Almanac Cricket – Lillee v Cummins: the competition no one needs to have

Pat Cummins is a good cricketer, an exceptional one in fact. Following the routs of Sri Lanka Cummins’ career thus far is worthy of examination. 20 Tests in a tad over seven years sees the 25 year old with an impressive 94 wickets at a tad over 22. Not bad for a first change bowler.

To illustrate the point, while sitting on the couch with a beer as the Gabba Test drew to a close, I put out a Tweet comparing Cummins’ first 19 Tests (at the time) as a bowler to the top eight wicket takers in Australian men’s Test cricket.

It was then that a number of people informed me that Cummins was not a patch on Dennis Lillee. This was interesting because I don’t recall expressing an opinion one way or the other or even suggesting that I was specifically comparing the pair.

Granted, the relative similarity between their figures after 19 (and 20) Tests are noticeable but any suggestion that Lillee and Cummins are comparable or, more shockingly, that Cummins is better than Lillee was inferred rather than implied.

Suffice to say (thanks to some high profile retweets) for the next two days my mentions filled to the imaginary brim with strangers arguing the relative merits of Lillee and Cummins with themselves and each other. Lillee did not get to bowl to Sri Lanka and other T20 addled batting technicians, some say. Sides in the ‘70s were six out, all out, retort others. Batsmen at all positions are technically better now, say yet more others. “Something, something, sandpaper, something” also proved popular.

This, of course, is a silly argument. Attempting to critically compare two cricketers 45 years apart is a pointless exercise. Pat Cummins being an exceptional cricketer in no way diminishes Dennis Lillee’s own brilliance. But, given I’ve yet to meet a pointless exercise I haven’t embraced, let’s (take a Cricinfo aided) delve deeper into the first 20 Tests of these two players.

What the numbers say

What stands out about Lillee’s first 20 Tests is that he played 16 of them against England – starting with England’s 1970/71 tour of Australia, moving in Australia’s 1972 tour of England, punctuated by three 1972/73 Tests against Pakistan and one against the West Indies before normal service was resumed with England’s 1974/75 tour and then the subsequent 1975 Ashes.

So, we can immediately cross off the “Lillee played a lot against the West Indies” argument, as it relates to his first 20 Tests, anyway.

And what of Cummins? He has racked up Tests against five opponents (India x 6, South Africa x 5, England x 5, Bangladesh x 2, Sri Lanka x 2) across seven series. 20 of his 94 wickets came in those four Tests against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. So, on the surface of it, the “Cummins has taken his wickets against poor opposition” argument can also be dispensed with (particularly given Sri Lanka just rolled South Africa in South Africa).

Here are both players’ most dismissed opponents:

But, in general who dismissed the better batsmen? Well, the pro-Lillee camp would have to concede that the answer to this is Pat Cummins. After all, the batting average of batsmen dismissed by Pat Cummins is 33.54, towering over Lillee’s first 20 Tests average of… well… 33.53.

So, while batting average doesn’t tell you everything about the quality of a batsman (plus, Pat’s record in this regard may change whereas it’s less likely that Dennis Amiss is going to have another Test innings), in this case it’s a reasonable proxy. Cummins and Lillee’s records in this regard are freakishly similar.

In fact, when you look at frequency with which the two dismissed batsmen by batting position, yet again their records are chalk and chalk. This chart shows each bowlers’ dismissals by batting position (the bars on the primary axis) and the batting average of those dismissed (the balls on the secondary axis).

Your basic differences are Lillee’s top order victims had higher averages, particularly the openers, while Cummins’s Number 4s and wicketkeepers are notably more proficient. This reflects that Pat’s frequent victims include the high averaging number fours Kohli, Root and AB de Villiers. Meanwhile, DK’s highest averaging opponents came more in the shape of openers such as Amiss and Edrich.

What does this all mean? Well, we can say on the surface of the stats any claims that Cummins or Lillee had things harder in terms of quality of opponent are not valid. These two bowlers, 40 something years apart, have remarkably similar records across the start of their careers. No insult to Lillee, none whatsoever.

Cultural impact

But Dennis Lillee is about much more than his first 20 Tests and some stats. Lillee was a tearaway quick who terrorised batting line-ups in the ‘70s before reworking his technique to overcome near-crippling back injuries throughout his career. His shaggy head, lustrous moustache, dangling gold chain on hairy chest, bum kicking, aluminium bat wielding were of cultural import as much as statistical.

Lillee was a hero for a generation of children growing up in the ’70s and early ‘80s. His appeal helped drive World Series Cricket and, resultantly, dramatically change the cricketing world. He was a rock star, if a rock star knew anything about moving the ball off the seam. As a result, it is not surprising that people of a certain age are so keen to defend his legacy – he is inextricably woven into their childhoods/youth.

Pat Cummins by comparison is the Ghostbusters reboot/Star Wars: the Last Jedi of this comparison… but much better (I’ll go into bat for TLJ but Ghostbusters is on its own). Some take his mere existence and superficial similarity to Lillee as a threat to the keystone of their childhood arch.

Well, rest assured worried correspondents, Cummins is a different bowler in a different time. If he stays on the park he may very well hold a similar status for today’s youth as they begin to grey at the temples (if the world hasn’t slipped into environmental apocalypse by then – we’ve got 10 years to do something!) and angrily defend his legacy against all comers.

But that’s ok, it’s supposed to be that way. In the meantime, we get to watch Pat Cummins be Pat Cummins while YouTube has a bevvy of Lillee footage. What a time to be alive!


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About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Dave- thought-provoking as always. Cummins is proving to be worth the wait. And I reckon he can bat a bit. The cultural impacts of he and DK are interesting. DK may have the advantage of historical context while PC clearly offers insight into grooming/shaving through a masculine prism.

  2. Terrific statistical analysis Dave. My first reaction was the predictable over 50’s “there’s no comparison”. Having been at Lillee’s first Test in Adelaide in 1971 I have memories of how raw and unskilled and exciting he was. Tearaway indeed.
    So the Cummins comparison is very apt in their early career. We all remember the master craftsman that Lillee evolved into – by necessity after his back injury.
    One thing memory evoked that Cummins (or any modern quick I can think of) will never emulate is the new ball away swinger to a packed slips umbrella field. I guess its the modern front on delivery method designed to save the back from injury, but swing (such as it is) seems dependent on old ball wear and reverse. Losing our “shiner/scuffer” seemed to doom the Aussie quicks last summer.
    Another example of how the mighty game has fallen. Lillee; Trueman; Hadlee; Marshall used to be able to make the new ball “talk”.
    Modern sport is homogenised on and off the field. I have no idea who is the best bowler in the world today. More’s the pity.

  3. Rulebook says

    Interesting analysis Dave with Starc form falling away surely it is time for Cummins to open the bowling
    ( make it a easier comparison as well ) thanks Dave

  4. This is excellent stuff, Browny. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

    I agree with RB: way past time to let Cummins open the bowling. There is no plausible argument for holding him back at first-change.
    And yes, his batting figures will prove to be far superior to DK’s.

  5. Good article Dave. Cummins has had a good summer, on top of his return from injury he’s developing into the player we hope’d he would. Lillee, or Cummins? Only time will tell.

    PB, indeed, who is the best bowler in the world? Cummins, Rabada: have either peaked? Anderson, Steyn keep going. Ashwin ? Any how who’s the best team?

    Obviously India is the numero uno cricketing power, with their finances, political clout and vast population, but best team ? Yes they beat us down here, an Australian side devoid of its two best batsmen, wracked by administrative changes , with a team culture going where? India win at home but on the road have always struggled.

    What about South Africa? Oh yes they just lost 2-0 @ home to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s second series victory over them in under 12 months. Maybe England? No, not after losing in the Windies.

    In modern cricket there is no stand out side. Whilst the BBL, IPL, etc draws in lots of money the overall game survives, but the future of cricket beyond the 20/20, nay 100 ball matches, is gloomy. Will test cricket still be here in 2030?


  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Great comparison Dave.
    Really looking forward to seeing Cummins bowl in England this winter, both in the World Cup and the Ashes.
    Cummins has really impressed me with his bowling in Asia, would be interested to see how his work in that part of the world stacks up against Lillee’s as his career progresses.

  7. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for the read and comments. If Cummins was really about the shaving gig Mickey, they’d show him doing the chin cleft.

    Yes, PB, it seems much more about what you can make the ball do off the pitch rather than in the air now. The dullness of the kookaburra probably doesn’t help matters. Oh for a late career Terry Alderman who could do both. Was listening to a podcast the yesterday where they were talking about the front foot no ball rule and how the change (granted, 10 years before Lillee came on the scene) has probably increased the wear and tear on fast bowlers and potentially discouraged the development of swing bowlers. Interesting idea to bring back the back foot rule (but outlaw dragging).

    I think part of the reason Cummins doesn’t open, Rulebook, is he bowls so well in combination with Lyon. As our best bowler at the very least he should have first refusal.

    Yep, Smokie. Lillee’s only real innings of substance across his first 20 Tests was his 73no at Lord’s in 1975, rescuing Australia from 8-133 to 268 all out, restricting the first innings deficit to 47. Other than that a regulation tail ender.

    Seems like all teams have pretty substantial weaknesses at the moment, Glen. Batting stocks pretty poor around the world. And, yes, Test cricket will still be here in 2030.

    Thanks Luke, big year coming up – hopefully he stays fit.

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