Who is the best bowler of all time?

In my post a few weeks ago about Tendulkar’s 52nd Test hundred I included a bit about Sir Donald Bradman being the best batsman of all time. There are considerable difficulties comparing batsmen from different eras, but fortunately the Don was so good that there is little need for any subjective weighting of eras. Unfortunately it’s not so clear cut with respect to bowlers. The primary statistic for a batsman is his average, and whilst more recent ones do tend to be higher they are still readily comparable. The primary statistics for bowlers are wickets taken and bowling average though and those are both problematic when comparing bowlers from different eras. Bowling average has the same problem as batting average, plus it compares wickets to the frugality or otherwise of a bowler rather than to the total amount played (as batting average does). Total number of wickets taken, usually the primary stat, is faulty because many more Tests are played now than in years past. Murali leads the chart with 795 Test wickets, (like Bill Frindall, I exclude the ICC Super Test) but he played in almost five times the number of Tests as Sydney Barnes. A more seldom seen stat, but more theoretically useful in this case, is bowler’s strike rate, a measure of how many wickets a bowler took per deliveries bowled. (Technically it’s the other way around I know, but my phrasing still measures the same thing.) It’s still not perfect, however. It favours bowlers in the past who had the benefit of uncovered pitches and matches would end sooner than they do now.

Earlier this week I used a wickets taken per match to demonstrate Sri Lanka’s bowling ineptitude. After some thought, I concluded that it would probably be the best way to compare different bowlers from different eras as well. Obviously it corrects for total matches played, but since the total number of wickets that can be taken in a match has never changed it ought not to favour any particular era over any other. Like any average, it will require a minimum number of matches played. I opted to use 15, which would be small enough not to unfairly exclude bowlers who played in the very early days of Test cricket, but high enough to not include those who have played for less than a few years in modern times. In my analysis I actually use 30 innings bowled, so as to exclude batsmen who have played dozens of matches, but only occasionally bowled. This is the most subjective aspect to the analysis and a case could probably be made that 15 is a bit low and 20 would be a better number. That would leave out George Lohmann, the man with the lowest bowling average of all time, and Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth, however, so I prefer 15 as the cutoff.

Since Statsguru does not (to the best of my knowledge) have a feature to display wickets per match and I do not wish to perform the analysis by hand for every bowler in history to have bowled at least 30 innings I decided to look at the top 35 bowlers in each of the three traditional stats above. The Statsguru screenshots for these are shown below. (Click to make them large enough to actually read.)

The 35 top wicket takers in cricket history

The 35 best career bowling averages
The 35 best career bowling strike rates

After accounting for overlap between the lists I was left with 68 bowlers from all eras. I should point out that this is not an exhaustive list of the top 68 bowlers in terms of wickets per match, only the 68 which seemed most likely to have a high ratio. After checking to see if I had missed anyone with a particularly high ratio, I added Clarrie Grimmet to the list. He was not amongst the top 35 in any of the original categories, but still took an average of 5.84 wickets per match. Ultimately I found 12 bowlers who had a career wickets per match ratio over five and they are presented in the table below.

Click to make legible

By this analysis Sydney Barnes is the greatest bowler to have ever played the game, having averaged exactly seven wickets per match over the course of his career. It’s probably not the first name to leap to most minds, but nor is it an unreasonable choice. He still holds the record for most wickets in a single series, having taken 49 South African wickets in four matches in 1913-14 and his 17-159 at the Wanderers in that series is second only to Laker’s 19-90 in terms of match analyses. Even by the traditional metrics 189 wickets at 16.43 apiece is very, very good. It’s also not a novel choice. As recently as 2009 David Frith in Cricinfo suggested that Barnes was ‘[p]robably the greatest bowler who ever measured out a run-up’.

I don’t think there could be many complaints about the other eleven on the list either. The only one of whom I had not previously heard was Charlie Blythe, though Bobby Peel (the cricketer not the Prime Minister) is best remembered for allegedly urinating on the pitch during a Roses match and being banned from playing for Yorkshire by Lord Hawke. (By all accounts he was a very good bowler though.) After those two there are all quite famous names from almost every era. The fact that Murali is third on the list and the only contemporary bowler to average better than six wickets per match is not surprising, given the number of wickets he took in his career. (And it goes a long way to explaining why Sri Lanka have struggled so badly recently.) The most notable omissions from that list are the great West Indian fast bowlers. They did not miss out by much it should be pointed out; all bar Courtney Walsh averaged better than four wickets per match. I suspect the reason for this is that the Windian bowlers tended to share the wickets around. With so many greats in the same team and only twenty wickets available none were able to stand out as much as they undoubtedly would have had they played separately.

I would like to be able to compile a longer list, but I cannot be sure of the accuracy as I go farther down. Without going through every single bowler to have ever bowled in more than 30 innings it is not possible to ensure that a longer list would actually be complete. Hopefully at some point wickets per match will be considered a proper statistic and be easily available on Statsguru.

7 thoughts on “Who is the best bowler of all time?

  1. Very interesting, some complete unknowns to me there, some modern greats, and of course someone who is still playing today, in fact exactly today! After reading about Harold Larwood’s legendry speed and acuracy, nevermind nouse and guts, I wonder at him “failing” to get onto any of the tables. Any thoughts on that? I have read that, despite the occasional “sticky dog” wickets of that era were typically batsman freindly, saying that there are two bowlers of that era on the final table(?), though both spinners I believe…..???


    1. Cheers! I might actually do an update sometime as obviously Steyn’s stats have changed and I think Vernon Philander may have enough innings now to be included.

      With regard to Larwood, his stats were actually fairly unimpresive and certainly short of what his talent would suggest. He took not quite eighty wickets in his career at an average of almost thirty. He was above average for his time (the average scores for batsmen of that era were about what they are now) but some way short of greatness. He was also unfortunate in that he never got a chance to improve his numbers as the scandal from the Bodyline series ended his career after only 21 Tests. I suspect if he had played longer he might have improved with experience.


      1. Yes, around two wickets per innings is pretty solid, but not stratospheric, and he did get hit around a fair bit on occasion, mainly by you-know-who. As always it’s difficult to compare eras, smaller stumps then, but smaller bats too, lbw law in favour of the batsman (that would be especially significant with Larwood as he maintained the belief that he only fully earned the wicket if hebowled the batsman) I suppose he comes out favourably amongst the pace bowlers of his own era?

        In the later career he never had he would certainly have slowed down, but used that accuracy to be a tighter, maybe even more effective, bowler ala Hadlee for example, (though he would have always saved a few thunder-bolts for “that little bastard”.(:

        Steyn is interestingly a similar type of bowler physically. I don’t know how old he is now, and he has suffered the usual injuries, but it will be interesting to see how he ends up on that first total number of wickets table. They say he can do anything Anderson can, but faster, he’s not just relying on speed, so a Hadleesque twillight might also work for him, though it¨s probable that those bowlers who haven’t been express from the beginning (McGrath, Walsh) are those with the longest staying power career wise (I don’t know if the figures back that up)……..anyway, I ramble

        Philander is a strange one, he will no doubt have great final figures, but has come in pretty late, so has less time to build up quantity and challenge those on “the top table”.
        Cheers, roll on the World Cup!!!


  2. You seem to have a sustained grudge against both Muttiah Muralidharan and Sri Lanka in general. Yes, Murali played in MANY more matches than the other players on your list. He also has MANY more wickets. Sustaining the average of 6.02 wickets per match over a career in tests and ODIs that spanned nearly two decades is not easy. He was a sparky young thing when he started but he sustained that, getting a wicket on the last ball he bowled in world ODI cricket.

    You can try to wipe your grudge all over his record all you want, but Muttiah is a great cricketer and a gentlemen, He kindly dealt with the gobby Aussies like Shane Warne, I’m sure he could deal with this. And he has. Despite your best efforts to attack his title, his record and his capacity remains. It wasn’t that he just did a little work but sustained it for a long time. He sustained a great wicket average for nearly two decades, making him both a very effective and very enduring cricketer.

    As for Sri Lanka not doing well recently, you can put that down to EXTREME levels of corruption because the cricket board has essentially been bought out by the Rajapakshas. I usually take a great deal of pleasure in beating the English, as most people do (see the worldwide support for cricket after the Irish had a brilliant go at the game). Still, the corruption on the cricketing board has made it difficult to be happy when they win… Sri Lankan cricket fans take immense joy in the game but even that’s been reduced now.


    1. No, no grudge here. Even if I cared terribly about the pyjama cricket you’ll notice that this was written last December. And, if you care to read it terribly closely, that I point out clearly that Murali has comfortably the best wickets/match ratio of any modern bowler. But the entire point is to compare bowlers from different eras and the simple fact is that Murali does not come out on top.

      I’m sure there are many reasons for Sri Lanka’s poor form in Tests in the year leading up to this article and I am sure that the corruption of the board is one of them. But as I also made clear in the article to which is linked, another reason is Sri Lanka’s struggles to take twenty wickets in a match and that is down to the absence of a bowler like Murali who can win the match. Far from having a grudge against him, I am crediting him with almost single-handedly winning Tests!


      1. He does come in the top three though, and credit where it’s due, he sustained it for longer than most cricketers. I know people are dodgy about him because of his flexible shoulders and wrists, but that’s like getting mad at Usain Bolt for having a longer stride than most sprinters.

        In addition, the idea that Murali was somehow singlehandedly carrying the team isn’t really true. Chaminda Vaas was playing at the same time. He’s overshadowed by Murali’s success but, for example, when Sri Lanka had India out for 54 at the Coca Cola cup it was Vaas who got the first four wickets. Players like Dilhara Fernando and Zoysa and others aren’t so easy to dismiss either. We had a great batting line up, including Sanath Jayasuriya. I mean, the idea that Murali somehow singlehandedly carried the Sri Lankan side is a little patronizing, considering the fact that the whole team, were someone of the best cricketers in world cricket.


      2. Yes, Sri Lanka used to have several /good/ players but especially the batsmen were replaceable. They still have one of the best batsmen in the world in Kumar Sangakkara, but they are struggling to win Tests consistently because they have had trouble taking twenty wickets. (They have, I will note, got better about this in the months since I wrote this article.) That was where Murali stood out above the rest; his consistent ability to put in not only good, but actually match-winning performances. That is something that they have not only not been able to replace (and how could they) but have not really come /close/ to replacing. The difference is stark.


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