August 24, 2009

Ashes

A frisky evening with Statsguru

Andy Zaltzman

Now that we’ve all calmed down a bit, I have another statistic for you. And it’s a good one.

A series that has seen England plumb some extremely murky depths ended with a second joyous and outstanding triumph. Broad’s meteoric spell on Friday was supported by superb batting on Saturday, leaving Australia with an unrealistically Himalayan mountain to climb.

Ponting and his men had been bafflingly, unAustralianly passive and negative in the field as England piled potentially crucial extra rocks on top of what turned out to be a 546-run Everest. They set off confidently enough, but Hussey and Flintoff then combined to steal Ponting’s crampons and send him tumbling off the mountain, and then Clarke was unluckily bullocked off it by a passing African rhino in a hang glider (if I may attempt to convey quite how unfortunate he was when run out). It remains a mystery why North and Haddin then chose to hurl themselves down a ravine when there were still technically enough rations to at least attempt to reach the summit. It was a strange way of proving that Australians never give up.

Yesterday was a great day for English cricket, and in particular for Strauss, whose batting and coin-tossing were of the highest calibre, sparking celebrations that, rightly, did not touch the wild exultation of four years ago. For my part, I celebrated with a romantic evening in with Statsguru, and, well, without wishing to go into too much indelicate detail, things got a bit frisky between us, and a statistic emerged. A beautiful, bouncing new-born statistic. And its first words were these:

England averaged 6.49 runs per wicket less than Australia in this series, but still won. This is the biggest runs-per-wicket deficit ever overcome to win a Test series. In the entire history of cricket, the human race and the universe put together. Here endeth the stat.

Let’s all take a couple of minutes to think about that.

 

 

 

 

Come on, concentrate.

 

 

 

 

Good. This was the 35th time in 539 Test series that a team has won with an inferior average (and only the second Ashes contest in which the statistically weaker side has triumphed since 1902). Never has that inferiority been greater than 6.49 runs per wicket. The previous record margin was 6.03, when England hoodwinked South Africa in 1998 after narrowly escaping with a last-wicket-remaining draw at Old Trafford. Coincidentally, that was Flintoff’s first series – his career has been bookended by two of cricket’s greatest statistical heists.

So, did England deserve to win the series? Taking the five matches as a whole, perhaps they didn’t. Taking the two sides’ performances in the final, winner-takes-all shootout at The Oval, they probably did. Taking Australia’s first innings failures at Lord’s, Edgbaston and The Oval, they certainly deserved to lose it.

This statistic certainly confirms that this has been one of the oddest Ashes series of all time – two teams equally capable of both very good and genuinely atrocious cricket produced a series that was close overall without containing a single close game. Four of the Tests were massively one-sided (first innings leads of 239 at Cardiff, 210 at Lord’s, 343 at Leeds and 172 at The Oval). Only very briefly at Lord’s was there a match in which both sides had a realistic chance of winning, and this was rapidly snuffed out on the final morning.

All in all, it was a bit like watching a boxing match in which the fighters were punching their own faces as often as their opponent’s, or a two-horse steeplechase in which the horses alternately sail majestically over one fence before ploughing face-first straight into the next without even attempting to get off the ground. Australia ended snout-down in the last, leaving England to prance past them and trot down the final furlong punching the air in delight that there were no more fences left to crash into.

The destination of the urn was ultimately decided by England’s belated competence and resistance in Cardiff, and by Broad’s magnificence at the Oval on a pitch where no other fast bowler made a significant impression.

From the crucial day-four rain in Cardiff to the toss and Michael Clarke’s supernaturally unfortunate run out at The Oval, England had better and more influential luck than Australia, and were certainly holding the right end of the umpires’ collective white stick. But, when the summer was reduced to a single winner-takes-all shoot-out, England produced the series’ best bowling (by Broad) and batting (by Strauss and Trott). And I stand by my previous assertion that the real man of the series, in terms of the player whose contribution proved most influential, was Monty Panesar.

I should also apologise for my assertion in the last blog that The Oval pitch was “an embarrassment”. It was not ideal – could a so-called ‘result’ pitch not be fast and bouncy, rather than crumbly and random? However, on Saturday, almost 400 runs were scored for six wickets (including three slogs and a run out), and four of the first seven Australian second-innings wickets were due to silly, silly batting, and one to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune picking mercilessly on Michael Clarke.

I will post The Official Confectionery Stall Review Of The Series later in the week.

For those who enjoy tables, here is a list of the Top Ten Biggest Runs Per Wicket (RPW) Deficits Overcome To Win A Test Series. Commit it to memory, then destroy it.

A more accurate measure of the extent of cricketing superiority overcoming may be The Heist Percentage – the difference between the sides’ averages as a percentage of the losing team’s average. By this measure, England’s 2009 Ashes win is the 7th greatest heist in Test history – a 15.9% heist, some way off Australia’s burglary of the 1891-92 Ashes, when they filched the urn despite averaging 21.6% less than England. The injustice still rankles today, and clearly motivated Strauss and his men at the Oval. In fact, as Graeme Swann celebrated the final wicket, lip-readers would have seen him screaming the words, “This one’s for WG Grace and his boys.”

There you go. Now I must spend some quality time with the wife. If she sees me looking anything else up on Statsguru in the next month, she’ll start telling me she can’t go on with three of us in the relationship.

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

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Posted by Prashant on (September 5, 2009, 11:50 GMT)

where is "The Official Confectionery Stall Review Of The Series"

Posted by jogesh99 on (August 29, 2009, 4:44 GMT)

So now that mediocrity has finally triumphed over, well, more mediocrity, can you please cover a series that has some character? And lets all give Andy an open topped BEST bus tour of the suburb of his choice, with Ponting as conductor.

Posted by Aneese on (August 28, 2009, 14:54 GMT)

My my Mr Zaltzman, you truly are an entertaining cricket freak! Thank you for them truths that make us laugh and keep em coming.

Posted by Weez on (August 26, 2009, 14:43 GMT)

Nice find - finally a stat that explains why it took South Africa 40 years to win in England...

* Rob - don't blame the toss or the groundsman. The Oval pitch was a belter compared to the rubbish at the SCG in January. Blame Aussie arrogance - everyone knows the Oval turns yet they play an all-out pace attack - the toss wouldn't hv mattered if Australia batted properly on the second day - maybe they need to pay Mr Warne to be a net bowler - because since he left Australia hv completely lost the art of playing spin - even Duminy had them in trouble.

Posted by Rupesh on (August 26, 2009, 10:18 GMT)

Regarding recent stats about the Ashes.

I believe if you remove first test from all the calculation, you will find that both the teams are very close in all aspects.

Run per wicket in last four test at Eng: 33.6 Aug: 34.0 ...very close whereas if you calculate for all 5 tests its Eng: 34.2 and Aug: 40.6.

Australia played very well in first test only, after that both team were equal (or england didnt played well in 1st test)

Posted by ND on (August 26, 2009, 9:46 GMT)

As a neutral observer to the series (South African supporter), statistician and cricket lover, I think the most apt description of the series is that of the boxers punching themselves as much as their opponents. The cricket failed to capture my imagination and lacked the magic of the recent Australia vs South Africa home-and-away series. It still rankles that SA lost at home though.

Posted by Rob on (August 26, 2009, 7:11 GMT)

The toss won the ashes. Guess you have to kill me Marty. You can't tell me the curator would have given us the same pitch if Warne was playing still. Nor if England were playing India or Sri Lanka. Still regardless of this. The better team won the Ashes but the question is are they good enough to beat us at our home? Something they have still not done for neigh on 20 plus years.

Posted by Oliver Garrod on (August 25, 2009, 22:22 GMT)

I think people getting upset at this are missing the point slightly. This is a curious stat. It's not meant to say that Australia deserved to win - it's just interesting. Good find!

Posted by Cricpundit on (August 25, 2009, 19:36 GMT)

Nice work Zaltman. However, you are too generous giving credit to Clarke who does not deserve one. He was claiming all along with his captain that this is the biggest match of their life and both men were hopeless in the first innings when it mattered most and then ran themselves out when the game was on the line. Ponting has done many blunders as Captain, and see his actions in Cardiff and elsewhere when he was making atrocious faces at the 12th man and physio instead of concentrating on taking the wicket that mattered most. Those forays from 12th man could have cots an over or two, but he is grossing over the fact that Monty survived 11.3 overs and they could have survived an additional 6-12 balls as well. Ponting is no good. Brings Clark too late in the series and leaves behind Hauritz when it really mattered. This is not the first time. His blunders are too many to mention here, but England should be happy that he intends to tour in 2013. He can have the record all to himself.

Posted by Arvind on (August 25, 2009, 13:38 GMT)

Some of the sentences you use are jewels ... England "hoodwinked" South Africa, Boxers punching themselves. LOL.

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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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