Do early career centuries make for a better batsman?

As a practicing scientist early in my career I’m often told that to ensure a long and prosperous career, I need to win a big grant soon because the modern world of science doesn’t have the time to wait for me to grow on the job. So, I have some sympathy for Australia’s most scrutinized cricketer – Shane Watson. Several commentators have made the argument that while Watson is clearly a talented player, he never made enough big scores early enough in his career. In particular, attention has been drawn to the fact that he has only made four centuries in test matches.

But is a big score early in a career really that important for a long and prosperous career as a batsman? Anecdotally we might think of cases where batsmen have impressed us with a brilliant debut. I was at the Adelaide Oval in 1991 and saw Mark Waugh’s century on debut against England. Its a great thing for a sports fan to see someone play with what can only be called great talent. It makes us think that if this is what he can do now, he’ll surely go on to do even greater things with time.

Luckily for us, we can check if this is in fact true. Data on cricketers is readily available from sites such as howstat.com. I collected the data on the top 60 batsmen in cricket history by career average and looked to see how long they played for before making a century. These are the results…(click the image to open a zoomable version)

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If scoring an early century was indeed predictive of a great career with a high average then the data would line up on a negatively sloped line from the top left to the bottom right. But this is clearly not the case. Of those 60 batsmen with the highest career averages, went 20 or more innings before making it to three figures. This includes current wonder boy Steve Smith.

Most interesting though is Mark’s broth Steve Waugh, who eventually made a century in his 120th innings with a 177 not out, also against England, but at Headingley in Leeds. I grew up admiring both the Waugh brother’s and that great day at Adelaide Oval was wonderful to watch. But there is no doubting the numbers: Steve went on to play 260 innings at an average of 51 to Mark’s 209 innings at an average of 42.

Still, I thought it might be worth investigating this a little further. What if things have changed in recent years. Is it still possible to do a Steve Waugh?


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In the above graph, career average is represented by the size of the circle. So, if anything, there are more great players scoring maiden centuries late in their now than ever. That said, there are more players scoring more early career centuries now as well. So, the data really doesn’t suggest any association between big early scores and high career averages at any time in history. And this is true of all test playing nations.

So, I still have sympathy for Watson. He gives me hope that if I keep working away, I’ll score it big eventually.

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