The defining trend of the 2000's has been the apparent domination of bat over ball. An accompanying trend has been the emergence of the Coach - overall Head Coaches, as well as specialist batting, bowling, fielding, spin bowling and wicketkeeping coaches.
Out of 209 players who played at least 15 Test Matches, 23 averaged 50 or more in Test Cricket in the 2000s. 6 others averaged between 48-50. 55 out of 209 players averaged 40 or more. In all, 585 players appeared in Test Cricket in the 2000s. So we can say that roughly 4% all Test players in the 2000's averaged 50 or more, and about 10% of all Test players in the 2000's averaged 40 or more. If one were to speculate further, then, if we consider that Test teams usually play 6 specialist batsmen, then about 7.3% of all specialist batsmen averaged 50 or more, while about 17.4% of all specialist batsmen averaged 40 or more. These are very rough estimates, but in my view reasonable ones.
If we take away Tests involving minnows (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), then (using the measures above), 20 out of 460 players (4.3%) averaged 50 or more, while 47 out for 460 (10%) averaged 40 or more. If we account for just specialist batsmen, about 8% of all specialist batsmen averaged over 50 in Test Cricket, while about 19% averaged over 40. Many of these batsmen don't average over 50 for their full career (for example VVS Laxman), some others do, but don't in this decade( for example Sachin Tendulkar).
In the 133 year old history of Test Cricket (using the same measures above), 34 batsmen averaged 50 or more, 162 have averaged 40 or more. 2423 players have appeared in Test Matches. Assuming that teams have always played 6 specialist batsmen, about 2.5% of all specialist batsmen average over 50, while about 12.5% of all specialist batsmen average over 40 in this history of Test cricket.
In the 2000's
1 in 5 specialist Test batsmen averaged over 40 in Tests. 1 in 12 averaged over 50.
1 in 8 specialist Test batsmen averaged over 40 in Tests, 1 in 40 averaged over 50.
There are several reasons for this. Uncovered wickets, amateur cricketers, minnow teams (New Zealand didn't win a Test for their first two decades as a Test team), large differences between playing conditions home and away, just to name a few.
But clearly, more runs are being scored in this decade. It is said that averaging 50 today is like averaging 40 or 45 in an earlier period. But this is a slippery argument. Would it also mean that averaging 30 with the ball today is like averaging 20-25 with the ball in that earlier period? Are Michael Holding or Andy Roberts on the one hand and Zaheer Khan for example, equally good bowlers? One could argue about this endlessly, and believe me, it would be a close run thing in the end. For example - one could argue that Zaheer Khan bowled on ridiculously flat wickets most of the time. When he did get useful wickets to bowl on, like in England in 2007, he got plenty of wickets quite cheaply. One could also argue that Roberts and Holding propped up each others averages because they bowled in extremely strong bowling teams, giving each of them a few cheap wickets, just as a few of the Australian batsmen in the 2000s have made cheap runs.
A better comparison of bowlers would be the strike rate - which is a frequency of wicket taking. Here, the figures are quite interesting. Shane Bond, Dale Steyn, Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Akthar, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, all have superior strike rates compared to any of the great Australian or West Indian fast men of the fast bowling heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. The 2000's also saw the dominance of the two greatest spin bowlers in history - Warne and Muralitharan, in addition to the two Indian spinners - Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble each taking over 300 Test wickets in the decade. The Pakistan fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed for example, took 51 wickets at 23 with a strike rate of 50 before he was banned for chucking in 2005. Darren Gough, Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee ended their careers with identical strike rates, but very different bowling averages (28.3, 21.6, 23.9 respectively).
Strike Rates are useful, because inspite of the apparent explosion of batsmanship in the 2000s, more Tests have ended in results than ever before in history.
We have plenty of apparently contradictory evidence. Batsmen are scoring more runs, bowlers are conceding runs at a faster rate, but, bowlers are also taking wickets at a faster rate. It depends on what you believe i suppose - Is it that batsmen can only score runs when bowlers allow them to, or is it that batsmen can score runs on the amount of risk they are willing to take?
I take the latter view. In general i think that the contest between bat and ball is one where the bowler tries to maximise the risk the batsman takes in scoring his runs, while the batsman is at all times trying to manage this risk. Factors like the match situation, the condition of the pitch and the tactics of the fielding side go into this assessment by the batsman. On good wickets, it is rare for a bowler to keep bowling unplayable deliveries - so it becomes an attritional contest.
One of the underrated phenomena in this decade in my view, is the fact that the difference between the Home and Away wickets has narrowed. Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Sydney, Adelaide, Trent Bridge, Georgetown, St. Lucia, Antigua, Trinidad and even Melbourne, have all been fairly flat for the most part of this decade. Wickets in India have not been square turners eithers. Mohali and even Ahmedabad (in addition to Mumbai) have had something for the faster bowlers. This gap has also narrowed because of the enormous experience all batsmen gain very quickly of playing on all kinds of wickets.
Ricky Ponting - statistically the preeminent batsman of the 2000s (9000+ Test runs in 100 Tests with 30 Test hundreds, not counting minnow Tests), played 100 Tests in the 2000's. He played 58 Tests in Australia in the 2000s and made 5333 Test runs at 65. His batting average Away is a shade over 50.
This is one of the major reasons why batsmen average more i think - they play so many Tests so frequently, that good form usually means 2000 or so Test runs very quickly.
Coaching has also played a massive role. Not in the popularly imagined domain of tactics and strategy (as John Buchanan would have you believe), but in the more pedestrian area of producing more complete batsmen with more regularity. Just the other day, I heard Sunil Gavaskar point out on commentary, that when Viv Richards walked across his stumps in the 1970s and 1980s, it was considered freakish. Today everybody from AB deVilliers to Tillekratne Dilshan does it. Every single established Test batsman today can more or less play all the shots in the book and a few more, if not at the start of his career, than by the time he becomes well established.
The other major reason for this expansion of stroke making ability is limited overs cricket. ODI's and now T20 offer an arena where in the contest between bat and ball is fundamentally skewed in favor of the batsman. The makeshift opener originated in ODI cricket with Sanath Jayasurya and Romesh Kaluwitharna and Sachin Tendulkar. Today Shane Watson and Ashwell Prince are opening the batting for Australia and South Africa respectively, while Tillekratne Dilshan does it for Sri Lanka.
ODI cricket has destroyed the aura of the new ball. The new ball (especially the 2nd new ball) is now seen not as something to be watched carefully, but as something which set batsmen can take apart. The old virtues of line and length remain intact, but have become harder to implement, because batsmen are challenging line and length more than they did. Technique is not completely independent of the specific contest between bat and ball (be it 50 overs, 20 overs or Tests).
What then does one make of the mountains of runs that have been scored in this decade? 1 Quadruple Century, 7 Triple Centuries, 86 Double Centuries, 851 centuries in this decade alone. I think it is indicative of a shift in the contest between bat and ball - of batsmen taking greater risks for greater reward, but of bowlers benefiting more often, albeit at higher cost. Has it been easier to score runs in this decade? That question is not as simple as it seems. The clearest away to answer it, would be to say the risk has been assessed differently by batsmen in the 2000s, thanks to better coaching, more frequent Test matches, greater familiarity with conditions, and the emboldening influence of ODI cricket. The coach as a grand strategist has been a failure, but as a specialist trainer, he has been invaluable.
This has truly been Cricket's golden decade.