1800's first-class cricket in England: batsmen across eras

This is Part 7 in my series on first-class cricket in the 1800's in England.

1 - data
2 - classification of matches
3 - filling in the gaps
4 - bowlers
5 - batsmen
6 - bowlers across eras
7 - batsmen across eras
8 - all-rounders (across eras)
9 - wicket-keepers

In this post, I do a comparison of batsmen across eras, by weighting each innings by the strength of the bowling attack. The latter is taken as the "average average" of the bowlers in an innings, weighted by the number of balls bowled by each. (You can see the results for Test matches here.) The same effects (only now for batsmen) occur here as in the weighted bowling averages in Part 6 — batsmen are rewarded for scoring runs against better bowling attacks, and batsmen in low-scoring eras are rewarded because typically the bowlers will have correspondingly low averages.

For innings where the bowlers' overs are not recorded, I've instead used the overall batting average for that season. I couldn't see an easy way of getting an unbiased estimate of the bowling strength, when we don't know who bowled. Using the season average will in general inflate the modified batting average (since typically a batsman will score more heavily against weaker attacks, but using the season average counts that as the same as scoring against a strong attack). But for the players near the top of the tables below, this is not so likely — these batsmen tend to "rise to the occasion" and perform disproportionately better against stronger bowling attacks. Nevertheless, perhaps you might want to put a mental asterisk next to players whose careers included matches from before 1855.

Also, some of the bowling averages are estimates (even where we know the overs bowled), so some of the weighted averages should only be given to one decimal place. But I'm getting lazy.

It's interesting to see a graph of the season averages:

There's a lot of noise in the early years because not many first-class matches were played (sometimes only one). The lowest-scoring season was 1831, when the average of runs off the bat (that is, excluding extras) was just 7,35. You can have a look at the scorecards for that season here.

To start our comparisons of batsmen, we look at just the 1800's. I've given the weighted runs, regular average, and (once again) two weighted averages, one with respect to 16,6 (the overall average for the 1800's) and one with respect to 24,5 (the overall average from 1801 to 2007). One is just a scaling of the other. Qualification: 2000 runs.
`                                                                   wtd avgname             start end   mat inns  no  runs  wtd runs  avg   wrt 16,6 wrt 24,5KS Ranjitsinhji  1893  1899  291 232   28  10411 8042,8    51,03  39,43  58,19RM Poore         1898  1899  42  47    6   2277  1584,2    55,54  38,64  57,03F Pilch          1820  1854  213 389   30  6797  13668,9   18,93  38,08  56,20WG Grace         1865  1899  838 1250  89  46792 43431,9   40,30  37,41  55,21Lord F Beauclerk 1801  1825  94  172   14  4319  5890,3    27,34  37,28  55,02W Lambert        1801  1817  62  112   5   2961  3964,3    27,67  37,05  54,68N Wanostrocht    1830  1852  134 242   12  4392  8027,7    19,10  34,90  51,51CG Taylor        1836  1859  122 222   11  3020  7080,2    14,31  33,56  49,52G Parr           1844  1870  187 321   26  6116  9137,6    20,73  30,97  45,72EH Budd          1803  1831  68  119   9   2597  3381,4    23,61  30,74  45,37CT Studd         1879  1884  85  145   23  3928  3702,8    32,20  30,35  44,80A Shrewsbury     1875  1899  459 654   66  20837 17552,8   35,44  29,85  44,06J Guy            1837  1854  136 244   11  3090  6723,5    13,26  28,86  42,59AG Steel         1877  1895  142 227   21  6184  5826,0    30,02  28,28  41,74W Ward           1810  1845  116 210   21  3517  5341,6    18,61  28,26  41,71EG Wenman        1825  1854  135 241   15  3088  6382,4    13,66  28,24  41,68CB Fry           1892  1899  381 209   8   7364  5597,2    36,64  27,85  41,10R Robinson       1801  1819  57  111   9   2039  2811,1    19,99  27,56  40,68TW Hayward       1893  1899  671 283   26  9558  7014,5    37,19  27,29  40,28W Gunn           1880  1899  505 716   65  21520 17612,3   33,06  27,05  39,93`

Ranji's high average wasn't just because batting was getting easier towards the end of the century — even allowing for that he still comes out on top. Once again, Robert Poore's lucky, since his career went downhill after he fought in the Boer War.

Fuller Pilch was described a few years after his retirement as the best batsman ever, and he kept this tag until WG Grace came along. From the little I've read about him, he seems to be the first man to consistently get his foot to the pitch of the ball. In an era where pitches were of very low quality, smothering any turn or uneven bounce was very important.

It's worth commenting on the discrepancy between the rankings in the table (i.e., Pilch ahead of Grace) and the opinion of the time (Grace ahead of Pilch). Grace was considered a better batsman than Pilch because he could play attacking shots off a wider range of deliveries. But since Grace's innovations to batting technique spread to the other cricketers of the time, he didn't stand out as much as Pilch — scoring for most batsman improved after Grace.

It is sad that Nicholas Felix is so called, since his actual surname was Wanostrocht. He wanted to be known as Felix, but Wanostrocht is such a cool name for a cricketer that I've gone against his wishes in these tables. In addition to being an excellent batsman in a low-scoring era, he also invented a type of bowling machine.

Now let's compare batsmen in England across all eras. I was unsure as to how useful this would be — we all know of batsmen who have excellent records in domestic cricket but do terribly in Tests. But weighting runs by the strength of the bowling attack does a pretty good job in discarding that breed of batsman. Of course, it also doesn't allow for players such as Marcus Trescothick, who have mediocre county records but respectable Test numbers. Players who played in the 1800's are in bold.
`                                                                   wtd avgname             start end   mat inns  no  runs  wtd runs  avg   wrt 16,6 wrt 24,5DG Bradman       1930  1948  92  120   18  9837  6835,1    96,44  67,01  98,90GA Headley       1933  1954  47  74    9   4460  2897,8    68,62  44,58  65,80KS Ranjitsinhji  1893  1920  291 473   58  23341 17015,4   56,24  41,00  60,51VM Merchant      1936  1946  49  81    15  4130  2517,8    62,58  38,15  56,30F Pilch          1820  1854  213 389   30  6797  13668,9   18,93  38,08  56,20WH Ponsford      1926  1934  67  86    12  4110  2812,8    55,54  38,01  56,10WM Woodfull      1926  1934  72  87    9   4374  2956,3    56,08  37,90  55,94NC O'Neill       1961  1964  44  71    8   3350  2379,6    53,17  37,77  55,75AF Kippax        1930  1934  42  55    11  2412  1648,0    54,82  37,46  55,28DR Martyn        1991  2005  30  44    11  2549  1231,1    77,24  37,31  55,06Lord F Beauclerk 1801  1825  94  172   14  4319  5890,3    27,34  37,28  55,02CB Fry           1892  1921  381 635   42  30490 22042,7   51,42  37,17  54,86W Lambert        1801  1817  62  112   5   2961  3964,3    27,67  37,05  54,68AR Morris        1948  1953  46  66    5   3224  2249,2    52,85  36,87  54,42J Cook           1989  1991  71  124   19  7604  3863,8    72,42  36,80  54,31RB Simpson       1961  1966  49  84    14  3702  2574,0    52,89  36,77  54,27W Bardsley       1909  1926  126 175   17  7866  5603,0    49,78  35,46  52,34MEK Hussey       2001  2005  60  105   13  6710  3253,5    72,93  35,36  52,19SR Waugh         1987  2002  75  109   28  5290  2855,4    65,31  35,25  52,03WR Hammond       1920  1951  515 828   88  40733 26039,2   55,04  35,19  51,93WG Grace         1865  1908  838 1428  97  52043 46760,0   39,10  35,13  51,85N Wanostrocht    1830  1852  134 242   12  4392  8027,7    19,10  34,90  51,51SG Barnes        1938  1948  34  46    5   2074  1417,3    50,59  34,57  51,02DS Lehmann       1991  2006  89  139   8   8894  4525,7    67,89  34,55  50,99AL Hassett       1938  1953  73  100   11  4684  3063,3    52,63  34,42  50,80CL Walcott       1950  1957  49  78    12  3271  2268,0    49,56  34,36  50,72WM Lawry         1961  1968  65  105   12  4590  3182,2    49,35  34,22  50,50G Boycott        1962  1986  492 814   127 38981 23425,2   56,74  34,10  50,33JB Hobbs         1905  1934  740 1178  98  53843 36714,9   49,85  34,00  50,17L Hutton         1934  1960  425 676   75  32306 20354,7   53,75  33,87  49,99`

The top spot should be pretty uncontroversial. Vijay Merchant is at number four — he is perhaps not famous enough for having the second-highest first-class average of all time (71,64). Pilch slots in at five, followed by a string of Australians. You'll note that WG Grace fell significantly in the years between 1899 and his retirement in 1908. It's that old story of a player hanging on too long. Thirty-five years of first-class cricket and he still wanted another decade.

Beauclerk and Lambert, those all-round giants of the first quarter of the 19th century, just miss out on the top ten.

Jimmy Cook is perhaps the oddest name in the list. He was a South African who played most of his career during isolation in South Africa, but played three seasons with Somerset before retiring. He did get to play three Test matches.

Next up: all-rounders.

I've come to this very late! But I really appreciate it; I haven't seen anyone do such a detailed analysis of players from *before* the Test era. In particular it nicely highlights the quality of Ranji, who I think is an under-remarked player by both England and India fans.

Something that I think would be worthwhile, particularly for assessing quality of certain players against each other, is to take smaller slices of their careers. Obviously this could be done for almost any player, but I think it would be particularly appropriate for Grace. As you yourself note he had a very long career, and judging him against Bradman, Ranji et al on the whole stretch of it is arguably to do a disservice to the batsman he was in his prime. I wonder how he would fare if the first 20-25 years of his career were taken in isolation (a healthy career by anyone's standards) and whether this might help to reaffirm his place in the batting pantheon.

Thanks Anon, it's nice to see a comment on an old post that isn't spam! I don't spend much time thinking about cricket stats these days, but fortunately I pre-empted your question about WG, and wrote a post on him here. In short: in his prime he was indeed far far above his contemporaries.