December 4, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and 21st century cricket stats

If you are allergic to or intolerant of cricket statistics, please either take an anti-histamine before reading this, or destroy your computer

[If you are allergic to or intolerant of cricket statistics, please either take an anti-histamine before reading this, or destroy your computer. Whichever is easier and safer.]

Do cricket statistics mean anything anymore? It used to seem that they were an unimpeachable barometer of quality. Now, they are skewed by a mixture of endemically weak teams, artificially weakened teams, 21st century superbats, homogenous pitches, nonsensical schedules, exhausted bowlers and supposedly entertainment-enhancing boundaries. There are now more statistics in the cricket world than ever before – and that’s just one of them. But they tell us less than ever about the players who generate them.

A Test batting average of 50 was once the certificate of authenticity of unquestionable world class, the unforgeable hallmark on the commemorative silver WG Grace statuette of greatness. That once exclusive club now has an increasing number of members. In the 1970s, seven batsman topped the half-century mark per innings (excluding those statistical chancers who played fewer than 20 innings in the decade). In the 1980s, it was six. In the 1990s, it was seven again. Since the millennium, 20 batsmen are on the Bradman side of 50 rather than the Mullally side. Are there really three times as many great batsmen as in previous recent decades?

First, let me give you some background on this statistical fixation. When I was a small boy, in the absence of any cricket-obsessed family members, my interest in the great game was fostered by a single book – Botham Rekindles The Ashes, the Daily Telegraph’s book commemorating the 1981 series, which my father gave the seven-year-old me for Christmas that year. There can have been few pages in history scrutinised with such incessant junior fervour as Bill Frindall’s scorecards in the back of that sacred tome. I was, clearly, an odd child.

My love of, fascination with and psychological dependence on cricketing statistics remains to this day. An unhealthily large part of my cranium has been permanently cordoned off for the retention of pre-1997 cricket stats (an achievement rendered even more obsolete by the subsequent creation of Cricinfo’s Statsguru facility, one of the unquestionable wonders of the modern technological world, whose very existence mocks my entire Wisden-trawling childhood).

This is neither a boast nor an admission. It is a simple fact. As a student, I remember one particularly spectacular stat-off with a fellow stat-nut. I successfully named all three wicketkeepers to have scored Test double centuries at the time. In my moment of triumph, I was overwhelmed with simultaneous feelings of pride and embarrassment. How many people in the world could have reeled off the names of Imtiaz Ahmed, Taslim Arif and Brendon Kuruppu with barely a pause for breath? Not many. And even fewer would have been even marginally impressed. Was this the path to happiness and love? If it was, there would be one unorthodox woman sitting at a folding table at the end of it, with a box of coloured pencils and a scorebook.

However, as many of you will know from personal experience, a sporting statistic learnt in childhood is not easily forgotten. Indeed, I find it far easier to recall the Test averages of cricketers who died before I was even born than, for example, my PIN number, or wedding anniversary [see footnote].

So it is that, with an increasing sense of nostalgia for the old mathematical certainties and fear for what the statistical future of cricket holds, I have watched my beloved averages and records become bloated, tainted and opaque. This was emphasised once again during South Africa’s recent and pointless obliteration of Bangladesh.

The Confectionery Stall Statistical Analysis Unit has examined the influence of performances against Test cricket’s two weakest teams, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. 49 batsmen average over 70 against these perennial purveyors of cannon fodder. 63 bowlers average below 20 against them. Inevitably, some illustrious career statistics have been given a sparkly coat of varnish, and some less illustrious ones have had unsightly stains at least partially painted over.

Matches against these two have, for example, raised Kumar Sangakkara’s batting average from 50 to almost 55; Marvin Atapattu’s from 32 to 39; Jacques Rudolph’s from 30 to 36; Ian Bell’s from 39 to 42; Marcus Trescothick’s from 41 to almost 44; Ramnaresh Sarwan’s from 37 to 40, and Chris Martin’s from a frankly insufficient 1.71 to a perfectly respectable 2.17. They have reduced Steve Harmison’s bowling average from almost 34 to 31; Irfan Pathan’s from 45 to 32; Daniel Vettori’s from 38 to 33; and Muttiah Muralitharan’s from 24 to 22.

Even the mighty Tendulkar’s numbers seem a little less divine – his 54 career average dips to 51. For Jacques Kallis, one of the most merciless acquisitors of statistical excellence in the game’s history, career averages of 55 batting and almost 31 bowling become a slightly less imposing 51 and 34 respectively. Still great, but not quite as great.

Some buck this trend. Warne and Lara have profited little if at all from these opponents. Younis Khan’s average would be just above instead of just below 50. So too the remarkable, evergreen Chanderpaul (career average 49). He scores a paltry 33 per dismissal against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, but almost 54 against the top five teams in the current ICC rankings. Is he in fact therefore the greatest batsman of the era? And one can only speculate on how much more extraordinary Andy Flower’s figures would have been had he had the good fortune to play against Zimbabwe as well as for them.

Admittedly, and obviously, throughout cricket history players have statistically benefitted from the weaker teams and been damaged by the stronger ones. Sobers averaged 57 and 34 overall, but only 43 and 39 against Australia. The greatest statistical bowling phenomenon of Test cricket, George Lohmann, averaged 10.75 for his 112 wickets. But without his 35 wickets at 5 apiece against a South African team who had only just learnt on which limbs pads were strapped, his average against Australia rockets to an almost wantonly profligate 13.

So what does all this show? Three things:

  • 1. I need to spend more time with my family.
  • 2. Statistics are like a ventriloquist’s dummy – shove your hand far enough up them and you can get them to say whatever you want.
  • 3. Selectors sometimes look at the wrong numbers.

Cricket stats have always required a large element of interpretation – few would claim that Hashan Tillakaratne was a greater cricketer than Victor Trumper, despite his significantly superior Test and first-class batting averages. Even Hashan’s nearest and dearest would politely change the topic of conversation were he to start claiming so at a family function.

Now, however, the numbers ceaselessly generated by cricket require an increasingly large research team and several industrial-strength pinches of salt before they shed their grains of truth into the porridge of speculation. Please can I have my childhood again?


Following a brief and tetchy consultation with Mrs Confectionery Stall, I can now confirm that my anniversary is 18th September. I will never forget it again – the figures in the date 18-9 make up the number of Test wickets taken by SF Barnes, Erapalli Prasanna or (for at least another week) Zaheer Khan, or, as an emergency fall-back memory-jogging stat, the highest Test score of Jacques Kallis, Vijay Manjrekar, Bruce Mitchell and four others, or, in extremis, the number of runs conceded by underrated Pakistani tweaker Tauseef Ahmed whilst taking three Indian wickets in the first innings of the first Test at Chennai in 1987.

If I ever move to America, my revised anniversary of 9-18 would be simply recalled by remembering the number of Test runs scored by 1960s England offspinner David Allen, or the number of balls faced by David Gower in the 1983-84 Pakistan v England series.

Alternatively, if I merely wish to avoid confusion and remember the 9 and 18 sections of the anniversary date independently to ensure the great day is not forgotten regardless of geographical location, I need only remind myself of the number of Test centuries scored by Maurice Leyland and the number of five-wicket hauls taken by Lance Gibbs, and then deduce which number refers to the day and which to the month by analysing which one is greater than 12. My marriage is now safe. Thank you Statsguru. I owe you my future happiness.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer