The Evolution of the Test Batter in Cricket

Data Snippets from Cricket

Prateek Goorha
5 min readMar 5, 2024
Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

A trope we commonly encounter is that white-ball cricket has influenced the test batter and changed the nature of test cricket. Whether this influence is adjudged a net positive or negative externality seems to depend on the batter’s current plight or prowess on display, and, of course, whether the scoreboard makes the narrator wince or swoon. Setting aside opinion on the ‘style of cricket’ that a particular team has adopted, a direct examination of the statistics is revelatory.

Begin with the leading run scores. That august list showcases careers over the history of the game and so gives us a sense of how the batters differ over time. An interesting trend emerges if you massage the data to compute three simple ratios based on the number of balls faced by each batter: how many were hit for boundaries, how may required scoring the runs by legging it and how many resulted in effective dot balls. The ‘effective’ is pertinent because that particular ratio makes no distinction between being solidly behind the line of a ball and stopping it dead in front of you versus flailing about wildly without making contact. These are immensely capable gentlemen, however, and so we can ignore that distinction and count them as bona fide dot balls.

Once we arrange these data by the career spans of the batters, the picture that emerges looks like the one you see in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Shot Categories for the Leading Run Scorers in Tests

Note that the blue line, representing boundaries, does in fact begin overtaking the orange line, denoting runs scored within the ropes, at about the time the shorter format became a permanent feature of international cricket and then it stays resolutely ahead. But is the trend becoming progressively more lopsided in favor of the long-distance shots over the past fifty years? Table 1 presents a list of the top 20 batters on the basis of how many of their runs have come in boundaries. Besides Harvey’s staggering aversion for playing a dot ball, what stands out is that, of the top 5, only Sehwag played this century.

Table 1: The Top 20 Batters for Boundaries

Rather than parsing the runs scored by the number of balls a batter contends with, we might ask a somewhat different question regarding the proclivity for scoring runs in boundaries relative to running for them. In other words, we can consider whether there is a clear preference among the leading run scores for how they amass their totals. That rearrangement of the data that yielded Table 1, now gives us a top-20 list, presented in Table 2, that looks starkly different, dominated by batters from this century.

Table 2: Greatest Relative Preference for Boundaries

Looking at the careers of the batters on that list, it seems logical to surmise that the proclivity for scoring in boundaries over running appears to have taken root firmly in the 2000s. Yet, this is hardly conclusive as proof of the influence of T20 cricket bleeding onto the test format. Indeed, if we look at the list of tests where boundaries have had the highest contribution to the total score of the team we find that the 2000s clearly stand out. Refer to Table 3. The drop-off in the 2010s may well be an anomaly that this decade still has room to rectify. Time will tell. The alternate conjecture one may justifiably venture is that the 2000s saw a crop of batters who had an especially strong attraction for scoring in boundaries, and, of course, a team that can justifiably be considered among the greatest of all time.

Table 3: Tests with Highest Percentage of Runs Scored in Boundaries

Yet, there is also an interesting dynamic at play here that becomes more apparent when we make a distinction between fours and sixes. Figure 2 presents those data for tests with the highest scores in an innings. The yellow line marks out the trend of the ratio of sixes to fours in those innings, and barring the 1980s (which contained a singular inning that featured a record number of fours, and which was entirely devoid of any sixes), it clearly shows a greater propensity for aerial shots most recently.

Figure 2: Boundaries in Record-Setting Innings

As a counterpart to Figure 2, consider Figure 3, which plots the highest run rates in a test innings over the years. We see both a superabundance of entries this century and an increasing number of innings with especially high run rates more recently.

Figure 3: Test Innings with the Highest Run Rates

This short exercise with the data does appear to confirm what we might have suspected at the outset. The 21st century test batter is indeed an evolutionary step distinct from the batter of the 1970s, who, in turn, was an evolutionary step distinct from the batters of the early 20th century. The pace of play accelerated appreciably with each iteration, and we have the increased proclivity for boundary-hitting to thank for that. With every new innovation to the format of international cricket contests — first ODIs and now T20s — the nature of batting in tests undergoes alterations.



Prateek Goorha

Economist. Author. A flaneur who loves Bitcoin, coffee and cricket.