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“Scarlet Fever” – Mallett let his reverence for Grimmett get better of his logical reasoning in parts of this revised biography Photo Courtest: Book Depository

Ashley Mallett, in his revised biography of Clarrie Grimmett, spends the first chapter comparing the legendary leg-spinner to Shane Warne. Arunabha Sengupta goes through the comparison and points out how, through bad arguments and pre-formed conclusions, cricket writers and ex-cricketers end up misleading generations of readers.

Fact and fiction in the name of the game

Get on the World Wide Web, fire up Google, and search for any current day cricketing icon. Leave alone the pages that quote just the career records. The results that leap out from the rest are often an overwhelming clutter of ecstatic eulogies, and perhaps more than a sprinkling of abominable adverse criticism, on separate ends of the spectrum, most of them comfortably beyond the horizons of credibility and testable facts, while the small range of accuracy and truth fall comfortably through the giant chasm between the extremes and disappear into an abyss of oblivion.

Change your search string and look up some icon who played the game before the 1990s. The results will be almost the same in terms of hyperboles, but skewed more favourably towards positive evaluation, with the pink tints of rosy retrospection making it impossible to view the critical dimension of the erstwhile greats — the mountains of negative reviews, so much a feature of every career, reduced to obscure footnotes by the wondrous hands of time. 

Cricket reportage and chronicling have forever suffered from this ailment. From romantic writers with carelessly cavalier attitude towards facts, like Neville Cardus and AA Thomson, to past cricketers adamant about the supremacy of their playing days, accuracy has always been a rare virtue. That is what gives rise to so many myths that riddle the wonderful game, making it perhaps more enchanting but giving its past an aura of historical fiction rather than the true account of a sport played by mortal men.

There are perhaps uses for mythology, for romantic epics that never took place but still find a place in folklore. After all, Cleopatra had a hooked nose and fleshy cheeks, quite distinct from Blaise Pascal’s function of the length of her nose and its effect on the face of the world. She was not Egyptian either. But we revel in the manufactured memory of the glamour queen. And regardless of all his faults, Nero was not playing the fiddle while Rome burnt down — the instrument would not be invented until several centuries later.

However, when serious cricket writers, including former cricketers, twist facts to suit their narrative, all the while masquerading as analysts, the whole façade changes from romantic flights of fancy to the rather uglier domain of duping a gullible public.

Spinning a tale

Ashley Mallett is one of those rare cricketers who played the game with world-class skill and accomplishment, and can also wield the pen with reasonable flourish. And hence, he has penned several books and articles, dealing mainly with Australian cricket and cricketers.

In 1993 he published a long awaited biography of Clarrie Grimmett, named Clarrie Grimmett: The Bradman of Spin. He explained his choice of the title with the following statistic: In 234 First-Class games, Don Bradman scored 117 centuries, whereas in 248 matches, Grimmett took a bag of five wickets or more in an innings 127 times. Hence Grimmett’s rate of 1.95 for such performances per match was better than Bradman’s 2.00.

To put it simply, it is a ridiculous bit of comparison. To start with, Bradman batted in 338 innings while Grimmett bowled in 435. Even if we take 100s and five-wicket hauls to be equivalent feats, Bradman scored a century every 2.88 innings, while Grimmett picked up five wickets once every 3.42 innings. The denominator has to coincide with the number of opportunities, cannot be manufactured on the fly.

It gives rise to the uneasy feeling that either statistics, even plain arithmetic, is not really Mallett’s forte, or the former off-spinner is in awe of the great little leggie it can induce him to play around with the figures. In the revised version of the book, it appears to be a fatal combination of both.

Obviously Grimmett, a supreme leg-spinner and the inventor of the flipper, was worthy of every adulation. To enjoy a Test record as he did after a criminally delayed entry into the Test arena was remarkable to say the least. And with a moving interaction between Mallett and Grimmett taking place in the late 1960s, it is quite natural that the author will remain star-struck to this day.

But what is misleading, and often irritating to the analyst, is the way Mallett pads his supposed assessment with pseudo-analysis to show the legendary leggie in brighter light. Especially so in the updated version of the biography, titled Scarlet, published in 2008.

With this edition published almost immediately after the retirement of Shane Warne, Mallett takes special pains to try and prove to the readers that the older leg-spinner was in many ways superior to the modern day great, and spends the entire first chapter trying to underline his claims. His mission seems specifically spurred by Warne’s inclusion in the list of five Wisden Cricketers of the Century, and Grimmett’s omission thereof. And to prove the supremacy of Grimmett, Mallett provides arguments that are contrived, statistically fallacious, and, in certain cases, plain meaningless.

Rank long hops

In the very beginning, Mallett states that Warne’s numbers, 708 wickets at 25.41 in 145 Tests with a strike rate of 57.65, in some respects read more impressive than Grimmett’s 216 in 37 Tests at 24.18 with a strike rate of 67.18. This is especially so in terms of strike rate, as will be apparent to everyone.

However, he quickly follows it up with the hackneyed ‘statistics don’t always tell the full story’ argument. Whereas this logical device can justify any sort of falsehood in the world, the way he justifies it is more curious. He writes, “For instance Allan Border scored more than double the number of runs than Don Bradman, then again played 104 more Tests. Bradman averaged 99, Border 51.”

What exactly is he trying to prove here? No one in his right mind claims Border was a better batsman than Bradman because he scored so many more runs. No one ever thinks of any other batsman as even close to Bradman. The average is the defining factor here, and Bradman’s is beyond the reach of mortals. The fact remains that Warne had almost the same average as Grimmett, in almost four times as many Tests, at a much better strike rate. This is definitely not remotely analogous to Border and Bradman.

The lack of facility with figures is more pronounced here.

Having mentioned the rather huge difference in the striker rates between Grimmett and Warne in Test cricket, Mallett chooses not to dwell on it any further. However, he speaks rather more eloquently about the Sheffield Shield strike rates of the two, where Grimmett enjoys a huge advantage over Warne. In fact, Mallett even argues that Sheffield Shield was where Warne came across Australian batsmen, the greatest players of spin, who used their feet, and therefore his figures suffered!

What he conveniently overlooks, or rather forgets to consider and mention, is that Warne’s 145 Tests were appended by just 40 Sheffield Shield games while Grimmett’s 37 Tests were in addition to 79 games in the Australian domestic cricket. The obvious reason is that for the modern international cricketer from the 1990s, involved in gruelling Test and limited overs schedule against a far larger group of teams, domestic matches are of rather less significance. In Grimmett’s time, the Shield matches had far more importance, and indeed the Australian batsmen one came across in different sides were often superior to the rest of the world.

Mallett follows this up by bringing up another questionable statistic, ‘wickets per Test’. In this Grimmett’s 5.84 stands ahead of Warne’s 4.88.

This is not really a very meaningful comparison. The primary reason for the difference is that spin was Australia’s main mode of attack during Grimmett’s days. The men who sent down most of the overs with the new ball were the hardworking but hardly great Tim Wall and the part-timer Stan McCabe. Then it would be Grimmett, Bert Ironmonger and Bill O’Reilly all the way.

However, when Warne emerged on the scene, Australia swore by pace. Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes were going strong, to be followed by Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Damien Fleming, Brett Lee, Michael Kasprowicz and others. It was mainly due to Warne that spin regained its status as one of the potent weapons of the Australian attack. There were plenty of others to take wickets.

The wicket per Test metric makes little sense here, and the combination of average and strike rate do much more.

While we can attribute thisto lack of facility with figures, we cannot swallow what Mallett goes on to state. Considering Grimmett did not bowl a single ball in the final Test at MCG in 1931-32 against South Africa, the author brings down his number of Tests to 36, and hence raises his wickets per Test to 6.00. What he chooses to ignore is that Warne similarly did not bowl a single ball in the 1995 Test at Hobart against Pakistan, and often did not get a chance to bowl much because McGrath and co went through the line-up too quickly. This kind of partial look at data is inexcusable and rather deliberately misleading.

Degree of difficulty

This is followed by a large number of paragraphs which try to prove that bowling in Grimmett’s era was more difficult than in Warne’s time.

Yes, that is what he tries to prove. In a convoluted way, his discourse is rather useful in breaking certain myths. Cricket fans the world over tend to believe that batting was way more difficult in the hoary past with uncovered wickets and flimsy bats. What we don’t realise is that the 1920s and 1930s did have some of the most heart-breaking wickets for the bowlers, and with many matches played to finish, it could be quite a task to dislodge batsmen.

Hence, the less impressive strike rate does not automatically mean that Grimmett was an inferior bowler, but that taking wickets was a different ball game back in the 1920s and 1930s.

However, Mallett makes his argument by stating that Grimmett picked up his wickets against exceptional players of spin while in Warne’s time not too many people could use their feet against the bowling. Indeed, he names only Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Hansie Cronje as players of merit against the turning ball, reducing Michael Vaughan to an also-ran who could just read Warne’s deliveries andstopped short of coming down the track.

At the same time, during Grimmett’s days, there were supposedly excellent batsmen against spin. As an example of such batsmen, Mallett rattles off the names of half a dozen Australians against whom Grimmett never bowled in Test cricket, before appending the list with Wally Hammond, Joe Hardstaff Jr and Herbert Sutcliffe.

Now, let us look at the actual facts in closer detail.

Batsmen around the world averaged 32.62 during Warne’s bowling days while they scored at 31.62 during Grimmett’s era. There is not that great difference, although it indicates batting was slightly easier during Warne’s period. Spinners in Warne’s era captured wickets at 34.96 while doing so at 30.92 during Grimmett’s period, which jars with the claim that spinning in Warne’s time was an easier prospect.

When Grimmett played, there was only one opponent of quality and class, England. South Africa were the whipping boys of Test cricket during the years between the Wars. West Indies were in their cricketing infancy. Neither team excelled in playing spin. And of the English batsmen Mallett names, Hammond was accused of being tied down by Grimmett.

On the other hand, while looking at Warne’s contemporaries, Mallett decides to omit several Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and men such as Kevin Pietersen and Virender Sehwag, and even Navjot Sidhu. That, in my opinion at least, amounts to twisting facts considerably to make one’s point.

If we look at the statistics once again, we find Grimmett claimed 106 wickets at 32.44 against England while capturing 110 at 16.29 against West Indies and South Africa. This just goes on to show that pretending he got most of his wickets against difficult opposition amounts to over romanticising.

At the same time, Warne infamously averaged 47 against India, but had 90 wickets at 20.17 against Pakistan, 59 at 25.54 against Sri Lanka, and only 17 of his 708 wickets came against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Even if we remove New Zealand and South Africa entirely as possible poor players of spin, his average does not budge from 25-26 range.

Careers at a glance

 

ClarrieGrimmett Shane Warne
v England

22

106

32.44

86.4

v Bangladesh

2

11

27.27

47.6

v South Africa

10

77

15.57

50.8

v England

36

195

23.25

55.1

v West Indies

5

33

17.96

43.5

v ICC World XI

1

6

11.83

31.0

v India

14

43

47.18

91.2

v New Zealand

20

103

24.37

56.0

v Pakistan

15

90

20.17

45.0

v South Africa

24

130

24.16

60.9

v Sri Lanka

13

59

25.54

53.6

v West Indies

19

65

29.95

62.7

v Zimbabwe

1

6

22.83

53.1

Total

37

216

24.21

67.1

Total

145

708

25.41

57.6

 Besides, there are some other serious oversights in the arguments.

While Mallett refers to Neil Harvey’s exasperation at the Kiwi batsmen for not using their feet against Warne, he completely fails to mention that while Grimmett bowled on many a sticky dog, Warne never had the luxury.

Finally, for the last few years of his career, the younger leg-spinner had to cope with monster bats and shortened boundaries, something which crops up in every discussion nowadays, but does not even merit a mention in the chapter. Even then Warne picked up 40 wickets in the 2005 Ashes and the last 38 Tests since his 2004 comeback saw him capture 217 wickets at 24.75 in spite of the playing field being loaded in favour of the batsmen. This, incidentally is a record very, very similar to Grimmett’s Test career.

Our intention here is not to prove that Warne was a better bowler than Grimmett or vice versa. What we need to understand is that this sort of faulty analysis is detrimental for several reasons, especially because of the role it plays in misguiding the readers.

The Laker Misdemeanour

It was not the last time that Mallett showed the tendency to pick favourites and maintain that they were better bowlers.

In 2012, in a column for ESPNCricinfo, he picked the five best spinners he had seen. Luckily, Warne did make the top of the list this time, followed by EAS Prasanna, Muttiah Muralitharan, Derek Underwood and Graeme Swann. Obviously, Mallett had not been born when Grimmett played his final Test.

Well, on the face of it, if one claims some were the best spinners he has seen, others need to respect his opinion, while probably having drawing up a conflicting list of his own. However, there are issues with the arguments.

First, the minor one. It is better to call such a list as one of ‘favourite’ spinners. To claim that they were the best may be stretching it a bit, especially if it is done without valid quantitative justifications. But, that is perhaps the way cricket discussions are known to proceed.

However, the major reservation with the analysis is that towards the end Mallett states that among the spinners he could not put in the list were Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Lance Gibbs, Sonny Ramadhin and others.

Herein lies the problem.

First of all Mallett’s evaluation is ostensibly based on what he has indeed seen, which makes sense in a way. Prasanna was a fascinating spinner when the Australians came up against him at home and in India in the late 1960s. Based on his performances in those two series, he can very well rank with the best.

That is the simple reason why Ian Chappell waxes eloquent about the little Indian tweaker even today. The point is that neither Mallett nor Chappell saw Prasanna bowl when he averaged 45.66 with 6 wickets in four Tests against the third string Australian side in 1977-78. Both Chappell and Mallett were away in the Packer circus. And obviously they were too far from the scene when the offie picked up 2 wickets at 125.50 in Pakistan, prompting men like Javed Miandad to say that they could pick him without the slightest problem.

And in contrast, Mallett did not see more than a flitting glimpse of Laker. The great off-spinner, perhaps the greatest of all time, ended with an average of averaged 21.24 and had a strike rate of 62.3 for his 193 wickets, compared to Prasanna’s respective figures of 30.38 and 75.9 for 189 scalps.

And while Laker did sometimes enjoy dodgy wickets in England, Prasanna bowled on dustbowls tailored for three Indian spinners in his homeland. Mallett apologises for Prasanna’s rather high average saying he was a wicket-taker prone to experimentation, and that line of logic jars with the comparative strike rates of the two. Again, Mallett is not the right person to underline his arguments with figures.

The additional problem is that, due to the lack of live telecast, Mallett had the opportunity to see Laker only once in his Test career. The legend travelled to Australia for the very first time in 1958-59, and that was the final series he ever played. Not that there was any problem with his form, he took 15 wickets at 21.20. He rubbed certain important figures in the wrong way by writing a controversial book.

What is important to note is that Mallett was 13 at that time.One wonders how much analytical ability he had developed by then to evaluate the genius of Laker in course of that one Test (assuming he saw him bowl at Sydney, his home town, where Laker picked up 5 for 107 and 2 for 10. One does not expect 13-year-olds to travel around Australia seeing all the Tests).

It would have been perfectly okay if Mallett had come up with the list and did not mention Laker at all, or had noted in the passing that he had not watched the Surrey great in action. But what he does mention is that he had considered Laker for the analysis, and had found the others to be greater bowlers.

When one makes up his mind about who the greater bowler was based on two series of Prasanna at his very peak, and one Test of Laker watched when the critic himself was 13, and then inflicts that evaluation on the public, that is bad analysis, bad writing and bad for the historical documentation on the game.

In the case of Warne and Grimmett, Mallett drew his conclusions based on questionable facts and erroneous interpretation of partial, misleading figures. About Prasanna and Laker he jumped to his verdict based on a tiny fraction of the former’s career that he watched and an infinitesimal bit of the latter’s that he may or may not have seen.

Yet, given Mallett’s reputation there will be a large number of readers who will end up believing every word he writes. Such accounts are worse than an infinite deal of nothing that the world of cricket writing is littered with. Such accounts are dangerous.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)