Monday 24 December 2012

Slow and steady?

There is a famous fable about a tortoise and a hare. They decide to have a race. The Hare runs off at great pace, gets close to the finish line and decides he is so far ahead he can afford to have a sleep. While he is sleeping, the tortoise catches up, over takes him, and finishes the race just as the hare is waking up. The moral of the story is supposed to be "slow and steady always wins the race."

Of course that moral is ridiculous. Slow and steady gets beaten by moderately fast and steady. Which in turn gets beaten by fast and steady. If slow and steady won the race I'd back myself to beat Ussain Bolt in the 100m. I reckon I can do it much slower than him.

However the true moral is that reliability is a very important virtue. And yet it is a very difficult one for us to take account of. There is inherently more interest in the unusual than the usual. Occasional exceptional performances are given more prominence in our memories than consistently good ones.

For example I can clearly remember Chris Pringle bowling a maiden in the last over of a match when Australia needed 2 runs to win. It was exceptional. Something that I'm never likely to see again. However I also watched a game where Gavin Larsen bowled 10 overs for 12 runs, including 5 maidens. I can't remember a single second of Larsen's performance. We tune out consistency, because it isn't memorable.

When asked who the best bowers in t20 cricket are, it is natural to tend towards the spectacular. We remember Mendis introducing the carrom ball and bamboozling everyone. We remember Malinga sending the stumps flying. We remember Narine, reviving the tradition of the West Indian mystery spinner like in the days of Sonny Ramadhin. We remember Warne saying how he was going to get McCullum out, and then doing it.

However we don't remember Samuel Badree, Daniel Vettori, Mohammed Hafeez, Nathan McCullum, Angelo Matthews or Darren Sammy. These names are ones that we remember, and can at times recall them doing something with the bat, or in the field, but their bowling tends to be unspectacular.

I was chatting with a top football coach recently, and he said to me "that Vettori chap, what he does must be harder than it looks." This guy has coached football at international level, and has been hugely successful at many different levels. His comment indicated the workings of a great sporting mind. He knows that often the things that look easy on a field take a lot more work than the things that look spectacular.

If we can't remember reliability, we need a metric to measure it. The standard cricket averages are not particularly helpful for this, as they can be skewed by occasional particularly good or particularly bad performances. Instead I decided to look at how often a bowler produces a good performance.

That in itself causes some problems. What is a good performance? In a t20 game, the aim of the bowlers is really to defend runs. Taking wickets is part of that, but often the real job is to not concede too may runs. So I'm going to define a good performance as being one where the bowler bowls at least 2 overs and conceded no more than a run a ball.

If every bowlers in the team did this, the maximium their opposition could score would be 120 plus any byes or leg byes. This is almost a guaranteed losing score, so there is some justification for defining 6 an over as a good target.

Here is a list of the number of good performances the top few bowlers have had. The innings column is innings where they have bowled at least 2 overs.

NameInningsInnings at 6rpo or less
Saeed Ajmal (Pak) 4728
Shahid Afridi (Pak) 5527
DL Vettori (NZ) 3324
NL McCullum (NZ) 3520
J Botha (SA) 3618
Umar Gul (Pak) 4918
BAW Mendis (SL) 2717
GP Swann (Eng) 3817
Mohammad Hafeez (Pak) 3116
DT Johnston (Ire) 2515
DW Steyn (SA) 2815
M Morkel (SA) 3013
DJG Sammy (WI) 3113
SCJ Broad (Eng) 4113
AD Mathews (SL) 2512
Harbhajan Singh (India) 2411
SL Malinga (SL) 3811

The two names at the top of the list have both bowled in a lot of matches, which is what we would expect. Matthew Hayden scored more centuries, fifties and overall more runs than Don Bradman, but it took him a lot more matches to do it. There won't be many people claiming that Hayden was better than Bradman. It's because the number of good performances themselves are not so important as how often you did them.

So I sorted the table by percentages. The numbers were quite interesting really:

NameInningsInnings at 6rpo or lessReliability
DL Vettori (NZ) 332472.73%
BAW Mendis (SL) 271762.96%
DT Johnston (Ire) 251560.00%
Saeed Ajmal (Pak) 472859.57%
NL McCullum (NZ) 352057.14%
GH Dockrell (Ire) 181055.56%
DW Steyn (SA) 281553.57%
DJ Hussey (Aus) 191052.63%
Mohammad Hafeez (Pak) 311651.61%
J Botha (SA) 361850.00%
Shahid Afridi (Pak) 552749.09%
AD Mathews (SL) 251248.00%
Harbhajan Singh (India) 241145.83%
GP Swann (Eng) 381744.74%
M Morkel (SA) 301343.33%
DJG Sammy (WI) 311341.94%
KMDN Kulasekara (SL) 241041.67%

Some of the names at the top of the list are spectacular players: Ajantha Mendis, Saeed Ajmal and Dale Steyn. But there are more of the other sort. Well ahead of the pack is Daniel Vettori, but also Trent Johnston, Nathan McCullum, George Dockrell, Dave Hussey and Mohammad Hafeez.

It's players in this second group that often get forgotten when great teams are picked. One of my favourite cricket analysts, Gary Naylor, wrote an interesting piece about greatness. His definition of greatness is one that relies on the aesthetics of the player. Gavin Larsen could never be a great under that criteria.

And yet perhaps better than being great is being consistently good. Glenn McGrath was consistently good. Shaun Pollock was consistently good. Whereas Brett Lee and Alan Donald were spectacular. We remember Donald, and forget Pollock, despite Pollock having had a much better record.

So I challenge you to look at a different type of greatness. The greatness of being consistently good. Next time you see Nathan McCullum or Mohammad Hafeez bowling, stop to admire how they manage to get fantastic results, without ever looking like fantastic bowlers. That is a form of greatness in itself.

1 comment:

  1. In praise of the unsung heroes. Interesting insight.