Growing up on hard, bouncy wickets, genuine pace bowling is as intertwined with Australian cricket as XXXX beer, moustachioed, hairy-chested, open-shirted blokes and beating England. They have produced some of the greatest fast bowlers in the history of cricket, from Ray Lindwall, Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee through to Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath, although they have arguably never possessed such a stock of world-class pacemen as they do at this current time.
The quartet of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson (who, having all been playing international cricket for at least six years are yet to all play a Test together due to various reasons) are fearsome, frightful, and above all – fast. All possess the ability to single-handedly rip through any batting order around the world with their varying nuances and subtleties, but how do they compare against the greats that preceded them? Here, we will analyse how they compare to the Australian legends of yesteryear in a variety of metrics, and use our Index to definitively rank them. The list consists of the top ten wicket-taking Aussie pace bowlers barring the aforementioned four.
Average, economy and strike-rate
The player with the tightest economy rate is Lindwall, who went at only 2.3 runs per over (RpO) from his 61 matches and managed to combine this with an excellent average of 23.03, the third-lowest of anyone in the set. Shortly behind are McKenzie (2.48) and McGrath (2.49), and the three are all well ahead of the rest given that nobody else has an economy below 2.75. Of the current crop, Cummins is the man with the most favourable economy as he slightly edges out teammate Hazlewood 2.76 to 2.78, the pair fractionally behind Lillee’s 2.75, albeit Cummins’ average of 21.82 is significantly better than anyone else bar McGrath (21.64).
Looking at those who don’t compare so favourably, Lee is the player who has the highest of both metrics. His average of 30.81 is only contested by Peter Siddle’s 30.66 in being above 30, whilst his economy of 3.46 is matched closest by Starc’s 3.36. When focusing again on the current four, Starc is the player who takes on the Lee role in that he sits highest for both areas.
Taking into consideration the specific roles of each player, those who sit in the top right-hand corner of the graph are those known more for express pace and so would be expected to perhaps leak more runs given their potent-but-wayward nature but also take wickets more regularly; the fact that Cummins is able to combine both genuine speed with an ability to tie down batsmen indicates just how skilful he is. However, do the numbers back this theory up?
His SR of 47.2 sits ahead of teammates Starc (48.1) and Pattinson (48.9), although the fact that they form the top three shows just how dangerous this current Australian attack is. Their consistent wicket-taking ability, able to devour any batsman or batting line-up in the blink of an eye, is the hallmark of their skills and means they are never out of the game.
Home or away?
Given the stark differences between conditions in almost every Test-playing nation, many a bowler over the years has shone in one country but struggled in another. From the low, slow, spinning pitches in sub-continental Asia to the nibbling, swinging surfaces in England, bowlers are constantly being asked different questions as to what skills they can produce in order to extract optimum movement and variation out of the pitch.
Great bowlers are able to tailor their skills and deliveries to whatever conditions lie in front of them, and so each bowler’s respective abilities at home and away are reflected below in the form of their averages.
The best performing bowler in home conditions is Cummins, whose average of 21.78 is fractionally better than Pattinson’s 21.87. It is clear that Pattinson significantly prefers home conditions, with his average at home being 4.46 runs lower than his overall career average – the highest of anyone within the data set. Hazlewood and Starc, meanwhile, are fairly middling performers with home averages of 25.54 and 25.92 respectively. McKenzie is the player with worst performance on his shores at an average of 30.6, the only bowler to average more than 30 runs conceded per wicket taken at home.
Moving onto averages away from home, McGrath has the most impressive average of 21.35, although Cummins again performs very well with 21.86. The range of data here is larger than when looking at home averages – backing up the argument that some bowlers struggle more in foreign conditions – with Lee’s average of 33.42 being the largest. However, Pattinson shifts significantly from the second-lowest at home to the second-highest here by virtue of an average of 33.15. The disparity of each player in their averages at home and away respectively can be seen below. Those with a positive difference average better away from home than they do at home; those with a negative difference average better at home.
Given Pattinson’s drastic shift it is no surprise he has the greatest difference (-11.28), drastically ahead of the next closest Craig McDermott (-6.41). Cummins is the least affected by the conditions with his difference of -0.08, albeit an honourable mention should go to Lillee and his figure of -0.55. Starc and Hazlewood are both also barely affected, with average differences of -1.06 and -1.5 respectively. These numbers also add further weight to the argument of bowlers performing less effectively away from home: the only two men to perform better overseas are McGrath and McKenzie.
How do they perform against both batting types?
The stand-out against left-handers is Lindwall, his miserly return of 13.83 indicating just how much of a hold he had over such players. However, Starc (16.3), Johnson (18.42), Pattinson (19) and Gillespie (19.61) all had very admirable sub-20 averages too, whilst Cummins and Hazlewood were slightly higher with 23.16 and 24.22 respectively. McDermott was the man who was least effective, his average of 29.24 just ahead of Siddle’s 29.01.
As for their records against right-handers, McGrath was the man who had the wood on them the most with an average of 16.25, whilst Gillespie also snuck under the 20 mark with an average of 19.47. At the other end, Pattinson averages highest with 28.41, whilst fellow current player Starc is not at all as effective against right-handers with an average of 27.76. In fact, of those playing today, it is Hazlewood who has the most favourable statistics with an average marginally above 20 (20.17), with Cummins the fourth-highest of the group with an average of 25.08.
Those with the greatest sway in one direction or the other can be seen below: a positive average indicates they perform better against left-handers; a negative average indicates they perform better against right-handers.
Starc has the highest difference of 11.46, whilst Pattinson too has a high figure of 9.41, the pair being the most disproportionately dominant against left-handers. Looking the other way, Merv Hughes is the bowler who has the highest lean towards right-handers with an average difference of -8.06. The least affected by either batting form is Gillespie, who has a minuscule difference of -0.14, whilst Lee has a slight preference on the other side with a figure of 0.49.
Do they get the best batsmen out?
Of course, career averages indicate a bowler’s success, but looking at a player’s average against top-five batsmen gives a much clearer portrayal of how good they were against the better batters, whereas an overall average can be skewed by their ability against tailenders. The below graph conveys each player’s overall average (yellow bar) against their average versus top five batsmen (green).
The best performer against the top batsmen was McGrath’s 23.14, whilst Hazlewood and Pattinson also have good records with averages of 24.47 and 24.87 to sit second and third best respectively, bettering their overall career averages too. Lee was another who seemingly relished the battle against the best with a top-five average of 27.8 being 3.01 runs lower than his overall average – the most of anyone – as did Gillespie and Hughes. Conversely, Starc is the one who goes the other way the most, seeing a rise of 6.83 from his career average when compared to his record against top batsmen.
Who is the best?
Our analysis shows that the clear winner is McGrath, the legendary seamer collecting an Index of 154.89 to be 15 points ahead of Cummins in second place with 169.69. The fact that Cummins is the closest to McGrath speaks volumes for how talented he is, and why he was thrust into the Test team at the age of just 18 back in 2011 – had it not been for injuries, he would have played many more than his 30 Tests to date. Meanwhile, Gillespie’s presence in third may be a surprise, suggesting his time in the side was perhaps unfairly overshadowed by the mercurial McGrath and tearaway Lee. Hazlewood and Pattinson sit sixth and seventh in the list, ahead of such names as Hughes, Johnson and Lee, whilst Starc is behind in 12th.
Whilst all of the current four have been affected by injuries at some point in their career, arguably none have been blighted more than Pattinson. Five stress fractures in his back, amongst others, have decimated his time out on the pitch, limiting him to just 21 Tests since his debut against New Zealand in 2011. His Index here, whilst not outstanding, shows that when he’s been able to play he has been performing at a very good level in comparison to some of his country’s greatest bowlers.
The fact that all four modern-day bowlers sit within the range of the data, and with three being in the top ten, shows how talented this unique set of players is. To have four supremely high-quality pacemen at your disposal at once is almost unheard of. Whilst injuries have halted their progress so far, to now have all fit and firing is an extremely exciting prospect for Australian cricket – and an extremely daunting prospect for opposing batting line-ups.