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The Spin | Head-to-head stats highlight why Test cricket is greatest sporting format
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The Spin | Head-to-head stats highlight why Test cricket is greatest sporting format

Let’s start, as all bad pieces of writing should, with a cliche: cricket is an individual sport dressed as a team game. Every match comprises hundreds or thousands of contests between a batter and a bowler. That unusual gameplay is one of the main reasons why Test cricket, in particular, touches the parts other sports cannot reach. But never mind all that soulful, meaning-of-life stuff; we’re here to talk about the joys of the humble statgasm.

Ever since doing a statistical preview of the 2002-03 Ashes for Wisden Cricket Monthly, an impossible glamorous commission for a budding anorak hack, The Spin has been fascinated by head-to-head averages, especially in Test cricket. Mano a mano and all that.

Our research showed that Ricky Ponting, Australia’s best player at the time, had larruped 169 runs off 176 balls from Andrew Caddick without being dismissed, but that against Darren Gough, England’s other senior bowler, he’d been out eight times at a head-to-head average of 16. Before we could send an urgent memo to the England captain Nasser Hussain, Gough pulled out of the tour with injury.

Thankfully for those with a certain neurology, this kind of data never gets old. The Spin has recently started writing a monthly feature for Wisden Cricket Monthly, using CricViz’s addictive database to look at history through a different lens.

Let’s start with a couple of nuggets. Alan Mullally, the No 11’s No 11, has the highest boundary percentage of any Test batter against Wasim Akram; Viv Richards scored at a strike-rate of five runs per 100 balls against Geoffrey Boycott. Both those stats are true, but the sample size makes them essentially irrelevant. Like all life’s euphoric pleasures, this historical data should be consumed responsibly. Fail to do so and the cricket world could degenerate into a dystopian mess, where clickbait stats are treated like pearls of wisdom and Anil Kumble is celebrated not for his 700 Test wickets but because he averages 45 with the bat against Mohammed Shami.

For the first WCM piece, we looked at which players had the best Test record against the great West Indies quicks of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. To our surprise, top of the list was a limited-overs trailblazer who was dropped from the Test team for the final time before a series against West Indies in 1992.

The late Dean Jones averaged 42.57 against the best of the West Indies’ best; the only other players to average over 40 were Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart. Jones’ overall record against West Indies was modest, with only two 50-plus scores in 19 innings and an average of 37. That’s because he kept getting run out or spun out, with Viv Richards his unlikely nemesis.

Tracing the contours of career-long battles is a particular favourite, the cricket tragic’s equivalent of Sherlock v Moriarty or Raylan v Boyd. The battle for supremacy between Australia and West Indies in the 1990s is symbolised by the struggle between Curtly Ambrose and Steve Waugh. In their first three series, when West Indies were the best team in the world, Waugh averaged 11 against Ambrose. In his last three, including the changing of the guard in 1994-95, he averaged 84. The overall head-to-head record (11 wickets at 24.54) suggests an emphatic win for Ambrose; in reality it doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Curtly Ambrose celebrates having Australia’s Steve Waugh caught behind at the Waca in Perth in 1997.View image in fullscreen

In isolation, the numbers can look bald, bland and mildly terrifying. It’s the context and the stories – like Waugh asking Ambrose what the eff he was looking at it in Trinidad in 1995, almost eliciting a right-hander – that bring them to life. If you are blessed and cursed with a brain that remembers everything, a search result can instantly trigger a dozen memories and interpretations.

And plenty of smugness. Nothing is quite as rewarding as finding a nugget that affirms an opinion or interpretation which goes against received wisdom, a joy that isn’t even punctured when your enthusiastic stat-peddling on WhatsApp is met with tumbleweed across the board. It’s easy to blame this on the unsatisfactory norms and mores of digital communication rather than acknowledge the possibility that the stat might not be quite as interesting to anyone else. We struggle to accept that a 17-year-old Sachin Tendulkar’s record against Eddie Hemmings – 29 runs, 147 balls, 1 wicket, run-rate 1.18 per over – does not merit multiple emojis.

Another Tendulkar statistic is a bit more profound. The first person to dismiss him five times in Tests was not Ambrose, Shane Warne or any of the other greats of the 1990s. It was Hansie Cronje, South Africa’s occasional medium pacer. Tendulkar couldn’t work out his dibbly-dobbly bowling and was often paralysed into strokelessness. In a seven-year period he made 56 runs at 11.20 off Cronje in Test matches, with a run-rate of 1.69 per over. A scan of Tendulkar’s autobiography confirms that occasionally there are truths, blessed truths and statistics. “I was never comfortable facing Hansie Cronje, who got me out on a number of occasions with his medium pace,” he said. “Even when I was in control against the likes of Allan Donald, Hansie would somehow get the better of me and I’d get out to him in the most unexpected ways.”

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We realise this stuff isn’t for everyone, although we probably should have made that point earlier, before hundreds of people closed their browser in a combination of confusion, disgust and pity. We also know that, in the grand scheme of the data revolution, it’s pretty basic. The levels of sophistication are way beyond The Spin’s quadragenarian noggin, but the ball-by-ball stuff feels both accessible and eternally valuable.

During last summer’s Ashes, our heart sank slightly when Stuart Broad bowled at Mitch Marsh, because we knew Marsh averaged almost 200 against him. Conversely, we were relaxed when Zak Crawley faced Pat Cummins, because we had a hunch that he played him better than any England batter. A look at the various match-ups confirmed as much (although Cummins dragged Crawley’s head-to-head average down from 98 to 54 by dismissing him twice in the last Test at the Oval).

When England visit New Zealand next year, they might want to look at Matthew Potts’ burgeoning record against Kane Williamson in Test cricket: 32 balls, 3 runs, 3 wickets. It’s a small sample size, so it might be a fluke. Besides, trying to work out the relevance of each stat is part of the fun. And – OK, if you insist – it’s often a gateway to the soulful, meaning-of-life stuff: the psychology and subtlety of the individual battles that make Test cricket the greatest sporting format of all.

If there’s any historical data you’d like us to investigate, get in touch. And you can subscribe to one month of Wisden Cricket Monthly for just £1.99. You will then move on to the regular yearly subscription price of £23.99.

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Source: theguardian.com