The all-round battle

Stokes, Holder and the Pringle-Botham continuum.

Jason Holder was screaming in the middle of the pitch; it echoed around the stadium as Ben Stokes made his way off the field. This series is defined by these two, especially with Stokes captaining the first Test. Holder has better numbers, but Stokes has been tested more and had a decent 2019.

It doesn't matter who the best one is, the remarkable thing is that there are two in their primes going up against each other.


A few years back, I came up with the Pringle Botham continuum. It's how we judge Test all-rounders unfairly, based on the impossible nature of the job.

Looking at Pringle's respectable first class record, there was nothing in his numbers that suggested he was going to be a great all-rounder. Even if he had bowled at his absolute best, you'd have assumed an average of 30 was his top end. But his batting was 28 in first class cricket. A player with those numbers is not a batsman in Test cricket.

It's not that Pringle was a poor Test all-rounder, he did more or less what you would have expected of him, was just below average with the ball, while strengthening the tail with the bat. Yet, he was a punchline. Because in all-rounders you're either a great or nothing. There are no middling all-rounders.

Shane Watson was seen as a joke, not because he failed as an all-rounder, but because the narrative was he didn't make the most of his talent. He averaged 35 with the bat, during his career positions one to seven averaged 38. During that period all bowlers averaged 34, he was at 33. That is the definition of middling, a good solid all-rounder. And yet he was on the Pringle end.

Most players aren't all-rounders, despite what we call them. Some batsmen take less than a wicket a match. There are bowlers who make one or two hundreds batting at eight over long careers. But how many players in the game's history have been automatic picks as batsmen or bowlers. Only Aubrey Faulkner - from a minimum of 20 Tests - has averaged over 40 batting and sub 30 bowling.  So that means when you look at all-rounders stats, you need to judge them different.

According to the ICC, the 13th best all-rounder in Tests now is Kemar Roach, the fourth-best is Mitchell Starc.  There aren't many all-rounders out there.

You'd argue - viciously - Roach isn't an all-rounder. His batting average of 12 makes your case. Even Starc only averages 22, with no hundreds.

Perhaps the easiest way to spot an all-rounder is via average differential. It's an idea of who the best players are, but it generally helps the batting all rounders. It usually favours star batsmen who bowl. With Sobers and Kallis at the top of the list with 23 and 22 better batting averages than bowling. But, if you average 55 and 57, you need not bowl that well to be ahead. Also, according to differentials (min 20 wickets-500 runs) Simon Katich - the reluctant left-arm wrist spinner - is the ninth-best all-rounder.

That also brings in something else, usage rates - a term we use little in cricket, but will seep in. Third on the differential list is Wally Hammond. A great player, but he's not the third-best all-rounder of all time. How do I know that, well, he took 83 wickets in 85 Tests. That's a part-timer with a decent average.

And that's why usage is important. So Kallis looks the superior bowler than Sobers, he averaged 32.6 with 293 wickets. Sobers was 34 at 235. But (and this is not focusing on the fact Sobers was three kinds of bowlers in one) Kallis was very much a fifth bowler. Not always in terms of skill - he was undoubtedly a better bowler than Paul Harris and some other spinners he played with - but in overs bowled. Kallis bowled a gentlemanly 20 overs a match; Sobers delivered 38.

There is no way now - outside of a struggling team - anyone who could bat like Sobers would bowl those overs today. Had Kallis done that, he wouldn't have played 165 Tests.

What Sobers and Kallis did was allow their teams to have five frontline bowlers without compromising on batting.  That is the dream.

Neither Ben Stokes or Jason Holder is on that level, and probably won't ever be. But Holder has done something remarkable, traversing the Pringle Botham continuum.  It's still early in his transformation. But if you look at the differential, he was averaging -9 before the last two years, and +27, it's a 36 run turnaround.

But Holder is a different style of all-rounder than Stokes, because Stokes is a batsman who bowls, Holder is a bowler who bats. The bowlers who bat stretch your batting out, like Richard Hadlee, Alan Davison or Kapil Dev. But they don't transform your team as much as the batsmen who bowl, unless they're good enough to bat seven often. So while of recent times Holder has a better record, Stokes has a bigger impact on his team.

Holder averages 27 overs a game, Stokes is at 23 (though expect that to come down as he bats at five and England are aware determined to bowl him as little as possible). But the actual difference is that Stokes bats at five, and Holder at eight. Stokes batting high means England can have five genuine frontline bowlers. Holder at eight means West Indies are picking four front line bowlers (and no, Roston Chase is not frontline, he has two wickets a match at an average of 40+).  So Holder moving one place could have a huge impact on the team.

In this eleven, it would seem a simple change; Blackwood is dropped, Rahkeem Cornwall comes in and Shane Dowrich and Holder move up a spot. Meaning that Chase and Cornwall would have been able to bowl when the pitch flattened out. And Cornwall at eight and Alzarri Joseph at nine (with the 13th best all rounder in Tests - Roach - to back them up) is still a strong tail. Cornwall could make a mess of some tired bowling attacks if they let him swing.

Holder averages 27 batting at seven, and 32 at eight, but he's had a lot more opportunity at eight. He's made a double century there, at seven he'll get more chances to do that. There are still questions over Holder's batting. He averaged 12 more in the last two years than the two before that, but in 19 innings only passed 50 three times.

So it's a risk moving him up. But the reward is massive. He can churn out great numbers staying with what he is doing, he seems to have clocked bowling, and he can score quality 40s and occasionally go big. But while his recent form shows better numbers than Stokes, the team won't get as much from him.

A change in batting order for Holder can make a big impact on the West Indies, without him playing any better. Stokes has to continually find beast mode with the bat and occasionally bowl himself to death to improve the team further.


With Shakib Al-Hasan on an enforced legal holiday, Holder, Stokes and Ravi Jadeja are the only true all-rounders in Test cricket. Ravi Ashwin and Colin de Grandhomme have claims.  But most of the others are number eights who can bat a bit or batsmen who are low usage bowlers.

In this match, Stokes has 43, 46 and 4/49. Holder 6/42 in the first innings and Stokes' wicket in the second. Holders' scream, Stokes bellowing when he took two quick wickets with a busted toe, we see all of that. But the things that are harder is what all-rounders do to the team around them.

Stokes is doing it; Holder might yet. Although, for this match, it doesn't matter who is better; it matters who wins.

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