May 16, 2020
On The Pitch Side Experts Podcast last week, Ian Bishop, Tom Moody and Freddie Wilde had a detailed discussion about the best test batsmen in the world. While the three of them came to a unanimous conclusion about the top four batsmen including Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Joe Root, there was justifiable debate around who was the fifth best test batsman in the world.
Tom picked David Warner for his attacking instincts, Freddie went for the old school grit of Cheteshwar Pujara. It seemed Ian would side with Warner too. But the Australian’s overseas record went against him and Ian instead went for Ross Taylor. While the “Fab Four” of Smith, Williamson, Kohli and Root are rightly lauded for their exceptional talent and performances over the last decade, Taylor goes under the radar. And that is saying something if you are a New Zealand cricketer.
Taylor this year completed the storied achievement of playing 100 test matches for his country and among active players, he is only behind Kohli for runs scored in tests for his career. Over the last few years, much has been made of the 36-year-old’s incredible run of consistency in one-day international cricket. But what about test cricket, where he is the all-time leading run scorer for his country?
When and where does Taylor perform at his best in test match cricket? Does he deliver when his team needs him most? What are the strengths and weaknesses for Taylor throughout his career? I had a look at some of the data from his career to try to find out the answers to these questions, and whether Ian was right in choosing Taylor as the fifth best test batsman over the last decade.
The first thing to note from the data on Taylor’s career is that the level of his performance seems to go in phases. When he got into the test team in 2007, just like the rest of the test team, he struggled to adapt. In an interview with ESPNCricinfo’s Andrew Fidel Fernando last year, Taylor said: “I got into the test team just before a big exodus of senior players. A few players like Fleming and Scott Styris retired after the 2007 World Cup. You had to grow up very quickly from a batting perspective.” He did grow up very quickly and rose to the captaincy in all formats. And even when that captaincy was taken away from him, he maintained his consistency and recently has made some spectacular scores for his country. What makes him stand out?
One of the things Ian mentioned on the episode of The Pitch Side Experts Podcast was Taylor’s overseas record, which was acknowledged by both Tom and Freddie. Since his test debut in 2007, only five players have scored more runs away from home in test match cricket than Taylor. The New Zealander’s average is an impressive 40.78 (he averages 28.18 in neutral venues) in overseas conditions and has scored seven test centuries away from New Zealand. As much as home records for most batsmen should be better than their away records, Taylor’s home record deserves special mention too. This is because the place he calls home are the seaming and swinging conditions of New Zealand. In this current era, there is little doubt that these types of conditions provide the most difficulty for batsmen but Taylor averages 55.53 at home. In tough moments for the New Zealand batting lineup, it invariably sees Taylor step up.
Looking at his away record in a bit more detail, Taylor has only failed to score a test century in South Africa, the West Indies and Bangladesh. He has only played a collective of 13 test matches in those three countries though, so it is not that much a mark against his record. While he has struggled in India, with an average of 25.46 and just one test century, he has maintained a stellar record in Sri Lanka to show that sub continental conditions can be conquered. He has maintained admirable records in both Australia and England during his career with averages of 41.73 and 40.23 respectively. His ability to get tough runs can be shown by a few startling statistics.
His average is almost identical regardless of what happens at the toss. Taylor has made 10 test centuries when New Zealand have won the toss with an average of 47.27, and has an average of 44.88 when his team loses the toss. In terms of the toss, there are four separate scenarios that can occur. You win the toss and either your bat or bowl, or you lose the toss and are asked to bat or bowl. When New Zealand lose the toss and are sent into bat first, Taylor averages 50.88 and has scored six test hundreds in that scenario. That is Taylor’s highest average of the four scenarios mentioned. When you lose the toss and are sent into bat, the opposition believe they can bowl you out on the first day for not too many. For Taylor to average in excess of 50 in that position, and often he would come early to the crease, is almost ridiculous and shows how good he really is.
There is a common perception about the New Zealand batting lineup at the moment. Despite the success of Tom Latham as an opener over the last few years, and the recent addition of Tom Blundell, both Taylor and Williamson are the key batsmen. Get them out early, especially in overseas conditions, then your chances of rolling over the Kiwis quickly will dramatically increase. The likes of Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling and even Tim Southee have all performed incredibly with the bat for some time now, but Taylor and Williamson are regularly talked about by the opposition. And for good reason, because their importance cannot be overstated.
In test match victories, Taylor averages a stellar 57.01 with the bat and has scored 10 of his 19 test hundreds in wins. That average rises to 66.41 in drawn test matches that New Zealand have played during his career, but then drops to 30.88 in losses. When looking at the record of Taylor depending on the match in the series, again it shows something interesting. New Zealand have only played a maximum of three tests in a series, so there is not a lot of time to get yourself in to a series. Taylor historically struggles in the first and third test of a series, as his averages of 34.94 and 32.82 show. But in the second test of the series, when the outcome is on the line, Taylor averages 59.95 and has scored 13 of his test hundreds in that match. He invariably delivers when his country really needs him.
More than all these statistics though, why Ian chose Taylor as the fifth best test batsman of the last decade is probably because of strength of character. To perform when your team really needs it and to do it in a variety of overseas conditions requires an immense amount of mental strength. To comeback from problems with injuries, including some freak ones, requires a special type of person. Taylor is most definitely a character that every team would want in their side, and as Ian, Tom and Freddie said on the podcast episode, he is very much an underrated batsman. He deserves more adulation than he gets as his record suggests.