Greatest Test Performances

The 50 in seven graphs

A breakdown of the greatest Test performances of the last 50 years: one team, one player and one decade stand out

Player
The big thing about Brian Lara's entries in the list is not just that he has four of them but how high up they are. All four are in the top 30, two are around the 15 mark, and one is in the top five (Barbados '99). His only real competitor is Ian Botham, whose three entries include two in the top 10 (Headingley '81, Bombay '80).

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Honourable mention to Viv Richards, and the incomparable Garry Sobers, who has two entries (Headingley '66, Lord's '66) though less than half his 20-year career falls in the period under consideration.

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Team
No surprises with the leader: West Indies were kings or contenders for a good part of these 50 years, and between them the mighty players claim over a quarter of the pie. The surprise is the next highest: India, with 11. Chandra, Gavaskar, Amarnath, Kapil, Hirwani, Kumble, Dravid, Laxman, Harbhajan, Sehwag, but no Guess Who? Third are Australia, yet their golden era is represented entirely by Steve Waugh and Shane Warne, with two entries each. Another surprise, given their procession of game-turners: Pakistan, with a mere three, but a reassuringly bowling-heavy three (Imran '83, Sarfraz '79, Qadir '86). Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are the only Test nations without representation.

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Type
On first glance 27 batting entries to 15 bowling appears to reinforce the enduring partiality towards batsmen. On closer look, it's not so bad: a team usually has six batsmen to four bowlers and correspondingly a greater pool of batting performances. Three of the top 10 performances are pure bowling, and a fourth (Hadlee '85) is close to one. In terms of type within type, seven of the 15 bowling entries are to spinners, and nine of the 27 batting entries are to openers. Genuine all-round performances are rare: and so they comprise four of the top ten.

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Decade
What accounts for the 1980s domination? It could be that it coincides with West Indian pomp: close to half the '80s entries feature West Indies as perpetrators or opposition. It could be the serendipity of the great allrounders: six entries between them over the decade. Could it also be the fact that the '80s are the perfect midpoint between nostalgia and accessibility? The least represented period is the last 10 years: only one from the current decade (Pietersen '12), and one (Smith '08) from the second half of the 2000s. More on that topic here.

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Venue
London leads with its two venues, and The Oval pips Lord's by five to four. A fine variety in The Oval handful too: sheer pace (Holding '76), two very different spin exhibitions (Chandrasekhar '71, Muralitharan '98) and two very different batting feats (Richards '76, Gavaskar '79). Headingley comes in alongside Lord's with four, and three of those are in the first 10: Botham '81, Sobers '66, Gooch '91. The Antigua Recreation Ground proves its batting reputation by supplying three entries that range from the super-fast (Richards '86) to the super-vast (Lara '94, Lara '04).

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Opposition
Seventeen against England! Since England were rarely a top opposition in this period, it must have to do with the symbolism and glee of beating the former colonisers. And also perhaps to do with the power of the British press: the great performance against England is the one more likely turn into lore. Next are Australia, another team that everyone loves to beat, and another with a traditionally strong press: four of the top six (Laxman '01, Botham '81, Lara '99 and Hadlee '85) are against them. Fittingly, five of the seven entries versus West Indies are of batsmen coping with the feared fast bowlers.

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Results
The overwhelming majority of the entries are, as expected, in victories. Of the four losses, three are by Indians in the 1980s: Kapil '82, Amarnath '83, Gavaskar '87. Gavaskar's other entry (The Oval '79) was not in a win either, which about sums up his situation. The lone non-Indian in a losing performance? Who else but Lara (Colombo '01)? Indeed, only one of Lara's four entries was in a victory (Barbados '99). All eight entries in drawn matches are batting performances. A little on that here.

Text by Rahul Bhattacharya. Illustrations by Girish TS

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