Monday, November 24, 2008

Warne vs. Murali, when it counts

Last year I attended the book launch in Bangalore of Men in White, a collection of essays on cricket by Mukul Kesavan. In his talk that day, Kesavan was speaking in justifiable raptures about Statsguru, the Cricinfo device that this blog relies on. One remark of his struck me. He said, "With Stasguru, you can compare Warne and Murali and see how Murali performs better on every single statistic." The two great spinners of our time could not be more different and it is only natural that followers of cricket should, to some extent, be divided into the Warne camp and the Murali camp. I've always thought that Warne was unquestionably the greatest spinner of all time. To my mind, judging a bowler and especially a spinner ought to go beyond statistics, and both Warne's artistry and sense of theatre were unrivalled on a cricket field. But the supporters of Murali argue that his supposed statistical domination means that it is he who is the better bowler. This claim troubled me, because I too often use statistics to make cricketing arguments and to concede Warne's statistical inferiority was to make too big a concession.

So after listening to Kesavan talk about Statsguru as a means for comparing the two bowlers, I decided to test his claim. Any cricket fan knows that on the most basic level of career average and strike rate, Murali is streets ahead not only of Warne but of any other spinner. In 123 Tests, Murali has 756 wickets at an average of 21.96, striking every 54 balls (a good strike rate even for a fast bowler). Warne on the other hand took 708 wickets from 145 Tests at 25.41, striking every 57 balls.

But these statistics are deeply misleading. This is because there are huge inequalities in test cricket in terms of which countries can play quality spin well and which can't. In the period under consideration, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies (barring Lara and Chanderpaul) were on the whole not good players of spin. The countries that play spin reasonably well are, it is fair to say, Pakistan, Australia, India and Sri Lanka. How do the records of Warne and Murali compare against quality players of spin?

Let's look at Murali first. The games under consideration are those Sri Lanka has played against India, Australia and Pakistan. Murali has played 45 such tests, a large enough number to be a fair sample (in statistics, a sample size over 30 is generally considered large). In these games he has taken 226 wickets at 29.26, striking every 62.5 deliveries. While certainly respectable, this shows that against the best opposition Murali has been a shadow of the terrifying prospect that he presents to lesser batsmen.

We would expect Warne's figures against the three best teams to be worse than Murali's, given the infamous lack of success he has had against India (against whom he averages over 47). Let's look at the figures: in 42 Tests against India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Warne has taken 192 wickets at 27.87, striking every 58 balls. These stats are scarcely worse than his overall career figures and clearly superior to Murali's.

It is often sad that Murali's stats are padded by cheap wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and while Sri Lanka's schedule isn't his fault, this is true. He has 163 wickets at under 15 against sub-Test quality opposition, whereas Warne has only 17 wickets against these two countries.

It is evident, thus, that Murali's supposed statistical superiority is far from obvious when we consider the games that really matter. In closing, I'll look at one last statistic, the subject of my study on Australian batsmen: the home/away disparity. As I pointed out last time, Warne actually performs somewhat better away from home, averaging 26 at home and 25 away. Murali on the other hand is far more effective at home, taking 472 wickets at 19.36 with a strike rate of 50.7 as opposed to 284 wickets away from home at 26.28 with a wicket every 60 balls, both figures that inferior to Warne's away-from-home performance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Demystifitying Australia's "fearsome" batting lineup

With the retirements of Warne and McGrath and the decline of Gillespie, it was thought that Australia's continued excellence in batting would ensure that they remained the world's best side, even if the gap between Australia and other teams had narrowed. It is premature to claim that this is not so, but a simple analysis of the Australian batting lineup reveals an alarming disparity between performances at home and abroad. Let us examine the batting records home and away of the major Australian batsmen of the last decade as well as the team's more recent members.

Matthew Hayden-
With an astonishing record of 30 centuries in 99 Tests, Hayden is often described as one of the game's greatest openers. Hayden averages 52.04 in all Tests, but his home and away averages look like the records of two different players. At home, he averages 61.07 in 52 Tests with an almost Bradmanesque 21 centuries and a strike rate of 63.14. Away, his average drops to 41.69- the record of a good but not great player, like Sourav Ganguly- with just nine centuries in 47 matches. Clearly Hayden's reputation depends at least in part on flat, true Australian pitches.

Ricky Ponting-
Unlike with Hayden, there is no question about Ponting's greatness, as he has saved and won matches on all kinds of pitches in all kinds of situations. Yet even he is far more dominant at home, averaging 61.58 with 19 centuries in 69 tests. Away, he averages 50.39- still excellent but nowhere near as high- with 15 tons from 52 tests. By contrast, Sachin Tendulkar- whose overall average of 54.30 is significantly lower than Ponting's 57.06- averages 55.07 at home and 53.70 away, with 23 of his 40 centuries having come outside India.

Mike Hussey-
Hussey's somewhat mediocre 2008 has seen his average drop from 82 to 64 and it looks like it will settle in the mid 50s, which is fair for such a good player in this age. At this relatively early stage in his career, Hussey has an even greater home-away disparity than Hayden, averaging 74.95 in Australia and 51.50 abroad. The more he plays, the more one assumes these averages will move closer together although is fair to conclude that a significant disparity will remain.

Michael Clarke-
Clarke's overall average of 45.89 is not high by modern Australian standards, but perfectly respectable. Since he's played 40 tests it is fair to use his current statistics to make generalizations about his performance. Despite having begun his career with a matchwinning knock of 151 against India at Bangalore in 2004 his away average of 40.09 shows poorly against his more typically Australian home average of 53.08.

Justin Langer-
The recently retired Langer had a fine career, scoring 23 centuries in 105 tests. Hayden is usually considered the superior player, but not on the basis of their away records- Langer's away average of 41.73 is effectively equal to Hayden's. At home, he averages 48.65 which shows that while the home-away disparity is significant it is not nearly as alarming as Hayden's.

Andrew Symonds-
Like Hussey, Symonds is a recent entrant to Test cricket and thus is usually considered part of the team's medium-term future despite being 33. So far, he is consistent with this teammates in performing markedly better at home: he averages 48.57 at home and just 34.83 away, although since has played only 23 Tests this may change.

It has clearly been established, thus, that most current and recently retired Australian batsmen are gluttonous at home and merely decent abroad. There are two notable exceptions to this rule, and to my mind they constitute (with the exception of Ponting) the only truly great batsmen of the era of Australian dominance.

Steve Waugh-
Waugh's 200 against the West Indies in April 1995 is often seen as the innings that ushered in the new order of Australian supremacy. In 89 Tests at home, he averaged 47.58, a record bettered by every single batsman listed above. What is really telling about Waugh is his away record- in 76 away Tests, he averaged 55.85, an astonishing record that is superior to that of any other modern batsman bar Dravid.

Adam Gilchrist-
The greatest wicket-keeper bat in the history of cricket averaged a more than respectable 45.87 at home. Away, however, he averaged 50.24 with a ridiculous strike rate of 83.76 and ten centuries in 38 Tests- in short, in away Tests he was perhaps the Australian to be most feared of all.

The fact that two of the three Australians who have batted exceptionally away from home are now retired is a particularly troubling fact. The struggles of the current lineup against reverse-swing and spin in India was a reminder that, away from home, most of them become half the players that they are at the MCG or Adelaide Oval. A glance at the stats of Warne and McGrath shows that both averaged even less away than at home- for McGrath, 22.43 at home versus 21.35 away and for Warne, 26.39 at home versus 25.50 away. Both bowlers had significantly better strike rates while playing away from home. What all of this to me shows is that Australian success away from home has been derived most of all from the success of its bowlers. Its defeats in India, for instance, were due in no small part to the ease with which its batsmen played Warne, who has led Australia to series wins in both Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Another common conception is that it is not the Australian but the Indian batsmen who are successful at home and vulnerable abroad. I have already shown that this is not the case with Tendulkar and Dravid. How about the others?

Home Away
Ganguly 42.97 41.56
Laxman 48.15 43.22
Sehwag 53.10 50.98
Dhoni 41.10 33.51

Of course Indian batsmen perform better at home- this is true of almost all batsmen, with Waugh, Gilchrist and Dravid being highly unusual cases. Yet as these stats show, the home-away disparities for the Indian lineup are usually small and in the case of Ganguly and Sehwag, virtually irrelevant. I am not one to argue that India is now a better Test team than Australia and statistics are by no means foolproof but these particular statistical trends are, I think, an explosion of the idea that Australia still has a batting lineup that dominates attacks all over the globe.