Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Batting Glut?

This is a chart showing the batting careers of all Test match batsmen who have played at least 20 Test Matches, and average 50 in Test Cricket. The brown lines below denote the number of Test teams. The 20 Test Matches cut off is arbitrary, but i think most a reasonable common one for such a long and diverse period.

Just to give you an idea, if you applied the 20 test limit to the pre-World War II era in Test cricket (1877 - 1939), only 6 batsmen make it to the list - Hammond, Hobbs, Bradman, Paynter, Sutcliffe and Jack Ryder. 4 Englishmen and 2 Australians. Hammond played 77 Tests between 1927-1939. By contrast, Bradman played only 37 by 1928-1938. Even within this short 12 year period, it is hard to compare records. Indeed, had Bradman's not been superior by such orders of magnitude, we might have had endless debates about whether Hammond or Bradman was better, just as we have a few debates today. But, if you reduce to cut off to say 10 Test Matches, then 14 batsmen make this list. These batsmen, with the exception of George Headley and Charles Dempster all represented England and Australia. Whats more, with the exception of Jack Hobbs, who began his Test career in 1908, the other 13 batsmen all played in the 1920's and 30's. Even Hobbs played for most of the 1920's, and built his legendary association with the great Herbert Sutcliffe in the late 1920's. This is noteworthy given the fact that wickets in Tests were uncovered in those days, and ridiculously low totals were more common than they are today. The 10 Test match cut off still means that the shortest career span in that list is 2 years for Duleepsinghji and Alan Fairfax - 1929 - 1931. Just for comparison, Kevin Pietersen, who is yet to complete 5 years of his Test career has already played 52 Test Matches.

The list of 38 players who have played at least 20 Tests and average over 50 with the bat is a fairly elite list. In all 660 Test players have played at least 20 Tests. It is worth focussing on the glut of batsmen in the current decade who have made their way into this list. This is magnified in the chart above, but i want to argue against the premise that there has been a batting glut. The data support the idea that there has been a batting glut in the 2000s at first sight. The table below includes runs made in each decade (for example Tendulkar is one of the 7 batsmen in the 90's to average over 50, while he isn't in the non-minnow record for the 2000s).
Decade Total Tests held Number of teams Minimum Tests played Batsmen averaging over 50
1950 164 7 10 7
1960 186 7 10 8
1970 198 6 10 8
1980 266 7 10 7
1990 347 9 10 7
2000 440 10 10 23

This, i would suggest is not simply a batting glut. It is the result of quality batsmanship being spread out more evenly among the top 8 Test teams. The 20 batsmen in the 2000s who averaged over 50 (not counting minnow Tests, the number is reduced from 23 to 20) include 4 Australians (Ponting, Langer, Hayden, Hussey), 2 Englishmen (Pietersen, Thorpe), 3 Pakistanis (Inzamam, Younis Khan, Yousuf), 3 Sri Lankans (Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Tillekarattne), 2 South Africans (Cullinan, Kallis), 2 West Indians (Chanderpaul, Lara) and 4 Indians (Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag and Gambhir).

50, one might say is an arbitrary cut off for batting average. Any Test batsman averaging 40 or better may be considered a successful Test batsman. The table below considers 40 to be the cut off.

DecadeTotal Tests heldNumber of teamsMinimum Tests playedBatsmen averaging over 40
*not considering minnow games.

This as you can see gives us a much less significant indication of any batting glut. There has been a suggestion that batsmen in the 2000's have made bigger scores.

Decade Number of Tests Number of Centuries Average Century Score Centuries per Test
1950s 89 161 149 1.81
1950s 164 237 140 1.45
1960s 186 298 135 1.6
1970s 198 359 134 1.81
1980s 266 444 135 1.67
1990s 347 495 136 1.43
2000s 337 737 139 2.19

In fact, the average century score has remained remarkably stable over the last 60 years. The number of centuries per Test has increased. This has to do not just with the quality of bowling and the quality of wickets in this decade, but also with the rate of scoring (influenced by limited overs cricket) and reduction in lost time thanks to improving ground management technology. The advent of neutral umpires has also probably had an impact.

While more runs are being scored in Tests nowadays than at almost any time in the past (with the possible exception of the 1930's), the number of results in Test cricket has not reduced.

The picture with respect to the batting glut seems to me to be a complicated one. The threshold for being a successful Test batsman appears not to have shifted. However, it would be reasonable to assume that the traditional threshold for being of the highest quality, may have to be moved upwards from 50 to say 52. The reason for this (this would also be one of the reasons for the general increase in bowling averages), is most likely the advent of ODI cricket (and the increased risk taking it has brought into the culture of Test batting), the improvement in the quality of bats and to a lesser extent the size of the boundaries. These factors must be offset to some extent by the quality of fielding. We should also take into consideration the fact that when we look at the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s today, we only see completed careers. If you looked at this records in say 1980, you would have seen Viv Richards with a Test batting average of 59.3, 6 years after his Test debut. He ended his career with a batting average of 50.23. In the early 2000's, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid both averaged about 58 in Tests. Today Tendulkar averaged 54.5, while Dravid averages 52.8. It is unlikely that either of them will end up above where they are today. Ricky Ponting, who's batting average hovered at the cusp of 60 for a large part of this decade is down to 56 today.

The notion of the batting glut is thus complicated by multiple factors. The most significant (and pleasantly so) of these is the fact that today every one of the top 8 Test teams has at least one (if not two) players who either average 50, and have done so over a significant period of time, or have the potential to do so (in the case of NZ). So finely balanced is the contest between bat and ball, that as a contest, Test Cricket has remained remarkably resilient to the myriad changes in cricket around it. On its own accord, there is little doubt that it can survive. Keeping in mind all this data, instinctively, im of the view that the recent batting glut is mainly a result of an overall increase in Test match run rates of about 0.3 to 0.5 runs per over (or about 30-45 runs per day).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On the selection of Test Match batsmen

How does one measure the performance of Test Match selectors? This post is an attempt to answer this question. At the outset, i should clarify that on the whole i don't share the general contempt for the work that selectors do that inhabits the press. I view the selectors as experts who do a thankless job. It is impossible for a selector to be "consistent", for he must trust his instincts from time to time. History is replete with selectorial hunches which struck gold. I also have healthy respect for the very real politics of a selectors job. This is necessary, for selection at its core is a political enterprise - it involves selecting people on potential, not simply on performance.

My approach to answering this question is by looking at selections rather than at individual selectors. Selection to any Test team is set within the cricketing culture of that country, and as such i think the change from one group of selectors to another is limited by this overarching culture that the committee operates in. The table below shows performance the specialist batsmen picked by each of the top 8 sides in the period beginning Jan 1 1990 till date. A specialist batsman is defined as someone who batted in the top 6. I draw these data from lists of batsmen making their debuts for each side, batting from positions 1 to 6. I do not include wicketkeeper-batsmen or allrounders. I did include Kumar Sangakkara in the Sri Lankan data since the overwhelming majority of his runs have come when he has played as a batsman, even though he batted at number 7 on debut. Similarly, Rahul Dravid also batted at number 7 on debut but has been included in the India data. Tailenders who batted as night watchmen on debut have been excluded. The table shows the performance of the average batsman picked for each side from Jan 1 1990 till date. The West Indies data include Brian Lara, the Indian data do not include Sachin Tendulkar (debut Nov 1989).

Team Total Tests played Won Lost Number of Batsmen selected Number of Tests per new batsman Average number of Tests per batsman Average Number of Innings per batsman Batting Average 100s per batsman 50s per batsman
England 229 78 79 36 6 31 55 37.97 5 9
Australia 214 129 41 23 9 39 66 45.99 8 13
India 169 56 47 20 8 32 53 43.79 5 10
Pakistan 152 61 48 37 4 18 30 40.64 3 6
Sri Lanka 155 54 41 20 8 32 52 39.85 5 8
West Indies 184 48 83 33 6 26 45 36.74 3 8
New Zealand 156 39 61 34 5 20 35 32.89 2 6
South Africa 172 82 44 29 6 35 59 41.76 5 11

The data are revealing and in some respect not very surprising. It is not surprising for example that Pakistan have the most volatile selection record, one which seems to have little bearing on the performance of the batsmen. Pakistan's batsmen in the last 20 years have done quite well, as has the side. India show a surprisingly conservative selection policy, something which one would not have guessed simply by reading about the selection committee in the newspaper. If you add Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Sidhu, Shastri and Manjrekar to these 20 batsmen, that is the sum total of batsmen who have represented India in Test cricket in the last 20 years. Of these, most of the unsuccessful ones are opening batsmen. The Australian list reads like a veritable whos who of first class monster batsmen.

England and Australia offer an interesting study in contrasts. England's new players are a mix of a few raw young batsmen, and a few other seasoned county professionals in their late 20s, of which the former invariably did better at Test Cricket than the latter. Australias batsmen with the exception of Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Michael Slater and possibly Greg Blewett are extremely mature first class batsmen with imposing records on the Australian first class scene as well as in county cricket. Even those Australians who have been on the fringes of the Australian Test team have ended up with enviable first class records. Mathew Elliott (Glamorgan, Yorkshire) 17251 runs at 47, Darren Lehmann (Yorkshire) 25795 runs at 58, Martin Love (Durham) 16952 runs at 50, Stuart Law (Derbyshire, Essex, Lancashire) 27080 runs at 51 and Greg Blewett (Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire) 17352 at 45, never really established themselves as Test players amongst the Waughs, Ponting, Taylor, Slater, Hayden, Langer and Martyn. Ironically, among all those, Greg Blewett played the more Tests than the others (46).

The story of Australias batsmen in the last 20 years has been that of very strong hard wicket players in Australia travelling to England in the English summer and becoming more complete batsmen. This was also the story of the West Indian and Pakistani batsmen of the Richards-Miandad generation.

India's batsmen tell a different story. VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid, much like Inzamam Ul Haq and Brian Lara have honed their games outside county cricket, outside England. They went to England as champion batsmen even before they played for a county.

Sri Lanka have had a surprisingly steady selection policy. This has been enabled by a steady progression of world class home grown batsmen starting with Aravinda de Silva in the 1980's, and continuing on to Jayawardene and Sangakkara in the present day, around which their batting has been built. The Sri Lankan selectors are also responsible for what is possible the single greatest act of selectorial faith in the modern era - their persistence with Atapattu during the horrific early period of his career.

There is an untapped area in international cricket today, and that is the possibility of first class cricket tournaments in each Test playing nation taking a leaf out of county cricket and encouraging overseas players who may be on the fringes of Test selection to participate in first class cricket. This would raise the profile of first class cricket, and as the experience of county cricket has shown, would improve the quality of play. Nobody will probably consider Stuart Law or Darren Lehmann to be genuinely great batsmen, but wouldn't they be priceless to say the Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh Ranji Trophy teams? English players especially would benefit from this for today they have almost no serious options for playing first class cricket in the English winter. New Zealand would benefit too. No other team has had some many young batsmen burst on to the scene only to fizzle out couple of years later. In recent years i can think of Matthew Sinclair and the Marshall brothers. It remains to be seen whether Ryder, Taylor and Fulton can join Martin Crowe and Glenn Turner amongst New Zealand batting greats or whether they will fizzle out just like Sinclair and co. did. Exposure in subcontinental or English first class cricket can only help them. It should be noted that New Zealand, more than any other side in this list have had very resilient and productive lower-middle orders in recent years, often comprising of their best cricketers.

With the possible exception of Pakistan the data show an admirable consistency amongst selectors. Selection it appears is a refined art given that most of these teams have been in existence for over half a century (the Sri Lankans have learnt fast). This it would appear, calls into question John Buchanan's pitch for the role of uber-coach with absolute power over the fate of the players and the team.

While it is true that first class cricket is not always the best proving ground for Test cricketers, it remains a vital backbone for Test cricket - one where skills can be honed. It may not be a place where Test cricketers are made, but it can be a place for Test cricketers to remake themselves. Test Cricket is still the elite arena for the Tendulkars, the Pontings, the Clarkes and the Laras. These are players which selectors the world over seem to identify quite unerringly. But not every Test cricketer can be of such quality at the outset. For such a player (indeed the majority of Test cricketers), first class cricket is vital. It is what selectors lean on when they don't have a Tendulkar handy. I dont think it is a coincidence that Pakistan has the most chaotic first class set up of these 8 cricketing entities.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Discussing Comments

I decided continue the comments from this thread to this new post.

Gaurav said - 
"You claim that it "seems to be discussed through the lens of real cricket" confuses me a bit. No one confuses the two forms. If anything people seem to go out of their way to make distinctions."

But earlier in the same comment -
"Even in this current post you appear to argue that Kumble's dismissal of Gilchrist was attributable to luck. This not the case. Kumble out-thought Gilchrist and nailed him!"

This is the perfect example of discussing T20 in terms of earlier forms of cricket with a completely differently constituted contest between bat and ball. What really happened here? Even though the contest is constituted differently, the new ball is the new ball, and the amount of purchase a spinner (especially Kumble) would get from the new ball is still fairly similar to what he would get in Tests or ODI's if he bowled with the new ball.

Gilchrist's actions, as well as Kumble's were driven by the fact that they were playing a 20 over game with a six over period of fielding restriction. Gilchrist would have played the same way no matter who the bowler was. As for the dismissal itself - i think it is a stretch to claim that one out-thought the other, let alone "nailed" the other. It was essentially a crazy comedy of errors. Its hard to argue that a batsman who runs down the wicket at a bowler 2nd and 3rd ball of the innings has been "out-thought".

The dismissal was attributable to the fact that Gilchrist ran down the wicket to Kumble and missed. An identical delivery was bowled 2nd ball, Gilchrist came down, and didn't miss. Kumble had very little to do with it. This is true of most things that happen in T20. Everything is a gamble - more poker than roulette (although roulette like gambling features large in T20).

There is little or no attempt to actually describe whats going on. Its important that its Kumble and Gilchrist participating, it doesn't really matter what they do. This was Modi's bet. T20 was the key to cramming it all in an evening's fun. 

As for your truly ghastly suggestion about Rafi and Himesh ( :) ) - Himesh appeared long after Rafi died. Himesh has never had to compete with Rafi, just as Rafi competed with Talat and Kishore and Mukesh - in any case, it would have been a level playing field. Test Cricket is different. It has been "above price" as a friend of mine put it to me a couple of weeks ago.

This cultural evolution argument is a cop out in my view, because it does not really need to be stated. Test Cricket itself has evolved over 130 years, though not entirely along the lines described in this post.

If our disagreement is simply that i don't think T20 cricket is even slightly exciting, while you (and others) think that it is, then thats fine. But i don't think it is that. It is not clear to me what your stance is. Do you view cricket like any other commodity which ought to be subject to the creative destruction of the market? If so, what shape does this creative destruction take? If it is your point that it will take place slowly, then i disagree. In 2007, the IPL was barely a twinkle in Modi's stoned eye.

On the IPL Blog, Lalit Modi has taken to posting video blogs. Watch the one entitled "IPL Safari". Its the perfect metaphor for the IPL and what it is doing to cricket (Lalit Modi's commentary included, its about 3 1/2 minutes). I think all the evolutionistas will like it too :)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

IPL Final - T20 in a nutshell

0.3 Kumble to Gilchrist, OUT, knocked him over! Kumble takes out Gilchrist! Kumble maintains that excellent line, keeps it slow through the air, Gilchrist dances out and tries to club the ball over the leg side but misses the wrong un and the ball shatters into the stumps, good delivery, poor execution
AC Gilchrist b Kumble 0 (3b 0x4 0x6) SR: 0.00

Thats T20 cricket in a nutshell. Nothing matters other than the fact that Gilchrist missed the ball. Was it a poor stroke? No comment. Was it an arrogant stroke? No comment. Was Kumble bowling for this? No comment. Was it a coincidence that the first ball was on a fine length just outside off, while the next two were leg sidish and were both either going straight or wrong uns? No comment.

Tomorrow we will all be fawning over Kumble bowling with the new ball - his "guts" and him "leading from the front". Yet, there is no basis for explaining events on the field. Both bowler and batsman are dehumanized at the altar of the slog.

Cricinfo's discussion: "Well well well. Superb from Kumble. He's ecstatic. Out comes T Suman."

What was superb? It was superb in the same way that the first time a 2 year old child jumps down from a low bench is superb. But thats a 2 year old child. Not a great spin bowler who once bowled a spell in a Test with a broken jaw because India needed to break through the West Indies middle order (Lara, Hooper).

I had to switch it off after that first over. The whole spectacle was a fraud. It was as though one was being asked to cheer for superstars simply because they are superstars. The players are bigger than the game in the IPL. It was never supposed to be like that.

Thankfully it will be over today. For now at least.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Modi's traveling circus

I don't want to say i told you so, but here it is. Lalit Modi is already planning a shorter second IPL tournament in addition to the main 6 week tournament. His reasoning is almost identical to that of those who have countered my position on the impact of the tournament on cricket as we know it.
It is fans who determine if you are successful or not and they have come out in force here.
In short, for Lalit Modi, the market has spoken. There are two things which could happen - the IPL could either eat into many more weeks of the year (it is already using up 6 weeks, this may go upto 10 weeks very soon). The average team is "in season" about about 40-42 weeks in the year. So its likely to use up a 1/4th of the cricket season. Thus it will affect at least 1/4th of the Test Matches. Unlike the Cricket World Cup, the IPL is not quadrennial, it is annual. Thus purely from the point of view of the calender, it will be tremendously disruptive.

The IPL has also given rise to this false notion that Test Cricket suddenly needs to be more exciting - that it needs to match the IPL for excitement. The ECB has been getting jittery about the Leeds ODI getting washed out, they have been getting jittery about the West Indies - England Tests having been lacklustre (even though a large number in the Caribbean and in England probably followed them on TV and radio).

The IPL must compete with Test Cricket, not least because it aims for the same players and the same finite number of weeks in the year. Therefore, it follows with elegant inevitability that Test Cricket is dragged into a competition with T20 cricket. Test Cricket has been 'above price' for nearly 135 years. Now, for the first time, it is being commodified. The most troubling thing is that Lalit Modi seems to have absolutely no clue about Test Cricket. From everything he says, it appears as though he has seen his cash cow, and fully intends to ride it for all it is worth.

The IPL sets up many false dichotomies. Chief amongst these is 'traditional v innovative'. Test Cricket is the traditional version of the game, while the IPL is the innovative version. Nobody seems to have a clue as to what the innovation actually is, but plenty of people come to the ground to watch it, so it must be good. The other is what i will call the action dichotomy. The IPL is somehow a high intensity, high action sport, while Test Cricket is less prone to being high action. This is inherently silly, because indiscriminate slogging does not amount to high action, its amounts to indiscriminate slogging. New innovative strokes have come into being you might say. I agree, but it is because batting itself becomes less consequential. These arguments though are not likely to be persuasive.

Soulberry suggests the the IPL be regulated by the ICC and not being an off-shoot of the BCCI.  How will that help though? What is to stop some agency outside BCCI to stepping into Lalit Modi's shoes?

As far as i can tell, there are two ways in which this IPL thing is likely to pan out. First (this is unlikely), it could be a fad, and people could get tired of it. It will peter out in another 2-3 years, having caused tremendous damage to Test Cricket. Second, it may not peter out, and become a permanent fixture, slowly but surely elbowing Test Cricket out of the calender. Either ways, Test Cricket will lose.

Watch the Ashes if you can. If, during a particularly intriguing second of third day in one of the Tests, when the batting side is trying to build a total and a winning position in the match through some careful batting on a good wicket, and the fielding side sets a run saving field (no easy singles, no catching men), listen carefully to the commentary. If you hear a commentator (say Nicholas) grumbling about "negative" cricket and referring to the IPL, then you will know that the fortress of Test Cricket has been breached. Make no mistake about it, the type of cricket you will be seeing will be neither negative nor boring - it will be a Test. But the commentators will tell you otherwise.

Test Cricket will not survive as a marketaeble commodity, because it is not one. It is much more than that. Cricket has become a marketable commodity thanks to the IPL (much more so than ODI cricket). No other serious sport has made so many serious concessions to the marketing men. Lalit Modi does not seem to be aware of this.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What a difference 4 years makes

Australia announced their Ashes squad today

2009 Ashes Squad - Australia
Ricky Ponting (c), Michael Clarke (vc), Stuart Clark, Brad Haddin, Nathan Hauritz, Ben Hilfenhaus, Phillip Hughes, Michael Hussey, Mitchell Johnson, Simon Katich, Brett Lee, Graham Manou, Andrew McDonald, Marcus North, Peter Siddle, Shane Watson.

2005 Ashes Squad - Australia
*Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Michael Clarke, Jason Gillespie, Brad Haddin, Matthew Hayden, Brad Hodge,Justin Langer, Michael Kasprowicz, Simon Katich, Brett Lee, Stuart MacGill, Damien Martyn, Glenn McGrath, Shaun Tait, Shane Warne, Stuart Clark (added 9/8/05)

Andrew Symonds has been left out of the marquee series, despite Ricky Ponting's 
encouraging words. This must be a particularly bitter blow for Symonds, who missed the 2005 Ashes, did well in 2006-07 (made a great century at Melbourne). Now it is quite likely that Symonds, who at one point in his life had the choice of pursuing an England Test career or an Australia Test career, will never tour England for an Ashes series.

Brad Haddin, Michael Clarke, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are the survivors from that ill-fated 2005 series, apart from Ponting. In this first Ashes series in the post Warne era, Australia have picked only one spinner - Nathan Hauritz, and the spin bowling advantage this time around will be with England who have more experienced spin bowlers in Swann and Panesar. Bryce McGain has expectedly been left out after his ill-fated encounter with a rampant South African batting line up at Cape Town. Phillip Hughes will doubtless be the great Australian hope this time around. England have been nice enough to give him a nice long look in at Middlesex.

Despite the fact that there are only 5 survivors from the 2005 series, only Graham Manou, the South Australian wicketkeeper who will tour as a back up from Brad Haddin is an uncapped Test player for Australia. Australia have had a rough season in 2008-09 - they lost in India, and then lost at home to South Africa. They won an impressive series victory in South Africa though, one which should give them great confidence going into this Ashes series against an England side, which even though it plays well at home, seems to lack explosive talent other than Flintoff and Pietersen. As the West Indies showed recently, England can be beaten. England are not without their personnel problems either.

The players to watch for Australia in my view are Andrew McDonald and Stuart Clark. If they can give Australia control with the ball, Australia will be hard to beat. This should be a fascinating series. It lacks the aura of the 2005 clash which was between one of the 2 or 3 best Test teams in history and the best English side in living memory. This one will be a more low key affair i suspect. One thing to watch for will be the possibility of reverse swing. Marcus Trescothick wrote about having identified the best type of "polish" to enable the ball the swing. Will England continue to employ Murray Mints? Will Australia?

Australia will be difficult to beat.