The road to 229, and other stories


This is a post about cricket. A post about Test cricket. A boring, mind-numbing post about some of the numbers in Test cricket. Some very particular and arcane numbers. You have been warned.

The scoreboard in my garden

15 March 1877. That’s the day when the first officially recognised Test match began, between England and Australia, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

3 January 2022. 52,889 days later. Today. Tests #2444 and #2445 are in flight, the first between New Zealand and Bangladesh at Mount Maunganui, the other between South Africa and India at Johannesburg.

Each Test consists of up to four team innings, up to two per team. Each team innings consists of up to 11 completed batsman’s innings (although at least one batsman per innings would remain “not out” at the end of the innings. So each Test match is capable of generating up to 44 completed batsman’s innings.

I haven’t counted all the completed innings so far; my guess would be that there have been over 90,000 such innings so far, perhaps as many as 100,000. (Here, I speak solely about men’s cricket, and solely about the Test variety. While more attention is being paid to the women’s game, I have yet to find good sources of in-depth statistical information that I can use. I’m sure this will be rectified in the next few years. It’s been a long time coming).

The bingo board

Over those 2445 Tests (*and counting), the highest score ever made by a batsman in a single completed innings has been adjusted regularly, as shown below:

During the first Test, at the MCG in 1877, Charles Bannerman, an English-born Australian, scored 165 and set a high bar for everyone else to follow. That record would stand for another seven years, until Billy Murdoch, another Australian, scored 211 in the 16th Test, at the Oval, in August 1884.

Murdoch’s 211 remained the target to beat till 1903, when RE “Tip” Foster became the first Englishman to hold the title. He scored 287 that year, away to the Australians at the SCG. (Incidentally, Tip Foster apparently remains the only person to have captained England at both cricket as well as football).

Foster held the record for another 27 years, till Andy Sandham, another Englishman, went past the magical 300 mark at the 4th Test versus the West Indies in 1930, in Kingston. He scored 325.

Sandham wasn’t to wear the crown for long; barely three months later, Don Bradman whipped it off him, returning control to the Aussies, with his 334 at Leeds. Less than three years later, Wally Hammond reclaimed it for England, scoring 336 versus New Zealand in Auckland.

It stayed with England for a while after that. Len Hutton’s 364 versus Australia at the Oval in 1938 raised the bar again. It would stay that way till well after the Second World War. Hutton’s 364 was only the second time the high score was set by a batsman playing at home. The only previous instance was Bannerman’s 165, English-born, playing in his adopted home.

The first seven holders of the “highest Test score” record were either English (4) or Australian (3). The eighth holder, West Indian maestro Gary Sobers, became the first outside those two countries, with his 365 extending Hutton’s record, which had stood nearly 20 years, by just one run. While it was another “home” achievement, what stood out was that it was Sobers’ maiden century: the 21-year old had never scored a century before, much less a triple.

36 years later, the title moved again, but stayed with the West Indies. Brian Lara became the ninth holder of the High Score record, scoring 375 versus England, at home, at St John’s, Antigua in 1994. Nearly a decade later, Matthew Hayden briefly usurped Lara with a 380 versus Zimbabwe in Perth, to become the 10th holder of the title. Barely six months later, in 2004, the crown settled again on Brian Lara’s head, as he scored 400, again at home, at St John’s, Antigua.

And that’s the story of the men’s cricket single-completed-innings high score trail. Since Bannerman’s 165 in the first ever Test, the sequence has been 211-287-325-334-336-364-365-375-380-400. Eleven stops in all. Just ten holders, including the incumbent, who has held it twice. And no movement for nearly 18 years.

So why 229?

I mentioned a bingo board. If you’ve read this far, you will know that the highest score was slowly yet inexorably taken from 0 (the lowest possible score) to 400, over the 2445 intervening Tests, two of which are still in play as I write.

Now think of all the individual scores that have been achieved in that time. Thousands of Tests, probably a hundred thousand completed innings. We can create a “bingo card” with all those scores: we know that the smallest number is 0 and that the largest is 400. Every time a batsman completes an innings, we scratch that number off. What’s the lowest unscratched number? As of today, that’s 229. And it’s been 229 since Thursday 2nd January 2003, nineteen years yesterday, when Herschelle Gibbs scored 228 versus Pakistan at Cape Town.

Development of the lowest unscratched number

I’m nuts about cricket; those of you who know me would have expected me to do this, to plot the movement of the lowest unscratched number, the history and future of 229. So here it is.

Surprisingly, after just one Test, the lowest unscratched number was 14. By the end of the second Test, it had moved to 16, after Harry Charlwood removed 14 from play. The fourth Test took it further to 25, as George Bonnor scored 16; the next Test, the fifth, moved the needle to 29, courtesy Jack Blackham’s 25.

We then had a brief gap until the 9th Test, which set the bar at 44, when Billy Murdoch (Mr 211 himself), rubbed out 29. That wouldn’t budge till the 24th Test, when 44 was chalked off by Arthur Shrewsbury and replaced by 46. Seven Tests later, 46 became 60, with Bobby Abel’s help. That would last another 10 Tests: the 41st Test saw the record shift to 65: Alec Bannerman saw to that.

Some frenetic activity ensued. Seven Tests later, 65 became 71, thanks to Arthur Hill; after another six Tests, 71 became 76, with Syd Gregory’s help; eight matches later, 76 became 78, in the 62nd Test, courtesy Jack Worrall.

The glacial movements that characterised the later years then become visible. 78 became 110 forty-four Tests later, with Aubrey Faulkner’s assistance; moved to 125 fifty-two matches later, with Bill Ponsford scratching 110; swept to 139 one hundred and thirteen Tests later, with Pieter van der Bijl contributing the 125; and then jumped to 171, taking two hundred and forty-six Tests to make that move, as a result of Everton Weekes’ classic 139.

If you thought that was slow, you’re not prepared for what followed. The bar moved to 186 during the 675th Test, thanks to Ian Redpath, a whole two hundred and seventy-one Tests later; then on to 199 with a gap of two hundred and sixty-seven Tests, with considerable help from Zaheer Abbas.

That brings us to relatively modern times. 218 was set by Sanjay Manjrekar in the 1130th Test, between Pakistan and India, at Lahore in 1989, moving the target to 224. That was then taken by Vinod Kambli in 1993, versus England in Mumbai. The spotlight then moves to Herschelle Gibbs, whose 228 I mentioned earlier.

And we arrived at 229 being the number to beat.

That was Test 1637. Over eight hundred Tests ago. Over nineteen years ago.

A gentle walk from 14 to 16, then on to 25, 29, 44, 46, 60, 65, 71, 76, 78, 110, 125, 139, 171, 186, 199, 218, 224, 228 to bring us to today and 229.

So what’s next after 229?

Plaque at Lords commemorating the quest for 229, courtesy a close friend

There are still 18 unscratched numbers in the 200s, starting with 229. They are: 229 252 265 272 273 276 279 282 283 284 286 288 289 292 295 296 297 and 298.

7 numbers in the 200s were taken out in the last decade alone, so things are still moving along. Alastair Cook’s 294; Ross Taylor’s 290; Adam Voges’ 269; Tom Latham’s 264, Alastair Cook (again) with his 263; Shoaib Malik’s 245; and, most recently, Kane Williamson’s 238.

Pickings in the 300s are somewhat richer, with 76 numbers remaining untouched.

There’s some progress even there: David Warner, with his 335, and Karan Nair, with his 303, took two numbers off the table.

So we now have 94 numbers left in the range 0-400. The lower end of that range will not change unless someone comes up with the daft idea of negative numbers for batsmen. (Given the shenanigans I see in so much of sport, I wouldn’t rule it out, but I live in hope that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime).

The upper end of that range has remained steady for eighteen years, since Lara’s 400.

229 has been around longer.

The last number to be scratched on the bingo card was Kane Williamson’s 238. Exactly a year ago.

This year, for sure I expect to see some of the 94 numbers taken out. But will it be a bumper year? Will we see the 229 moved all the way to 252? Will 252 itself still be around by then? And will 400 remain the upper limit? All with or without the madness of Umpire’s Call, DRS and whatever passes for the technologies in use at the time.

We shall see.

Let me know what you think

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