Cricket and statistics go hand in hand. As a boy, I remember recording, in a formal scorebook, every ball bowled, run scored, and wicket taken during the professional matches I watched in person.
Now, I ask myself, why did I do that? Even more so, why do people still do this, given the multitude of information and data which now exists?
One potential answer is that it makes a connection with the match and the individuals in it. Secondly, it creates a personal and permanent written record, something to look back on as a series of memories. And thirdly, it creates one’s own data base, however partial.
All of this makes cricket quite different from other sports.
The outcome of a football match is determined only in terms of the number of goals scored, rugby by the number of points. In cricket, each ball bowled is a discreet, but connected, event, its recording essential to the outcome of the match.
If a boundary is recorded against the bowler, but not in favor of the batter, the scorebook will not balance. If this error is repeated too many times, the final score will be imbalanced and corrective measures required that may prove to be controversial. Such problems do not occur in professional cricket, with its professional scorers and electronic checks and balances.
The recording of the outcome of every ball gives rise to rich data sets which are mined for nuggets of information. These used to center on averages – the average number of runs scored by batters per completed innings, the average number of runs taken by bowlers to secure a wicket. Many an argument has focused on the relative merits of which player out of several with similar averages was the best.
Averages fail to consider the circumstances in which the runs were scored, or wickets taken. Did the player benefit from home pitches that were favorable to his or her strengths? Was the player someone who played for the team rather than him or herself?
Some statistics do not lie. There is little dispute that Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest wielder of a cricket bat in the history of the game. In 80 Test match innings, he averaged 99.94 runs falling short of averaging 100 by the slimmest of margins. In his final innings, needing four runs to reach this milestone, Bradman was bowled second ball for naught.
The potential errors which may creep into scorebooks, mentioned above, may well have existed during Bradman’s career. Indeed, cricket historians have pored over the records of Bradman’s batting and have identified possible misclassifications of runs scored by him to others. However, no one seems to have the appetite to amend Bradman’s average, based on a re-scoring of old records. As it stands, his average is between 38 and 41 runs higher than the 10 next best performers, only one of whom is playing today.
The bowler who has taken the most wickets in men’s Test cricket is the Sri Lankan, Muttiah Muralitharan, who amassed 800 between 1992 and 2010. His record is not without controversy because of accusations of an illegal bowling action. This is something that rankles, especially with Australians, who regard Shane Warne, with his 708 wickets, as a better bowler. These debates will continue, without resolution.
Cricket, because of its self-contained units of play, such as over, batter innings, and team innings, lends itself to assessments of comparative performance and the establishment of records.
One such record focusses on the highest number of runs scored in one over. In professional cricket, the first time that six sixes were hit off a six ball over was achieved by the great West Indian all-rounder, Sir Garfield Sobers. This was in 1968 in a match between Nottinghamshire and Glamorgan. Since then, the feat has been achieved a further eight times, but only three times in international matches – two in T20 matches and one in a one-day match. The feat has never been achieved in a Test match.
However, the rearranged Test match between England and India, which finished on Tuesday, ending in an exhilarating victory for England, witnessed the record number of runs scored in an over – 35. The England pace-bowler, Stuart Broad, having just celebrated becoming only the sixth bowler to take 550 Test match wickets, conceded 23 off legitimate deliveries, plus five from a wide and seven from a no-ball. Broad had also been the bowler who delivered the over which was hit for six sixes in a T20 international in 2007.
Cricket throws up oddities and coincidences of this nature on a regular basis. These provide the fodder for quizzes and insightful additions to the narrative generated by match-day commentators on radio and television.
Over the last 20 years, matters have become more serious. Data is now available from the various electronic devices used to record the details of every ball bowled in top-level cricket around the world. Ball-tracking technology generates data that establishes ball speed, its release and bounce point, how much it deviates off the pitch, the height that it passes or hits the stumps, the line that it takes in the air, and how much it swings.
These statistics have spawned a new breed of cricket analyst and a level of analysis about individual players, grounds, and teams, which allows match strategies to be developed of a hitherto unachievable breadth and depth.
Recently, an opening into this behind-the-scenes world has been provided by two of its early devotees. In their book, “Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works,” Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones unveil insights into the modern analytical techniques they and others have used in developing team and individual strategies at international level.
There are sceptics of this approach who argue that mentality and technique are paramount. England’s new cavalier attitude supports that view, although data insights are unlikely to have been jettisoned completely.
What is certain is that the use of data in cricket has changed significantly since I recorded matches in my boyhood scorebooks.