I kept hearing something strange during the cricket yesterday. Apparently Peter Siddle has cast some intense mind-voodoo over the hapless Kevin Pietersen.
When Pietersen fell to Siddle this afternoon, it was a worthy statistic that this was the 10th such occasion in Tests. It is an achievement against an excellent player.
It far exceeds the record of other bowlers: the next best are Muttiah Muralitharan and Brett Lee, who got Pietersen six times; then totals of five from Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Morne Morkel, Saeed Ajmal, and Sreesanth.
Wow, people said. He’s so far ahead of all these great bowlers and Sreesanth. After they’d finished searching for hilarious ways to credit vegetarianism and bananas, they started wondering more genuinely what it is. What is this magic that allows Siddle to tame England’s big dog?
So I’ll tell you.
Peter Siddle is an excellent pace bowler. He’s not as outrageously threatening as Mitchell Johnson or Ryan Harris, but he’s courageous, skilful, and durable. He and Michael Clarke have been Australia’s only consistent performers over a fallow few years. He has learned at Test level and prospered.
But all he is delivering Pietersen is good, solid, Test-level bowling.
The people stitching these dismissals together are hunting causality in correlation. It’s an unsound premise. Pietersen’s dismissal today was that of a man lost.
He’d endured 59 balls in the blazing heat with barely a stroke played, scraped up 19 runs, then lost his rag and tried to show some dominance.
He picked a horrible ball to do it to, and a horrible shot to do it with. He might have been a man trying to get a squirrel out of a tree. But he still looked like he was going to clear mid on until Johnson proved to be half elastic, stretching so ludicrously into the sky that he deserved a wacky sound effect.
Pietersen caught at mid on pulling a rank wide short ball. The previous dismissal, in Adelaide, he was late withdrawing the bat from one just back of a length on off stump, nudged back onto his wicket. The one before that, he clobbered a half volley to a short midwicket catcher.
Before that it was Manchester earlier this year, where he played at one that was given caught behind despite no third-umpire evidence of an edge. Before that, Lord’s, where he thrashed a full wide ball to point on the square drive.
My point being? There is no pattern, no consistency, to Siddle’s recent dismissals of Pietersen. The batsman is not getting out because he’s worried about the bowler. The bowler is not preying on a particular weakness of the batsman’s. This is not McGrath to Michael Atherton.
Siddle is bowling the kind of deliveries that can get wickets. He is actually conforming to the adage of putting the ball in the right areas.
But there is nothing specifically about Siddle that is making this happen. He’s not distinctive. He essentially bowls a style of delivery Pietersen has faced tens of thousands of times.
Let’s have a think about statistical probability. If a contingency arises a lot of times, one reasonable explanation is that its requisite context is equally common.
If Siddle has dismissed Pietersen more than anyone, that might just means he’s played against him more than anyone.
Holy discovery. The pair have played 15 Tests against each other, with Big Kev walking to the crease 25 times. He only played 10 matches against Lee, Warne and Morkel; 8 against McGrath and Sreesanth; and 6 against Ajmal and Murali.
In which case, a percentage of dismissals per innings would be far more illustrative than a raw total. Siddle has got Pietersen in 40 percent of their opposing innings. Lee had 30 percent, McGrath 31, and Sreesanth 36, not big differences when dealing with such small data sets. Siddle has had a good run, but is still behind Ajmal at 50 percent, and Murali’s 54 percent.
If you want someone with a hold over KP, then, call the spinners first. But wait, Geoff, you say passionately, wiping some cream cheese from your blouse where you’ve dropped your salmon canapé in agitation. Peter Siddle has dismissed Pietersen 10 times and conceded 174 runs.
At an average of 17.4 per dismissal without even getting a calculator, doesn’t that imply complete domination?
Well, let me tell you that you’re beautiful when you’re angry. But while averaging 17 sounds great, a player isn’t just facing one bowler, while only one bowler can dismiss him. Let’s say he does equally well against all four bowlers, taking 17 from each. He’d average 68 against the group.
In matches involving Pietersen, Siddle has bowled 467 overs, just under 20 percent of the team’s total. So in a perfect statistical world, Siddle would dismiss Pietersen 20 percent of the time, not 40. But random sequences don’t work like that.
In a different life, I used to run a roulette table.
You would spin the ball and land red or black, with the occasional zero. Over a long period the results would be roughly even, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t have long streaks of one colour.
Whatever the streak, the odds for the next one being black remain exactly the same. The most manipulative invention on a roulette table is called the tree, which displays the last 14 numbers to have been spun. This makes people see patterns that aren’t actually there.
Once you rolled five blacks, then six, then seven, people would start to get interested. Roll ten and you were pulling a crowd. By the time you got to 14, filling the board, people were losing their minds. They would hammer red, sure in their bones that the streak had to break.
22 black, you would call. They would stack up on red. 17 black. Higher on red. The fizz of the ball. The tension like a long day waiting for a thunderstorm. Number 8, black. The clatter of chips as you razed small skyscrapers and they dived to build more.
My best run was 23 blacks in a row. The table was like a football match, all sides yelling and cursing disbelief like I was an umpire. A few quiet achievers sat there, riding the streak, each time sliding a few more chips on red. Both camps were wrong, in thinking that a streak even existed. It was simple probability, both results equally likely, anomalies par for the course.
Peter Siddle is as likely as anyone. He will bowl for his team until his body fails. He is good at it. It is plausible that he will get people out by doing so. It is plausible that the frequency may be anomalously high, or elsewhere may be low.
As for Pietersen, he’s not currently in very good shape.
He may retain the pouty, chest-out posture that implies he wants you to admire his nipples, but he doesn’t currently have the batting swag to back it up. On the other hand, he’s a guy who has three double centuries and 20 other hundreds. He’s no lost cause.
The real evidence came on the field today, when that shot was played, when that catch was reeled in. Peter Siddle’s face was like nothing I’ve seen on a cricket field. He clenched both fists, planted his feet and roared.
It was like all of his own skin was trying to crawl off his head. He seemed to be more tooth than man. He was a white-flanelled Langolier in bad ‘90s CGI.
That face was many things, most of them terrifying, and one of them the reason I’m still awake and writing at midnight. What it wasn’t was the face of a man enjoying mastery over a shattered opponent.
It was a bowler expressing the relief at having got rid of the opposition’s most dangerous player, and enjoying utterly his good fortune. It was the face of a man who knew the odds had gone his way.
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport. This article was first published by Wisden India, in a new-founded Ashes partnership.