What's in a number? In cricket, quite a lot

Cricket: a romantic summer game that's obsessed with numbers AFP/Getty Images

Cricket, on the one hand, is the romantic summer game beloved of those (like Cardus) who think of it no less as high art than as great competition. On the other, it is a game of numbers, where victory and defeat can ultimately come down to the irreducible margin of a single run. Yet, from time to time, numbers tell their own story, write their own poetry and make their own painting about cricket.

Some numbers in the game are indeed stuff of legend. The number 99.94 probably does not need any introduction, particularly to cricket fans who were born before the turn of the millennium. Hundred - a hundred times - is what Sachin Tendulkar fashioned during an international career that spanned 24 years. Mt. 800 is the wicket peak atop which Muttiah Muralitharan sits. 952 for 6 was what Jayasuriya and Co took off India on a road repurposed as a cricket pitch in Colombo (after India had declared their own innings closed on a forgotten 500-odd). And 400* is Test cricket's highest individual score, a record Brian Lara wrested back from Matthew Hayden, as the latter had predicted he would.

Others are less popular, but no less obvious, especially to those like this writer, whose idea of a personal life used to be (and occasionally still is) foraging through scorecards of old matches on ESPNcricinfo and committing numerical nuggets from them to memory. For instance, the Headingley ground at Leeds seems to have a short but exclusively English love affair with the number 149. In 1981, Sir Ian Botham (starring as 'Beefy') etched it into the history of the ground - and into the memories of others who think about the ground - with his bat, as part of (till Ben Stokes's recent heroics) the greatest English comeback of all time in a Test match against the old enemy.

Three decades later, Kevin Pietersen immortalised it with his own 149, a peacock-strut of an innings if ever there was one, against Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn. Indians, when they think of Headingley, might subtract one from 149, for it is apt to remind them of two glorious 148s, made 35 years apart by two of the country's outstanding batsmen of their respective generations: if Rahul Dravid's first-innings knock in 2002 was a defensive vanguard in a rare overseas win, Pataudi's second-innings classic in 1967 was a brave rearguard, whose incandescence was not consumed by the defeat it could not prevent.

As grounds attract numbers, so obviously do the players who generate them. In 1999, for example, Dravid's bat brought him 461 runs during the World Cup in England, the most in the tournament. Twelve years later, his bat fetched him 461 runs again, this time in a Test series in England, where Dravid was simultaneously the most attractive and most productive India batsman on view by a country mile. Dravid's international career, which this writer has relived an unhealthy number of times since it ended seven years ago, also reveals other recurring numbers, including the fact that he made 144 three times in Test cricket, and scores of 148 and 146 twice. (Interestingly, 146 is also the score to which Tendulkar and Dravid, Test cricket's most prolific partners, stretched their last overseas hundreds in the format.)

National teams also seem to reinforce certain numbers in the minds of their fans. The number 183 is probably pretty popular in India's ODI cricket, with three highly successful batsmen - Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni, and Virat Kohli - having it as their top score. So should the boring round 100, for Tendulkar - arguably the most popular cricketer to have played the game - has that as his end-entry on at least nine easily accessible scorecards (six from ODI cricket, two from Test cricket, and one from the IPL).

If 'just 100' is a source of great joy for a batsman, '99' is the truest (read 'cruelest') Test of his/her equanimity. Ask Misbah-ul-Haq, Sourav Ganguly, Greg Blewett, Michael Atherton, Geoff Boycott or Richie Richardson, all of whom had the misfortune of being dismissed on that score twice in Test cricket. Ask Alex Tudor, who had to be content with 99 (with an asterisk) as a nightwatchman in 1999, as England secured an unlikely win engineered by him, over New Zealand at Edgbaston.

Finally, to the numbers 1, 3 and 5, which have played a stellar role in at least three last-wicket Test match heists. Back in 1999, when Steve Waugh's Australian bandwagon was on the verge of becoming the invincible juggernaut it would soon be, Brian Lara halted it abruptly (if temporarily) with a magical 153* in Bridgetown, square-driving West Indies to 311 for 9 and victory, with only eternal No. 11 Courtney Walsh for company. Twenty years later almost to the date, Kusal Perera made a silken 153 to take Sri Lanka to 304 for 9 against South Africa in Durban, after an assured 78-run association with Vishwa Fernando, who was playing only his fourth Test.

Then, on the final Sunday of August 2019, Stokes defended, manoeuvred and eventually muscled England to 362 for 9 against Australia at, where else, but Headingley, after England had been down for the count at 286 for 9, even as Jack Leach at the other end coolly defended the one or two deliveries he had to face every over, when he was not wiping his glasses. Stokes' final score: 135, a neat rearrangement of the numbers 3 and 5 from 153.

Naturally, the question will be asked: which of those three is the greatest Test match innings of all time? While better minds attempt to answer that question which requires a nuanced answer, this writer hopes to dig up some bowling numbers to offset the batsmen-centric, T20 feel of this piece.

A phonologist on sabbatical and an English teacher by necessity, Srinivas thinks and writes about cricket in his downtime.

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