Criticism is frequently made of legitimately great batsmen from time to time that the one thing lacking in his game is that he hasn’t made/doesn’t make the really big scores – or words to that effect.
This criticism has been levelled at Steve Smith once or twice, despite three Test double tons, a couple of 190s plus a handful of other scores beyond 150. It was levelled at Sachin Tendulkar from time to time and was probably levelled at Viv Richards at one point in time or another as well, despite both making similarly natured tons to Smith. It will no doubt be levelled at Mark Waugh for all eternity.
I am calling this the Bradman Syndrome. I have come to the conclusion that since 1948 our ultimate final rating of any given batsman is his ability or desire to rack up humungous scores on a regular basis without stopping to consider whether they are actually required by their team or not, not to mention whether the actual match they were made in was even actually going anywhere significant at the time they were scored.
Why are we so obsessed with huge individual innings scores as a meaningful way of rating a batsman? YouTube is full of Brian Lara big’uns, and as with any video of any remotely meaningful Tendulkar innings, the comments sections below will inevitably be full of arguments between diehard Indian fans as to who was better, Lara or Tendulkar. The answer depends on whether the individual commenter loves or loathes the little Indian maestro, and it may surprise some to know that not everyone on the sub-continent reveres him with the same sense of adulation.
Those rooting for Lara almost always rely on the sole argument of the number of huge scores that he made, while ironically labelling Tendulkar selfish, claiming he only ever batted for himself rather than the team.
The reality is that in one particular aspect of batsmanship, Lara did stand alone, head and shoulders above the rest, unrivalled by not only anyone in his own era, but in fact, anyone since the Second World War. I am talking about the ability and desire to ruthlessly exploit the most benign of conditions to rack up massive scores over and over. In fact, on this score, Brian Charles Lara is not all that far behind one Donald George Bradman.
Benign conditions are not limited in definition to a flat, featherbed pitch, but can also, as one additional example, relate to other factors, which help further put the nails in the coffin of an already doomed match destined for a lifeless draw in which neither side ever had an even remote chance to win. The obvious example is enough interruptions over the course of the five days, namely rain, that might lead to an entire day’s play or more being lost, thereby meaning that a potential 25 wickets lost in total in the match further reduces to around 20 or even less.
An excellent example is the match in Sydney in January 1993 in which Lara made his maiden Test century, a memorable, even legendary 277 – some say he would have made history by going beyond 365, then the world record, had he not been run out, agreed by all and sundry as being the only mode of dismissal that was ever going to get rid of him in that particular innings.
Lara made 34 Test centuries in total, and I can identify eight that fit into the category of completely meaningless runs in benign conditions in matches that were only ever going to end one way, i.e. a mundane, lifeless draw, where neither side was ever going to even threaten to take 20 opposition wickets. These innings are outlined below in descending order, and are among the front runners of his glorious knocks that the likes of Robelinda post on YouTube as the main testament to Lara’s greatness.
400 not out at Antigua, in the fourth of four Tests versus England in early 2004
Nearly 1500 runs for only 20 wickets over five days does not suggest an even contest between bat and ball. Lara had done absolutely nothing as his team’s best batsman in the first three Tests, all of which the West Indies lost.
375 at Antigua, fifth of five Tests versus England in early 1994
As with the 400, match scores of 5-593, 593 and 0-43 do not suggest that bowlers were ever in the match. Like the 400, this was also a dead rubber but unlike 2004, the West Indies comprehensively won this series 3-1. In two of the three Tests that the West Indies won while the series was still alive, Lara’s scores of 83 and 167 were far more meaningful, and those actually present at the time described his aforementioned blistering 167 as being far more brilliant and exciting than the 375.
277 in Sydney, third of five Tests versus Australia in early 1993
I am happy to grant meaning to about the first 100 runs of this particular innings. The reasons for this are 1. He was under pressure coming in at 2-31 in pursuit of Australia’s 503 and his team were trailing 0-1 in the series. 2. It was only his fifth Test and this was his first century, an important, confidence-boosting milestone in any batsman’s career.
However, by the time he reached that ton, his captain Richie Richardson, arguably Australia’s biggest nemesis over the previous decade and still in his prime, was also bearing down on a century, and with less than 50 runs until the follow on was avoided, the match was already over as a contest between bat and ball.
There were a few interruptions, which probably cut out about half a day’s playing time, but with only 19 wickets falling over four and a half days for 1226 runs, it was always going to be a completely unimaginative draw.
226 in Adelaide, third of three Tests versus Australia 2005-06
Though this one actually represents an exception in that his team lost, it is still rather meaningless in that, like his 400, it was a dead rubber, with his team having lost the series already and Lara himself had done absolutely nothing in those previous two Tests.
It was still a flat pitch offering little for the bowlers and if the West Indies had had a line-up even remotely as strong as those they possessed throughout the 1980s, this would have also been a five-day bore fest where the bowlers worked for zero reward.
The only difference in the end between Australia winning and drawing was getting Lara cheaply in the second innings.
216 in Multan, second of three Tests versus Pakistan 2006-07
Match scores were Pakistan 357 and 7-461 drew with West Indies 591 over five full days. Enough said.
209 in Gros Islet, first of two Tests versus Sri Lanka 2003
Roughly a day and a half playing time was lost altogether with scores of Sri Lanka 354 and 0-126 with West Indies making 9-477 in their only innings. Run rates of 2.5, 3.02 and then 3.7 indicate that run scoring became easier and easier each subsequent innings as the match progressed.
Even if approximately 130 overs had not been lost, with Sri Lanka effectively 0-3 in their second innings, at their current rate they could have easily batted 70 more overs to score approximately 260-280 more runs to make the match safe. In that hypothetical scenario, a declaration would have been throwing the match away with the pitch no doubt still playing well.
152 in fifth Test at Trent Bridge and 179 in sixth Test at the Oval versus England 1995
With the series level at 2-2, England paved two parallel one-way roads for the final two Tests, possibly in order to get the feather in their cap of a drawn series against the West Indies, who only a few short months earlier had lost their first Test series in 15 years.
The match scores in the fifth Test were England 440 and 9-269 declared and West Indies 417 and 2-42 with approximately one session of playing time lost over the five days. Even with a full-strength attack of Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh still in their full pomp, England, with not a single even remotely all-time great batsman in their line-up, were able to comfortably extend their lead to nearly 300, and less than half a day would have remained, even had there been no time lost at all in the match.
The match scores in the sixth Test were England 454 and 4-223 and West Indies 8-692. As with the aforementioned fifth Test, approximately one session of playing time was lost in this match but it made not a scrap of difference. Only 22 wickets fell over the best part of five days.
These runs, with the afore described allowances for the first 100 of his 277, account for 16.2 per cent of Lara’s total Test runs. They also account for six of his nine scores of 200 or more, and eight of his 19 beyond 150.
In comparison, Mark Waugh could only be said to have made two Test tons, out of 20, that were almost completely meaningless: his 111 against Sri Lanka in Perth in 1995-96 when he came in at second drop with his team already 15 ahead, and the exact same score batting first against New Zealand two summers earlier when he came in at 2-300 in a match where the opposition ended up making a combined total of only 322 from both completed innings. These runs account for a mere 2.8 per cent of Mark’s total Test runs.
Therein lies two main problems. Firstly, why castigate a player as fabulous as Mark Waugh simply because he couldn’t be bothered filling his pockets and padding his average with massive scores in conditions as benign as those described for Lara above. For example, in the complete waste of time that was the Peshawar Test of late 1998, in team totals of 4-599 and 5-289, Mark Waugh didn’t see a need to score any more than 42 and 43. No doubt many would rue the fact that Mark Waugh didn’t bother to exploit such benign conditions and rack up 243 or even 342.
Secondly, when you lump those eight previously outlined examples of Lara’s in with his scarcely believable 1999 performances against Australia as well as his 2001-02 performances in Sri Lanka, you get a lopsided average of 52.9, which makes him seem, to the untrained cricketing eye, like a far superior player to Mark Waugh who only averaged 41.8, but who, apart from those two tiny tons outlined above, almost never scored a meaningless run in his entire career.
Mark Waugh rarely failed his team in the big moments when it really mattered, when everything was on the line, whereas Lara, it must be recognised, relatively frequently did, for example both the 1996-97 and 2005-06 Australian summers as well as his own home series against England in early 2004.
On the whole I would rate Lara a fractionally better batsman than Mark Waugh – Lara is, for most, in the top ten of all time. However, for mine, Mark Waugh is definitely inside Australia’s top ten in Test cricket, and indeed top five for (proper) one-day cricket.
If you take out those eight innings of Lara’s that have been the scrutiny of this analysis, then his Test average falls to 45.7, and that, compared with Mark Waugh’s aforementioned 41.9, would make for a far more accurate comparison between the two, in terms of the real value they provided for their respective teams as well as impact on the various oppositions that they played against.