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Fielding statistics: Cricket's next great numerical frontier

(Photo: Twitter)
Roar Guru
19th November, 2015
41
1028 Reads

Cricket is a statistically driven game. So much so that every Australian has the vital statistics of the greatest exponents of the game ingrained into their consciousness.

Best batsman? Bradman’s 99.94. Bowler? Shane Warne’s 708 wickets mean he should be in the conversation at least.

How about the best fielder? More difficult, isn’t it?

Ricky Ponting must be up there, with his 196 Test match catches (and 160 in ODIs). As would Steve Smith of the current crop, but generally fielding statistics aren’t memorable to anyone other then the most dedicated aficionado.

The achievements of Bob Simpson for example – acknowledged as one of the game’s top slippers – in snaring 110 batsmen at a rate of 0.94 catches per innings, a rate unsurpassed by anyone in Test history, would be news to many.

Even Adam Gilchrist’s 416 Test dismissals (379 catches and 37 stumpings) – accounting for 2.178 dismissals per his 191 innings, one of the best strike rates of any wicketkeeper – hardly rolls off the tongue.

We justifiably think of names like Jonty Rhodes or Paul Collingwood when talk turns to the best fielders. But why? Can we say how effective they’ve been in the field throughout their careers? Or are we blinded by their sublime abilities?

These men redefined fielding with their athletic exploits. So how, in a sport so driven by statistics, can we have a situation where whom we think of as being the best fielder relies on a highlights reel over concrete facts?

Fielding is the forgotten discipline. We all know that ‘catches win matches’, yet the way we analyse fielding is desperately antiquated.

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The improvement in fielding skills has been remarkable since limited-overs cricket was introduced – particularly in the Twenty20 age. But while bowling and batting performances are subject to countless hours of statistical analysis, there is no real quantifiable way of saying how effective a fielder is other than reputation.

The number of catches is currently the only real way to quantify the ability of a fielder, but this clearly falls woefully short in giving any real information, as it does not include the number of dropped catches. With the absence of a viable alternative, this flawed statistic is the only way to tell us who’s the best fielder around.

And it’s not just catches that are poorly recorded. Run outs – either the strike rate or circumstance – are equally under-represented as a statistical measure for fielding effectiveness.

So should mistakes be highlighted?

In my mind, recording fielding errors should be the next development in cricket scoring.

Errors are a harsh statistic no doubt, but an invaluable one in terms of evaluating the comparative ability of fielders. It is also a fundamental stat in cricket’s distant cousin, baseball.

In baseball’s early years, scorers wanted to differentiate between earned runs and runs scored off mistakes from the fielding team, hence the recording of errors. A key statistic in the game for pitchers, the ‘earned run average’ or ERA, is a nod to this historical fact. The fielding players are there to serve the pitcher, and any errors they make are not considered his fault and should not unduly affect his statistics.

This anointing of individual accountability within team sports, emphasising any irregularities in a system where every player is deigned to be perfect, is ingrained in American sport.

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In baseball, an error is charged against a fielder when a normal or ordinary effort would result in an out, the choice being at the discretion of the official scorer.

There is a reasonable argument that attributing an error, such as whether or not a catching chance is dropped, is somewhat arbitrary.

The afternoon session of Day 3 at the WACA gave us a perfect scenario.

Nathan Lyon’s drop of Brendon McCullum off Mitchell Starc in the slips was undoubtably an error. But would the diving effort of Mitchell Marsh to shell Ross Taylor in the next over be considered one? That’s less clear cut, especially as it was Marsh’s athleticism and heightened fielding ability that allowed him to get two hands on the ball in the first place.

The ‘Ultimate Zone Rating’ sabermetric would account for that, but if we are to develop new statistics we should walk before we run.

Attributing errors provides another key talking point in baseball, as was the case in this year’s World Series.

When Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets let a bouncing ball from Eric Hosmer slip underneath his glove in Game 4, he allowed the Kansas City Royals to score the game-tying run in the eighth inning – a game the Royals went on to win on their way to claiming a first World Series in 30 years.

Baseball fans are well known for their penchant to statistically model everything – and bloggers in the States noted that this error was the seventh most costly in World Series history. That single play reduced the Mets’ chance of winning the series by a whopping 13 per cent.

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In a twist of sporting karma, the Mets famously won the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox by benefiting from Bill Buckner’s ‘through the legs’ error, which reduced the Sox’s chances of winning the Series by 20 per cent – the most costly error of all time.

There are parallels in cricket. Herschelle Gibbs’ dropping of Steve Waugh when on 56 – he made 120 – arguably cost South Africa the 1999 World Cup when they met at Headingly in the Super 6s, especially given the game situation at the time – Australia reeling on 3-48 chasing 271. Losing that game, coupled with the tie in the semi-final, meant Australia made the final.

This story has gone down in cricketing folklore, so do we really need to have it written on the scorecard?

I believe so. Scorecards are an impartial record of a match, devoid of the emotion needed to describe the drama while accurately capturing the actual events. Missing off errors simply leaves the story half told.

With Jonathan Wells filling the Gary Pratt role of specialist substitute fielder in the WACA Test, there is an argument that fielding statistics could be useful in all forms of cricket. But it’s Twenty20, where every ball is a scoring opportunity that must be taken, where these statistics would be most valuable.

The mercurial nature of Twenty20 cricket is such that franchises are already barely more than tools for self promotion by globetrotting superstars. Such a heavy emphasis on star power should have its pitfalls as well as its rewards, and if that means recording individual errors for posterity on the scorecard, so be it.

Regardless of what any new statistics or recording would shed on fielding ability, players would never be picked solely for their fielding. Even the aforementioned Pratt, England’s 2003 run out hero, attributed his fall from first-class cricket to being branded as a fielding specialist in a 2010 interview with ESPN.

Additionally, wicketkeepers haven’t been picked based on their keeping ability for years, with quality glovemen such as Jack Russell and James Foster missing out on more international caps due to superior batsmen – Alec Stuart and Chris Reed, Geraint Jones and Matt Prior – occupying the position behind the stumps.

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The age old question as to whether it’s more important to have a batsman score runs or a specialist keeper or fielder save them in the field will be unending – although the balance is definitely in favour of runs on the board.

And neither are the practicalities of errors being recorded as straightforward in cricket. But with thought, it could be done.

The fact remains that fielding remains woefully under-represented in the analysis of the modern game. And particularly in Twenty20, where games can swing on an exceptional run out or gravity-defying catch, fielding ability is gaining in importance.

So perhaps the forgotten discipline may yet be the most important statistic moving forward in the future of the game. If so, it’s time to treat it as such.

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