April 6, 2009

Unpredictability

 


Kevin Pietersen confounds by being simultaneously consistent and unpredictable © Getty Images
 

Many thanks for your ample responses to Part 1 of the Unpredictable XI, especially for those containing the kind of statistical nuggets that make it worth getting up in the morning.

Unpredictability being what it is, Part 2 has been delayed by my unpredictable loss of my computer cable, and the less unpredictable failure of the company from which I ordered a replacement to take the trouble of putting it in the post. The rest of the XI will be unveiled to the world on Tuesday.

In the meantime, here are some further thoughts on unpredictability, and on your very interesting comments and counter-suggestions.

It is clear that there is no objective standard for unpredictability, nor a universal consensus on exactly what it entails. It certainly does not preclude cricketing greatness. Batting, by its nature, generates unpredictable results – Bradman scored ducks in almost 10% of his Test innings, while, at the other end of the scale, Jimmy Anderson has no ducks in 46 innings (making him an infinitely superior batsman to Bradman), and Matthew Bell has scored two Test hundreds.

Pietersen divides opinion in this matter, although it seems that he could prompt a violent disagreement between two stuffed penguins in museums on opposite sides of the world.

Responding to the previous blog, Aneeb argues that Pietersen is “easily the most consistent of England’s batsmen”. I would partially agree with this – he almost unfailingly plays at least one major innings in every series. But I would maintain that he scores high unpredictability points as he does not constructs long sequences of either success or failure. So is it possible to be both consistent and unpredictable? I’m not a scientist, but if some guy in a lab coat can claim to me that mercury is a liquid and a metal at the same time, I’m prepared to tell him that KP is simultaneously consistent and unpredictable. Before politely apologising, offering to replace his thermometer, and promising never again to throw a copy of Wisden through his laboratory window.

Michael Slater has had a few supporters, and the Wagga Wagga Wildcard makes a strong case for being preferred to Sehwag as a like-for-like swashbuckler to get the innings off to either a roaring or a spluttering start.

Slater had both an impressive 65% conversion rate for turning 50s into 90s (23 out of 35) and a stratospherically dismal 40% failure rate for converting those 90s into hundreds. Nine times he blew it just as someone was preparing to paint his name onto a pavilion honours board, and on six of those occasions he was within one shot of punching the air and smooching his helmet again. Capable of blasting aggression and old-fashioned steadiness, of controlled demolition and reckless self-destruction, Slater always gave the bowlers a chance and could concoct his own dismissal seemingly out of thin air, like a magician gobbled up by a man-eating rabbit he had just pulled out of his own hat. Properly unpredictable.


Michael Slater is capable of controlled demolition and reckless self-destruction © Getty Images
 

Sehwag, however, has to my mind confirmed his place in the XI during the series in New Zealand – five blisteringly brilliant starts, five failures. He batted as if launching a heroic one-man protest against the grinding tedium of so much of this year’s cricket to date. If Sehwag had been a Formula One driver, he would have roared off the grid, sped away from the field, and driven straight off the track at the first corner after being distracted by an odd-shaped hat in the crowd. And if Donald Rumsfeld had been a cricket coach instead of a professional harbinger of suffering, he would have marked Sehwag down as a “known unknown”. The man is a global treasure.

Your other nominations – the likes of Gibbs, Ashraful, Jayasuriya, Astle, Martyn, Mark Waugh, and Sidhu – all have their merits, but I am the head selector and I stand by my selections (even if the more I think about cricketing unpredictability, the more unsure I am of what it is, and the leaked rumours about me having a blazing row with myself in the selection meeting are true). If the team performs too predictably in the forthcoming series against the World Reliable XI, then I will dutifully tender my resignation.

Thanks again for your contributions. I particularly liked D Clement’s unearthing of New Zealand’s top four from 1958, who had a career average of 52. Between them. At Lord’s that year, England scored a disappointing 269 after winning the toss – and still won by an innings and 148 runs. Bearing in mind, however, that only four of this New Zealand team had played England in Auckland three years previously, when the Kiwis redefined what is possible in cricket by striding out to bat in their second innings facing a deficit of 46, and managing to lose by an innings and 20 runs, we can safely say that the New Zealand selectors were, in modern parlance, “still trying to find the right combinations”. In the age before it was discovered by sports coaches that you can take positives even from total, abject humiliations, the 1950s must have been tough times for New Zealand cricket fans.

Ralph Zimmerman suggests that Chanderpaul might merit inclusion in the Unpredictable XI for his 69-ball century against Australia in 2003. He scored almost twice as fast in that innings as in the next fastest of his 21 Test centuries, and took 267 balls fewer to bring up three figures than he had a year earlier against India, making this a candidate for Test cricket’s most out-of-character performance. Which would also make an interesting list. One day.

I will also at a future point address Chathu’s idea of an XI made up of players with misleading beginnings to their careers – perhaps a hypothetical match between players who initially looked rubbish but turned out to be good, versus those who appeared to be all-time-greats-in-the-making but fizzled out, captained by Graham Gooch and Jimmy Adams respectively. (I half qualify for both teams.)

Later this week: Numbers 6 to 11 of the Unpredictables, plus a nation-by-nation review of 2008-09.

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

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