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From Trumper to Warner, comparing apples to oranges

sheek Roar Guru

By sheek, sheek is a Roar Guru

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    Victor Trumper is one of the most revered cricketers in Australian sporting history.

    A man universally loved at the time for his strength of character, integrity, honesty, general warmth and generosity to a fault. Oh, and he was one of the most stylish and daring batsmen of his, or any time.

    People loved Trumper for his attractive batting. Not only did he generally score his runs quickly, but he did so with a grace rarely seen.

    The photo of Trumper striding out (side on), bat back-raised high, ready to swing down into a cover drive, is an iconic sporting moment.

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    Unlike Bradman, who came after him, Trumper never possessed the attitude of grinding down the bowlers every time he batted for as big a score as possible. This was Bradman’s mantra, but not Trumper’s.

    Vic believed once he had set his team on the road to a good total, or had saved them from a batting collapse, it was time to step aside and let someone else enjoy his “day in the sun.”

    Trumper came from the ‘golden age’ of cricket, circa 1895-1914. These players of the ‘heroic era’ had a different outlook.

    For them style, both literally and figuratively, was a constant companion of substance. Not superior, not inferior, but a mate striding side by side.

    These players were from the same time and had the same philosophy as the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He said “the most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win, but to take part.”

    Old Vic lived his life, both on and off the cricket pitch, by this creed. However, Victor Trumper is also a divisive figure, although this has nothing to do with the man himself.

    Often when chosen in an all-time Australian cricket XI, his selection raises eyebrows, especially among more recent devotees of cricket. ‘But his Test average is only 39.05, they exclaim!’

    Indeed, this is the enduring problem of statistics. As often quoted, stats are like the bikini – what they show is revealing, but what they hide is crucial!

    You would think a stats-dominant sport like cricket would be easier to decipher with so many stats to fall back on. Perhaps only MLB (baseball) can match cricket for its myriad of stats.

    But those who are entirely or mostly dependent on stats will soon find that it is often an unforgiving path to follow that becomes more and more confusing instead of enlightening.

    It is almost impossible to appreciate how differently the environment is that David Warner bats in today compared to the environment Victor Trumper batted in 100 years and more ago.

    Today, the cricket batsman is protected by state of the art equipment, from helmets with grills, to body padding, elbow guards, thigh pads, plus the obligatory gloves, protective ‘valuables’ box and leg pads.

    Fear of death is almost non-existent – albeit the Phil Hughes tragedy shows that cricket can still be unsafe.

    But this was a fluke accident. In Trumper’s time, death was a much more potential scenario for the careless or the unwatchful.

    There were no helmets back then, just caps and sunhats. Indeed, helmets only came into vogue around 1976.

    Today, Warner can hang his bat out and if the ball catches a thick edge it will run way quickly to the boundary for a four. Today’s bats have a 95 per cent sweet spot, meaning even a mistimed shot can look good.

    The pitches are generally well-rolled with an even surface, while the outfields can be as smooth and fast as glass. Boundaries have been shortened for safety and security.

    In Trumper’s day, although pitches were rolled andamp; the outfields cut, the technology wasn’t as advanced as today.

    Bounce could be variable, with the ball sometimes flying awkwardly at the head, or off at an acute angle inwards or outwards.

    And all this before we talk about ‘sticky wickets.’ Until the early 1960s, pitches were left uncovered and open to the elements.

    With a sticky wicket, as I understand it, the bounce becomes lower because of the water that has permeated the pitch, causing the ball to seemingly ‘stick.’

    Playing normal cricket shots becomes difficult. However, as the sun dries the wicket, different parts of the pitch will dry at different rates.

    If a ball hits a dry spot, it will fly off at either an alarming height or angle. Again, conventional batting techniques are tested to the limit and beyond.

    It was not unusual ‘back in the day’ for a captain to reverse his batting order on a sticky wicket, in the hope that by the time the specialists arrive, the wicket will be playing more truly.

    Because of the advantages Warner appears to enjoy today from technology compared to Trumper 100 years ago, it’s almost impossible to know how many runs Trumper loses by comparison. But it’s an exercise still worth pursuing.

    Indeed, as someone I read said the other day, that while the technology of the cricket ball has hardly changed in 100 years, bats, pitches, outfields and protective equipment have undergone a massive turnover.

    Have a look at the three tables I have constructed below. The first table shows the best 10 Test Australian batting averages of the first 50 years, 1877-1926.

    The second table table shows the best 12 Australian batting averages from the second fifty years, 1927-76.

    Finally, the third table shows the best 12 Australian batting averages of the past 40 years, 1977-2016.

    Table 1: Top 10 Test batting averages, 1877-1926
    1. Jack Ryder – 20 Tests, 51.63. [career exclusively post-WW1, 1920-28]
    2. Herbie Collins – 19 Tests, 45.03. [career exclusively post-WW1,1920-26]
    3. Charlie Macartney – 35 Tests, 41.78. [career both sides of WW1, 1907-26]
    4. Warren Bardsley – 41 Tests, 40.48. [career both sides of WW1, 1909-26]
    5. Clem Hill – 49 Tests, 39.2. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1896-1912]
    6. Victor Trumper – 48 Tests, 39.05. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1899-1912]
    7. Warwick Armstrong – 50 Tests, 38.69. [career both sides of WW1, 1901-21]
    8. Vernon Ransford – 20 Tests, 37.84. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1907-12]
    9. Charlie Kelleway – 26 Tests, 37.42. [career both sides of WW1, 1909-28]
    10. Jack Gregory – 24 Tests, 36.97 [career exclusively post-WW1, 1920-28]

    Note that of the cricketers who played exclusively before 1914, Hill and Trumper, had the best batting averages. Ryder’s post-war effort appears a misnomer. He was apparently very good, but not that good a batsman.

    Table 2: Top 12 Test batting averages, 1927-76
    1. Don Bradman – 52 Tests, 99.94. [1928-48]
    2. Neil Harvey – 79 Tests, 48.41. [1047-63]
    3. Doug Walters – 74 Tests, 48.26. [1965-81]
    4. Bill Ponsford – 29 Tests, 48.23. [1924-34]
    5. Stan McCabe – 39 Tests, 48.21. [1930-38]
    6. Bill Lawry – 67 Tests, 47.15. [1961-70]
    7. Bob Cowper – 27 Tests, 46.84 [1964-68]
    8. Bob Simpson – 62 Tests, 46.82. [1957-78]
    9. Bill Brown – 22 Tests, 46.82. [1934-48]
    10. Lindsay Hassett – 43 Tests, 46.56. [1938-53]
    11. Arthur Morris – 46 Tests, 46.49. [1946-55]
    12. Bill Woodfull – 35 Tests, 46.00. [1926-34]

    Sid Barnes averaged 63, but his 13 Tests were considered too few for inclusion. Note that after Bradman, not one other batsman, almost all of them greats of Aussie cricket, reached a Test average of 50.

    Table 3: Top 12 Test batting averages, 1977-2016
    1. Steve Smith – 39 Tests, 57.90. [career continuing]
    2. Greg Chappell – 87 Tests, 53.86. [1970-84]
    3. Ricky Ponting – 168 Tests, 51.85. [1995-2013]
    4. Mike Hussey – 79 Tests, 51.53. [2006-12]
    5. David Warner – 49 Tests, 51.34. [career continuing]
    6. Steve Waugh – 168 Tests, 51.06. [1985-2004]
    7. Matt Hayden – 103 Tests, 50.74. [1994-2011]
    8. Allan Border – 156 Tests, 50.56. [1978-2004]
    9. Michael Clarke – 119 Tests, 49.11. [2004-15]
    10. Adam Gilchrist – 96 Tests, 47.61. [1999-2011]
    11. Dean Jones – 52 Tests, 46.55. [1986-1992]
    12. Damian Martyn – 67 Tests, 46.38. [1992-2006]

    Of the 10 Aussie batsmen to average over 50 in Tests, eight have achieved this in the past 40 years, and seven in the past 20-25 years. This also assumes that Smith and Warner more or less retain their current productivity.

    Are these guys really better than the ones that went before? Or are they enjoying the greater benefits of improved technology?

    I don’t know for sure, but I think there has to be a counter-balance somewhere. I think sometimes that when converting to today’s conditions, Hill and Trumper are worth a 10 point increase in their averages, to 49.22 and 49.05 respectively. This makes them seriously good players.

    Or perhaps some, but not all of today’s batsmen, might require a five point reduction in their average to bring them in line with those players from 1927-76.

    Trying to establish the true worth of players across many generations is an amazingly difficult endeavour, but one I enjoy, all the same. I’ll keep burrowing away, in the hope of always getting closer to the absolute truth.

    The great Don Bradman said, when contemplating this same dilemma, “a champion in one era is a champion in any era.”

    For me, this is always a good place to start, when considering this exercise in any sport.

    A former rugby lock, cricket no.11 bat and no.10 bowler, and surfboat rower. A fan of the major team sports in Australia.

    State of Origin 2 is here, with the Blues looking to wrap the 2018 series up and the Maroons hoping to keep it alive and force a decider. Follow along with our NSW vs QLD Origin 2 live scores and blog.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • January 27th 2016 @ 2:22pm
      Andy said | January 27th 2016 @ 2:22pm | ! Report

      Is that stat about bats nowadays having a sweet spot of 95% true? And what was the sweet spot percentage a generation ago? The best i can find with a quick search is that the head bat maker for gray nicholls estimated that the sweet spot on a bat in the early 1980s was 60mm but now (well 3 years ago when the article was written) they makes ones with 181mm sweet spot. That just seems stupidly unfair.

    • January 27th 2016 @ 2:22pm
      matth said | January 27th 2016 @ 2:22pm | ! Report

      Charles Davis, the Melbourne statistician, once wrote a book called ‘Best of the Best’. It’s a great read and it attempts to quantify cricket performance over a number of variables. He wrote a chapter on Trumper and it brought out two interesting points that may explain why he was held in such high esteem and also support the ‘get out and give others a go’ myth.

      1. He scored very fast, both for his era and in general. He was the Shewag of his day. That certainly would bring in the crowds and demoralise the opposition

      2. Davis came up with a ‘pressure average’. I can’t remember the exact criteria, but it was the average (after adjusting for some factors relating to pitches, opposition and the era) for games where the batsman was ‘under pressure’. I think it was either behind on the first innings, or lots of other wickets fell, or having to save a match, etc. Trumper ranked 9th of all time. So when the chips were down Victor Trumper must have raise his levels, but he may have had a hard time aiming up in less pressured situations. That would support the theory that he gave it away at times, but also why he would have been revered among his contemporaries. More of his innings would have been memorable ones.

      Incidentally, the pressure average was one of only two batting measures out of 8 or so that Bradman did not come in at number one (the other was scoring speed). the theory was that Bradman scored so heavily that he turned potential pressure situations into strolls in the park…

      • Roar Guru

        January 27th 2016 @ 4:15pm
        The Bush said | January 27th 2016 @ 4:15pm | ! Report

        This pressure average sounds a bit like the “clutch statistic” that American statisticians are constantly trying to come up with. Most of their studies have revealed that the perception that a certain player “steps up” under pressure and is therefore a clutch player is rubbish. The results seem to show that players perform to their usual level whether the situation is a pressure situation or not (presumably then the players that perform well under pressure are just good players) and that any perception to the contrary is just that, a perception.

        Would love to read how this pressure average is determined.

        • January 27th 2016 @ 4:30pm
          matth said | January 27th 2016 @ 4:30pm | ! Report

          I’d love to remember! I’ve got the book around somewhere, I’ll try to find out and post.

        • January 27th 2016 @ 10:43pm
          ChrisB said | January 27th 2016 @ 10:43pm | ! Report

          I’m with you it sounds a bit of a crocks. TBH (and with all due respect to Sheek) there’s really too long between and too many changes to its variables to really make a valid comparison I suspect.
          I struggle to try to compare someone like Border to the modern batsmen given the sharp decline in pace bowling, dead pitches, bigger bats etc, let alone to Trumper’s day

      • Roar Guru

        January 27th 2016 @ 8:15pm
        sheek said | January 27th 2016 @ 8:15pm | ! Report

        Matth,

        Yes, I’m familiar with the book. I have it somewhere myself. He goes to the trouble of finding batting averages for every decade.

        But to get a definitive player score, I think you almost have to assess every batsman against every bowler he encountered & how often.

        How many runs he made against bowler & lost his wicket. Which in turn assesses every batsman against every other bowler.

        But of course, that is incredibly time-consuming.

    • January 27th 2016 @ 10:38pm
      Mike from Tari said | January 27th 2016 @ 10:38pm | ! Report

      A great man, one of the founding fathers of Rugby League.

    • January 28th 2016 @ 12:55am
      balanced said | January 28th 2016 @ 12:55am | ! Report

      An interesting read, Sheek. If your point is that an average like Trumper’s needs to be read in the context of the times, rather than just at face value, then no one can argue with that. But I think you wanted so much to make a case that you lost objectivity. While you listed things that made it easier for batsmen to build their averages today, you didn’t call any “witnesses for the defence.”

      Simply in the interests of balance, and not to negate your overall point, I can think of a number of things that make it harder for today’s batsmen as compared with the Trumper era:

      1. The 6 ball over versus 8 keeps the pace bowlers fresher. More generally, given the different physicality of their roles, I would argue that bowlers have benefited from improved fitness and nutrition more than batsmen.

      2. Bowlers nowadays have the technology to study footage at length, with wagon wheels etc to help them dissect batsmens’ strength and weaknesses. And I believe that bowlers have a much bigger bag of tricks these days – Charlie Griffiths wouldn’t have understood the concept of a “slower ball”.

      3. The fielding these days is on another planet, and some of the athleticism shown for catches or run-outs or just to save runs is simply mind-boggling compared with even a generation ago. I wasn’t around in Trumper’s era, but I have this image of fielders languidly stubbing out their cigarettes before setting off to fetch the ball from the fence.

      4. Probably the most significant point is that in Trumper’s era, it was basically only Australia v England. From 1899-1912 we only played 3 tests outside of here or England, which were in South Africa. So Trumper was never faced with sub-continental turners, for example.

      5. The modern batsman not only has to contend with a wider variety of pitches, in rapid succession, but also has to switch mindsets between ODIs, T20 and 4 and 5 day cricket. This is a world away from the Trumper era where there was basically only the Ashes, with a year or even two years between series, and hence ample time to prepare and focus on the single job at hand.

      Again, these are offered just for a bit of balance. Cheers.

      • Roar Guru

        January 28th 2016 @ 10:07am
        sheek said | January 28th 2016 @ 10:07am | ! Report

        Balanced,

        I’m fond of Trumper, but I’m not trying to “want anything so much” other than try to get closer to the truth.

        In any case, in Trumper’s time, 6 ball overs were in vogue. Australia went to 8 ball overs in the early 20s & back to 6 ball overs in the late 70s.

        However, the rest of what you say is fairly accurate. But it gets back to Bradman’s mantra: A champion in one era is a champion in nay era.

        The trick is determining the relative dominance of players in their own era, then across other eras.

        • January 28th 2016 @ 11:57am
          balanced said | January 28th 2016 @ 11:57am | ! Report

          Interesting about 6 ball overs being around then. I’d always assumed it had been 8 ball overs until modern times.

          And yes, totally agree, I think looking at relative performances versus contemporaries is the measure. So many variables change across time, but if someone outperforms their contemporary peers it is not unreasonable to assume that they would still outperform whatever the conditions. Cheers.

    • January 28th 2016 @ 1:37am
      Leftwhinge said | January 28th 2016 @ 1:37am | ! Report

      I completely agree with most of it except that ‘burrowing through numbers for the absolute truth’ may not be the best way of going about it. Comparing batsmen of different eras is a futile exercise. It’s a little bit like saying that I’m a better human being than my grandfather because I’m less prejudiced, less racist, less homophobic, more gender sensitive etc.

      Qualitatively and quantitatively, there can be no absolute index. And therefore adjusting averages does not work. We can talk about Warner’s bat and protection but then you also have to contend with today’s bowling variation, number of opponents, fielding quality, fitness.

      Even statistical comparison of contemporaries is flawed. For example even comparing Slater with Hayden does not work for me. Hayden comes out as the better bat if you went by statistics, numbers etc. and Slater probably figures much much lower.

      I would argue that Slats was much the better batsman. He had to play better bowlers, the big west indians or the pakistani quicks or even the saffers – in a less dominant Australian team. I distinctly remember Hayden failing repeatedly with his foot down the pitch strokeplay against Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop. And I’m sure there are just as many arguments that favour Hayden.

    • Roar Guru

      January 28th 2016 @ 2:15am
      Paul D said | January 28th 2016 @ 2:15am | ! Report

      I must admit, I can’t really get into the comparisons – I don’t think you can compare players from eras so far apart by the numbers. You just have to agree that a champion player in one era would be a champion player in another era. Their natural brilliance would eventually come through, even if their cricketing upbringings varied widely.

      Anyways, Trumper. Wonder what he would have been like to watch bat? Former England captain and noted polymath C B Fry once noted of Trumper: “He had no style, and yet he was all style. He had no fixed canonical method of play, he defied all orthodox rules, yet every stroke he played satisfied the ultimate criterion of style — the minimum of effort, the maximum of effect.”

      I’m thinking a sort of Mark Waugh, Dean Jones style of batting – power and grace. But a mind and approach to batting like that of Steven Smith – sharp, precise and efficient.

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