April 6, 2009

Unpredictability

Andy Zaltzman


Kevin Pietersen confounds by being simultaneously consistent and unpredictable © Getty Images
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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
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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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Posted by Mr Chris on (April 19, 2009, 14:00 GMT)

GK- wow you have made some friends - are we a little upset that our vote went the wrong way or do we just like to go against the grain to get attention.

Andy, bugle brilliant, cricket blog brilliant, book brilliant, writing brilliant, hair... anyway looking forward to next blog!

Posted by pedrozinho on (April 9, 2009, 19:31 GMT)

agree with comments above, GK, have your own opinion by all means but respect others. And get your facts right, as someone above already stated, Andy's principal claim to fame is a political satirical comedian, not just the brilliant Bugle (everyone must listen) but also the Department etc. He probably therefore is qualified to talk about it! Anyway, a couple of ideas for other XIs, which is my main point for writing: How about a worst player to ever represent their country XI including one player from all the nations, England, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Zimbabwe with one from either Kenya, Ireland or Holland, who normally do best of the ICC nations in getting to world cups. And then a Worst ever XI who inexplicably played more than 25 tests (or 25 ODIs for ICC nations. Make it happen Senor AZ!

Posted by GK on (April 8, 2009, 21:50 GMT)

Suresh,

You clearly don't know anything about India, let alone the world outside of India.

"The fact of the matter is that Bush was the worst president in US history. "

er...No. Only deranged leftists think that. Now that Americans have seen what a disaster Obama is, Bush has been redeemed.

"Obama has a 90%+ approval rating around the world. "

What planet do you live on (and please don't answer 'Bharat')? Obama was snubbing in Europe (no French or German troops for Afghanistan) and protested from London to Istanbul. In India, people refer to Obama as the black monkey.

I knew Indian marxists/leftists were ignorant, but you have taken this to another level. It is so funny when Indians try to comment on global affairs (the same goes for Maraghad Marthan). That is why India, despite being a democracy, still manages to be poorer than many dictatorships and communist states.

Posted by Antony on (April 8, 2009, 0:08 GMT)

I'm psyched about the country-by-country yearly review. Please say something nice about the black-caps - being a black caps fan means a lifetime of disappointment, a vaguely positive blog entry might just make it all bearable.

Posted by Maragadhavalli Marthandam on (April 7, 2009, 23:29 GMT)

The last time I posted, I was laughing so much, that I forgot to post what I wanted to - Mohd Azharuddin should qualify too, he had an uncanny ability to score 20 or less (I think well over 40% of his innings in Tests), while he also had some really amazing knocks. It could be argued that there were "other, more remunerative reasons" for that, but it is high unpredictability from a real classy batsman. Then of course, there's Kris Srikkanth, one doesn't need to dig up statistics for that, it's just a given!

Not to belabor the droll argument that many of us seem to be engaging in with GK, but I did take offense to his statement about my lack of knowledge of the Harbinger in Chief of Suffering. Er.. he did hold that role, but not before his stint as the harbinger, it was actually between stints, and we all know how that works, although I'll admit, he managed to not screw that up.

Posted by Dim Rat on (April 7, 2009, 19:09 GMT)

i thot u said the rest of ur XI will be released today (tuesday) ??!! I WANT MY XI DAMMIT!!!

Posted by mahesh on (April 7, 2009, 14:58 GMT)

to me ... u r the ultimate selector and u will have my vote at all times irrespective of your personal cricketing record :)

i for one cannot wait for the nation by nation review of 08-09 ... especially england :)

Posted by adarsh on (April 7, 2009, 11:09 GMT)

not so good article and one expected from andy nothing interesting or funny

Posted by Kris on (April 7, 2009, 8:30 GMT)

Brilliant article, great metaphors (not everyday you write that on cricinfo) cant wait for todays :)

How about Michael Vaughan? That purple patch he went through in '02 always promised to come back, but alas it never quite arrived

Posted by Longmemory on (April 7, 2009, 7:02 GMT)

Just that one line about Sehwag-the-Formula-1 racecar driver was worth the price of admission. Irresistible idea, this. Befitting my moniker (Longmemory), I nominate a certain Salim Durrani for the all-time unpredictable list. Once winked out Sobers and Lloyd in a matter of a few balls with his left-arm spin to win India a famous test in the West Indies. Known to clobber spinners out of the park because the spectators wanted a sixer - and at other times, threw away his wicket because it all seemed pointless to him. Besides Durrani, another for this list would be Wasim Raja. I remember he once made 13 runs in a test in the Windies - with two sixes. Exciting, fabulous cricketer. Its guys like Durrani, Raja, Sehwag, Keith Miller, Srikkanth, and many on Andy's list who make the game worth watching. I see Andy's point - its hard to stay with "unpredictable" and not veer off into "characters" when making this list. Maybe another one for the all-time "Loony Lot"?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy Zaltzman
Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.

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