“The trend is obvious. Runs and wickets are both falling at quicker rates. In the 2000s they did not score quickly enough to keep the bowling average in check”

(All numbers updated till December 29, 2018)

Yes, the 1990s had been the golden era of seam bowling. Every side in the world had at least one quality fast bowler. West Indies had Ambrose, Walsh, and before injury claimed him, Bishop; Pakistan had Wasim and Waqar; South African had Donald and Pollock, and for some time, de Villiers; for Australia, McGrath took over from McDermott and Hughes; England boasted of Fraser, and later, Gough and Caddick; and New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe all had at least one quality seamer.

Now add the spinners – Warne, Kumble, Muralitharan, Saqlain, and Mushtaq – to the mix, there is little doubt that the batsmen had a tough time.

Indeed, the top ten bowlers as per ICC rankings on the last day of the decade – Pollock, McGrath, Donald, Ambrose, Kumble, Murali, Walsh, Wasim, Saqlain, and Chris Cairns – make it sound like a roll-call of all-time greats.

Thus, when batsmen are compared across eras, pundits hesitate to compare today’s batsmen with Tendulkar, Lara, Waugh, Anwar, and other champions of the 1990s.

There is some truth in that. The 2000s marked a nadir in bowling. The bowling average rose from 31.51 to 34.10, the worst since the half-decade of 1940s. Interestingly, the strike rate dipped from 69 to 66.

So wickets fell at a quicker rate despite the rise in average – in other words, runs were scored at a quicker rate.

The 2010s saw a marginal improvement, to 32.67. The strike rate improved even more, to 63. In fact, the 2000s and 2010s saw wickets falling at rates faster than any decade since World War I.

 

Decade All Pace
W Ave SR Econ W Ave SR Econ
1990s 10,204 31.51 68.6 2.75 7,239 29.73 63.0 2.83
2000s 13,863 34.10 66.0 3.09 9,179 33.22 62.5 3.18
2010s 12,330 32.67 63.0 3.10 7,450 31.36 60.1 3.12

The trend is evident. Runs and wickets have both occurred at quicker rates, though in the 2000s they did not score quickly enough to keep the bowling average in check.

The trend has started to reverse in the 2010s. Wickets have fallen more quickly than the 2000s, and with the run rate remaining roughly the same, the bowlers are enjoying better averages than they did in the 2000s. Perhaps things will improve in the remaining years of the decade.

However, the most significant improvement has already taken place. Wickets have fallen at an astonishing rate, at one every 54.8 balls – the best since World War I (this excludes 1922, when a solitary Test was played). The average of 27.45 is the best since 1957.

For pace bowlers specifically, too, this has been the best year (52) since The Great War, while the average (25.51) is the best since 1956.

Here is a comparative study since 1990:

Graph
Year-by-year bowling performances since 1990

Do note the recent downward trend. The 1990s have been fantastic, but after the ordinary 2000s, the bowlers have turned the trend in the 2010s. And all that has culminated in an excellent 2018 – the best since 1990. And the 48 Tests played this year do not make a small sample by any definition!

Graph
Year-by-year bowling performances since 1990 (only pace)

Perhaps Kohli (1,322 runs at 54.33 this year), Williamson (651 at 59.18), and Root (948 at 53.19) deserve to be compared to Tendulkar and Lara, after all, much to the dismay of the 1990s loyalists. The trio, after all, have faced a bowling attack more potent than their seniors had.

And while Smith did not feature a lot this year, there is little doubt that he is up there with the best.

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