There has been a good deal of hyperbole about Jimmy Anderson recently with Michael Vaughan going so far as to claim that he was the greatest ever England bowler on Test Match Special after the recent Test match at Trent Bridge where Anderson returned match figures of 10-158. In making his case Vaughan was adamant that Fred Trueman was an inferior bowler to Anderson.
There are severe objections to Vaughan’s claims. To begin with the obvious many English pace bowlers with substantial Test careers have far superior Test averages to that of Anderson who has taken his Test wickets at more than 30 runs apiece. For example, Trueman took 307 at less than 22 runs each, Brian Statham and Alec Bedser 252 and 228 respectively at an average of 24, SF Barnes 189 at 16 and George Lohman 112 at 10.
Even allowing for different playing conditions through the history of Test cricket it is very difficult to explain why Anderson’s wickets should be so much more expensive than bowlers from previous eras if he is supposedly the best ever. It is also noteworthy that the best Test pace bowlers from the period 1980-2000 (when playing conditions and equipment were not startlingly different from today) – Marshall, Ambrose, Waqar Younis, Wazim Akram, McGrath and the best of today, Steyn , all managed to take their wickets at under 25 runs with Marshall and Ambrose at less than 21 runs each. It is also true that English bowlers operating since 1980 such as Botham, Willis, Dilley, Fraser and Cork all managed to take 100 or more Test wickets with an average of less than 30. If all these bowlers could manage to take their wickets at better averages than Anderson what magical change has occurred in the past decade or so to make the supposedly “greatest ever England bowler” more expensive? The only radical change has been DRS which aids rather than hinders bowlers.
When challenged on his claim Vaughan takes refuge in the idea that playing conditions in the past, even in the relatively recent past of the 1950s, were so much more in favour of the bowlers than they are now that this explained the much higher averages of Anderson and most other modern pace bowlers. Let us test this idea.
In comparing Anderson with other English bowlers, Vaughan has made much of the fact that players such as Fred Trueman bowled on uncovered pitches and that this greatly assisted their averages. (Trueman’s Test career spanned the years 1952-1965).
This is a very odd idea for several reasons. To begin with the fact that a pitch is or is not covered says little about the way it will play in most circumstances. If the weather is dry, the uncovered pitch will last much the same way as a covered pitch will do. It is only when rain affects a pitch and it then dries under the influence of sun or wind that it becomes really difficult. When that happens, guess what, the pace bowlers cannot bowl when it is really difficult because the run-ups are also wet (assuming the run-ups are not covered, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s. Nor did run-ups dry quickly in the past because the drainage on most grounds was poor. But even when the run-ups became useable for the quick bowlers, often they did not get much opportunity to bowl when the rain damaged pitch still had some spite in it because the spinners would have shot the side out when the pitch was at it its most difficult. Trueman and his ilk were, on balance, disadvantaged not advantaged by playing on uncovered pitches.
The number of draws
Another awkward fact facing Vaughan is the number of draws on uncovered pitches. If uncovered pitches were so much more helpful to bowlers, how was it that draws were much more plentiful in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now despite the much lower Test bowling averages then? The short answer is they were generally playing on good batting pitches which were rarely rain-damaged against Test batsmen who had (certainly amongst the stronger Test playing nations) vastly better batting techniques and far more patience then than now. More on that later.
The length of Tests before WW2
It was in the 1950s that five day Tests became the norm throughout the Test playing nations and matches were all played on uncovered pitches. Before then it was mixture of three day Tests (mainly in England) 4 day Tests, 5 day Tests and timeless Tests which were long the norm in Australia and which were only abandoned after 1945. However, it should be remembered that bowling rates were at around 20 overs to the hour before WW2 compared with 15 overs now, so the actual play in a three day match would be equal to four days now and a four day match equal to five and a third days and so on. In the 1950s Test over rates were about 18 an hour so those matches, if they went the full five days, would contain the equivalent of another day’s play at present day over rates.
It is instructive to look at how long timeless Tests took. Take the Bodyline series in 1932/33. It might be imagined that the matches were over quickly because of the onslaught of Larwood and Voce and their taming of Bradman. Not a bit of it. The series had one Test extending to four days, two Tests to five days and two Tests to six days.
That Tests on uncovered pitches often lasted for a long time is unsurprising. Apart from the early years of Test cricket, groundsmen generally prepared pitches as they do today, namely, to last for as long as the matches were scheduled, or in the case of timeless Tests, for a seriously extended game. If a grass pitch was uncovered in Australia, South Africa or the West Indies it was unlikely to seriously deteriorate quickly because there was little likelihood of rain. (Where matting pitches were used – mainly in South Africa - the rain damaged pitch problem did not arise).
Another of Vaughan’s claims is that pace bowlers are more skilful these days because they have reverse swing. Why reverse swing should outweigh all the other weapons in the pace bowler’s armoury he has not made clear. Modern bowlers may have reverse swing but often they do not do a great deal with the ball otherwise. Seam bowling, that is, using the seam on the pitch rather than in the air, in particular seems a dying art. Nor are modern bowlers anything like as accurate as those in the past. This is not sentimentality on my part. Look at videos of any extended bowling by Test bowlers from fifty or sixty years ago and you will see that not only can they bowl to their field consistently – something modern bowlers are very poor at doing – but they attack the stumps far more. To those who think that bowling a consistent line and length get you nowhere in Test cricket I would say just two words: Glen McGrath.
Vaughan also ventured the very odd idea that Trueman was a bowler without versatility. The reverse is the case. In his twenties, a genuine express, who swung the ball away late and had excellent control of line and length. In the latter part of his career, where appropriate, he adapted to conditions by bowling fast-medium offcutters, most notably at Headingly in 1961 when he took 11-88 and won the match for England.
The quality of batting
Batting techniques and mentality are very different today to what they were when Trueman was playing in the 1950s and 1960s. Batsmen in Trueman’s time had only pads, still rudimentary gloves, an unconvincing box and, if they were lucky , a single inadequate thigh pad strapped to their leading leg. This lack of protection meant that only those who were proficient hookers and pullers played the shots against anyone faster than military medium. Even high-quality players like Bobbie Simpson and John Edrich simply did not hook.
The pitches English players played on in England outside of Test matches in Trueman’s day were prepared by each county as they saw fit without any interference from the then ruling body the MCC. This meant, for example, that if a team travelled to Southend to play Essex they would be met by a greentop to suit Bailey, Preston and Knight while a trip to Bristol to play Gloucestershire would almost certainly mean a pitch turning sharply on the first morning to suit the spinners Mortimore, Allen, Wells and Cook. This variety of pitches – and there were few which were anodyne or batting paradises – meant that county players had to become very proficient players of the ball, spinning, seaming and swinging. Nor did they have the distraction of limited overs cricket to breed bad habits of impatience and reckless shot selection and invention.
Overseas batsmen played either on mainly fast bouncy pitches (Australia, West Indies, South Africa) or slow, low pitches which nonetheless took a great amount of spin (India). In addition, touring players from all countries gained considerable experience of conditions other than those of their native country because tours were long and included a large number of first class games in addition to Test matches. That included England teams on tour. Consequently, every Test playing nation had a reasonable experience of different conditions for first class cricket in the various Test playing countries, something which they do not get today – England are the only country to hinder their chances of success by allowing foreign players to take part in large numbers in a domestic first class competition.
The modern batsman plays only on covered pitches (which in English domestic cricket have to be prepared in a way to ensure they do not offer much help to the bowler) and is both encumbered and protected by a remarkable array of equipment: bumper bras, armguards, large thigh pads on both thighs, decent gloves and most importantly helmets. Unlike their helmetless predecessors, the modern batsman, whether proficient or not at the strokes, hooks and pulls with great frequency, often very incompetently. Touring sides rarely play many first class matches outside of Tests and limited over games and so lack the extensive experience of different conditions in foreign countries which was once the norm for a touring side. Lastly, the introduction of limited overs cricket generally and T20 in particularly has bred loose batting habits and a disastrous lack of patience.
Vaughan also claimed that the heavier bats used by modern players make heavier scoring inevitable. It is certainly true that shots which are not middle can go for six with heavy modern bats, but against that these heavy bats reduce the deftness of shot. They also encourage reckless hitting because batsmen think they can get away with false strokes.
The present Australian batting shows the modern defects of technique and mentality most dramatically, but no current Test side with the possible exception of South Africa could honestly be called a strong batting side. This is of cardinal importance when judging bowlers. It is one thing to be bowling at the present Australian side and quite another to be bowling against the 1930s and 1940s sides containing Bradman supported by four or five of the following: Ponsford, Woodfull, Mc Cabe, Kippax, Hassett, Morris, Harvey Barnes, Brown, Fingleton and Miller. Ditto the present West Indian batting line-up compared to the 1950s cast of the three Ws, Sobers, Stollmeyer, Rae, Hunte, Kanhai and Oggie Smith. Ditto the South African side of the 1960s with Richards, McGlew, Goddard, Barlow, Graeme Pollock, Bland, Lindsay and Proctor.
The lack of technique, especially against the moving ball, the reckless shot selection, especially the repeated flashing outside the offstump and incompetently executed hooks and pulls, the introduction to Test cricket from limited overs cricket of wildly inappropriate shots such as the reverse sweep and scoop and a seemingly pathological inability to be patient generally and leave balls in particular make modern Test players easy meat for bowlers compared with their predecessors.
The weakness of lower batting orders in the past
Vaughan also maintained that lower order batsmen in Trueman’s era were only too glad to give their wickets away because they lacked the helmets and other batting protection which the modern batsman has, this is contrast to the lower orders today. This is a myth, both in Trueman’s day and really throughout Test cricket’s history. For example, in the first full decade of Test cricket (the 1880s) England regularly turned out sides in England which batted right the way down with the likes of Briggs, Peel, Lohmann, Bates, Barnes, CT Studd, A Lyttleton, Tylecote, Barlow batting in the positions 7-11.
In the 1950s the majority of England’s bowling was done by Bailey, Bedser, Trueman, Statham, Tyson, Laker, Lock and Wardle. Bailey was great allrounder and batted in various positions in the top six. The others generally occupied positions 8-11. Bedser, Laker, Lock and Wardle all scored Test fifties. Bedser, Trueman and Laker scored first class hundreds. Tyson was a competent lower order player. Even Statham averaged over 10. The England tail in the 1950s was not a quivering collective wreck waiting to tread on the square leg umpire’s toes in their anxiety to get away from any bowler quicker than medium. In the 1960s England batted even deeper with players such as Titmus, Allen, Knight, Murray often batting at 8 or 9.
Other Test playing nations also had tails which were capable of wagging vigorously. An Australian lower order in the 1950s would probably be any five from Benaud, Mackay, Lindwall, Archer, Davidson, Johnson, Tallon, Langley, Grout, Johnston. Only Johnston could not bat. Benaud, Lindwall, Archer and Johnson scored Test hundreds. The West Indies might have had two non-batsmen Rhamadin and Valentine at nos 9, 10 or 11, but they frequently had the likes of Gomez, Alexander, Oggie Smith, Goddard, Atkinson at 7, 8 and sometimes even 9, all of whom were serious batsmen. South Africa generally had competent batting down to number eight and even their regular nine and ten, Heine and Tayfield, could both hold a bat.
The quality of Test playing nations
The original Test playing nations were England and Australia who played the first Test in 1976. South Africa were added in 1889. No other Test side emerged until 1928 when the West Indies played their first Test (against England in the West Indies). New Zealand arrived in 1930, India in 1932, Pakistan in 1952, Sri Lanka in 1982, Zimbabwe in 1992 and Bangladesh in 2000.
Players before 1928 played most of their Test cricket in England/Australia matches. South Africa started to become a serious Test side in the early 20th century and were a genuine force in their own country where they played on matting pitches and had an army of good googly bowlers shortly after Bosanquet unveiled the googly to exploit them.
Teams which toured, especially English ones, were often far from the strongest that could be put out if playing at home. Many of the best English amateurs, most notably FS Jackson, never toured Australia because they could not afford it. The English sides which toured South Africa were generally weaker than those which toured Australia. It was not until the mid-1950s that a full English side toured Australia as a matter of course, and even then there were amateur absentees such as David Shepherd in 1954/55 and Pater May in 1962/3. The first really representative English touring party went to South Africa in 1956/7, to the West Indies 1959/60, to India 1976/7, to Pakistan 1977/8 . New Zealand faced stronger England sides in New Zealand from 1932/3 onwards because the matches were tacked on to the end of an Ashes series in Australia, although some players from the Australian part of the tour would miss the NZ trip. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have faced full England sides since the start of their Tests careers.
The picture is complicated further by the use of matches of the weaker Test playing nations as trial matches for players with no or little Test experience. In a very limited way this still happens, but in the past England have used Tests to try out large numbers of players. For example, in the home series against India in 1959 which England won 5-0, these players were given their first Test caps: Greenhough, Martin Horton, Ken Taylor, Pullar, Harold Rhodes and these players with a few caps were given a run-out: Milton, Barrington, Moss, Close, Illingworth, MJK Smith, Swetman and Subba Row. Only Pullar, Illingworth , Barrington, Subba Row and MJK Smith had significant Test careers.
Australia toured less than England, and were sparing in their games, at both home and abroad, against sides other than England and South Africa until the 1950s. The sides they sent on tour were generally stronger than those of England. Other Test sides have tended to always select something near to their strongest side to tour.
All of this meant that until the late 1970s regular bowlers from the stronger Test playing nations generally played more of their Tests against other strong nations than has subsequently been the case. The granting of Test status to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh also produced Test opponents who were weaker than any since the South Africans during the 1890s. Moreover, unlike the South Africans or any of the other Test playing nations in their early years who played few Tests, Zimbabwe until their Test status was suspended played and Bangladesh played and continue to play many Tests.
The changing laws of cricket
The laws are not tablets set in stone. Since overarm bowling was legalised in 1864 (marking the beginning of the modern era) there have been some radical changes. On the whole these have favoured bowlers as time has moved on.
The ball was reduced in size by over half an inch in diameter in 1927 , which made it easier to grip , and the wicket was increased by an inch in height and an inch in width 1931. Both changes unequivocally aided the bowler.
Until the change in the LBW law in 1935 bowlers had to pitch a ball on the wicket and hit the batsman in front of the wicket. In 1935 the LBW was experimentally changed to allow a ball pitching outside the offstump and hitting the batsman in front of the stumps to potentially qualify for an LBW. (The LBW law was formally changed in 1937) IN 1972, after some trials in previous years, the LBW law was amended again to allow balls pitching outside the offstump which hit the pad when the pad was outside the offstump if it was judged that the batsman had offered no stroke and the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps. All these changes aided bowlers, although complaints were made for a long time after 1935 that they penalised bowlers who moved the ball away from the bat.
The changes in the LBW law in 1935 brought complaints that it made for dull cricket because it favoured pace bowlers who swung the ball in or cut it in from the pitch and offbreak bowlers. There was certainly a cultural shift from leg spin to offspin in England, but it is difficult to attribute this to the new LBW law because it was noticeable that high-quality leg spinners who learned their cricket before the 1935 - Wright, Hollies, Jenkins , Peter Smith, Mitchell, Freeman – all continued to be successful under the new law as did slow left armers whether or not they began their careers before 1935.
Nonetheless, during the mid-1950s it was decided not to change the LBW law, but to deal with the perceived problem of inswing and offbreak bowlers by restricting the number of fielders behind the popping crease on the onside to two. Whether this radically disadvantaged inswing and offspin bowlers is debatable because , as with legspinners after the 1935 revision, the high quality offspin bowlers who established themselves before the change in the law – Laker, Titmus, Tattersall, Illingworth, Allen, Mortimore – continued to be successful once the two fielder restriction was introduced. Nonetheless, in principle it was a change which disadvantaged many bowlers. It also set a very bad precedent because it is the only change to the laws made to reduce the effectiveness of bowlers for reasons other than safety.
In 1962 the no ball law was changed from part of the back foot being behind the bowling crease to part of the front foot (whether grounded or not) being behind the popping crease. Under the back foot law bowlers (essentially quick bowlers) who dragged the back foot could deliver a ball perhaps two feet or even a yard closer to the batsman than they could under the front foot law. However, many pace bowlers did not drag significantly so the effect of the law change is debatable. Nonetheless, it must go down as a disadvantage to the pace bowler.
The introduction of DRS is still very young (made legal in 2009) and it is not used in all Tests. Nonetheless, it undoubtedly assists bowlers more than it hinders them. That is particularly true of spinners. Would Swann have had such an outstanding Test career without it? I doubt it. It is also true that even before the introduction of DRS that umpires were influenced by the use of technology such as Hawkeye by broadcasters to give more LBWs.
The careers of bowlers have to be put in the context of the laws during their time. Those bowling before 1927 undoubtedly had the toughest regime. With DRS and the changes in the LBW law since 1935 (undoubtedly the two most influential law changes) arguably those playing now have the easiest regime.
Spinners cannot be ignored
If Vaughan wishes to hail Anderson as the greatest English Test bowler, spinners cannot be left out of consideration, the likes of Bobbie Peel, Johnny Briggs, Wilfred Rhodes, Colin Blythe, Hedley Verity and Jim Laker and Derek Underwood. Peel, Briggs and Blythe (all slow left armers) have with Lohmann and Barnes the distinction of being the only five English Test bowlers to have taken 100 Test wickets at less than 20 runs apiece. Hedley Verity on the unforgiving Test pitches of the 1930s had an average of less than 25.
Who was the best English spin bowler ? Some players with good Test records have uneven careers. For example, Jim Laker has the lowest Test average (21) of any spinner taking 100 or more Test wickets for any country since 1945. Good as his record he only had one outstanding series, that against Australia in 1956 when he took 46 wickets for 9.60 each. Because of this I would rule him out as best English spinner. The same applies to Verity who only rarely ran through a side in Test (his 15 wickets at Lords against Australia in 1934 was on a rain damaged pitch). Swann’s record although good has him taking his wickets at around 29 and he is greatly assisted by DRS and the general lack of experience and expertise against spin of most modern Test players. So who is the best English spinner? Based purely on accomplishment that title has to go to Bobby Peel who played in the 1880s and 1889s. .
He took all his 102 (ave 16.81) wickets against Australia in only 20 matches, so there were no cheap wickets against 19th century South Africa to lessen his bowling average as it did with Johnny Briggs. Peel was consistently successful in both England and Australia over a period of 10 years. 64 of his wickets were taken in Australia where rain damaged pitches do not often come into play and where scoring was generally higher than in England, both because of the climate and Tests not being restricted to three days. Peel took 21 wickets in the 1884/5 series (5 matches) , 9 in 1887/8, (1 match), 24 in 1888 (3 matches), 6 in 1890 (1 match), 16 1891/2 (3 matches) 0 in 1893 (1 match), 27 in 1894/5 (five matches), 8 in 1896 (1 match). It is rare for any English spinner to take 20 wickets in a series and even rarer to do so against Australia. Peel managed to do it twice in Australia and once in England despite never playing more than three matches in a series in England.
But no English spinner can match the performance of certainly Lohmann and SF Barnes and arguably Bedser and Trueman. I shall deal with Lohmann separately, but the other three have strong claims both in terms of extended excellence in varied conditions.
Barnes’ average (16.43) is the lowest of any Test bowler beginning their career after 1900 -Colin Blythe is with an average of 18.63 is his nearest challenger. All of Barnes’ wickets were taken against Australia (106) and South Africa (83). Of his 106 wickets (average 21) against Australia 79 were taken in 13 matches in Australia and 27 in England in 7 matches. His 83 wickets against South Africa were taken in 7 matches. Vaughan tried to shrug off Barnes’ Test record by sneering at the fact that he had taken wickets on matting pitches in SA. In fact, Barnes only played 4 matches on matting pitches (in 1913/14). Nor is there any reason to believe matting pitches are generally bowler friendly. Barnes took 49 wickets in his four Tests on matting. The other bowlers – who included Woolley, Rhodes and Johnny Douglas – managed 31 wickets between them in these Tests with no bowler other than Barnes taking more than 8 wickets (Douglas).
Trueman took some time to establish himself in the England side but from 1957 to 1963 he reached 20 or more wickets in a series twice against Australia (1961 and 1962/3), once against South Africa (196)) three times against the West Indies (1957, 1959/60, 1963), twice against India (1952, 1959) and Pakistan (1962). His best series was the 1963 one against the West Indies (a very strong batting side) when he took 34 wickets at 17. No other English fast bowler has ever been so consistent for so long. His bowling average of 21.57 is also the third lowest in Test cricket for those taking 100 wickets or more, being beaten only by Ambrose and Marshall who averaged under 21.
Alec Bedser’s career falls into two halves. The first is the immediate post-war years when he had little support in the England side and had to deal with two seasons of Bradman. The second half dates from his second tour of Australia in 1950/51. On that tour he took 30 wickets. In the following summer against South Africa he took another 30 wickets. In 1952 Bedser harvested 20 wickets in four Tests against India. This was followed by a Herculean effort in the 1953 Ashes series when he ended up with a then record for Ashes Tests of 39 wickets. Between the beginning of the 1950/51 tour of Australia and the 1953 Ashes series Bedser took 119 wickets at 16 in 19 Tests. Taking into the quality of the opposition and the bowling support Bedser had (not very strong ) that is arguably the best run of extended form any Test bowler has had.
Who has the best claim to the title of best English Test bowler?
Barnes, Peel, Trueman and Bedser were all great bowlers but there is one English bowler who has an objective claim to be not only the greatest English Test bowler but the greatest bowler from any country in the history of Test cricket. He is George Lohmann who played for Surrey in the 1880s and 1890s before dying of TB in 1901 at the tragically early age of 36. His career lasted less than ten full English seasons.
With SF Barnes, Maurice Tate and Alec Bedser, Lohmann forms a quartet of classic English fast medium bowlers. He was also a dangerous attacking late middle order batsman and one of the great slip fielders of his day.
Cricketers can be judged in two ways: against their contemporaries and against players from any period. If they are the best of their time and the best or any time then it makes a strong case possible for saying that they are the best ever. If they are the best of their time and are better than their contemporaries by a greater margin than the best of other periods are superior to their contemporaries, then the case becomes virtually indestructible. Lohmann ticks all these boxes at both Test and overall first class level.
Lohmann’s Test and career first class statistics are so good it is difficult to credit them:
Matches Wickets Average 5WI 10WM
Test 18 112 10.75 9 5
First class 293 1841 13.73 176 57
Lohmann’s Test average is by far the lowest of those bowlers (from all Test playing nations) who have taken more than 100 or more Test wickets, beating the next by more than five runs per wicket – the closest to him are SF Barnes with 189 wickets @ 16.43, CTB Turner 101 @ 16.53 and Bobbie Peel 102 @ 16.81.
Taking 100 Test wickets at less than 20 runs each might seem to the ahistorical modern mind to be no great feat before the Great War when they erroneously imagine pitches were much friendlier to bowlers. But not only is it rare for English bowlers (just five of them), but it was even rarer for bowlers from other Test playing nations. On one non-English player has managed to take 100 Test wickets at an average of less than 20, the late Victorian medium pacer CTB Turner.
It is true that Lohmann’s Test figures include a three match series against South Africa in South Africa on matting pitches before South Africa were a serious Test playing nation. In those three games he turned the startling figures of 35 wickets for 203 runs, an average per wicket of 5.80, but even if those are subtracted from his record he still comes out with the extraordinary figures of 77 wickets in a mere 15 Tests against Australia at an average of 13.01. This is by far the lowest average for a bowler in Ashes Tests taking 50 or more wickets. The nearest to him is the great Nottinghamshire pace-bowling allrounder of the 1880s Billy Barnes with 51 @ 15.54.
Lohmann’s overall first class record is also record breaking. His career average of 13.73 is the lowest of any bowler starting his career after 1879 and taking 1,000 or more first class wickets.
The woeful lack of historical knowledge of many commentators
The problem with Vaughan and some other cricket commentators and summarisers is that they so often have no understanding of the history of the game before their own time, either in terms of the players or the playing conditions. Because so many of the new broadcasters, the summarisers in particular, are youngish, they do not even have a decent understanding of the cricketers and cricket over the past half century through their direct experience of cricket. This would not be an insuperable problem if they simply restricted themselves to commentating and summarising the play they are watching. Sadly they do not.