The Unpredictability of Cricket

I must apologise upfront for writing two posts about cricket in a row. It’s entirely unforgivable. But what happened at Trent Bridge yesterday was a perfect example of what I love about cricket (at least as a neutral supporter).

For those who are unaware of this seminal event, here’s a quick summary:

  • England were all out for 215 in their first innings, which is a rather paltry score for a home team who won the toss, and chose to bat first.
  • Australia then collapsed in spectacularly inept fashion to be 117/9, giving England a sighter of a large first-innings lead.
  • But then out walks Ashton Agar at no. 11, in his debut test, and proceeds to biff 98 off 101 balls, giving Australia a 65-run lead.

Much will be (and has been) written about the performance itself, so I’ll leave that to more qualified writers. For me, the joy of it is in understanding the range of possible outcomes in cricket. If this was a football match, it would be something equivalent to a team losing 5-1 with about 20 minutes to go, when a defender gets substituted on and proceeds to score 5 goals before the end of play. No – it’s probably even more unlikely than that. It’s difficult to express just how much of a statistical outlier this is. In all the years of Test cricket, only 14 times in 5,360 innings by a no. 11 batsman have they managed to score 50 or more. Only 231 times have they managed 20 or more. Here’s a graph illustrating this:

Scores by #11 Batsmen

This doesn’t take into account whether the batsman is on debut or not, or the match situation, or whether the score ended up being the highest for all batsmen on both teams, all of which make it more exceptional. For those who care, the mean is 4.5, and the standard deviation around 7.23. Any curve fitted to that data is going to predict zero for anything above about 30. And yet, every now and then, this happens. You may think that in this age of more focus being given to all-rounders (bowlers who can bat a bit, for the uninitiated), it would be happening more often, but a quick glance at the following graph may indicate that this is not the case:

#11 Batsmen scores per year

Well, that’s not really conclusive, I suppose – but given the vast increase in games being played, it looks about right to me. Apart from those two dots at the top right – last year’s 95 by Tino Best, and yesterday’s effort by Agar. There’s something slightly unbelievable about those two, that makes me (wearing my statistician hat) want to take an eraser and get rid of them. Not just that they’re there, but also that they’re so close to each other. But that’s the joy of cricket – that even when your team is down and out, and there’s only a single guy standing between you and defeat, there’s always the small chance that he’ll pull one of those dots out of his hat, and take you home.

What’s even more staggering is that given the minuscule chance of him getting that high in the first place, once he got there, the chance of him not getting to 100 must have been pretty small as well. To get so close to immortality (being the first number 11 to get a Test century) and yet fail at the last hurdle (missing it by 2 runs) is one of my favourite parts of cricket. I guess that it has its root in The Don’s average of 99.94. But the game is replete with these. Jim Laker’s 19 wickets against Australia, 1956. The nine batsmen whose high score is 99. Most recently, Mark Boucher finished his career with 999 international dismissals. He would no doubt have crossed that mark if not for a freak accident. And I’m still a little upset that Tendulkar didn’t retire with 99 international centuries. It would have been so much more memorable than the way it turned out – limping over the line against Bangladesh after being out of form for months, and losing his team the match in the process.

Lastly, of course, it’s wonderful because even though England will probably still win the match, they were made to look foolish for a couple of hours by a 19-year old nobody. Which makes me happy – they’re a lot easier to support when they don’t get things all their own way.

Anyone interested in obscure cricket records is strongly advised to follow Stephen Lynch’s weekly column here.

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3 Responses to The Unpredictability of Cricket

  1. There can never be too many articles about cricket. And I am offended that you have chosen to support England. You’ll be sorry in a few weeks…

  2. Nick says:

    You’re not alone – I’m also offended that I’ve chosen to support England. But at the risk of offending you more, it’s still more palatable than supporting Australia. Sorry. Especially when you’re 93/6 on a flat pitch at Lord’s.

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