I’ve been following the debate around the concepts of inflated averages and meaningless runs, which has been a pretty hot topic in recent weeks on The Roar.
In the 50-odd years I’ve enjoyed the game, this is the first time I’ve come across the concepts, so I have to thank those who raised these topics, for contributing to my cricketing education.
I wanted to explore these issues by looking at three innings, which represent many of the tens of thousands of Test innings played since 1877. I’m sure cricket supporters from all round the world would be able to come up with similar examples from their own favourite players or Test countries.
Australia played a Test series in Pakistan in 1998. The numbers for the second Test of that series read Australia 4-599 dec, Pakistan 9-580 dec, and Australia 5-289.
On the surface of it, this was a boring draw: 1468 runs, 18 wickets lost and four scores over a hundred, suggests this was easy pickings for batsmen.
In that Test, Mark Taylor made 334 not out. Here’s his take on that innings from his book Time to Declare.
“For six sessions, two full days, on a beautifully tailored wicket at the Arbab Niaz Stadium, I had batted and battled on – in draining 30-degree heat partnered by soaking humidity. Rarely before in my cricket life had I been in what Greg Norman has called the ‘zone’. For one of the few times in the long seasons spent trying to master the art of batting, I was in total, absolute control, sure there was no way they could ever stop me.”
I vividly remember the debate that swirled around the decision that Taylor would have to make on the morning of Day 3: declare on the overnight total or bat on, make another run to pass Bradman then declare.
These are Taylor’s thoughts:
“During my years in the Test team, we had lived by the 600-run philosophy – simply, that if we could make 600 runs in a game, we were going to win a hell of a lot more games than we lost… I knew then, there was only one choice, to declare and set about winning the match. On the one hand, cricket is all about individual achievement and goals. But much more than that, it is a team game – and in my time as Australia’s captain, I had always tried to put the team first.”
Is this an example of a batsman cashing in and inflating their average? Absolutely. Is this score an example of meaningless runs? Yes – in hindsight because the match petered out to a tame draw. But as always with cricket there are far more issues at play.
Taylor was coming to the end of his career and he knew it. His form had not be the best, making 189 runs against India in the previous Australian summer and averaging only 37.80, which was massively helped by one innings of 102 not out.
In the previous Test in Pakistan, Taylor’s contribution to a total of 513 was three runs, so it’s safe to say the skipper was under some pressure to perform.
He was also batting to orders. The team had a goal of scoring 600 every time they played and he had a part to play in that. If he didn’t make a triple century, he’d have expected other batsmen to get the score close to that total.
Taylor was also in the zone and as he said, he was batting at the peak of his powers.
Has anyone been in the zone Taylor talks about? I have been but only briefly. The feeling of euphoria is really hard to describe and that was over 40 years ago! I can only imagine the feelings Taylor must have enjoyed if he was in the zone for the best part of two full days.
Then there’s the issues Taylor mentioned about batting in stifling heat and humidity. I’ve played a lot of cricket in the tropics and what he’s describing is commonplace. That doesn’t make it easy to bat, far from it.
Mark Taylor thought the runs mattered. He devoted plenty of words in his autobiography to just that one innings.
The public in Australia thought they mattered because many like me, were so proud and amazed at the achievement.
The media thought they mattered because they devoted so many articles to one decision – should Mark Taylor have declared or should he have batted on? These runs still matter because people still debate this same issue.
The next innings I want to discuss came during the 2006-07 Ashes series and came from the bat of Adam Gilchrist. Once again, on paper, this is an example of inflating averages and meaningless runs.
When Gilchrist came into bat, Australia were 5-374 and had a lead of 403 runs. This was clearly enough runs to comfortably win this match and so it proved, with England only making 350. On paper, if he didn’t bat at all, Australia would have won this game by 53 runs.
Once again, there’s more to this innings than just numbers.
Gilchrist had scores on zero, 64 and another duck in the first innings of this Test, so his form was indifferent at best. He was determined to make runs in front of his home crowd.
This was also a series where Australia didn’t want to beat England, they wanted to really crush them. All players and supporters would remember what happened in the 2005 Ashes and from ball one in this series, the Australian team wanted to dominate.
There was also a psychological factor. Sourav Ganguly once said something like ‘you think you’ve done well to get out Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Damien Martyn, then in walks Adam Gilchrist’.
His appearance at the crease must have been disheartening to the English attack. The final factor that makes these runs meaningful was how they were made and the pleasure they gave to so many.
The 110,000 people at the WACA that day (that’s the 20,000 who were actually there as well as the 90,000 who claimed they were there) were treated to one of the finest examples of pure hitting ever seen in Test cricket.
This innings is still enjoyed now. When I started to write this piece, I noted that 1,000,007,629 people had watched the YouTube video. Only a few hours later, that number has increased by another 52 views – all for an innings that was played 15 years ago.
The final innings I want to mention came from a favourite of mine and one of the game’s great batsmen – Glenn McGrath, ably supported by Jason Gillespie. The Test was against New Zealand in Brisbane in 2004.
When McGrath came to the wicket, Australia already had 471 on the board and a handy lead of nearly 120. Once again, hindsight tells us that this was more than enough for the Aussies to secure victory because the Black Caps were bowled out for 76 in the fourth innings.
This raises a number of questions. Why didn’t Ponting declare before McGrath had come out to bat? It was late in the afternoon and a great time to bowl against tired New Zealand openers, who had been in the field in the Brisbane heat for more than three sessions?
Why did Ponting allow the partnership to continue the next day? The team had more than enough runs on the board?
If you watch the video link, the answers to these questions are clear.
Ponting and his teammates wanted McGrath to do well and were absolutely delighted when he scored his first Test 50. There was also no way Ponting was going to declare when ‘Dizzy’ was in sight of his first Test half-century, which he duly scored the next day.
There’s no doubt these innings padded averages, especially McGrath’s and in the context of this game, were completely meaningless in terms of the scoreline, but to the batsmen who made the scores and their teammates who watched them struggle then prosper, these were two innings for the ages. As Ponting said, McGrath’s 61 was one of the miracles he’s witnessed on a Test ground.
I mention one final point, which came from an ex-Test player. They said they batted in each innings as though it was going to be their last.
In the case of Taylor and Gilchrist, these were the last time each passed three figures. In the case of McGrath it was the first and last time he passed 50. At the least, these runs had special meaning to these players, which has likely only increased since their retirements.
Cricket is a numbers game and if that’s all it was, these three innings would be perfect examples of meaningless runs that helped pad averages.
The wonderful thing about the game is there’s so much more to it than that.