Welcome to CricketNext. You have no doubt arrived at this site to read about cricket, and the last thing you expect is bloody verse. But as this is a game of glorious uncertainties, why should this site be different? Let me begin this column with a limerick:
GLORIOUS UNCERTAINTIES I woke up late, and fell to the floor. Rushed to the TV to see the score. A break was underway. Yes, the sun had stopped play. Damn! I have never seen this before.
Yes, sun stopped play in Wednesday’s ODI at Napier between India and New Zealand. It could only happen in cricket, which is not new to unusual interruptions. A car drove onto the middle of the field during a Ranji Trophy game a while ago – a Wagon R, if I remember correctly – and play has also been stopped by pig, snake and hedgehog. This is nuts – and in my mind, effing fantastic.Picture Credit: Twitter
The one way in which cricket most stands out from other sports is this variance in local conditions. Certain elements of the game, like the dimensions of the pitch and the kind of bat and ball used, are standardised. But everything else changes, like the type of pitch, the type of ground and the weather conditions (which have a bearing on play because swing etc.). And these variables are what make this game so amazing. (As Shakespeare said of cricket: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”)
In football, for example, conditions are so standardised at the highest level that players don’t need to take them into account. Yes, the crowd matters, and home teams have an inbuilt advantage for reasons I’ll get into in a future column. But apart from that, it’s just the state of mind that players bring to the ground. The turf won’t behave differently, and nor will the ball. A Harry Kane penalty poses the same challenge for Ederson on a Saturday in July in Manchester as it does on a Sunday in February in London.
In cricket, however, conditions matter. The pitch matters, the nip in the air matters, even the speed with which the ball rushes through the outfield matters. This is so banal that no cricket fan even needs to be told this. The reason this is even worth pointing out in a column like this is that it underscores how we cannot regard statistics in cricket like we regard statistics in any other sport.
To go back to the football example, involving two great players I love, we can look at past statistics and note that Kane converts 82% of the penalties he takes, and Ederson fails to save 77% of the penalties he faces. Adjust those figures for improvement over time, and you’d expect the probability of a goal to be somewhere between the numbers you get, provided both players play game-theory optimal, randomising their decisions as you’d expect from players at this level. You can be confident that the number is accurate because the data means something: all penalty kicks are similar in their nature, with few variables.
In cricket, there are many more variables to consider. Every game is sui generis, with a unique combination of circumstances that will never be matched. How a batsman bats at the Motera in Ahmedabad is almost completely irrelevant to how he may bat at the MCG in Melbourne, especially against the same attack. Hell, even Motera and Mohali cannot be compared. For that matter, even Motera in the heat of June cannot be compared with Motera in January. (To quote Shakespeare again: “To sweep or not to sweep, that is the question.”)Picture Credit: AFP
Quite apart from the dustbowl pitch and the weather conditions, a batsman will also have to deal with match contexts and specific field placings, bowler combos and wicketkeeper sledgings that, say, a Federer playing tennis would never have to worry about. And here’s the nub: you may have a reasonable sample size of Federer games on grass or Kane penalties to draw conclusions about their ability, but it is much harder to get an adequate sample size of Motera games in uniform conditions to evaluate a batsman’s performance there.
And if by chance you do, you won’t be able to extrapolate it to how that batsman may perform in Melbourne.
This is why, when picking sides or evaluating performance, judgement plays a greater role relative to raw statistics than it would in other sports. The numbers are just not as meaningful by themselves. Everything they contain is true – but they cannot contain everything, or even nearly as much as they do in other sports. And sample sizes are never close to enough.
This does not matter for the great players: variables be damned, Virat Kohli is a great batsman in any conditions. But come below the greats, and it does matter. (Who is better: Hick in England or Jaffer in India?) It does not matter only in a sense of how selectors pick the teams they do, but also how we, cricket fans and tragics, all of us, look back at the game.
Sunil Gavaskar made 34 Test centuries, but any fan who says that his last innings of 96 against Pakistan was his best will not be saying something absurd. Equally, devotees of Viswanath will point to his 97 not out in Madras (as it was then) against West Indies in 1975, and not to any of his 14 Test centuries. When I think of Mike Atherton, it is for those few overs of fire against Allan Donald – and there is something special about AB de Villiers’ 43 off 297 balls against India in Delhi in 2015, though we all know his strike rate can be ten times that much.
This is special, and makes me, as a cricket fan, feel privileged. Cricket has nuance and levels of complexity that no other sport has – and my memories of watching the sport, in that regard, are so much richer. I don’t wish to offend tennis fans – actually what the hell, I do, so there – but when Federer and Nadal play each other, they are mostly only playing each other. In cricket, there are a hundred battles within the main battle, whatever that is. (As Shakespeare once said, “Uneasy lies the batsman’s head that has to deal with a bloody nonstop-talking short leg.”)
And ya, sometimes sun stops play. There is mad charm in that.
(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He is currently editor of the online journal Pragati, and a columnist for the Times of India).