‘How can he talk about a player like Alastair Cook who is 10 times the player he ever was?’ said Flintoff. ‘He has a much bigger average and will go on and on. Atherton averaged in the 30s for England yet he feels he can judge others.’A summary of their respective careers (Records upto April 3, 2012):
Bowling Strength is the cumulative bowling average of the bowling attack in a given Test Match, upto and including that Test Match. This is determined by computing the total career runs conceded by all the bowlers who bowled in a given Test, divided by the total career wickets taken by all bowlers who bowled in the Test.
The table shows that on average, Michael Atherton faced a bowling attack that conceded 27.6 runs per wicket, while Alistair Cook faced a bowling attack that conceded 32.7 runs per wicket. Further more, 77% of Atherton's 212 Test innings were played against attacks which conceded less than 30 runs per wicket (in other words, attacks with bowling strength under 30), while only 33% of Cook's innings were played against similar attacks. Overall all, Cook's batting average against stronger attacks is 5 runs higher than Atherton's.
Computed as explained here, Atherton's actual career average is about 6% lower on account of the unusually strong attacks he batted against, while Cook's batting average is 12% higher on account of the relatively weaker attacks he has faced.
This, as I said, is for their overall careers.
I have also computed these averages taking 2 venue groups into account. The 'S' venue group (S for Subcontinent) includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. The 'O' venue group (O for Overseas) includes England, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa and Zimbabwe. I have done this as an alternative to the standard Home and Away measurements, because there is some evidence to believe that bowling strengths vary according to conditions more readily than they vary according to Home or Away conditions.
Here, the story is slightly different, and Cook's superiority evaporates.
The "TYPE" column in the table is as follows:
O-O30: Attacks with Bowling Strength over 30 in the Overseas venue group.O-U30: Attacks with Bowling Strength under 30 in the Overseas venue group.
S-O30: Attacks with Bowling Strength over 30 in the Subcontinent venue group.
S-U30: Attacks with Bowling Strength under 30 in the Subcontinent venue group.
Atherton matches Cook in his performances in the 'Overseas' venue group, both against strong attacks and weak attacks. In fact, his performance against strong attacks at these venues is slightly better than Cook's. Cook has struggled against strong attacks overseas. Atherton almost never played against weak attacks overseas, while Cook has played 17 innings against those attacks (about 8% of his innings), and averaged 52 in those.
Based on their respective statistics, Flintoff's argument about Cook's figures being superior to Atherton's is wrong. The record suggests that they have remarkably similar records, if one is willing to look below basic aggregate and average figures and account for things like bowling strength.
The figures presented here do not account for team strength (Atherton played for a weaker England side than Cook). There is some reason to believe that run scoring is easier for batsmen who play in teams with strong bowling attacks than for batsmen who play in teams with weaker bowling attacks.
My purpose here has been to consider only the factual merits of Flintoff's claims. I think that the former England all rounders views reflect a basic misunderstanding of the role that a person in Atherton's position (journalist, color commentator) plays in Cricket. Even if Flintoff's statistical claim had been true, the wisdom of his point would remain questionable. In this case, Flintoff has not only been unwise, he is also wrong. The figures do not suggest that Cook is a better Test batsman than Atherton was.