Cricket: A Contest within a Contest

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Ben Roberts

Recently, during the Melbourne winter, I have taken to following the Major League Baseball from the USA. The sport has three big plus sides for my following it. The first two are that the sheer volume of games played mean that you are guaranteed to be able to follow the scores in a game every day, and the severe time difference between the USA and Melbourne make it perfect for having the tick over in the background while I am going about my day’s work.

The third reason however is the simplicity in which one can follow the game without needing to invest in actually watching the games or listening to the calls. So heavy is the statistical analysis of every facet of baseball that one can obtain a clear picture of the state of the game from looking at what is provided on any number of websites that provide live scores.

A particular statistic, or group of statistics, from baseball grabbed my attention and led me to wonder about the possibility and worthiness of applying a similar analysis to cricket. Every time a batter steps up in baseball the follower is provided with a host of statistics on how well they have fared previously when facing the particular pitcher from the opposition. Now we often as followers of cricket feel that certain bowlers have the ‘wood’ over a batsman, or even vice versa, but I wondered whether we could actually find solid statistics that identified who was in fact the bowler who caused any particular batsman the most trouble.

Taking the undoubted greatest modern era batsman Sachin Tendulkar as my target I set about trying to identify what bowler he has his best and worst records against. Running the statistics I found that of all bowlers Muttiah Muralidaran  has captured the wicket of Tendulkar on the most occasions. However of course Murali has faced Tendulkar the most times of any bowler. As well Murali was by far the best bowler for the Sri Lankan team, no risk therefore that others would usurp him for the wicket. The more I examined the list the more I realised how many more abnormalities exist with looking at a direct statistical analysis between a batsman and bowler, in particular the following led me to widen my analysis.

In baseball the vast majority of innings that a batter has he will only face one pitcher at a time, therefore despite there being other influences (state of the game for example) it truly is a one on one contest between bat and ball. Increasingly bowlers have stopped being seen as individual performers and started identifying themselves as partners or teams. Such identification now simply names a phenomenon that has occurred in cricket for many years. That against the better bowlers a batsman may survive, but the release of pressure in facing a bowler at the end or even the pressure to score when not facing as higher quality bowler can realise a wicket.

Therefore rather than view a head to head contest I sought to understand whether there was something about the influence a bowler could have over the performance of a batsman. In this analysis it is potentially open that a bowler may not in fact capture the wicket of the batsman at all. Again using Tendulkar as the subject the following statistics show the influence the three best bowlers of his era had on his statistics; the three bowlers being Murali, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath:

Matches Batting Average Strike Rate
Career 177 56.94 54.08
McGrath 9 36.77 55.02
Difference -20.17 0.94
Warne 12 60.45 64.65
Difference 3.51 10.57
Muralidaran 19 48.64 51.28
Difference -8.3 -2.8

The above statistics come from querying what Tendulkar’s record was against a team containing each of the above bowlers. Immediately it becomes clear that McGrath’s presence caused Tendulkar the most difficulty as his average drops 20 runs from his overall career while his strike rate only rises slightly. Despite being the bowler to have taken the little master’s wicket the most, Murali hasn’t affected Tendulkar’s statistics dramatically. Both average and strike rate fall slightly from career, however the resulting figures are still strong. Finally Warne, and it may surprise to see that his presence in the opposition has only strengthened the resulting statistics.

Being a bit cheeky with the statistics I decided to remove the first test match played between Warne and Tendulkar. History shows this test, Warne’s first ever, as being the scene of Ravi Shastri and the very youthful Tendulkar dominating Australia’s bowlers and Warne being blasted for figures of 1/150. Warne was nowhere near the dominant bowler he was to come, so what was his affect post this match? Tendulkar’s average drops to near his career mark, but his strike rate remains well in excess of his career rate.

What is the learning? Well firstly statistics can mask the true value of a player. For a bowler, he may not be taking many wickets yet his influence can extend beyond this standard statistic of choice. Secondly cricket remains very much a team game. McGrath dismissed Tendulkar 6 times in 9 tests. This is less than once per test. In all tests against McGrath he batted twice therefore only a third of the time was dismissed by him. Still his output with the bat was so severely reduced when playing against the Australian quick. This is a moral lesson too that must be learned in all walks of life, it is not about individual’s achieving but being part of a greater whole. McGrath’s career, although stellar in its own right, was one of a player always focussed on team success. Challenges are always better faced as a team.

Ben contributes regularly to the following two Blogs:

Balanced Sports – The thinking fans sport opinion and analysis site.

Books with Balls– Reviewing the literature of a number of genres but definitely no Danielle Steele.


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