It is a commonly asked question to statistically obsessed cricket fans as to whether cricket is played on paper. Unfortunately, the sheer cliché status of such a question denotes the overuse of such a statement to rebuke carefully compiled and water tight statistical arguments – a sort of “I know you are but what am I” ad hominem slur.
After carefully working through the many filters of Cricinfo Statsguru, to show why Sachin Tendulkar is a far greater batsman to Ricky Ponting, a fan may feel confidently smug that they have proved the superiority of their favourite Indian masterblaster™ as a Test batsman* to Ricky Ponting. But then, alas, the Australian responds with a scathing attack on Tendulkar’s record in South Africa – the toughest batting conditions on the face of the planet. He is a mere flat track bully if he cannot amass an average greater than 39.76 (to two decimal places) in South Africa. And then it begins, the Indian fan will shut statsguru, roll up the sleeves and then note the unquantifiable (yep, it is a word) mental pressure that Tendulkar faces, the “weight of a nation” which weighs him down exponentially more than the 3lb blade which he wields so elegantly.
*Of course, we need not begin to argue Tendulkar’s superiority in ODIs; we need not waste the time.
Other than the word exponentially, all that can be documented on paper mathematically and scientifically has left the vicinity. We have established now that cricket is not being played on paper but rather is a complex psychological game – does such a game, free of thinned, pulped, whitened wood truly exist?
Indeed, I find two examples of the psychological game of cricket – stark opposites and hopefully the credibility, usefulness and significance of such examples can help us find an answer to the question which I’m sure you, and certainly I, would think far easier to pinpoint.
The first of my examples is Marcus Trescothick, does his mental illness detract from his legacy – is his lack of mental longevity, requirement to reconsider the length of a career in determining a player’s legacy? Indeed, a short career at Test level (whether cut short by injury or merely a career in its infancy) creates a mystique, a magnifying of a player’s quality as an untapped potential – a sort of ‘what more can be achieved...experience will only help this player’ and so on. Alas, such a phenomenon has struck (if I may use that word for an internet fan and commentator state of thought) many an Indian fast bowler who has debuted with poor to average statistics and people merely assume future improvement – the speed is there, the swing is there, surely the rest will fall into place. Few people consider the adrenaline rush, the mental thrill of playing for one’s country, a thrill which will no doubt fade as a bowler reached his 20th ODI inside their first year – thrill turns to tedium – pace turns to a gentle bit of nip, and the natural zip and swing seems to vanish as quickly as it came. Indeed, Michael Hussey is a fantastic example of such – with the basic technique to succeed at First Class cricket, superhuman concentration and application could take him to fantastic heights and many thought out that the world can be modelled by a normal distribution, there may be one at a height greater than the rest but two?! No, the mathematical model of humans would not allow it. The sheer reduction of cricketers to their statistical achievements glosses over the possibility that great amount of mental concentration and application are not always possible over a period greater than a few years. Indeed, for one for whom the game is down to the conscious strength of the mind rather than the unconscious reflexes of the body, great lows may follow, as has been the case in Michael Hussey.
Indeed, I wished to go on to talk about the way that Trinidad and Tobago’s national camaraderie, not present in the West Indian team, which is a mere collection of nations, has led the aforementioned to become far greater than the sum of its parts, but I fear I’m boring you already. To finish, I’d like to posit that although statistics may be useful and accurate in predicting and modelling the cricketing world, we must not do injustice to the mental and psychological game which can elevate performers just as it can take them down – the extent to which the game becomes more detached from the psychological and more attached to the physical is one where we will see a great deal of homogeneity, something detrimental to the unique game of cricket…
Navjot Singh Sidhu - “Statistics are like miniskirts, what they show is tantalising but what they hide is crucial”