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