Pat Cummins © Getty Images
Pat Cummins has 54 Test wickets, 51 of them are of top-order batsmen © Getty Images

As Pat Cummins ran in to bowl in the second innings, the television commentator on air tried a gut-based breakup of his scalps into top-order batsmen and tail-enders. Arunabha Sengupta shows how fallacious these estimates can be because of ‘availability heuristic’.

Pat Cummins steamed in to bowl to Dean Elgar in the second innings of the Newlands Test. And the commentator’s voice floated in over the thousands of television sets tuned in to the game around the world.

“Cummins has 54 Test wickets, but I’d say about 51 of them are of top-order batsmen. After that Mitchell Starc comes and wipes off the tail.”

If one is an ardent follower of the game, and has seen Cummins produce spell after spell of top quality bowling that have troubled top quality batsmen, one is likely to nod in agreement. Especially after the first innings at Newlands which saw him dismiss AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Quentin de Kock in an excellent scorching of bowling. All top order batsmen, weren’t they?

And then we have witnessed those blazing bursts of reverse swing by Mitchell Starc, with those incredible angles which make it almost impossible for tail-enders to get bat to ball.

All these are in our immediate memories. Hence, we know Cummins dismisses top-order batsmen, and Starc is too red hot for poor tail-enders to handle. Therefore, 51 of the 54 Cummins wickets being top order … that seems to make a lot of sense.

This is a typical commentating and, thereby, cricket follower’s pitfall, known as Availability Heuristic. It is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or impactfulto emotionsthey may be.

The overestimation of the top order victims of Cummins is just one example.

Cricketing memories are littered with such illusions. To cite a couple of examples:

  • Gundappa Viswanath always fired in crisis (he did not, we succumb to availability heuristic based on his knocks against Andy Roberts in 1974-75 and couple it withBase Rate Fallacy. We have discussed Base Rate Fallacy elsewhere in these pages)
  • Brian Lara single handedly won many matches for West Indies with fourth innings masterpieces. (no, that one 153 not out was a great innings, but that was the only fourth innings hundred in a winning cause. He had two fifties, in not so close encounters. An example of what ready availability in memory can do.)

And so on …

Now, let us see what the data actually says about Cummins.

Pat Cummins had 54 wickets before the start of the second innings of South Africa in the Newlands Test.

We can go and take a look at the wickets themselves.

It turns out 37 of the dismissals were of real top order batsmen. 8 of his wickets are of genuine lower order men. These men include Vernon Philander, Ravindra Jadeja, Chris Woakes, Tom Curran, Ravichandran Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha. Okay, even if Saha is considered top-order … which is a rather far stretch … we can at most say 38 of his victims were top order batsmen.

At least 9 of his scalps were actually tailenders. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Jake Ball, Mason Crane, James Anderson, Kagiso Rabada and the modern version of Stuart Broad.

Now a 37-8-9 or 38-7-9 breakup of 54 victims into top, lower and tail is a very different story from the 51-3 breakup that the commentator suggested.

Gut feel is rather ordinary when it comes to accurate analysis.