Dale Steyn – a Once in a Century Bowler

This morning the Sunrisers Hyderabad sit jointly atop the IPL table. If, like me, you have been surprised by their strong start to the IPL competition, there is a simple reason in my opinion – in Dale Steyn they have one of the greatest bowlers to have ever graced the field.

This piece is an attempt to find the place of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ in the firmament of great bowlers, and readers familiar with my previous pieces will be aware that I attempt to design statistical frameworks to come to grips with such questions – after all I certainly was never blessed to witness wonderful bowlers such as O’Reilly, SF Barnes, Grimmett and many others, and perhaps neither have you.

Makes things a touch difficult doesn’t it ?

Well fear not dear reader, for I have found a way to shine a torch through the murky and bamboozling array of numbers and statistics to guide us in this quest.

The first seeds of this method were sown while discussing what defined greatness in a bowler with a fellow cricket tragic while watching the Australian XI battle the touring South Africans at the SCG. His view was that a player could only be classed as a truly great bowler if they had taken at least 100 Test wickets and averaged more than 5 wickets per Test match.

Thirty minutes of frantic iPhone searching ensued, and we found it this was a fairly elite list of an even dozen. Surprisingly it did not include some players that I would have immediately thought were certainties such as Warne and McGrath, to name two obvious examples. Accordingly, I broadened the qualifying criteria slightly to include:

  • all bowlers who have taken 100 Test wickets (amazingly there are only 163), AND
  • of those bowlers, those who have averaged 4.5 wickets per Test match or better

This still left me with a very select list of 24 players, including three current players, although I suspect they will soon be joined by Vernon Philander and Ravichandran Ashwin. Given the spot-fixing findings against him, I have taken the liberty of excluding Mohammad Asif from the field, which leaves the final list at 23.

I have designed a statistical framework designed to measure each players consistency, longevity, impact and greatness for their era. The latter is an important addition and I am indebted to one of my Twitter compadres @BjornThorgesen for his suggestions around this. I hope I have done them justice.

From its early days to the present cricket has seen many, many changes – covered pitches, shorter boundaries on some grounds with the advent of roped boundaries, bat technology, independent umpires, DRS, shorter overs, improved safety protection for batsmen, laws against intimidatory bowling, the frantic schedule involving new formats of the game and many more Test playing nations, and the relative strength of opposition in some eras as new nations joined the fray and struggled for competitiveness and relevance.

Many would argue that it is these very changes that make it so impossible to compare across eras. They may have a point, but it would really limit water cooler conversation about cricket, and many other sports for that matter. After all finding a historical context for performances is an often used way to attribute greatness to an act or individual, and statistics are frequently used in cricket discussions, so my view is that they provide valid insights and answers.

In compiling this analysis with the help of Cricinfo, I was also struck by the fact that despite constant changes in the game over the past century, many aspects of performance remained very similar. For example, it might surprise you to learn that since the Great War roughly a century ago, with the exception of a rebuilding period following the Second World War, that across the careers of most players in this list, the averages and strike rates per wicket across all Tests have remained fairly similar, which tends to suggest a better ability to compare across eras than may initially be apparent.

Nonetheless subtle differences no doubt remain. I am convinced that in the vast majority of cases a great player in one era would succeed in another, but first you have to be great for your time. Accordingly, as you will see below, I have placed significant weight on how players rated against the overall norms of their times and, to a lesser extent, the impact their absence had upon their nation’s fortunes.

Anyway, time to get on with it, and here is the rating system used, noting that each player will be ranked 1 to 23 in each category and these scores multiplied by the rating factors to derive a total score, the lower the score the better. To account for longevity the final score will be reduced by 1.25 times the number of Test matches played (remember, it is the lowest score that wins).

CONSISTENCY RATING FACTORS (27% of total)

  1. wickets per innings bowled (ranking X 8)
  2. career bowling average (ranking X 11)
  3. wickets per Test (ranking X 8)

IMPACT RATING FACTORS (23% of total)

  1. % of innings bowled resulting in 5WI (ranking X 8)
  2. career bowling strike rate (ranking X 12)
  3. career economy rate (ranking X 3)

GREATNESS IN THEIR ERA FACTORS (50% of total)

  1. % difference between player’s career bowling average and the average runs per wicket for ALL Tests played during the period of their career (ranking X 20)
  2. % difference between player’s career economy rate and the average runs per over for ALL Tests played during the period of their career (ranking X 3)
  3. % difference between player’s career strike rate and the average balls per wicket for ALL Tests played during the period of their career (ranking X 17)
  4. difference in winning % between matches they played for their country vs those they didn’t during the period of their career (ranking X 6)
  5. difference in losing % between matches they played for their country vs those they didn’t during the period of their career (ranking X 4)

Without further ado, here is my top 10 in history based on the statistical framework outlined above. Certainly many of you will be surprised by it by I am sticking by it – after all you can claim to have seen or have detailed knowledge of 2,085 Test matches played across 136 years !

10) Allan Donald (South Africa) 1992-2002

In the words of Neil Manthorp, “no living South African player, past or present, commands as much respect from the public and his peers as Donald.”

Very high praise indeed from such a respected commentator and very appropriate for the man labelled ‘White Lightning’ who was the rainbow nation’s first great fast bowler and their first to capture 300 wickets.

During the period in which he played Donald carried a nation’s hopes to a large extent on his shoulders, but more importantly he stood out as a preeminent proponents of his craft, admired and feared in equal parts, a man whose bowling average was nearly 42% better than the average per wicket during his career and whose strike rate 40% better than the average balls per wicket of his era.

From a rhythmical and springy approach, Donald could generate ferocious pace and combined this with a superb outswinger that saw him achieve an outstanding career average of 22.25 and take a wicket every 47 balls, a phenomenal achievement only bettered by 8 players who have taken at least 100 wickets in the history of the game.

9) Charlie Blythe (England) 1901-1910

Charlie Blythe was a slow left arm orthodox bowler from the first decade of the 20th century. My research tells me that he reputedly possessed good flight and turn and was particularly difficult to face on a ‘sticky wicket’, so prevalent in the time.

Nonetheless he captured 100 wickets at an almost unbelievable average of 18.6 combined with a superb strike rate of 45.4. Certainly the age in which he played was one of low scores, uncovered wickets and only three Test nations, however his average was 35% superior to the contemporary runs per wicket and his strike rate was 16% better. What is truly remarkable is that he was able to capture a 5WI once in every four innings that he bowled, and this during a period in which one of the greatest bowlers ever (read further to discover who) bowled alongside him.

Given the scarcity of Test cricket during these times it is easy to dismiss such a player, but before you do consider that he also took 2,503 FC wickets in 439 matches at an average of 16.81. Unbelievably he took 5WI on 218 occasions, in other words once in every two matches.

Sadly Charlie Blythe suffered from epilepsy for his career which saw him in and out of the England team, a fact which strangely improved the winning and losing percentages of the team when it occurred, and he died in action on the Western Front in 1917.

8) Dennis Lillee (Australia) 1971-1984

One of Australia’s most loved and revered players, Dennis Keith Lillee, burst onto the scene as a tear away fast bowler who tore through the English batsmen on the 1972 Ashes tour, and ended his career as a medium fast bowler of incredible intelligence and mastery of all matters swing and seam, after famously remodelling his action following debilitating stress fractures of the back.

Through a combination of charisma, enormous skill, and showmanship, Lillee’s feats thrilled fans everywhere, most notably in his native Australia, where the chant “Lillllllleeeee, Lillllleeee…” would ring out at the start of play and often when his team was down and needed a breakthrough, which he often obtained.

I can still see DK running in at the MCG against the Windies in 1981. Having seen his side skittled late on the first day for 198 (thanks to an amazing unbeaten 100 for Kim Hughes) Lillee responded to the desperate urgings of the crowd removing Haynes and the night-watchman, before skittling Viv Richards on the last ball of the day to reduce the Windies to 4/10.

Not satisfied with that drama, Lillee returned the next day to collect his best Test figures of 7/55, along the way dismissing Larry Gomes to claim the world record for most number of wickets, and leading Australia to a most unlikely victory.

Selected in Australia’s team of the 20th century, Lillee played in one of the most competitive eras ever, one that contained many acknowledged as greats of the game. When Lillee played his team won 48% more often than when he did not. The fact that his bowling average was 36% superior than the average runs per wicket of his time, and his strike rate 35% better, is testimony to his greatness.

7) Fred Trueman (England) 1952-1965

The burly and scowling Yorkshireman holds the distinction of being the first player in the history of Test cricket to break the 300 wicket barrier. At the time it seemed such an Everest, so much so that when asked if he thought his mark would ever be bettered he famously quipped that the person who did would be “bloody tired”.

Since then 24 players have gone past Freddy’s mark, a mark which admittedly might have been higher had he not been stood aside from so many Tests during his prime for run-ins with officialdom. Nonetheless, only one of these players enjoyed a better average than Trueman and just 4 a better strike rate.

During his era, England’s winning percentage was 69% better than when he did not play from his intermittent suspensions, and Trueman was streets ahead of his contemporaries with an average 42% better than the average runs per wicket of the era, and a strike rate a remarkable 56% superior, the largest statistical  dominance of any player considered on this list.

6) Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) 1992-2010

One of the most remarkable, and to a certain extent controversial cricketers, of our time, Murali’s place among the greatest has always provoked considerable debate, much of it centred on the legality or otherwise of his bowling action, and the disproportionate numbers of occasions he has played against minnow nations like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Personally I think these arguments are a load of rubbish. Murali’s action has been declared legal, players in many different eras have had to play against emerging cricket nations, and his record against all comers across 132 Tests competes can not just rely on dominating lesser lights.

No player in the history of the game has taken more wickets or bowled more deliveries than this little man with the strange action from Kandy – in fact it is unlikely that anyone ever will. No one has taken 5 or more wickets in an innings than this little magician who has achieved the feat an astonishing 67 times, a rate better than once in every four innings bowled.

All of these facts will stand the test of time and during his career Murali did more than any other player to make Sri Lanka a truly competitive Test nation that managed an excellent winning percentage of almost 43% when he played, a figure that was halved on the occasions during his career when he was not available.

Murali played in an era full of terrific players, including his great contemporary Shane Warne. His career average of 22.72 was 46% better than the average runs per wicket of his time, remarkable in an era that included Ponting, Waugh, Sangakkara, Kallis, Tendulkar, Dravid, Hayden and Sehwag, all players who averaged over 50 in Test cricket, and a true mark of his greatness.

5) Sir Richard Hadlee (New Zealand) 1973-1990

During his 17 year Test career, New Zealand NEVER won a Test without the name (Sir) Richard Hadlee appearing on the team sheet. Undoubtedly his nation’s finest cricketer, Hadlee was also one of the finest of his generation, which is some statement considering the quality of the West Indian attack and players such as Lillee, Imran, Kapil, and Botham, to name just a few.

In 2001, Wisden ranked his 9/52 against Australia at the Gabba the fifth greatest bowling performance of all time. It was a display that epitomised all the was great about him as a bowler and one I had the great fortune to witness.

At the time and I was struck not by his hostility but rather the constant menace he posed. With the crowd baying for his blood, Hadlee would whirl away at the top of his mark like Snidely Whiplash, and deliver each ball with metronomic precision in the same spot over after over. There was no respite and no let up and for the batsman it was impossible to predict what would happen next as balls moved late in and away from them both off the seam and with swing.

It is little wonder that Hadlee took a five wicket haul on average once every four innings he bowled in, one of the best ratios in this elite list. The fact that, in one of the greatest ever eras, his career average of 22.29 was 46% superior to the average runs per wicket during that time, and his strike rate was 36% better than the average balls per wicket, is testimony to his greatness and his position on this list.

4) Malcolm Marshall (West Indies) 1978-1991

Marshall played for one of the great sides in one of the great eras – in fact he only played in 8 losing sides over his career and did not play in a losing Test until 1984. He also played alongside some fearsome and wonderful bowlers like Holding, Garner, Roberts and Ambrose, all of whom took over 200 Test wickets, and all of whom had enviable records.

Yet somehow this short man from Barbados managed to become the greatest of them all, and certainly one of the greatest ever to have played, a man as effective on the WACA as he was on a Delhi dust bowl. with a mixture of late outswing and cutters bowled at a great skidding pace.

Marshall’s career average of  20.94 is the lowest of any player to have taken 200 or more Test wickets and only 7 of the 163 players to have taken 100 or more Test wickets can boast a better strike rate than his 46.70. Even more importantly however, for a man to have a career bowling average 55% better than the average runs per wicket of his era, and a strike rate 46% superior than the average balls per wicket in such a wonderful era, marks Marshall as one of the true greats.

3) Dale Steyn (South Africa) 2004-current

There is no doubt that Dale Steyn is the preeminent bowler of today – just this year he has taken 33 wickets in just 5 Tests at the astonishing average of 12.36 and a staggering strike rate of 32.97.

What makes Dale Steyn one of the greats of the game and rates him so highly on this list is his strike rate, and the huge gap between him and his contemporaries. Of all the players in the history of the game to have taken 100 Test wickets, only one (who appears ahead) has a strike rate superior to Steyn’s 41.1 – think of all the great players you know and none will have a better strike rate than this man which says an awful lot I would think.

Against the norms of his time Steyn is vastly superior with his career average of 22.65 being 53% superior to the average runs per wicket of his career, and his strike rate being 54% superior.

Steyn’s career has yet to finish obviously so his final place is still up for grabs, but at the moment his overall record is that of a very special talent and a great of the game.

2) Sydney (SF) Barnes (England) 1901-1914

No greater judge than Richie Benaud rated this man worthy of a spot in his greatest XI of all time and most cricketers and students of the game in the period in which S.F. Barnes played were agreed that he was the bowler of the century.

Barnes played in cricket’s first “Golden Age” against players such as Trumper, Hill, McCartney, Kelleway, Nourse and Taylor. Certainly there were few easy games against good quality opponents, no new balls every so any overs, and significant disadvantage in touring given the distances, time and sacrifices involved – his achievement in taking 77 wickets in Australia a simply staggering one during his time, including famously dismissing the great Victor Trumper for a duck in three successive innings.

The literature describes him as having an upright, high arm action and proclaims him as one of the first bowlers really to use the seam of a new ball and combine swing so subtly with movement that few batsmen could distinguish one from the other.

He took 189 wickets in just 27 Tests, unbelievably averaging 7 wickets per Test and taking 5WI on average every second innings in which he bowled.

His average of 16.43 was 58% superior the average runs per wicket of the age and his strike rate nearly 30% better, so while many might dispute his inclusion due to uncovered pitches and the like, the quality of his opponents and his sheer statistical dominance over his contemporaries should mean that his place is indisputable.

1) George (GA) Lohmann (England) 1886-1896

George Lohmann debuted for England as a 21 year old in the earliest years of the game. While no more than medium pace, Lohmann possessed great variation and unerring accuracy, and he has left some statistical achievements that may never be bettered.

He claimed his 100th wicket in just his 16th Test during his penultimate series against South Africa in 1896, along the way claiming a staggering 35 wickets in just three Tests at the miserly average of just 5.80. Tragically he only played one further Test before tragically retiring early due to effects of tuberculosis.

Lohmann’s career average of 10.75 and strike rate of 34.10 are the best of any player to have taken 100 or more Test wickets and are unlikely to ever be bettered. Certainly he played in an era of uncovered pitches and the like but no player in this list has the statistical dominance over his contemporaries that he does with a career average 85% superior to the average runs per wicket of his era, and a strike rate 43% better than the average balls per wicket.

For these reasons Lohmann can be considered a worthy number one.

So there we have it. Certainly a lower qualification number for wickets per Test might produce a different result – Garner, Ambrose, Waqar and Imran would be worthy additions to the list in these circumstances and may pressure some in this top 10 for a place.

However, you have to draw a line somewhere, and having drawn it one thing is clear – in the past 100 years there has not been a better bowler to have played Test cricket than Dale Steyn.

For those interested in the full list and scores here is a link to them Greatest Bowler Stats.

I hope you enjoyed reading this piece and until next time …. that is stumps.

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2 thoughts on “Dale Steyn – a Once in a Century Bowler

  1. Your blog is unbelievable in terms of stats used and depth. Without sounding creepy, I’ve just read every post to date – good stuff.

    As for the article, I’d find it difficult to write off the other Windians like Holding, Ambrose and Garner who all had to compete with each other for wickets. Marshall was unbelievable though – his average alone makes me lean towards him in this sort of debate. It’ll also be interesting to see how Steyn copes when his body inevitably loses a yard of pace towards the end of his career. He’s pretty bloody good though, easily the best since McGrath retired.

    • Thanks for the kind comments mate.

      You are certainly correct in that having a lower qualification mark such as 4 wickets per Test would make a difference. Off the top of my head this would bring Garner, Ambrose and Waqar in particular, into the reckoning and all would be close to spots 7-12 on the table due to their averages and strike rates.

      However I suppose you have to draw the cur off somewhere – originally mine was 5 sparked by a conversation at the cricket, but once it surprisingly left out Warne and McGrath, I moved it to just under McGrath’s cut off, which almost doubled the original list.

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