England in West Indies, 2008-09 February 13, 2009

England's refusal to go large


One of the more curious aspects of England’s unimpressive recent cricket is the amount of criticism directed at the one batsman who has risen above the swamp of mediocrity in which the rest of the top order have been paddling their increasingly leaky rubber dinghy. Kevin Pietersen’s tightrope-walk between audacity and idiocy has polarised opinion like a man painting a bear head-to-toe in Tippex, and has, without question, deflected more searching analysis from those who merit it more. Was his miscued first-innings thwack at Suleiman Benn an irresponsible grab at personal glory or a poorly-executed but tactically-justifiable attempt to dominate a dangerous opponent? Or both? Did Pietersen act like a spoilt child hurling himself into a vat of jelly babies, or like the head of a bird welfare charity putting all the takings from a charity food fight on a 10-1 shot in the 2.40 at Chepstow in an effort to secure a better future for some little orphan ducks? Only Pietersen and almighty Zeus may ever know.

It is, however, an unarguable fact that the Pietermaritzburg Pulveriser regularly fails to batter his opponents into quivering pulverised wrecks, as he is clearly capable of doing. And this is despite having what may well be Test cricket’s best conversion rate for turning 50s into 90s – 19 times out of 27, a marginally better ratio even than the voraciously undismissable Bradman. However, KP’s problems begin as soon as he arrives within 10 of his century. And here comes Dr Statistics to prove it. He’s holding a clipboard, he’s brandishing his stethoscope, and he wants you to pay attention.

In Test history, 80 players have scored 90 or more at least 15 times. Taking their average scores in those innings of 90-plus, Pietersen has the 79th-best record of those 80 players, better only than renowned serial century-flunker Michael Slater. Here is Exhibit A.

So while Pietersen generally succeeds in capitalising on good starts, having done so, he fails to capitalise on that initial capitalisation. His 15 centuries have averaged only 137 – only Michael Atherton of the 59 players with as many hundreds as Pietersen averages lower for his centuries (135) – see Exhibit B. There were, of course, mitigating circumstances for the Lancashire limpet. By the time he had staggered across the three-figure threshold, he was usually at a point of total mental and physical exhaustion after a two or three long days of heroic defiance.

By comparison, of Pietersen’s contemporaries, Ponting’s centuries average 175, Sehwag’s 199 (helped by the fact that his last 11 centuries have been over 150), Kallis’ 214 (helped by a suspiciously large number of not-outs), Sangakkara’s 276, and Chanderpaul’s 278 (also a not-out-assisted figure, aided by the rank incompetence of his tail-enders). And if Pietersen wants advice on how to punish opponents when on top, he should knock on the hotel room door of his England coach Andy Flower, tell him to lift his head out of his hands and stop repeatedly muttering “What have I got myself into?” to himself, and demand to know how he contrived to make his 12 centuries for Zimbabwe average a frankly ludicrous 340.

It should be noted that Pietersen’s figures are damaged by the fact that he has never been remained undefeated scoring a century, and has sometimes sacrificed his wicket when batting with the tail in an effort to secure runs for the team rather than red ink for himself. His is not the record of a selfish player. On the occasions when he has perhaps been dismissed trying to stamp his own distinctive supremacy on a match, it is perhaps because he knows that if he does not do so, with Flintoff out of form, there is not another England batsman who either will or can.

However, after England’s Ashes humiliation in 2006-07, Pietersen himself talked passionately about the need for himself and his team-mates to score big hundreds. They have almost totally failed to do so – of their 28 centuries since then, only four have been over 150, and 12 have been under 110. The frustration and fascination of Pietersen as a batsman is his rare mixture of brilliance and vulnerability. His “that’s the way I play” claim essentially suggests that if he removes the latter, he will lose some of the former. But his ascent to true cricketing greatness will wait until he is able to turn his outbursts of stunning virtuosity into match-determining dominance.

The failure to capitalise on centuries is not Pietersen’s failing alone. England as a team have for some time shown little interest in scoring big centuries. Players seem to lose one or more of concentration, motivation or their general mental faculties once the advertising logo on the back of their bats has been waved at the requisite number of cameras (one of the more irritating and distasteful aspects of the modern commercialisation of cricket – a moment of proud personal triumph debased into a glib publicity opportunity, rather like a husband and bride eating Heinz Baked Beans in their wedding photographs, or a priest reciting the slogans of top whisky companies at an alcoholic’s funeral).

Strauss and Cook both have even worse century-inning averages than Pietersen, and Vaughan and Trescothick were only a little better. Since Graham Gooch’s 333 against India in 1990, the highest score by an England player is Pietersen’s 226 against West Indies in 2007 – the 51st highest score in all Test cricket since Gooch trudged back to the Lord’s pavilion burning with a mixture of pride in his achievement and abject disgust and self-loathing at being bowled by Manoj Prabhakar on a flat track.

Quite why England are so unable to score big is a mystery. No doubt some will their finger of blame at: the advent of colour television lowering our national boredom threshold; or a post-colonial unwillingness to assert English dominance; or the end of rationing; or Kolpak players and Tony Greig; or Gordon Brown and the bankers. It is probably a combination of all of these and more.

Gooch’s innings, incidentally, remains the only English score of 250 or more in my lifetime. Which puts England three 250s behind Zimbabwe. In fact, other countries’ players have notched up 42 such scores between them. Also in fact, since the momentous event of my birth, of the eight major Test nations, England have the lowest combined century-innings average, the second worst conversion rate of centuries in 150s (ahead of New Zealand) and the worst conversion rate of centuries into double centuries. England have averaged one double century every 25 Tests – the other nations between them score one on average every 11½ matches. Perhaps my entry into the world was not the turning point for English batsmanship that everyone had hoped it would be.

(Thanks again to Cricinfo’s Statsguru facility for its invaluable assistance in this blog. I am now firmly of the opinion that Statsguru is not only the greatest sporting statistical aid in the world, but also the single greatest invention in the entire history of the universe. Without it, the research for this article would have taken several years and at least one marriage.)

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on March 31, 2009, 18:22 GMT

    It's simple...it's your wickets in England.

  • testli5504537 on February 24, 2009, 0:25 GMT

    Fantastic article. The problem, of course, with highlighting Pietersen's failure to get the big hundreds is that he is the best of the current bunch at doing just that.

    This is where I think Satish is wrong. Pietersen does get the big hundreds, at least with far more regularity than his peers. I think the real issue is less Pietersen and more the rest of the team.

    People often complain England score too slowly (it's true) and KP and Fred are the only two who regularly change that. I think that brings with it a pressure to play the big shot.

    The comparison with Sehwag is a bit of a harsh one, given that the latter is arguably the best hitter of a ball anywhere (or at the very least, one of). Pietersen is actually not that great a slogger, he's a more natural driver really.

    That is the issue. England need to find a proper slogger, be it Flintoff or someone else, so KP is allowed to play a more conventional game.

    In essence KP should try being more Tendulkar than Sehwag.

  • testli5504537 on February 18, 2009, 22:45 GMT

    Yes! I've been banging on about this for years! English batsmen are incapable of big runs.

  • testli5504537 on February 15, 2009, 21:58 GMT

    @Andrew: Yes, I think the hypothesis is that a consistently good team performance is more likely if the individuals produce big peak performances rather than all of them producing something normally distributed around a mediocre mean. The individual inconsistency, in this sense, might be the stuff of success. Haven't tested this, but think it is likely to be true, if mildly paradoxical.

  • testli5504537 on February 15, 2009, 14:15 GMT

    Perhaps the reluctance to score big centuries is due to the English reluctance to want to thrash and/or humiliate our opponents. It's more English as a "damn close run thing" than a walk-over.

  • testli5504537 on February 15, 2009, 1:22 GMT

    Would Hutton, Hobbs, Hammond, Barrington and Compton been so effective in test cricket without all the county cricket they played each season? Obviously the moderns will never have the opportunity to play as much, but at least they should not be pulled out when they are free from international cricket. Cook and Bell, unlike Hayden, Hussey, Jacques and Hodge in above Australia and England, have never played enough to get into that groove of century-building. Now England are ensuring that Philip Hughes will be nicely in the groove and comfortable on English wickets, with six weeks for Middlesex before the Ashes tests. What chance a young English player being given a similar opportunity with Queensland before the next Ashes series in Australia? The best thing for Ian Bell could be a long stint and plenty of big scores for Warwickshire before the first Ashes test. But then he will miss three weeks with the stupid 20/20 dominating a prime part of the English summer.

  • testli5504537 on February 14, 2009, 21:42 GMT

    Growltiger implies the interesting claim that consistency is WORSE than inconsistency (for a given average). Anyone want to test the premise that a team with a higher standard deviation of scores has outperformed a consistent team with some, er, consistency?

  • testli5504537 on February 14, 2009, 15:09 GMT

    Fascinating analysis. The root of the problem with the England cricket team is the lack of peak performances from cricketers with fairly respectable averages. As you say, the batsmen don't seem to know how to capitalise on having capitalised on a good start. (Of course, Bell and Cook don't know how to capitalise on a good start, and Bell doesn't really know how to get beyond a good start.....). But it is clear that the real irresponsibility that us greybeards have detected in Pietersen is that he scarcely ever turns a good knock into a match-deciding one, and is almost alone among the best players in history in his lack of interest in doing this. He'd rather hit a reverse sweep for six than go on from 97 to 150, it seems. Great blog.

  • testli5504537 on February 14, 2009, 10:06 GMT

    On ".. trying to stamp his own distinct supremacy ..". Well, Kevin trying to get to hundred with a six is like popping an expensive chocolate, that he bought after standing in the line under hot sun for 2 hours, in the air to catch it in the mouth! Of course, it falls to the ground more times than not! Sehwag does the same! Well, he does, because he is good at it! That's the way he knows to eat a chocolate!! Kevin needs to ask himself (in third person), "Does Kevin want to eat the chocolate, or does he want to eagerly exhibit his stupidity at an unnecessary and wasteful art with the chocolate publicly". The Indian attack of the 90s was its weakest in decades. It neither had its spin quartet, nor the pace concerto and was mainly an one-man army. Few teams harp around their single score of triple ton made against such weak opposition, like do England. That is probably one more reason why they can't get another ... ever? Oops, let me not jinx it!

  • testli5504537 on February 13, 2009, 12:36 GMT

    Shorn of all humour, this would still be an excellent post. You just need to add one word per column I need to run to the dictionary for and that Gideon Haigh will be looking over his shoulder.

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