Sunday, May 07, 2006

Why aren't there more cricket statistics? Part 2

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, baseball has far more statistics than cricket, in spite of numerous similarities. There are a number of reasons for this disparity, some related to the mechanics of cricket and some to the external circumstances in which cricket is currently played. This post looks at two factors that fall into the second category: (relatively) low salaries and a year-round cricket season. If cricketers earned higher salaries, fans would likely become more interested in accurate assessment of their performance. And if cricket had a clearly defined season, it would be far easier to evaluate players over a set period of time. If these circumstances were more similar to those in baseball, cricket fans would be more likely to develop a more robust set of cricket statistics.

The median salary for a major league baseball player is $1 million. Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid player in the game, will make $21.6 million this year. His teammate on the Yankees, Hideki Matsui, comes in at 25th, earning $13 million. Baseball players make a lot of money. The contrast with cricket is striking. I can't find the median salary figures for county cricket, but the BBC reports that "a six-figure deal for any player - from overseas or otherwise - is unusual." Even with the weakness of the dollar, the top players in domestic cricket make less than half of the median earnings of major league baseball players. Even players like Tomas Perez, the very definition of a replacement-level player, earn over half a million dollars.

The top cricket players in the world do not rely on domestic cricket contracts. They spend most of their time with their national sides and receive a salary from the national cricket organization. But even in the realm of international contracts cricketers earn far less than baseball players. The ECB salaries of Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, and Marcus Trescothick (three of the most important players in the England side) have been estimated at £400,000, which only puts them within shouting distance of the typical baseball player and nowhere close to baseball players with similar skills. Baseball players earn more than cricket players, period.

But with baseball's inflated salaries comes a greater scrutiny from fans. When faced with the absurd proposition of players receiving millions of dollars to play a game for a few hours a day, fans may very well start wondering if all that money is worth it, especially if those high salaries are financed through increased ticket prices. If it turns out that Alex Rodriguez created 138 runs in 2005, or, better yet, was worth 12.3 wins, paying him over $20 million each year might seem a bit less preposterous. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bill James and sabermetrics began gaining popularity in the early 1980s; Nolan Ryan became the first player to make a million dollars in one season in 1980.

In short, high salaries lead to greater interest in objective measures of performance. If cricket salaries increased tenfold in the next year, there would be far greater attention devoted to determining just who's actually earning those overblown salaries.

The year-round international cricket schedule also contributes to the relative lack of cricket statistics. While each cricketing nation has a clearly defined cricket season (April through September in England, October through March in Australia, etc.), cricket's international appeal ensures that cricket is always being playedsomewheree in the world and that international sides play year-round (much to the consternation of some players). It is not possible to speak of the 2006 international cricket season; the rhythm of the international game is governed by series, not seasons.

The lack of a clear cricket season, unsurprisingly, prevents the development of season statistics and records. While yearly statistics are occasionally highlighted (like Shane Warne's unprecedented 96 wickets in 2005), there's not nearly the same emphasis on season results as seen in baseball. It's true, of course, that season statistics do exist for the various domestic competitions. Scoring 2,000 runs or taking 200 wickets in a single season of county cricket remains a recognized achievement. But the demands of international cricket ensure that the best crickets in the world (i.e. the ones most likely to be subjected to rigorous statistical analyses) play in just a few domestic matches each year. In short, the lack of a clearly defined international cricket season means that there are no ready-made periods of time over which international players' performances can be evaluated and, as a result, discourage the development of more cricket statistics.

Low salaries and a year-round international cricket calendar help explain why there are relatively few cricket statistics compared to baseball stats. But the most compelling explanations lie in the game of cricket itself. For details, check back for the next part in this series.

9 Comments:

At May 8, 2006 7:21:00 AM , Blogger RoadRage7 said...

Danny - that was a very interesting article, and something that I too have thought about from time to time. I'm not a follower of baseball by any stretch of the imgination, but I am aware that the game is absolutely full of statistical analysis.

Comments:
I'm not so sure about the higher salaries being a justification for beseball having more stats. Firstly, I assume the stats have been logged over several decades (whereas the big $$$ has poured in recently). Also, with cricket, I know at least a billion Indians who follow it as or more passionately than any sport in the world; who would love to have some more meat on their bone than just the average and strike rate.

I agree with your year-round series by series approch though... there is no standard season for any international side, so it becomes hard to make any annual statistical comparisons.

One big difference with cricket is the lack of standard game conditions. If you look at a game in Australia, and compare it with one in India, its almost like playing a different game. This is one reason that the Indian team, while near invincible at home, cannot buy a series win outside the subcontinent. Comparing a fast bowler's average in India with that of one in Australia will not really give you an indication of the skill level of the 2 bowlers.

All this brings me back to the initial point though - the 2 main stats used in cricket, i.e. average and strike rate are pretty much rubbish when you are trying to compare players across regions and eras. Look forward to your next piece, and hope you can suggest some stats that can be adapted from baseball to be used for this wonderful game as well.

Best,
RoadRage7

 
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At May 9, 2006 10:28:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

I agree with you, RoadRage7, that higher salaries are less of a reason than the lack of a clear cricket season. But I do believe that there'd be more interest in cricket stats if salaries increased dramatically. Maybe not in India (just out of curiosity; is cricket the most popular sport in India? I've also heard that (field) hockey is also tremendously popular).

Baseball has always had lots of stats, but the past 20 years has seen an explosion of new ones.

One of the most important insights that statistical analysis of baseball has brought to the table is that, just like in cricket, context matters. The layout and location of some stadiums virtually guarantees high scoring games, while other stadiums depress the number of runs scored. I imagine similar sorts of things happen in cricket.

I've only been following cricket for about a year, so I'm still learning plenty of new things. What exactly accounts for the Indian team's inability to win Test series outside of India? Different types of wickets, of course, but I'm wondering if you could go into greater detail. Also, is it the case that more (or fewer?) runs are scored in India? Or is it just that the shape of the game is different in the subcontinent?

Baseball fans spend lots of time comparing players from different eras and have come up with some nifty tools to do so accurately. So I imagine that similar stats could be developed for cricket. I'll talk about it in greater detail in a future post.

 
At May 11, 2006 6:10:00 AM , Blogger RoadRage7 said...

Hi Danny.

Popularity of cricket: A far as cricket in India is concerned, its often described as a ‘religion’. It wouldn’t even be fair to say that there was a gap with the 2nd biggest sport – its more an abyss – sports like football (regional following), golf, field hockey, etc are no where near. You might find field hockey being described as India’s national sport, but that is only because we were once great at it, and won quite a few olympic and asian golds. “The Golden Era of hockey in India was the period from 1928 - 1956 when India won 6 consecutive gold medals in the Olympics. During the Golden Era, India played 24 Olympic matches, won all 24, scored 178 goals (at an average of 7.43 goals per match) and conceded only 7 goals. The two other gold medals for India came in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1980 Moscow Olympics.”
Times have changed though, and cricket is probably the only sport in which we still compete at an international level.

Commercial Revenue: The last 3-4 months have shocked even Indian fans as the money generated by the Cricket board for the team sponsorship (Nike), television rights ($612 for 4 years) and other sponsorships has roped in just over a billion dollars for the next 4 years. This has propelled the revenues from Indian cricket and put it up with the likes of revenues generated by the English Premier League football clubs.

Playing conditions: Similar to the different baseball stadiums, cricket stadium in various countries (and even within countries) offer drastically different scoring opportunities. The biggest difference with baseball is that the pitch matters as the ball comes after taking a bounce (after it ‘pitches’ is the cricket term). This means that external factors such a soil composition, weather & climate, humidity levels, etc all play a key role in determining the pace and bounce of the ball.

The Indian subcontinental pitches have traditionally been very dry (no surprise given the intense heat) – they tend to be slow and low, and offer much more help to the slower spin bowlers than the quick ones. Also, they tend to wear out very quickly – so in test matches (played over 5 days), the pitch is scruffed up by the 3rd day – an ideal scenario for the spinners to come and weave their magic over spellbound tourists. Overall, they tend to favour the batsmen heavily and often produce high scoring games. Batsmen from this part of the world boast really healthy averages (at least @ home) while the fast bowlers struggle.

This has been both a source of great advantage (when foreign teams from Australia, England, South Africa come here) and disadvantage (when we go out and play). Australian legend and former captain Steve Waugh described India as the ‘final frontier’ – the last bit of earth left for the Aussies to plant their flag. The foreign teams find it difficult to get used to the low bounce and slower pace off the pitch. They have also struggled against some quality spin bowling.

Poor tourists: The flip side occurs when the Indians go out and play in lets say Australia, where the ball bounces 6 inches to a foot higher (maybe even more at Perth) and comes onto the batsman significantly quicker; when they play in England where the overcast conditions means that the ball swings (moves in the air – similar to a ‘slider’ in baseball – except that there is no loss of pace) – we’re yet to establish any test series win outside the subcontinent of any real significance (we won in Zimbabwe recently, but they are the whipping boys of world cricket – no offence intended – so it doesn’t quite count).

Things are looking better now though – under a newly appointed Aussie coach who has infused a new work ethic in the team; has brought in a lot of younger players and given them a role to play with responsibilities and accountability. Plus, our India A team (you can call them the reserves) and junior level teams have started touring outside a lot more, thus picking up valuable playing time and experience.

Time will tell though – the team has left for a challenging tour in the Caribbean today, where they take on the once invicible West Indian team in 4 test matches (played over 5 days, considered by most to be the true test of a team’s capability and skill level) and 5 One Day games (India’s done well in this version of late, albeit playing at or very near home). The Windies are led by one of the greatest batsmen of all-time… Brian Lara, and always play with a flair and talent that I think no other side has demonstrated. They’re going through a bit of a dry patch of late, but they’re a proud people with the most awesome cricketing past and will be looking to set the record straight.

Then, we play the South Africans away – this will be even more testing than the Windies (the Africans are consistently among the top 3 teams in world cricket); followed by a tour of England early next year (the English have recently done the unthinkable – they’ve beaten the Aussies at home to regain the Ashes, in what was one of the best series of cricket that I have ever witnessed). They’ve established themselves as the 2nd best team in cricket – slumped after the Ashes to a loss in Pakistan, but then help India off to a creditable 1-1 performance in India (this playing with close to a second string team as injury had laid off their major players).

Whew, sorry… I think I’ve rambled on and on. Back to the point that really interested me – you mentioned that baseball fans compare players across eras. Cricket fans do the same – day in and day out, but we are yet to find a definitive set of criteria to allow us to do so with any amount of credibility. It would be great if something in baseball could be applied here.

As usual, look forward to your next piece. By the way, I have to admit that I’m very curious about your sport preferences now – are you in the US, and hence the familiarity with baseball (in which case I’m a little surprised you’ve started following cricket); or are you basically a cricket follower (in which case I’m surprised about the familiarity with baseball). Cricket, being predominantly a Commonwealth game, has very few followers in the US (among Asian and other expatriates). If interested in cricket, there is a forum that I would recommend that I frequent often – its hosted by the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/tms), and you can pick up some great chat on the England and Other International MBs (South Asian too, but they have an overflow of Indian and Pakistani kids these days so the war of the words is on).

Cheers,
RoadRage7

 
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At Dec 20, 2006 6:29:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Baseball and stats?? thats funny, some of the stats shouldnt even be considered stats, cal ripkins consecutive games, most consecutive games with a hit or a walk, hit by pitch stats?, come on only stats that matter are hits, runs, hrs, rbi's, SO, wins, losses, just the ones that actually relate to the player himself...

cricket has Runs, Strike rate, Avg, N/O, wkts, overs, bowling avg, economy,

if cricket wants they can add stats such as how many singles, 4s, 6's guy has hit, how many consecutive games has a bowler picked up a wicket.. how many catches a fielder has taken while fielding deep midwicket, or how many times batsman has ducked a bouncer instead of hooking.. blah blah.. we can go on an on..

frankly i dont care how many consecutive games a hitter has gotten a hit or a walk,.. its a simple game but to make it seem complicated mlb has added all these useless stats..

 
At Dec 26, 2006 1:58:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

It's funny that you point to runs, RBIs, wins, and losses as the "ones that actually relate to the player himself." As it turns out, all of those stats are heavily dependent on the performance of the players around them. To get a lot of RBIs, you need a lot of people getting on base ahead of you. A pitcher who gets poor run support will end up with a bad win-loss record, even if he's pitching well. More on wins and losses here.

I agree with you that there are a whole lot of useless stats that baseball fans salivate over. Things like consecutive games reaching base are occasionally enlightening (Ted Williams once reached base in 84 games in a row!), but consecutive games played is solely a measure of durability and tells us nothing about how good a player he is.

The sort of statistics I'm interested in aren't these quirky ones but rather those that give us a better picture of how good players are. There's been a lot of sophisticated work done in the field of sabermetrics that reveals a lot more than the traditional baseball statistics like batting average, RBIs, and home runs ever did. For a sample of the type of stats I think cricket could benefit from see Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus.

In other words, I don't want cricket statistics that tell us how frequently batsmen duck under bouncers. I want the cricket versions of VORP, ERA+, and Win Shares. There's a lot of work that needs to be done before stats like those exist, but I think it can be done.

 
At Feb 3, 2008 6:16:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite a poorly researched analysis.

Firstly, the number of batting stats or bowling stats are irrelevant. As long as the stats are meaningful and are an accurate forecast of a player's performance, we are fine. Cricinfo is a good source of stats but not complete. Team analysts have even more analsysi available with them.

Secondly, unlike Baseball, cricket is one of the fastest growing sport in the world. Median wages are exxpected to cross more than a $ 1 million by end 2009. Adding endorsements, median wages in the Indian and Australian team already exceed a million.

 
At Feb 4, 2008 12:27:00 AM , Blogger Danny said...

Sure, the sheer number of stats is irrelevant. I'm not simply advocating stats for their own stake. But, as I argued in later posts (see here, here, and here), existing batting stats in cricket have some flaws that limit their usefulness. I agree that the best stats should be meaningful and good predictors of future performance. But I'm not convinced that batting average meets those criteria. I think there could be a better batting statistic.

Baseball is actually growing pretty quickly around the world. Just to provide some sense of baseball's global reach, the 2006 World Baseball Classic saw 16 teams participate, the exact same number as participated in the 2007 Cricket World Cup, with a similar number of "minnows" that had no chance of actually winning the tournament. I don't know about the relative rate of growth of cricket and baseball, but I do know that Major League Baseball is investing a lot of money in efforts to expand baseball around the world.

As for player salaries, it's not really appropriate to compare wages for international players with average Major League Baseball players. This is one of the real differences between cricket and baseball: in cricket, international matches represent the pinnacle of play, whereas in baseball, MLB is where all the action is. Still, even if you were assume that 15 players from all 10 Test-playing nations all earned at least $1 million dollars a year in salary (an assumption that is undoubtedly wrong), those 150 "cricket millionaires" would be dwarfed by the 300+ major leaguers who earned over a million dollars in salary last year. Baseball is more lucrative than cricket in terms of salary, and probably in terms of endorsement, too. Whether that explains the relative dearth of cricket stats compared to baseball (as I suggested in this post) is still up for debate. I'm not sure that it does, but I do think that the astronomical figures that baseball players make has helped motivate the sophisticated statistical analysis that sabermetricians have brought to baseball.

 

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