Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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In the game of cricket, scoring a century (more than one hundred runs) is the dream of every batsmen. And the absolute pinnacle of the game is to score a century on debut; to do this on your Test debut is a truly exceptional achievement. But the odd thing is, a disproportionate number of batsmen who do manage to score a century on their Test debut fail to produce the same kind of form over the remainder of their careers.

The contrasting careers of two SA batsmen,
both named Jacques, who promised so much
Jacques Kallis (above), dismal start, incredible end
Jacques Rudolph (below), spectacular start, dismal end

Why is that? You would think that if a player had the talent to score more than a hundred runs at the very first opportunity, in an unfamiliar environment against unfamiliar bowlers, he would be able to continue scoring heavily after that. But no, it seems that more often than not the reverse is true.

For example, let's look at the South African players who have scored a century on Test debut. There are only six of them, and five of these were eventually dropped when the selectors' patience with their repeated failures finally ran out. All of these five ended their test careers with a batting average in the mid-30's or less, which is simply not good enough - for a specialist Test batsman, 40 is considered the minimum acceptable batting average. Only Faf du Plessis managed to continue scoring runs consistently after his debut heroics (which I wrote about in a separate blog here).

Below is the list of all South African cricketers who scored a century on their test debut; the "Score" column indicates the number of runs they scored in one of the innings in their debut match (all figures were correct as at 9 April 2017):

 Player            Debut  Score  Tests    Runs     Avg

 Andrew Hudson      1992    163     35    2007   33.45
 Jacques Rudolph    2003    222*    48    2622   35.43
 Alviro Petersen    2010    100     36    2093   34.88
 Faf du Plessis     2012    110*    40    2426   44.93
 Stiaan van Zyl     2014    101*    12     395   26.33
 Stephen Cook       2016    115     11     632   33.26

Now let's look at a list of some recent, very successful, South African batsmen who did not score a century on Test debut. These are players who had singularly unspectacular debuts, yet each went on to play over one hundred Test matches and score mountains of runs:

 Player            Debut  Score  Tests    Runs     Avg

 Gary Kirsten       1993     16    101    7289   45.27
 Jacques Kallis     1995      1    165   13206   55.26
 Graeme Smith       2002      3    116    9253   48.70
 AB de Villiers     2004     28    106    8074   50.46
 Hashim Amla        2004     24    103    7952   49.39

Notice the scores these players managed on their debuts (every one is below 30), then look at the number of runs they scored in total and their career batting averages (all above 45). This is a very different, but hugely impressive, list. All of these players struggled on their debut but improved dramatically after that, whereas the players on the first list were brilliant in the beginning then tailed off to a dismal end.

The contrast between two players named Jacques (pictured on the right) could not be greater. Jacques Kallis' first seven Test scores were 1, 7, 6, 39, 0, 2, 2; after five Test matches his batting average was a paltry 8.14. Those are the figures of a tail-ender, not a specialist batsman! Indeed, quite a few people questioned whether he had what it takes to succeed in Test cricket ... But Kallis ended his career having scored 45 centuries (including one in his last match) and a batting average of over 55, making him truly one of the greatest players of all time. Jacques Rudolph, on the other hand, started his Test career in jaw-droppingly spectacular fashion with scores of 222 not out and 71, meaning he had a batting average of 293 after just two tests! But he failed to follow up the initial promise he showed, was dropped twice and finally finished his career with a mediocre average of just over 35.

What conclusion can we draw from this? Well, it would seem to me that a century on Test debut is a bit of a "poisoned chalice" - it suggests greatness, but more often than not results in mediocrity. You are statistically more likely to succeed in the long term if you FAIL on your debut rather than scoring a century! I am not for a moment suggesting that batsmen should deliberately fail when first given a chance, but rather that how well you do in your first few innings is not at all an indicator of the success (or otherwise) of the remainder of your career. Any young, up-and-coming batsmen out there reading this? If so, take note ...

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa