As of this week, Steven Smith is the sixth-highest-ranked Test batsman of all time (in terms of highest rating achieved), and the man in possession of the sixth-best average in the history of Test cricket (having batted more times than everyone above him in the list). He makes a century once every 5.2 innings. It is all a long way from his first Test in 2010, when he batted No. 8, and also from England in 2013, when, 11 Test matches into his career and after 22 innings, he had an average of 29.52 and a highest score of 92. In his next match, at The Oval, in the dead rubber of a thankless tour, he made a century, much of it in partnership with another enigma, Shane Watson, who scored his third and highest Test hundred, 176. Watson had gone more than 45 innings without a ton until that knock, and his average, after 83 innings as a Test batsman, stood at 34.51.
An impartial observer beamed down from planet Zarg might have struggled to tell which of the two players might go on to hit the heights that Smith has hit. The stats would not enlighten him - there was nothing in either player's numbers that suggested such a surge. Perhaps they might have opted for Watson simply because he looked more like a successful batsman - technically correct, powerful, domineering. Smith had an oddball method that reinforced the perception that he might struggle for consistency against the world's best bowlers.
None of which is intended to decry Smith, rather to show how difficult it can be to judge a player's potential. I thought about this while reading Michael Lewis' remarkable new book, The Undoing Project. Lewis is best known (certainly in cricket) as the author of Moneyball, a book that sent every sport looking for its hidden statistical edges.
Lewis writes in his introduction to The Undoing Project about a review that Moneyball received when it was first published: "… the author did not seem to realise the deeper reasons for the inefficiency in the market for baseball players: they sprang directly from the inner workings of the human mind."
We are an age beyond the first wave of statistical analysis brought on by Moneyball. Some of the game has been undressed, but a deeper relationship between the immutability of numbers and more refined but fallible opinions of coaches and players exists
Intrigued, Lewis decided to find out what those workings might be. It was a short journey to the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the Israeli psychologists whose "breathtakingly original" studies revealed that human beings made predictable systematic mistakes in judgement again and again.
Lewis has written a wonderful book about the friendship between these two amazing men - almost every chapter has one or two revelatory moments. Some of their early work was deconstructing a study of pilots in the Israeli air force. During training exercises, fliers were divided into two groups. If pilots in one group made an error during a training flight, they were criticised by the instructors. In the other, they were encouraged. It found that those who were criticised responded better and flew well the next day - something the study made great play of.
Kahneman realised that neither praise nor criticism was affecting the pilots. What was happening was that they were simply returning to their "mean" performance - that is, if they flew badly one day, they were more likely, statistically, to fly better the next, whatever anyone said to them. It was a natural variation that the study hadn't allowed for. It's fun to think of the implication for the over-coaching of players in the light of that information, and also to perceive more deeply what "form" in cricket might really be.
Kahneman and Tversky discovered more anomalies in judgement. They called these "heuristics". There was the availability heuristic, where reasoning was skewed by the most easily recalled piece of information (a good one for the psychology of batting collapses); the anchoring heuristic, a reliance on the first piece of information offered (batting or bowling average, perhaps); and the representative heuristic, making judgements about uncertain things by their similarity to standard procedures ("this wicket looks like it will turn"). These cognitive biases, defined in the 1970s, went on to have far-reaching implications in economics, healthcare and the military. The archaic world of sport took longer to catch on.
The Undoing Project is way richer than those few examples, and the reasoning is much more subtle and useful. Post Moneyball, Lewis takes these concepts and shows how human judgement is subverted, controlled and directed, especially by existing paradigms and conventional wisdom.
There's nothing in the book about cricket, and yet it feels essential. We are an age beyond the first wave of statistical analysis brought on by Moneyball. Some of the game has been undressed, but a deeper relationship between the immutability of numbers and more refined but fallible opinions of coaches and players exists.
The organisations that surround international teams and franchises are trying to provide some kind of certainty of judgement, and through it control the inherently uncertain world of professional sport. In knowing better how and why their decisions can be wrong, by studying the actual decision-making process rather than its outcomes, they can perhaps gain a greater understanding of the game and the people that play it. Lewis has done it again, but bigger and better this time.
Jon Hotten blogs at The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman