Another year comes to an end and the reports of Test cricket demise have proven to be greatly exaggerated. Forty eight Tests were played in 2018 and only five of them did not see a definitive result. It was, by all accounts, a good year for the longest format despite the continuing increase of T20 leagues around the world.

One of the standout aspects of the year, apart from the fewer number of draws, was also how the batting numbers plummeted. The age-old trope that batsmen save you Test matches while bowlers win them stood truer than ever.

Let’s start with the most basic metric. In the list of most centuries scored in a calendar year, there is only one entry from 2018 — Virat Kohli, with his five Test tons. Same goes for the list of most Tests runs scored in a calendar year as well — Kohli’s 1332 runs made him comfortably the best for 2018, with Kusal Mendis joining him in the 1000 -run-club with the very last innings of the year.

Top five run-getters in 2018

Player Matches (innings) Runs (100s / 50s) Ave
Virat Kohli 13 (24) 1322 (5 / 5) 55.08
Kusal Mendis 12 (23) 1023 (3 /4) 46.5
Joe Root 13 (24) 948 (2 / 6) 41.21
Cheteshwar Pujara 13 (23) 837 (3 /4) 38.04
Jos Buttler 10 (18) 760 (1 / 6) 44.7

In contrast, 2017 saw six different players score more than 1000 Tests runs. Steve Smith led the way with 1305 runs then and David Warner was just outside the top six with 997 runs and the absence of those two names from majority of the matches played this year did play a telling role in 2018’s significantly lower numbers.

Justin Langer, Australia’s coach, might as well have been talking about batting in Tests in general when he lamented the lack of quality to choose from his struggling side.

“Try being a selector at the moment,” Langer said. “We’ve got to be careful not to reward poor performances but … it’s not as if the guys are absolutely banging the door down.”

“The art of batting, we’ve got some work to do,” Langer said. “Whether it’s the system … whether it’s something we’ve got to change in our psyche, I’m not sure. It’s something everyone is looking at.”

No wonder then, that the batting average in 2018 across teams was the lowest it has ever been since 1959, the year of Richie Benaud (Australia) and Fred Trueman (England) running though batting lineups. This year recorded the second lowest average in Test history in years where at least 20 Tests where played.

Lowest batting averages in a calendar year

Year Matches Collective batting average  Total number of 100s / 50s
20 25.77 22 / 73
2018 48 26.28 68 / 214
1981 23 26.97 33 / 92
1980 25 26.99 32 / 91
1969 26 27.34 35 / 102
Criteria: Minimum 20 Tests in a year

Starting troubles

The top order (1-7) averages 31.46 across Tests this year, which is also the second lowest after 1959. The corresponding number for the last five years are 35.98, 37.73, 37.42, 40.33 and 36.72. But the biggest drop in numbers can be seen for the openers. It’s not just India who have a problem with their top two batsmen, as we have seen this year in England and Australia. There are no Hayden-Langer, Gambhir-Sehwag, Strauss-Cook quality of opening pairs going around, and on pitches made to produce results, this area has been the most hit. The average came down from 37.00 for openers in 2017 to 28.65 - a near 8-point drop.

The numbers in general have been gradually going down since 2014 as the table below shows.

Batting has become increasingly difficult

Year Overall batting average Top order batting average (1-7) Openers batting average
2014 34.25 40.33
2015 31.25 37.42 37.81
2016 32 37.73 36.39
2017 30.76 35.98 37.00
2018 26.28 31.46 28.65

While Kohli made batting look easy, especially in tough conditions overseas, the same cannot be said for rest of the cricketing world. The Indian skipper registered 10 scores of 50 or more in 24 innings, the overall numbers tell you a different story. A 50-plus score was made once in nearly seven innings, compared to 5.5 and 5.4 innings in 2017 and 2016. That’s the second highest all-time in years where more than 30 Tests were played.

Most innings taken per 50-plus scores

Year Centuries
Half centuries
Innings taken per 50-plus score
2000 69 159 7.048
2018 68 214 6.695
1998 69 184 6.462
1995 49 172 6.271
1986 51 104 6.271
Criteria: Minimum 30 Tests in a year

Results, results, results

One of the major contributing factors for these numbers are the pitches becoming result-oriented around the world. According to Cricbuzz, percentage of games that did not witness a result (five out 48) is the lowest ever in a calendar year which saw at least 10 games being played.

Least % of drawn Tests in a calendar year

Year Tests Results Draw %
2018 48 43 10.42
2002 54 46 14.81
2016 47 40 14.89
2017 47 40 14.89
2014 41 33 19.51
Minimum 10 Tests (Courtesy: Cricbuzz)

India’s case is also a fine example of how bowlers are dictating terms in the year. The pace trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma produced incredible numbers as a bowling unit, comfortably outperforming the batsmen. The India-England series was another example of bowlers calling the shots, while the batsmen struggled, as was India’s tour of South Africa.

Sample this: there were more five-wicket hauls taken in 2018 than centuries scored by batsmen, which is happening for the first time this century. In fact, the 71 five-fors of 2018 is the most ever in a calendar year all time while the collective average (27.37) and strike rate (54.7) is the best recorded in years where minimum 30 Tests were played.

Best bowling averages in a calendar year

Year Matches
Average / Strike rate 5 wicket hauls
2018 48 27.37 / 54.7 71
2000 46 29.56 / 66.8 55
1998 45 29.94 / 66.1 62
1995 40 29.97 / 64.7 46
1986 30 31.58 / 69.0 29
Criteria: Minimum 30 Tests

This year might not have been great for batsmen, and people who love to watch stroke-filled knocks, but it certainly made Test cricket a gripping contest between bat and ball. Going forward, this should provide enough incentive for batsmen to up their game, and that can only be good for the longest format of the sport.

(All statistics courtesy ESPNCricinfo’s Statsguru)