December 1, 2011

What's so great about a batting average?

Runs, averages and wickets hardly tell the story of a player, a match or a career. We need more meaningful statistics in cricket

Cricket has always fancied itself a deeply statistical game, yet somehow has become increasingly bogged down in small categories of data, giving little to no thought as to how meaningful they are. Thanks in part to Michael Lewis' gift of storytelling, the word Moneyball is now not only synonymous with baseball but commonplace within business parlance to signify thinking outside current evaluation parameters. Considering the similar cadences and skill sets of baseball and cricket, it can't be long before cricket too has an overhaul of its archaic statistical processes and starts to measure what is relevant rather than simply what is easy.

That is not to say the game has completely ignored the ideas of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics - both Andy Flower and James Sutherland have publicly recognised that cricket is light on deep performance analysis. Flower has hired a Cambridge mathematician in an attempt to remedy that. Even so, privately held team benchmarks and key performance indicators need to not only filter to the selection table but also through to the wider cricket public. The interested spectator deserves the education and a right to form opinions on relevant data and not mere intuition.

The days of average being the leading indicator of a player's value to a team's success must surely be numbered. Perhaps its only relevance now is in attempting to compare players across generations - even then, the case made is tenuous. Cricket has changed so dramatically, it is mere superficial pub talk. We rarely recognise a player's percentage of the team's runs, let alone measure it; when wickets fall at the other end during a tight spell, who gets the recognition? A player's ability to get off strike in one-day cricket is crucial to a flowing team innings, yet scoring-shot percentage is never spoken about. The importance of bowling balls that ask a question of the batsman's length footwork is drilled in at team meetings, but never given a full statistical evaluation - particularly when it comes to deciding who gets paid what.

In Twenty20 cricket, Michael Hussey, perhaps the format's most consistent player, has his own yardstick on performance: the magic "160". It is numerically no more than the addition of average and strike rate, but it gives him a rough indicator of how good a batsman is. That is, a player who averages 60 but strikes at 100 is as valuable in his mind as some who averages 20 but gets them a better clip. It shows that you don't need to run Excel spreadsheets to find an appropriate measure.

Perhaps the first skill to break with tradition will be fielding. Catches taken certainly do not reflect someone's fielding ability or contribution to the team's performance. The Australian Argus review made direct mention of this, as did Ricky Ponting, leading up to the first Test of the summer. Perhaps we will see "runs saved or conceded" or "effective run-out percentage" flashed up on our TV screens in the coming months. We can only dare to dream.

A player's ability to get off strike in one-day cricket is crucial to a flowing team innings, yet scoring-shot percentage is never spoken about. The importance of bowling balls that ask a question of the batsman's length footwork is drilled in at team meetings, but never given a full statistical evaluation

Lewis extended his Moneyball theme in the New York Times, when he wrote about an NBA player by the name of Shane Battier, dubbing him the sport's most selfless player .When Battier is on the court, his team performs better, the opposition worse. Yet there is no hard evidence of this in the traditional, personal statistics of points scored, rebounds attained or assists given. Just like in cricket, basketball players continuously face choices between self-interest and winning. "He bats for red ink" is as ugly a tag as any to accrue in cricket, and yet the act can be seen time and time again. Wages are, after all, handed out according to averages. Someone of the ilk of Chaminda Vaas is cricket's version of Battier - content to fulfil his role as a cog in the wheel, with long, dry spells - in doing so enabling those around him to perform in dynamic bursts.

Arguably the closest measure of a player's true value to his team was devised by England's Professional Cricketers Association and has since been replicated by the Australian Cricketers Association's MVP award. While the exact algorithm is kept under lock and key, points are not only awarded for runs, wickets and catches but also for achieving such benchmarks as run- or economy rates, hundreds, volume of maidens, and even playing or captaining in winning sides.

Unsurprisingly, bowlers who can bat a little dominate the top places, but so they should - they are the most valuable commodity in the game. Think Andrew Flintoff or Chris Cairns. To put it in perspective, the top two run-scorers in the Sheffield Shield finished 9 and 13 respectively according to the MVP calculation. Bowlers certainly win first-class games of cricket and this is reflected accordingly. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Sadly these results go all but unnoticed. The ACA could not even get a sponsor for the competition this year. For the record, Australia's most valuable player across three formats of the game was Daniel Christian.

The biggest reason why cricket is behind many professional sports on statistical evaluation is simply that the players have been public goods unavailable for hire in the open market. This has clearly been drastically changed by the privately owned franchises of the IPL. Despite the bottomless pits of money that it seems a few owners have at their disposal, and the initial irrationality that has ensued at the auctions, you don't become a wealthy businessman by buying overpriced assets and selling cheaply. It will take some time to revert to economic principles, but no one likes losing. There is also a salary cap, so "undervalued" players will always be sought after. Perhaps Australia's Big Bash League will provide a blueprint for a player's true valuation. In the IPL auction Christian was bought for a price 45 times that of Stephen O'Keefe. Both are players of similar skill sets, who have now been valued much more closely for the upcoming BBL. It won't be long before cricket too has its own Moneyball tale to tell.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania. His book In The Firing Line has just been published by New South Books

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on December 4, 2011, 2:51 GMT

    (Cont) However, when it comes to the question of a player's "true valuation" it's a totally different ballgame, especially in franchised sports. Moneyball can't help much, because contracts are dictated by demands of players & their agents versus what's in the coffers of the owners. As any numbers geek knows, MLB clubs have big busts too: Those deadly long-term contracts with dud stars. Another sad MLB reality: Bankruptcy is as American as baseball & Chevrolet. The Chicago Cubs & Texas Rangers have experienced bankruptcy in recent years. The storied LA Dodgers club is also in deep trouble. Perhaps MLB can learn a thing or two from the IPL with its novel auction, short-term contracts & salary caps. Remember the frugal Rajasthan Royals won the inaugural IPL trophy with the least costly player payroll! No fancy M-B model there! Importantly, how does one measure intangibles like leadership, intelligence, will-power, passion, work-ethic, staying power, etc? BBL is forewarned, Ed!

  • Jay on December 4, 2011, 2:41 GMT

    (Cont) Granted, batting averages don't tell the whole story. Even the hallowed "99.94" stat - as a "one-size-fits-all" metric - is overblown. As the great Don stated: "Averages can be a guide ... but are not conclusive because pitches & conditions have changed." That said, I agree that cricket stats & analysis need to be augmented with good ideas from sabermetrics - especially the "error" concept for fielding & catching efficiency. As for most valuable batting performance, I'd like to suggest Rahul Dravid as a model example. Batting effectively in pairs & building partnerships is key here. More than his 13,000+ Test runs (2nd highest after Tendulkar's 15,000+) is his striking 30,000+ partnership runs (highest) with his contribution around 42% (possibly lowest), another striking measure. Meaning he is selfless: He plays the low-key solid anchor's role while allowing strokemakers to dominate at the other end. Team first attitude is vital to success! (TBC)

  • Jay on December 4, 2011, 2:28 GMT

    Ed - Beware of Moneyball fever. The Hollywood M-B version is part-reality/part-fantasy. Sabermetrics - the arcane science of baseball statistics & analysis - has had some success. But the claims are often exaggerated. Case in point: In introducing the M-B system, Billy Beane & Oakland A's won 103 games & division title in 2002 with high-value bargain players. But the hidden fact: A's had 3 highly-scouted pitchers who won 194 games in 2000-03. Good pitching, like good bowling, is key to a team's success. Another reality: A's last won the World Series in 1989; but have since remained a perennial also-ran. Few of Beane's later draft picks made it. All MLB teams employ some form of M-B, but results are mixed. Many still build their core team via traditional scouting, with free agents & trades, not solely with M-B. As an early M-B adopter, the Boston Red Sox won WS in '04 & '07. This year they blew a sure playoff spot in a September collapse, possibly the worst in baseball history! (TBC)

  • Arosha on December 3, 2011, 9:55 GMT

    I think the followings would consider all facets in deciding how influential a batsman or a bowler has been when comparing different players, especially accross different eras. It seems to be reflecting the true impact he had made in the end, not just the average which seems to the sole factor mistakenly considered by many when comparing players.

    Batting Index = (Batting Average x Batting Strike Rate x No. of Matches x Percentage Contribution to the Batting Total)/( Mean Batting Average During His Era x Mean Batting Strike Rate During His Era x Percentag of Top Order Innings)

    Bowling Index = (Bowling Average x Bowling Strike Rate x No. of Matches x Percentage Contribution to the Total Wickets x Percentage of the Top Order Wicktes Taken)/( Mean Bowling Average During His Era x Mean Bowling Strike Rate During His Era)

    This may involve lots of calculation, true, but if you need to do the comparison between different individuals, better to be complete & consider all these facets.

  • Harsh on December 3, 2011, 5:44 GMT

    The ultimate champions challenging Bradman in his time were George Headley and Jack Hobbs.Headley outscored Bradman on wet tracks and bore the brunt of a weak batting side like no batsman in cricket history,with Brian Lara a notch behind.Lara would have been possibly the best West Indian batsman of all had he played for a champion team,with his great batting prowess.Infact upto 2009 Lara was rated ahead of Tendulkar as a test match batsman ina cricinfo analysis by Ananth Narayana.Another remarkable fact that in the 1930's Stan Mcabe who averaged 48 runs,played genuine short pitched fast stuff better than Bradman as he proved in the bodyline series.

    The batsman whose stats did them the best justice wereJack Hoobs, Gary Sobers,Graeme Pollock,Len Hutton and Sunil Gavaskar who would have mastered any attacks in any conditions.Stats of Kallis and Tendulkar are marginally inflated as the pitches are batting friendly and the bowling attacks weaker in the modern era.

  • Ryan on December 3, 2011, 4:40 GMT

    On a not dissimilar topic (how do measure greatness) this also well worth a read:

  • Harsh on December 3, 2011, 4:29 GMT

    Gandabhai ,Viv Richards would have been a genius in any era whether in Bradman's time or in the modern era.At his best even Lara or Tendulkar could not equal Viv's impact on matches or ability to turn games.Without a helmet and on the fastest of tracks he mercilessly destroyed great paceman like Lillee and Imran.In the Packer era he was arguably the best batsman since Bradman averaging 86 in the first season.Infact Viv would have thrived on the modern day flat tracks,when the bowling attacks are weaker and there is a restriction on bouncers.I would have caked Viv to average 55+ in the modern era in tests and almost 50 in the one day games.If he wished he could have broken any of the batting records.

    Ina n Inverse Tendulkar and Lara may have been greater champions had they played for teams that Viv played for .However there was a possible weakness against short-pitched fast bowling against which Viv was the supreme champion.

  • Anil on December 3, 2011, 3:28 GMT


  • mahendra on December 2, 2011, 21:08 GMT

    Sir Viv was all about dominating and swagger . Take him out of his all conqureing team and put him in Lara's or Tendulkars teams and there is no way he would have wiggled his butt walking in to bat the way he did .Sir Viv knew he was part of the most powerful cricket team the world was to witness .He had an abundance of back up .

  • Billy on December 2, 2011, 20:56 GMT

    @9-monkeys, I think that process is currently under way with fighters like Siddle being retained and Harris being picked when not injured and guys like Bollinger and Krejza on the outer.

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