Can numbers capture the drama and intensity of Test cricket?

Sachin Tendulkar (above) scored 136 against Pakistan at Chennai in 1998. He was involved in an engrossing battle with off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. India lost the Test by 12 runs © AFP

By Madan Mohan

Numbers don’t lie, but do they always tell the whole truth? I read recently a bold article in a cricket website arguing that Test cricket is possibly in better health than ever before.  The writer has compiled statistical tables that show that the percentage of matches that finish in draws has gone down dramatically from 36% in the nineties to 25% in the noughties.  He pointed out that the strike rate of some contemporary bowlers like Harbhajan Singh is better than that of more illustrious predecessors like Bishan Singh Bedi or Erapalli Prasanna.  The inference he draws from all this is that batsmen take more risks nowadays in cricket, keeping bowlers in the game (contrary to the myth of the balance tilting in favour of batsmen) and making Test cricket more competitive. 

This last inference certainly corroborates my observations on the Test played between Australia and South Africa at Cape Town in 2011. Yes, the same one where Australia caved in for 47 in the second innings.  The striking feature of their batsmanship in that trainwreck of an innings was not sheer ineptitude and incompetence.  Rather, it was impatience and questionable judgment in shot selection.  The batsmen appeared in no mood to defend and resist the mighty South African pace battery.  Instead, one after the other, they attempted to get on with it and counter attack and perished cheaply.  Brad Haddin (unsuccessfully) going for an expansive cover drive off the third delivery he faced, stood out as an illustration.  In other words, extravagant risk taking by the Australian batsmen handed South Africa the match on a platter. The question is: Does that necessarily indicate a higher standard of cricket?

To answer this question, we have to consider the role of defence in Test cricket.  The article in question does not deal with it and the flow of analysis suggests to me that defence might be considered a weakness or indication of low risk appetite from the author’s point of view (I am only speculating and apologise in advance to the author if my inference is off base). Test cricket is not a purely physical game.  It is also strategic and tactical and defence is as important a tactical weapon as attack.  Michael Atherton ducking and weaving out of the path of a charged up Allan Donald — is that weakness?  Not if you consider that Atherton struck 98 not out and guided England to victory in that match (England vs South Africa, Trent Bridge, 1998). 

Is defence about low risk alone?  Or is it also about resistance?  The bowler needs to get his rival’s number to win the match for the team.  By stoically dead-batting the ball back to the bowler (as Rahul Dravid was wont to do), the batsman indicates that he won’t let him.  It is a battle of attrition, endurance and wits.  From the point of view of my personal preferences, I especially loved the Sachin Tendulkar-Saqlain Mushtaq battle in the 2nd innings of the India-Pakistan Test played at Chennai in 1998. Mushtaq probed over and over for a weakness. Tendulkar adjusted his guard a fair few times in retaliation.  A boring battle of defence? Not at all, for at some point, the contest was elevated to a technical exhibition of spin bowling and defensive batting against spin…on a square turner.  This was battle royale… if Pakistan got Tendulkar, they had the match (the eventual result, of course) and for hours, Tendulkar fought intensely through pain to thwart their efforts and guide India closer and closer to the target. 

Intensity is the key word.  Context is paramount in Test cricket and in the context of a hard fought battle between bat and ball, defence assumes an important place.  When a batsman prizes his wicket and a bowler tries equally hard to breach his defences, it is intense. Add the context of a target or the need to see off a couple or more sessions for a draw and you have drama. Both were missing in Australia’s suicidal display against South Africa in the aforesaid match.

Does the relative ratio of results to draws across decades bring out the intensity and drama of a hard fought draw as opposed to a one sided romp?  I don’t think so.  Is there some statistical framework to compute the intensity (or hard fought-ness, if I may coin such a clumsy word) of a contest rather than the bald fact of the result alone?  Maybe.  And as I am not a statistician, that is the gauntlet I would like to throw at the tribe — to develop such a framework.   Perhaps, some sort of analysis of shot selection, lines and lengths bowled by the bowlers and such other indicators that describe the nature of the contest in greater detail could tell us more about the intensity of the contest.  It may correct some prejudices that may have crept into our observations and force us to revisit long held assumptions.  

But in the absence of such a framework, perhaps we need to also examine the completeness of statistical data before validating its conclusions…and place a little more faith in our abilities to observe the game as it is played.  While an element of bias is bound to creep into the selection of events we rely on to support our observations, it nevertheless has its merits in providing us a larger, more holistic picture of the game. Is the beauty of Test cricket attributable only to wins or losses or to the intensity of cricket played at the highest level by determined competitors?  Take your pick.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect that of the website.

(Madan Mohan is a 28-year-old chartered accountant from Mumbai.  The writing bug bit him when he was 8 and to date, he has not been cured of it.  He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake.  He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)