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Opinion

Australia's greatest front runners

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Roar Rookie
14th July, 2021
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“As an opener batting in the first innings, he was getting things off to the perfect start.”

He was England’s left-handed opener Chris Broad and the words came from the mouth of Allan Border. The Australian captain made the remark when asked to reflect on the Ashes series of 1986-87, and the reasons for the Australian downfall.

For those of us old enough to live through that series, Broad was the man who tormented Australia. By the fifth Test, I had had a gutful of his broad blade (pun intended) and water-tight defence.

Moreover, when addressing the ball, Broad seemed to poke his backside toward square leg in an exaggerated manner, as if to mock the Australians. In the second, third and fourth Tests of that series, England’s second wicket fell at 223, 273 and 163, respectively, and as a result, by Day 2, the Australian hopes were already up in flames.

The point of this stroll down memory lane is to underscore the importance of the first innings. I have estimated that roughly 65 to 75 per cent of Test matches have been decided by the halfway mark.

Consider, for example, the last five summers down under, against Pakistan, South Africa, England, India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and India. Of the 21 decided games, 15 were effectively over at the end of the first innings (or 71 per cent).

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Another way to frame this disparity is to say that a first innings hundred is two to three times more valuable than one made in the second innings.

We can see that in roughly two out of every three Tests, a second innings hundred will either be a case of too little, too late or the flogging of a dead horse.

Hence, the significance of the first innings can hardly be overstated. Recently, I wrote about the great come-from-behind batsmen and today I offer a complementary study, Australia’s great front runners.

(Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Most people will agree that the lumping together of all first innings scores, batsman by batsman, is rather unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. For a start, matches against the weaker nations ought to be avoided. However, deciding which teams belong in this category can be tricky – more on this below.

Second, we should disregard performances in dull draws, not the type that go down to the wire or that were on track until rain intervened, but instead, the type where neither side’s bowlers were taking wickets with the frequency required to capture 20 overall. This yardstick is relatively easy to apply and there are few drawn games that occupy a grey zone.

Finally, very large scores need to be capped in some way. For obvious reasons, a score of 300 not out is not the equivalent of 100, 100 and 100, nor are they anything alike in terms of match-winning impact. For a number of reasons, scores will be capped at 100.

For the first 50 years of Test cricket, the job of a batsman was considered done once they had brought up three figures and upon reaching this milestone, the custom was to ‘have a go, you mug’. The inclusion of big hundreds in the data set would place these earlier batsmen at a considerable disadvantage.

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Also, since I am ignoring come-from-behind circumstances, these are by design front-running situations where the batting side is forging further and further ahead. In such conditions, I am right to question the impact of runs made beyond 100.

Also, in those few situations where a match is lost after the century maker finished with, say, 110, it is generally the result of poor bowling and/or fielding.

Moreover, since I am eliminating dull draws, in the vast majority of cases, a small century will be sufficient to place the team in a winning position.

To conclude, capping at 100 is an objective method that can be applied without bias and where each batsman is on a level footing.

Steve Smith.

(Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

With this established, now to the thorny question of who were the competitive teams? I have decided upon the following:
• all matches versus England (obviously)
• all matches versus South Africa after 1960 (the Proteas have been competitive ever since the 1963-64 series)
• all matches versus the West Indies between 1950 and 2000, but only away games after 2000
• all matches versus India since 2000 but only away games between 1970 and 2000
• all matches against the other nations when playing abroad, after 1970
• omit scores in a reply where the match was lost (these innings were covered in the previous study)

As a rule, I have eliminated teams who were not frequently a threat to the Australians on home turf. Let me know in the comments where I have gone wrong. Occasionally, some of the other nations have not been especially competitive, even in their own country: Sri Lanka before 1990, Zimbabwe the whole time.

But Australia only played one Test in Sri Lanka pre-1990, and only one in Zimbabwe full stop, hence there is little point in creating additional rules. Ever since 1970, in the vast majority of overseas Tests, Australia has had their hands full defeating the hosts.

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To recap, I have collected performances against strong teams, in decided matches or competitive draws, and treated all centuries as 100 not out. Here are the results for the 13 batsmen listed in my previous study, plus golden-age star Clem Hill.

First-half performances against strong teams

Batsman Matches Runs-dismissals Average 100s (%) above peers
Star Peers Star Peers
SPD Smith 40 2262-25 6055-165 90.5 36.7 36% (14/39) 146.60%
DG Bradman 22 1361-12 4977-96 113.4 51.8 45% (10/22) 118.70%
VT Trumper 25 872-20 3930-150 43.6 26.2 17% (4/24) 66.40%
GS Chappell 36 1579-29 5584-165 54.4 33.8 19% (7/36) 60.70%
SR Waugh 91 4378-67 19485-413 65.3 47.2 21% (18/85) 38.50%
RT Ponting 98 4521-74 20965-448 61.1 46.8 24% (24/98) 30.60%
WH Ponsford 12 801-6 2835-58 133.5 48.9 45% (5/11) 173.10%
MJ Clarke 52 2170-40 10103-240 54.3 42.1 20% (10/50) 28.90%
AR Border 58 2367-51 10690-263 46.4 40.6 6% (3/54) 14.20%
C Hill 27 854-25 4867-135 38.2 36.1 7% (2/27) 5.90%
ML Hayden 61 2597-49 14273-282 53 50.6 20% (12/61) 4.70%
ME Hussey 43 1658-38 8330-196 43.6 42.5 7% (3/41) 2.70%
ME Waugh 68 2714-56 14540-295 48.5 49.3 15% (10/66) -1.70%
DA Warner 46 1521-42 8530-183 36.2 46.6 9% (4/46) -28.70%

Rather than proceed with a perfunctory, player-by-player summary, I will simply comment on the more unexpected results and provide a short commentary on our country’s greatest front runners.

It is somewhat of a surprise to see David Warner so low in these rankings. Unfortunately for the right hander, one of his colleagues is Steven Smith and so Warner’s peer average is much higher than it might otherwise have been.

Nevertheless, in the modern era, four hundreds from 46 innings is a rather poor return. He also suffers because many of his best knocks were delivered against the lesser nations on home soil (and therefore excluded). Warner’s low standing here is in sharp contrast to his come-from-behind record.

David Warner during Day One of the first Ashes Test.

(Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

At the other end of the scale is Bill Ponsford, whose numbers as a front runner are truly spectacular. Five hundreds from 12 innings is right up there with Don Bradman and there can be no question that he won many games for Australia through his dominance over the first two days.

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On the other hand, Ponsford is the only player in this list to have been dropped three times, and the Victorian certainly had problems with short-pitched bowling (even without a Bodyline field). His method against the Harold Larwood onslaught was to turn his back on the bouncers and absorb dozens of blows on the torso.

While I admire his courage, this is a damning testimony to his footwork. Why not duck and weave, for heaven’s sake? This weakness must be a blot on his reputation and standing in the game.

We can see the usual suspects occupying the top half-dozen positions. However, two names simply tower above the rest: Bradman, of course, and Steven Devereux Smith.

In my humble judgment, Smith is the better front runner and a superior match winner. Over many more innings, the boy from Sydney has maintained a record that even Bradman could not achieve, given the highly competitive nature of modern Test cricket.

Smith’s front-running average of 91 is without equal among cricketers of the post-1970 age. Compared with Bradman, his influence on matches has been the more profound. Bradman’s teammates averaged almost 52 runs, which suggests that the Australians would have been quite okay in his absence. This could never be said about the Australians minus Steven Smith.

It is my firm belief that in the 2019 Ashes series, Smith was the only thing that stood between England and a total clean sweep. Without the quirky right hander, England wins the series 5-0.

Steve Smith looks on as Jofra Archer bowls

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Now compare this with Bradman’s signature series of 1930, which Australia won 2-1. It would be difficult to claim that Australia’s victories could not have happened without ‘The Don’ because in these matches, at Lord’s and the Oval, the rest of the top order made 5-413 and 5-372, respectively.

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Hence, it is not a stretch to say that the visitors would have been okay had Bradman failed each time. Moreover, neither Test was a case of Bradman paving the way for others as the opening stands brought 162 and 159. A batsman can only deal with the opposition presented but it is a fact that in nine of Bradman’s ten front-running hundreds, at least one teammate did likewise.

With that said, Bradman certainly made sure that for the opposition, there would be no come-from-behind rescue operation. My favourite Bradman performance from the first innings is the hundred he made in Leeds in 1938.

The wicket for this game was a real throwback to the Edwardian era. In the contest between bat and ball, it was the latter that held the whip hand.

As it turned out, three batsmen made it to 35 in the Test, Aussie wicketkeeper Ben Barnett (57), bad-pitch specialist and England maestro Wally Hammond (76), and ‘The Don’, with a match-, series- and Ashes-deciding 103. As Richie Benaud might have said, simply marvellous.

This front-runner study is meant to supplement the recent come-from-behind analysis, and it is only logical to integrate the two and identify the country’s greatest match winners. Who performed best over both the front and back end of Test matches?

Only three batsmen made the top six in both lists: Victor Trumper and Bradman (of course), and Stephen Rodger Waugh.

Australia’s biggest match winners

Batsman Matches Runs-dismissals Average 100s (%) above peers
Star Peers Star Peers
VT Trumper 44 1994-38 7158-280 52.5 25.5 21% (9/44) 105.40%
DG Bradman 42 2277-32 7811-198 71.1 39.4 31% (13/42) 80.50%
SPD Smith 80 3447-66 11540-375 52.2 30.8 19% (15/80) 69.60%
SR Waugh 128 5774-109 25669-664 52.9 38.7 16% (20/128) 37.10%
GS Chappell 63 2301-56 9522-295 41.1 32.3 13% (8/63) 27.30%
AR Border 116 4439-112 19295-619 39.6 31.2 6% (7/116) 27.00%
WH Ponsford 26 1069-21 5263-145 50.9 36.3 19% (5/26) 40.20%
RT Ponting 146 5738-121 27420-680 47.4 40.3 17% (25/146) 17.50%
MJ Clarke 97 3341-87 16125-467 38.4 34.5 11% (11/97) 11.20%
DA Warner 87 3135-83 13363-392 37.8 34 7% (6/87) 10.90%
ME Hussey 68 2512-64 12141-327 39.3 37.1 7% (5/68) 5.80%
ML Hayden 90 3499-78 18397-423 44.9 43.5 16% (14/90) 3.10%
ME Waugh 105 3829-95 19546-492 40.3 39.7 11% (12/105) 1.40%
C Hill 54 1534-52 9459-289 29.5 32.7 4% (2/54) -10.80%

It is wholly appropriate that our best half-dozen batsmen are Trumper, Bradman, Smith, Steve Waugh, Greg Chappell and Border. Ponting would have made the list had he retired in 2009. Most people will agree that these seven are Australia’s best, though perhaps not in this order!

Victor Trumper is really a Jekyll and Hyde character. For Trumper, the 43 completed innings excluded from this table represent performances against the weaker teams, dull draws and finishing off of an opponent, what I am fond of calling the run accumulation phase.

In these 43 innings, Trumper has zero hundreds, one score of 75, and an average of 27.2. As a run accumulator, I would rate him in the same class as Paul Reiffel the batsman. On the other hand, with nine hundreds from 44 innings, at an average of 52.5, he simply thrived in the role of match winner.

Even among the elite of Australian cricket, Trumper stands as a giant.

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