Statistics don’t tell full story of who England’s greatest ever bowler is
James Anderson can expect a chorus of adulation today, if and when he claims his 600th Test wicket. And deservedly so. But that statistic does not, in itself, make him the greatest bowler England has ever produced.
I judge bowlers not only on how many wickets they take, but on average and strike rate, and in these categories, Anderson does not come top. Fred Trueman, the finest bowler of my era, took his wickets at 21.57 runs apiece and struck every 49.4 balls.
It irritates me when people cannot see beyond what is in front of them. Like in those debates over the greatest albums where nobody mentions the Beatles.
In the case of Anderson, you have to delve deeper. It is true that Jimmy has bowled on covered pitches, which is much harder. But on the other hand, this England generation have played more Test cricket than any other.
To redress the balance, I asked a statistician friend of mine to work out how many wickets Trueman, Alec Bedser and Brian Statham – three legends from the middle of the 20th century – might have taken had they matched Anderson’s tally of 156 Tests.
Applying each man’s ratio of wickets per Test, the response came back as 715 (Trueman), 722 (Bedser) and 562 (Statham). It is a tribute to Anderson that he has come in so far ahead of Statham, another contemporary of mine who combined seam movement in both directions with pace and accuracy.
Then I asked about Sydney Barnes. People look blank when I talk about Barnes today but, before the First World War, he terrorised people. He swung the ball, cut it both ways, and if we extrapolate what his statistics might have looked like after 156 Tests, Barnes would be heading for the mind-boggling figure of 1,092 wickets, destroying Muttiah Muralitharan’s world record of 800. Barnes took a wicket every
41.65 balls and his Test wickets cost him only 16.43 each.
That is why, in an all-time England seam attack, I make Barnes and Trueman automatic selections. Anderson comes in as third seamer, because his strike rate of a wicket every 56 balls is better than Bedser’s 67.
On a classic subcontinental turner, I would switch Anderson out and bring in Wilfred Rhodes as a second spinner alongside Jim Laker. This has the additional benefit of giving us three Yorkshiremen in the XI. (Four if you count Laker, who was born in God’s own county but played for Surrey.)
At the top of the order, I would love to be able to pick myself. Realistically, though, I am fighting it out with Alastair Cook and Graham Gooch on the second tier of opening batsmen, while WG Grace, Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton and
Herbert Sutcliffe contest the first-team spots.
It is all a bit of fun, because you can never really compare one era too seriously with another. From Grace’s batting average of 32, you might say, “Don’t pick him. He’s rubbish!” Yet he was the first man to a hundred hundreds. He was twice as good as anybody he played with. That is why at Lord’s – the Mecca of cricket – the main gates are named the Grace Gates.
Anderson can rest easy in the knowledge that there are not going to be too many more 600-wicket bowlers – not with the way limited-overs cricket now dominates the schedule.
The only person who has a chance of overhauling him is Stuart Broad, his long-time partner, who stands on 514 wickets. Broad has the ability to add another 100 wickets to his haul, but can he stay fit and hungry enough? I think he can.
To make it to 600 requires phenomenal commitment and rare talent. It also requires you to have been playing in that sweet spot between the late Eighties and now – an era when the statistical frontiers of cricket have been redrawn.
From Grace’s average of 32, you might say, ‘He’s rubbish!’ Yet he was first to a hundred hundreds