Beyond Statistics: From Numerics to Newer Merics

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Beyond Statistics: From Numerics to Newer Merics
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

"Cricket would be a better game if they didn’t publish the averages"—Sir Jack Hobbs

In an age where tectonic plates of logic have begun to show signs of unsteady shifts, it is safe to assume that one needn’t be an achiever to covet laurels. After all, if one can win the Nobel Peace Prize for attempt , a more polite word used instead of "trash-talk," so can any batsman who promises to score 1,500 runs in the upcoming calendar year and win the ICC Player of the Year award. I mean no disrespect to Barack Obama here—damn, here I go again; I promised my mum I’d never lie, so let me take that back.

The year 2009 was a joke with respect to the committee choosing Obama’s name within ten days of him assuming the role at Washington—but of course, I would wholeheartedly understand their decision in a Post-Bush era, where an American leader can safely be given the Nobel Peace Prize if he doesn’t wage a war within his first six months in office. This isn’t a move that is going to gain traction—after all it has vividly defied all forms of logic. Hopefully, other committees awarding achievers with laurels will withstand the avalanche from Scandinavia.

The optimal moment has arrived—rather, has reached a state of contrived urgency—to understand any random committee’s reasoning behind certain shortlists for awards. Looking at our own sport, there was a buzz of disbelief surrounding the notable absence of certain South African names for the prestigious ICC awards this year. Who were the wagons that drained the urge of determined ICC officials and members of other cricketing boards to talk to the concerned party regarding the norms used for shortlist? The answer would have been simple anyways—statistics .

A common cliché in the cricketing community runs: "We don’t play for individual records, the team comes first." Sounds nice, but how true is it? There’s nothing wrong in playing for personal glory as long as you don’t forget your prime motive—help your team win the game.

Many believed West Indies could have salvaged something out of the game against England if Lara had not aimed for 400—yeah right ! In a game against Pakistan, the Australian media praised Mark Taylor for his declaration when he was unbeaten on 334, as he had a very good chance to beat Lara’s record of 375 (back then), but placed the interests of the team ahead.

At the end of the day, it is important to understand that each and every individual has his/her own way of going about playing sport and we need to respect that.     

Coming back to the focal point of the discussion, there is an obvious need to clear the heap of debris that surrounds statistics in cricket. When captains and lovers of the game brand the so-called "rankings" as rubbish , in that unmistakable Yorkshire accent, why isn’t the ICC taking any efforts to reveal the mysteries behind this system?

I’ve always known the ICC to be an organization that has refused to be bogged down by its own ideologies when it comes to the pursuit of global sporting interests. Yet, with a community rubbishing a system for which it is the brainchild, silence certainly isn’t silver.

 

Even the country boards have their own ranking systems to grade domestic players. It would prove politically risky to puncture the illusion of the reasoning that the BCCI create with respect to omission/consideration of players, but what we are certain of is that the term credibility is way out of the picture.

Nascent signs of zonalism and insipid regional policies, as a factor with selectors, emerged a good three decades ago. It invoked curiosity, which later transformed into frustration, especially to anyone outside Mumbai. Yet, with all this standing out quite clearly, statistics are still used as the factor for justification.

Cricket lovers in India will find it extremely easy to list out names of domestic cricketers who deserved to make the international cut, but for some strange reason, couldn’t do so. The same sample set will find it a lot easier to list out names that never deserved to play at the highest level, but still ended up doing so—often seen as an act of cautious optimism. Yes, it is more than statistics.

The belief that ranking systems are relative and subjective, like in any other field, has led us to an ocean of mediocrity. Statistics do not aid us in decoding match-winners, for those off the field will never know which player offered the best input to get a top-quality opposition batsman out. That could, quite easily, have been the turning point of the game. With players being no short of words and advice to the opposition out in the middle, you’ll never know from the stands which player sent a batsman back by talking him out. Yes, it is more than statistics.

Sledging, a rather curious case, has been around as long as people have been trying to get the better of one and other. Merv Hughes, for one, said that a quarter of his wickets came after he shattered a batsman’s psychological stumps. In the year 2000, laws 42.4 and 42.5 of the game were modified to include a five-run penalty for sledging, cleverly termed "deliberate distraction or obstruction" of batsmen before, during and after a delivery.

This is a law that will bemuse umpires and make them forthrightly undecided in enforcing it as much as they’d enforce the concept of throwing. However, the point is, verbal rockets can yield wickets whose mannerism go unnoticed in scorecards.

 

When two bowlers operate in tandem, stats can never tell you how one of them, by keeping batsmen silent, could potentially aid the other to pick up wickets. Waqar-Wasim, Ambrose-Walsh, Warne-McGrath, Vaas-Muralitharan, and other duos send messages that convey more than just taking wickets, just as Matthew Hayden justified the role of Justin Langer when the former was officially ranked the number one batsman in Test cricket. 

A common cricket fan hasn’t yet quite grasped the gravity of the teamwork de tandem act they’ve shown over the years, for it has always been an act of optical illusion to the illiterate eye. Yes, it is more than statistics.          

The revolving door of player/team rankings is a sign of methodical bungling; often posing itself as a fundamental problem that largely goes unnoticed. A common fan’s ignorance to the system demonstrates the ICC’s inability to articulate the purpose behind these rankings. If the concept of a two-tier Test ranking is being considered seriously, it will definitely call for the need of making the ranking methodology far more transparent (and logical) than it is now.

Let me quote an example of how this system, if implemented successfully, can promote competition and indeed give the common fan a reason to think about rankings more than once. We don’t need rankings to tell us the series that are taken into consideration with a high degree of intensity. 

The Border-Gavaskar trophy, without any element of doubt, today, instates itself atop the tallest tree in the jungle as one of the competitions which is bound to be fought for. Why doesn’t a series such as this get a nod from the ICC to fall under the category of a five test match series?

On the contrary, the Ashes gains a five-match status just because of the heritage it possesses. Until 2005, most of the series looked one-sided, tilted towards the Australians. 2007 was a whitewash, and 2009 proved to be in England’s mettle once again. I don’t mean any discredit here, but if there are other series involving teams that often battle it out, why not ponder over the thought of upgrading their status?

The idea behind a five-match series is not to necessarily witness two strong teams have a go at each other, but rather see two equally-matched teams have a go at one and other. Upcoming teams like Bangladesh and Kenya can surely play a series of this magnitude against each other. This will not only account for valuable test experience, but will append to a player’s spectrum of experiences in terms of playing a long series. Tour games will give local club/state level teams in this country a taste of international competition.

Australia’s demolishment of Zimbabwe in the series back in 2003, famously remembered for Matthew Hayden breaking Brain Lara’s record of the highest individual score in Test match cricket (not for too long, though), sent murmurs that were loud enough for the cricket community to hear. Yes, there was a considerable gap in standards between the two teams. With cricketers already lamenting over the "packed-calendar" and "cricket-overload’" issues, such a series, according to many, was uncalled for. People hate critics, especially when they are right—this is a situation that must resolve soon, and this time around, statistics will tell you.

 

The expert’s view on cricket is a book of stories in itself, on accounts of the ways in which a player is labelled average, good or world class. An epigrammatic would ideally lament over the head position, high elbow, precise footwork, and immaculate balance as the essentials to classify a batsman among the elite, whereas a simpleton would simply look at statistics and draw inherent conclusions.

What neither would do, in order to avoid the press pouncing over his faltering in judgement, is to sit down and analyze which player has created the right conditions to flourish, and not simply rely on it. This would command the need for seeking new and unexplored territories—which calls for a better understanding of the game.

But isn’t that what we need in a panel? Someone who can look beyond the obvious and draw conclusions that would make us cricket fans think laterally. The one-dimensionalism of statistics needs to be morphed, but as simple as it may sound, it will need effort to materialize.

Amidst the rancour of dead rubbers, in an era where average batsmen are made to look good against top quality bowlers, a metamorphosis is needed in the way the game is analyzed. This is an impasse, so obvious in retrospect, yet so reluctant to look at itself as a pulsating conflict. The equation involves factors that mean more than runs, wickets or catches. It is ability —the strength to do something beyond the imaginable, the strength that keeps every bookmaker on his feet, the strength that, when demonstrated over and over again, that will raise an alarm for viewing the sport differently.

 

Isn’t this what we want?          

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