429-28 4201-162 51,0 25,9 202*, 156 96,8%
GA Faulkner 15 1028-22 2096-112 46,7 25* 204 86,8%
H Sutcliffe 11 949-19 2568-94 49,9 27,3 176 82,8%
A Flower 35 1943-43 5448-240 45,2 25* 176 82,8%
JB Hobbs 21 1612-34 4831-170 47,4 28,4 154 66,8%
V Kohli 26 1642-39 4494-178 42,1 25,3 153 66,8%
DG Bradman 12 916-20 2834-102 45,8 27,8 167 64,6%
SM Gavaskar 33 1932-46 5863-229 42,0 25,6 64,1%
DA Warner 26 1614-41 4833-209 39,4 25* 57,6%
SR Tendulkar 55 3046-80 10947-419 38,1 26,1 169, 154 45,8%
BC Lara 63 3076-92 11478-464 35,1 24,7 202, 153*, 153 42,0%
KS Williamson 27 1339-38 5262-225 35,2 25* 242* 40,9%
AR Border 47 2072-61 8605-356 34,0 24,2 152* 39,3%
AB de Villiers 30 1571-45 5232-229 34,8 25* 39,2%
DL Haynes 14 731-21 2706-108 34,8 25,1 38,9%
K Sanggakara 41 2138-57 8175-295 37,5 27,7 203, 192 35,4%
A Ranatunga 37 1729-54 6665-281 32,0 25* 35,0%
SR Waugh 36 1396-42 6184-251 32,2 24,6 30,9%
A Iqbal 13 692-18 3162-107 38,4 29,6 30,1%
DI Gower 44 1877-58 6862-308 32,4 25* 29,6%

Considering players by country, India’s greatest batsmen in a ‘dog-fight’ are current captain, Virat Kohli (66.8 per cent above peers), Sunil Gavaskar (64.1 per cent) and Sachin Tendulkar (45.8 per cent). The much-heralded VVS Laxman (11.8 per cent) and Rahul Dravid (20.7 per cent) were too up and down to compete with this trio, scaling the heights for a few seasons before returning to the plane of mere mortals.

Perhaps only halfway through his career, Virat Kohli has stamped himself as one of cricket’s greatest fighters, and in 39 innings has registered three big hundreds.

Many Roarers will be familiar with his 141 in Adelaide, when Australia set the Indians 364 to win. Kohli, along with Murali Vijay, moved the visitors to a mouth-watering 2 for 242 before Nathan Lyon restored Australian equanimity.

Kohli’s 153, in the pursuit of South Africa’s 335, can be evaluated by the size of the second top score, 46.

Fast forward two years and VK does it once more; setting off in pursuit of England’s 287, only the captain stood between the home side and a crushing victory (Kohli 149, next best, 26). Sadly, for India, they would lose both by 135 and 31 runs, in turn.

Virat Kohli

(Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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Jack Hobbs, despite sitting behind Len Hutton and Herbert Sutcliffe in the previous table (66.8 versus, 96.8 and 82.8, respectively), is England’s best backs-against-the-wall performer.

I say this because of their scoring rates. In my experience, Roarers pay scant attention to scoring speed but in the context of a match situation this factor can make all the difference. Contemplate Hutton’s two best innings: 202* off 545 and 156* off 377.

Hutton, rather than accelerate as the tailenders came and went, in the manner of a Ben Stokes, decided to amble along at 37-38 runs per one hundred balls, and England, although close enough to challenge on both occasions, went down ignominiously.

A failure to accelerate is not an accusation one could level against Jack Hobbs whose scoring rate was a respectable 54. Affectionately known as The Master, Hobbs produced his three best innings in the first three Tests of the 1924-25 Ashes series. Australia, winning the toss each time, led-off with the imposing totals of 450, 600 and 489, in turn. Undaunted, Hobbs posted 115, 154 and 119 to keep the Australian first innings lead within reasonable bounds (152, 121 and 124, were not so significant in the context of this high scoring era).

Fighting desperately each time, England went on to lose the second by 81 runs and the third by a lousy 11 runs. And Hobbs posted two more come-from-behind centuries, 122 in the second Test of the 1920-21 series and a sticky-wicket 57, in 1907-08. Furthermore, just to add icing on the cake, Hobbs reached 50 in 14 of his 34 innings, or an incredible 41 per cent.

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Pakistan’s best backs-against-the-wall player may surprise people. I considered Hanif Mohammed, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan and Asif Iqbal, and the latter came out as the ‘top dog’. Considering that Asif had only 19 innings under these circumstances, it is a wonderful achievement to have scored three big hundreds.

The first two, a 146 against England in 1967 and a 135 in the Caribbean ten years later, came too late to influence the match but his final century, a 135 not out against the WSC-ravaged Australians, breathed new life into an otherwise one-sided contest.

Batting third and trailing by 50 at the change of innings, Asif came to the wicket with his team reeling at 4 for 86 (effectively 4 for 36) and when the sixth wicket fell 67 runs later, the game looked over. However, so well did Asif farm the strike that he scored 86 per cent of the teams’ last 132 runs. In the end, Australia ran down the required 236 without difficulty but Asif had given his team a chance.

This analysis does not cover draws but it would be a travesty to omit his 152 not out against the Australians at Adelaide, in the summer of 1976-77.

Asif shepherded the tail with such uncanny skill that of an 87-run last wicket stand with Iqbal Qasim, the tail-ender scored just 4.

On the other hand, Asif Iqbal was not particularly consistent, passing 50 four times (21per cent) and was more of a ‘boom or bust’, type.

There are no prizes for guessing Zimbabwe’s best backs-against-the-wall merchant. Andy Flower scored six hundreds and nine fifties, achieving the half-century milestone 32 per cent of the time. Unfortunately for Flower, the Zimbabweans were so outclassed that his wonderful scores hardly ever affected the match.

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You would think that 142 and 199* – in the one match – would guarantee that Zimbabwe were in the hunt. Well, after South Africa started with 3 for 600 declared, Flower’s double meant the Proteas would only win by nine wickets. On the other hand, there were two Flower innings that did give Zimbabwe a shot at success.

A 105 not out at Bulawayo meant the Sri Lankans would need 326 for victory, but they got there with five wickets in hand; and a 113* against the West Indies, which gave his side a rare first innings lead. In the end, Zimbabwe would be set a humble 99 runs to record an exceptional away-from-home victory, but it was not to be.

We will never know what Andy Flower would have achieved in a competitive team but we can claim that he deserves a place in the top 10 come-from-behind batsmen.

Not many readers will be conversant with ‘turn of the century cricketer’ Aubrey Faulkner but the South African was a seriously good batsman and awesome in a ‘dog-fight’. In a low scoring era, three hundreds, two nineties and an eighty, from just 22 innings, is spectacular.

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Three of these scores were not large enough to ‘turn the tables’ (his 80, 99 and 122*) but the other three certainly did. Faulkner is one of a very select band of cricketers to have scored a match-winning century after his team trailed by one hundred at the hallway stage.

His 123 off 202 balls steered the Proteas toward a very respectable 345 all out. Then in the quest for 244, England stumbled at the last hurdle to surrender by just 19 runs. It is not often that a player ends up on the losing side after they make 204, especially in the Golden Age but, unfortunately for the South Africans, the opposition included one VT Trumper.

Therefore, even a first innings lead of 158 meant the tourists were never better than an even-money chance. When ‘all was said and done’, they finished on the wrong side of an 80-run verdict. In the final match of this same series, Aubrey’s 92 helped his side set the Australians a tricky target but the home team would eventually prevail.

Aubrey Faulkner deserves to be remembered as South Africa’s greatest get-up-off-the-canvas batsman and is arguably, in the top five of all time.

It almost goes without saying that in a calamity, the finest West Indian batsman is Brian Charles Lara. From 93 innings, the supremely gifted left-hander delivered nine hundreds and 16 fifties (a rate of 27 per cent) but his signature performance will be remembered for as long as cricket is played.

Brian Lara walks off the field, dejected, after being dismissed first ball by Glenn McGrath.

Brian Lara (Photo: Hamish Blair/Allsport)

Lara’s undefeated 153 against the Australians at Bridgetown is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest innings ever made. Coming in with the score 3 for 78, and with victory at a distant 308, Lara looked on as the position deteriorated to 5 for 105.

At this point, the game look dead and buried with victory another 203 runs away but Lara would have none of it. As partners continued to fall by the wayside, he took the match into his own hands to blast 142 of the required 203.

Quite rightly, Lara was carried, shoulder high, off the Kensington Oval. By coincidence, his second most influential come-from-behind innings was also a 153, at Sabina Park in 2005. Pakistan began this match with a healthy 374 before a Lara-inspired West Indies responded with 404.

By halfway through the penultimate day, the West Indies needed 280 for victory and a two-nil series but it was not to be. Unhappily, the West Indies team of this era were little more than a mediocre side and so Lara’s other great knocks (145 versus England, 202 versus South Africa, 130 versus Sri Lanka, plus 122 and 100 versus Australia) did little more than delay the inevitable. Nonetheless, with an historically adjusted strike rate of 57.5, Lara is the fourth fastest scorer among this illustrious group (behind Trumper, Warner and Bradman).

Kumar Sanggakara was a superb batsman under all conditions and, needless to say, he was adept at playing an uphill game. Roarers might remember his epic 192 against the Australians at Bellerive Oval, when the locals set Sri Lanka 507 for victory.

Kumar played virtually a lone hand to be ‘ninth man out at 364’. At Karachi in 2004, Pakistan established a colossal 270-run first innings advantage. The stage had been set for another ‘Kumar rescue effort’. Coming in at 1 for 117, he stroked an impressive 138 to give the visitors an outside chance.

Unfortunately, the tail didn’t wag and Pakistan reached the required 137 with six wickets in hand. Nevertheless, a further 80 runs would have made the situation ‘even-stevens’.

In my opinion, Sanggakara’s best backs-against-the-wall effort was actually the smallest of his hundreds. The Christchurch Test of 2006 was a particularly low scoring affair. Batting first, Sri Lanka made 154, to which the Kiwis replied with 206.

Second time around, and with Shane Bond in full cry, the visitors batting completely imploded, except for the lefthander, who scored a magnificent and undefeated 100 while his ten colleagues scrapped together 61. This was shades of Kim Hughes against the Windies. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s target of 119 was perhaps 50 too few and so the Sri Lankans surrendered by five wickets.

If only someone could have stayed with the ‘south paw’. According the table, Sanggakara also registered a score of 203 but this innings was made in one of those situations where his team actually held the upper hand when he came to the crease. Throw in a commendable scoring rate of 54 and Sanggakara takes the mantle of Sri Lanka’s greatest come-from-behind batsman.

New Zealand, recently crowned World Test champions, have a proud history of producing talented cricketers. Among batsmen, they can point to Bert Sutcliffe, Martin Crowe, Glenn Turner, Bradley Watling and Kane Williamson, and the best of these in a crisis, is Williamson.

Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson of New Zealand celebrate

(Photo by Nathan Stirk-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

For this exalted position, the captain can reveal three outstanding performances. Sri Lanka toured New Zealand in the early part of 2015 and started the second Test with a bang.

By tea-time on day-three, the home side’s position looked grim for they trailed by 135 on the first innings and were only 24 ahead when the fifth wicket fell. Few at the Basin Reserve could have imagined what was to follow; 24 hours later, Williamson was able to declare with the total at 524 – STILL five wickets down! Williamson (242*) and Bradley Watling (142*), had put together an incredible 365 runs for the sixth wicket.

Sri Lanka, now faced with an unlikely 390 for victory, were scarcely up for the challenge and New Zealand ran out the easy winner. A few months later, when the kiwis visited England, Williamson’s 132 at Lord’s gave the tourists a 134-run first innings advantage.

Unfortunately, for New Zealand, their bowlers failed to capitalise and the home team finished-up a comfortable winner. The year 2015 proved to be an annus mirabilis for Williamson because in November, as the kiwis locked horns with Australia at the Gabba, his 140 of 178 balls meant three magnificent fighting hundreds within one calendar year. For New Zealand, it was the only bright spot in an otherwise one-sided affair.

Overall, with ten scores of 50-plus from 39 innings (a success rate of 26 percent), at a respectable scoring speed of 51 per 100 balls, Williamson is easily New Zealand’s finest backs-against-the-wall batsman.

Kane Williamson

Kane Williamson has had a standout year for the Black Caps. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Honourable mentions go to David Gower (with an outperformance ratio of 29per cent), Arjuna Ranatunga (28per cent), George Headley (23 per cent), Bradley Watling (22 per cent), and Jacques Kallis (22 per cent). In addition to, from only a handful of matches, Graeme Pollock (4 games, 68 per cent) and Larry Gomes (6 games, 67 per cent). And the results for other significant batsmen include: Martin Crowe (16 per cent), Derek Randall (15 per cent), Glenn Turner (10 per cent), Viv Richards and Javed Miandad (9 per cent), and Aravinda de Silva (7 per cent).

So, after studying players from across the globe, over the 145-year history of Test cricket, Trumper retains his position as the greatest of all come-from-behind batsman. Victor has the highest average, the highest outperformance ratio, the most 150’s and the highest scoring rate. Without hyperbole, it can be said that he is in a class of his own.

Previously, I made mention of his record in the three-day Tests and how these conditions did not permit an authentic come-from-behind performance. Just to emphasise this concept, in the 23 Ashes Tests played in England during Trumper’s time (1899-1912) no player would ever reach 147.

That is, from roughly 600 attempts, no one did better than Reggie Duff’s 146. This will give readers a sense of what 3-day cricket was like. Essentially, it had the characteristics of one day match but with two innings.

Trumper’s unparalleled scoring in uphill situations was a phenomenon that extended beyond Test cricket. I took the liberty of digging out his performances at the level of the Sheffield Shield, which in his day, were played to a finish.

Victor Trumper. Image: Wikicommons.

Victor Trumper. Image: Wikicommons.

Shield games

1899-00 1900-01 1902-03 1903-04 1907-08 1910-11
Lost matches (timeless) 7 53, 26, 230 43, 68 44, 135 75, 0
Won after trailing by 100 178

Test matches (longer than three days)

1901-02 1903-04 1907-08 1910-11 1911-12
Lost matches (timeless) 2, 34 185*, 74, 35, 7, 12 63, 214*, 28 2, 1*, 28, 5, 50
Won after trailing by 100 166 159

Summary
Timeless Tests: 1065-14 at76.1 (for an outperformance of 185 per cent)
Sheffield Shield: 859-11 at78.1 (for an outperformance of 158 per cent)

Before one is tempted to downplay these Shield scores because ‘it’s only first class cricket’, Victor’s peers, to which he is being directly compared, were: Monty Noble, Reggie Duff, Syd Gregory, Frank Iredale, Albert Hopkins and Harry Donnan. All of them toured England and represented Australia in at least two Ashes series.

In other words, Trumper is being compared with batsmen of ‘Test match calibre’. And the result of this comparison is that Victor proves to be the equivalent of three batsmen.

Below, I have included Sir Donald Bradman’s performances in the Sheffield Shield, under the same conditions.

Shield games: DG Bradman

1929-30 1931-32 1933-34 1936-37 1937-38 1939-40
Lost matches 84 23, 0 76 8 91, 62, 104* 97, 39, 40
Won after trailing by 100

Sheffield Shield: 624-10 at 62.4 (for an outperformance of 136 per cent)

In Tests and Shield, The Don made three hundreds from 31 innings (or one every 10.3), with one score above 150. I provide these details as a way of highlighting just how difficult it is to dominate when your team is getting beaten.

If Bradman struggled, imagine how hard others would find the scenario of a ‘backs-against-the-wall’.

It was challenging for everyone except Victor who, in Tests and Shield, registered nine hundreds from 27 innings (including his sticky-wicket 68 and 74). That is, one in every three attempts, and with seven scores above 150, he did this once in every four attempts.

Simultaneously, Victor Trumper holds records for the highest Test score made in a losing cause (214*), highest Shield score made in a losing cause (230), and the highest sticky wicket score made in a losing cause (74).

As reported by The Evening Journal in Adelaide on March 4th, 1911, England captain Pelham Warner wrote “I have exhausted my stock of superlatives on this extraordinary player; in my humble opinion he is the greatest batsman the world has ever seen.”

This quote, written more than 100 years ago, is probably as true today as it was back then.

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