What Makes A Truly Great Bowling Performance?

What Makes A Truly Great Bowling Performance?

They say that batsmen set up matches and bowlers win them. But with cricket obsessed ever more with dominant runscorers and the records they’re hunting down, where does the humble, toiling matchwinner sit in the story of cricketing greatness?

After the success of Masterly Batting – which used analytical criteria to decide upon the hundred greatest Test knocks of all time – Patrick Ferriday and his team of researchers set about doing the same for great bowling performances, rounding up a team of essayists to take on the story. Here he explains how the list was compiled.

The first thing to make clear right from the start is that it is simply impossible to judge the best century or best five-fer in Test cricket using statistics alone. There are simply too many factors and some of these factors do not lend themselves to a statistics-based evaluation. But some do, so the simple answer is to use numbers where you can, subjective opinion where you can’t and a mixture of the two where appropriate.

In Masterly Batting we analysed all Test centuries up to the end of 2013. In Supreme Bowling it is the turn of the toilers. All five-wicket-plus hauls come under the microscope up to the end of 2015. Most categories are straightforward and nobody could argue with their relevance. How good was the opposition? What was the pitch like? How far did the bowler’s performance influence the match and, through that, the series? How good were the figures? What were the strike- and economy-rates? What other factors (intangibles) came into play? If all these questions can be answered in a positive fashion, there you have the heart and soul of a great bowling performance.

Our feeling is that these cover the elements of a high-class bowling performance. The next step is to collect all the relevant figures, do the research and decide on the relative importance of each of these factors. Easy to say.

So let’s have a look at how these were assessed and place them in the context of three great pieces of English bowling – Phil Tufnell’s 7-47 against New Zealand at Christchurch in 1992, Jim Laker’s 10-53 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956 and Devon Malcolm’s 9-57 against South Africa at the Oval in 1994. It’s hardly surprising that all three of these fall into our top 100.


The numbers that appear in each of the seven categories are reached thus: once the authors had settled on seven sets of figures for the hundred performances, then the authors set the best at 100 and extrapolated all the others downwards. Hence Laker’s ‘VALUE’ came in at 100 – being the best in that category.

This is the most subjective element. If you maintain that the opposition is most important and match impact much less so you will come out with a substantially altered list. Our method? We asked a lot of cricket followers and based our weighting on a composite figure.


Percentages of each category used in the final figure:

Economy-rate/strike-rate 5%
Value 15%
Series Impact 7%
Match Situation 27%
Conditions 20%
Opposition 20%
Intangibles 6%



Tufnell’s 7-47

The easy start is economy- and strike-rate. Certainly not one of the most crucial categories but not one that can be dismissed. The results are easily obtained by using the bowling figures which tell us how quickly the wickets were taken and how difficult it was to score off our bowler. A maximum of 100 points was given to the best candidate in each category and other points totals were extrapolated downwards. Laker’s 51.2 overs cost just over one run an over, Tufnell’s 46.1 were equally miserly (both aided by the state of the game) but Malcolm’s nine wickets in just 16.3 overs tilted the balance quite heavily in his favour where strike-rate is the dominant factor.


Does Curtly make the list?
Does Curtly make the list?

Next up is value. By this we mean the worth of the figures. The traditional method is to start with the biggest wicket hauls and then work down through runs conceded. This leaves George Lohmann’s 8-7 rated below Rangana Herath’s 9-127 which can’t be right. So should we just use runs per wicket? Then Anil Kumble’s famous 10-74 is inferior to Allan Donald’s 5-36 (in 1997, against Australia) so that can’t be right. The answer is in the rarity. Thus 5-16 equates with 8-52 on the basis that both have been equalled or bettered 20 times by other five-fers and eight-fers. Malcolm’s nine wickets are rare (only bettered five times), Tufnell’s less so (bettered 63 times) and Laker’s aren’t bettered. A further slight modification is then made based on the relative scoring during different eras and runs-per-wicket in the game in question.


Laker 10-86
Laker’s 10-53

On to series impact. We can’t discount the pressure of bowling when the series is at stake rather than in a dead rubber. For this we need the score in the series prior to the game under analysis and an estimate of its importance based on the ability of the teams playing, the length of the series and the extra frisson of an Ashes series or India playing Pakistan.


Tayfield – spinning a web
Tayfield – spinning a web

The first of the big three categories concerns the quality of the opposition. How good were the batsmen dismissed and also the team’s batting overall? Here we can use the ICC date-specific ratings. They may not be infallible but nothing better exists. The only tweak here is to include a change to reflect the career-high rating as part of the overall figure of each batsman. This gives a more balanced figure particularly for a player at the start of his career. The Australian team that Laker decimated wasn’t the greatest but Colin McDonald, Neil Harvey and Keith Miller were hardly mugs. Much the same could be said of two Kirstens, Wessels and Cullinan knocked over by Malcolm. Tufnell had it easier but New Zealand still had a Test centurion batting at nine and Martin Crowe in his pomp.


Does Devon make history?
Malcolm’s 9-57

If measuring the opposition is largely objective then measuring the conditions is largely subjective. Quite simply two researchers gave a figure out of 10 for the pitch based on extensive study of match reports, memoirs etc. Where their figures diverged too far then a further opinion was sought. These figures were then matched against the number of balls bowled which is usually a fair indicator of pitch conditions.

Tufnell, Laker and Malcolm were operating in very different spheres. Laker had all the help he needed. Any number of differing views have been offered ranging from the Australian take of a doctored wicket to the idea that it was all in the minds of the batsmen and not on the grass in front of them. But it was tough for batting and the figures must reflect that.

Malcolm’s pitch was hard and quick but England coped with Donald and Fanie de Villiers – it helped the quicks, but not that much. And then Christchurch – a flat, dreary surface offering nothing to anybody and so the game was meandering to a draw. Then Tufnell took seven wickets on a pitch taking no spin. Clever boy.


Broad practically won the Test on day one
Broad practically won the Test on day one

If bowlers win matches then it is in match impact that the real key to a great performance is likely to be found. Just think Stuart Broad when he effectively won a Test match before lunch on the first day at Trent Bridge in 2015. No batsman can ever change a game so quickly so early in a game. The method here is simple but requires devilish statistical input – the win probability of the batting side is considered both immediately before and immediately after the fall of each wicket by comparing the game to other Tests.

This is where Laker falls down; Australia were following on 375 behind when he performed his clean sweep. They could not win and a draw was just a fleeting possibility depending largely on the weather. For Malcolm the scenario was entirely different – with South Africa leading by 28 on first innings and England batting last the visitors were favourites to win. An opening salvo of three wickets for one run soon turned the odds on their head.

For Tufnell the about-turn was almost as dramatic with New Zealand at 201-3 and 67 away from making England bat again at tea on day five – anything but a draw was unthinkable. The impact of each wicket in that final session was huge in changing the possibility of a win over a draw. In its most basic form we are rewarding the bowler who almost single-handedly transforms the state of the game. The most eye-catching instances tend to be in the latter stages but as Broad – or Mitchell Johnson or Curtly Ambrose – have shown, it can happen at any time.


What about Australia's Bob Massey and his debut performance?
What about Australia’s Bob Massie and his debut performance?

It may be that having an intangibles section is seen as a bit of a cop-out but there has to be a place to consider factors that don’t fall into the other categories. The stamina of Tom Richardson under a baking sun, Malcolm Marshall mowing down England with his arm in a cast, Ian Botham and Kapil Dev batting their side into the game then winning it with the ball, the weight of a nation’s hopes on Fazal Mahmood’s shoulders, Massie and Hirmani winning Tests alone on debut or Richie Benaud both bowling and captaining his side to the Ashes. These feats and more deserve recognition. Or when an Arlott, Cozier, Woodcock or Robinson praises a bowler to high heaven. Then reward must follow. Not to mention dropped catches.


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