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Why this is the greatest age for fast bowling in 60 years

James Anderson and Kagiso Rabada both average 23 and a bit in the last 100 Tests Getty Images

From the time Test cricket began, every era has had its share of champion fast bowlers. At the very beginning, there were the likes of Fred Spofforth, George Lohmann and Sydney Barnes; after the Second World War, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the greats included Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Alec Bedser, Brian Statham, Fred Trueman, Alan Davidson, Wes Hall and Fazal Mahmood, to name a few. Then came the days of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, followed by the West Indies pace attacks in all their might through the 1980s and 1990s. That was a period when other teams talked pace too: Pakistan had Imran Khan followed by the magical Ws and Shoaib Akhtar, New Zealand had Richard Hadlee, India discovered Kapil Dev, England had Bob Willis and Ian Botham, Australia led with Glenn McGrath, while South Africa boasted the quality of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.

They are all formidable names with formidable records, but as a collective whole, pace bowling has seldom had as good a run as at present. In the last 100 Tests, going back to December 2017, fast bowlers have averaged 26.26. If we break up the 2387 Tests played so far into chunks of 100 Tests, there is only one out of 24 such chunks in which the average has been lower than 26.26: in the very first phase, between 1877 and 1905, when the fast bowlers averaged 23.71. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the last two and a half years have been a golden period for fast bowling in Test cricket.

Before going any further, though, a little more on the 24 groups into which all Tests have been slotted:

  • The last 100 Tests were played starting December 14, 2017. That forms one group of matches.

  • Working backwards from there, 100-Test blocks were made till the first Test. Two of those groups have 101 Tests each because two Tests started on the first days of those phases.

  • As 2387 Tests have been played so far, and two groups have 101 Tests each, the last set of matches (or the first group) - from 1877 to July 1905 - consists of 85 matches.

In the 100 Tests before the most recent batch - between November 14, 2015 and December 13, 2017 - fast bowlers averaged 31.19, which means there has been a drop of nearly 16% in the collective fast-bowling average in the most recent 100 Tests compared to the previous 100. In fact, the averages in the eight previous blocks - going back to March 2000 - were all above 31, which adds context to the sharp drop we have witnessed in these last 100 Tests.

Apart from the first lot of 85 Tests, the only other period when the average slipped below 27 was between March 1954 and January 1960, when fast bowlers averaged 26.54. The six leading wicket-takers in that period - Statham, Mahmood, Trueman, Davidson, Trevor Bailey and Frank Tyson - all had sub-25 averages.

The averages for spinners in these periods provide a reference point. In all periods except the first one - when spinners averaged 21.63 to the fast bowlers' 23.71 - the seamers have had the better average. In the most recent 100 Tests, the gap has diverged significantly, after a fairly long period when the two lines were quite close to each other. In the 100-Test period between January 2011 and May 2013, for instance, the seamers averaged 32.4 to the spinners' 33.63.

In terms of the ratio of averages of fast bowlers to that of spinners, the most recent batch has the second lowest figure among these 24 groups; in the 100 Tests between December 1987 and January 1992, spinners struggled for wickets, averaging 43.94, compared to the fast bowlers' 29.91, for a ratio of 0.68. In fact, among the top six entries, four cover the span from 1977 to 1991, indicating that pace was dominant through that 15-year stretch.

Instead of breaking up the 2387 Tests played so far into 100-match blocks, we could also look at 100-Test moving averages, which will give us several continuous plot points, rather than just 24. The first point will then be the average from Test No. 1 to No. 100 (after the 100th Test), the second from Test No. 2 to No. 101, then No. 3 to No. 102, and so on. The graph looks largely the same as the one earlier in the article, but the moving averages ensure there are 2288 values for the 2387 Tests, which offers a better narrative of how the trends have shifted over time.

Among these 2288 values, there are only 47 instances of fast bowlers averaging better in any 100-Test period than they have in the most recent 100 matches; 42 of those instances were before 1922, and before 150 Test matches had been played. The last such time was on November 21, 1959: in the 100 Tests which were played between January 29, 1954 and November 21, 1959, fast bowlers collectively averaged 26.25, which is just a shade better than their average of 26.26 in the last 100 Tests. Since then, there hasn't been a single 100-Test period when fast bowlers have done better.

From all those 2288 moving averages, the best 100-Test average is 23.73, between the second and 101st Tests. The next best is 23.77, between Test No. 1 and No. 100, which is not surprising since 99 Tests are common to both groups. If we exclude all groups with overlapping matches, the next best is 26.14, in the 100 Tests between June 11, 1953 and March 6, 1959. Exclude groups that overlap with either of these periods and the next in line is the current batch of 100 Tests. A list of the top five non-overlapping groups reveals that, apart from the first entry, the others are roughly at 20-year intervals, which is an interesting pointer to the cyclical nature of the game.

The excellent average for quick bowlers over the last 100 Tests is obviously the result of fast-bowling prowess spreading across several teams, instead of being confined to the three or four top sides. That is apparent from the number of teams whose pace bowlers have taken 150-plus wickets between them at sub-30 averages: over the last 100 Tests played by all teams (since December 14, 2017), as many as seven teams meet these criteria, with India's fast bowlers averaging 21.33, and West Indies' 21.78. Among the top eight teams, the only one not making the cut is Sri Lanka, and even they miss out narrowly, with 148 wickets at an average of 32.10. The first time this ever happened - the fast bowlers from seven teams taking 150-plus wickets at sub-30 averages in a 100-Test block - was in the period between August 18, 2016 and August 30, 2018; in fact, before 2016, there was not even a single instance of fast bowlers from six teams all averaging below 30.

In the period between March 20, 1998 and September 12, 2000, for instance, fast bowlers averaged 28.47, but only four teams - South Africa, England, West Indies and Australia - had seamers with sub-30 averages. Pakistan's averaged 31.87, New Zealand's 34.52, and India's 35.84. What has happened in the last couple of years bears closer resemblance to the 1978-1981 period, when pace bowlers from five out of six teams averaged below 30 (only India missed out, averaging 31.35). However, that was when only six teams played Tests, before Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe had joined in.

On the other hand, there were periods in the early-to-mid 2000s when the pace attack of only one team managed a sub-30 average. In the 100 Tests between July 28, 2002 and August 11, 2004, for instance, the South African pace attack was the only one with 150-plus wickets at an average below 30.

Those were lean periods for fast bowling - and conversely, great for batting - with many legends having just retired or nearing the ends of their careers, but clearly the tables have turned now. In the last 100 Tests, 17 seamers have taken 50-plus wickets at sub-30 averages, with 14 of them averaging below 25. These are indeed excellent times to be a fast bowler.