“Statistics are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Shove your hand far enough up them, and you can make them say whatever you like. Although only children and idiots will take any notice.”
It’s a good line, eh? Sadly it didn’t spring from the mouth of Aristotle, rather the synapse sparkling mind of TMS statistician and comedian, Andy Zaltzman. Anyone familiar with Zaltzman’s work with numbers will know the deep joy that delving into cricket statistics brings both him and listeners, punctuating a day’s play with a tasty numerical morsel to break the tedium, the tension or to simply pass the time. Zaltzman’s comedic brain and sense of timing mean that in his hands statistics are often fun, sometimes frivolous, while also at times serving a semi-serious purpose – to give background or reasoning as to why something might or might not be happening on the field.
“It is about the overall narrative rather than just plucking out quirky numbers that aren’t that relevant. The best stats are ones that provoke a discussion and give an insight into performance or show trends of the game. I’m there to spark a bit of a chat, that’s a real joy,”, the man himself told The Spin last year.
The game itself is increasingly pored over in new ways. Every delivery, stroke and dismissal is logged, filed away in an ever-bulging spreadsheet document to be exhumed and interpreted at a later date. Teams employ analysts to drill into the minutiae, create dossiers on opponents and to inform, challenge and improve the work of their own players. Modern cricket is increasingly headed down a Moneyball route trodden by baseball to become a game of marginal gains and match-ups.
A few years ago Nathan Leamon, the official analyst of the England men’s side, showed a flagrant disregard for printer ink by stacking up a series of, to the unlearned eye, seemingly random numbers and letters on clipboards in size 700 font on the team balcony in order to pass information to the captain Eoin Morgan on the field. Leamon had done similar previously with Shan Masood at Multan Sultans in the Pakistan Super League. The idea being that the captain on the field can give or take the information being cryptically imparted. 4E? 2C? Jos Buttler joked after one particular T20 against South Africa that Leamon was actually calling out the Euromillions numbers – “the lads were checking their tickets!” The ECB commented that Leamon’s signals, a sort of play-your-cards-right style semaphore, were “intended as a live informational resource that the captain may choose to use or ignore as he wishes” adding pointedly that they are “not commands or instructions and all decision-making takes place on the field”.
A lot of cricket writing and surrounding conversation these days is heavily influenced by statistics. Long gone are the days when a correspondent could ring in their copy or match report and be safe in the knowledge that they, being the eyes on the ground, would have the definitive take on the action. No questions asked. Now there are armies of fans who know, watch and think more about the game even than those who are paid to cover it and who are ready, willing and able via the medium of social media or below-the-line comments to counteract, critique or disregard with a wave of a well-researched stat. This back and forth is all part of the fun, for want of a better word, as a wiser man than me once said, “s’all in the game, yo”.
Each to their own of course. This Spin contributor is as guilty as the next when it comes to trying to find a juicy stat or quirky fact to hang 800 words off. I’ve tapped up Zaltzman himself on numerous occasions to get some numerical meat on the bones of a piece or add mathematical heft to an idea.
It does sometimes feel as if this shift in focus, the statistical lens through which the game is increasingly perceived, detracts from the physical happenings on the pitch. The sweat, skill and effort swallowed in the sea of stats. Numbers can never truly reflect the drama, a scoresheet never lies they say, unless, well, it sort of does. Some players defy stats just as some moments cannot be defined by them. As a crude example, take a look at the below figures.
None seem particularly special, no five-fers and no huge score, yet they are the numbers behind some of the most memorable passages of Test cricket in the last 25 years. Andrew Flintoff’s second-innings bowling figures at Edgbaston in 2005 that included that over to dismiss Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting. Allan Donald’s furious duel with Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998 – one of the most electric passages of play in the history of the game – and Jack Leach’s spectacle-wiping, Ben Stokes-sidekicking-solitary run that helped pull off an unthinkable Ashes Test heist.
Sometimes the numbers don’t stack up, the black and white scrawls on the page don’t reflect the colour of the moments on the field. Sometimes cricket, those that play and follow it, can be slaves to numbers. “Lies, damn lies and statistics,” the saying goes, it’s worth remembering when it comes to cricket. Don’t just take my word for it, take Zaltzman’s.