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Opinion

Cricket’s debatable statistics: Whole career versus peak performance

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Roar Guru
9th May, 2021
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1400 Reads

Recently I pointed out how readily cricket statistics lend themselves to misinterpretation, bias, manipulation and downright skulduggery.

Over the next couple of articles, I’d like to discuss some areas of measurement that are always guaranteed to set off a spirited discussion and may often result in the questioning of one’s mental capacity or parentage.

Let’s start with the Steve Waugh conundrum. Should we judge a player at their peak, over their entire career or use some hybrid of the two?

Let’s look at four sets of career statistics.

Player Runs Average 100s Wickets Average Strike rate
A 2166 36.1 3 46 44.5 91.6
B 8761 55.9 29 46 30.4 78.1
C 1291 24.8 1 144 28.3 64
D 2516 51.3 5 218 19.2 47

Player A has an okay record, barely good enough for top six and a useful part-time bowler but not a wicket taker. During much of Australian cricket history that record would not have been good enough to get 44 Tests, especially given one single series accounted for 865 runs and increased his batting average by nearly 11. Excluding that series, the batting average is 26.8.

Player B is a bona fide all-time great batsman on the world stage, plus a very handy bowling option.

Both of these players are, of course, Steve Waugh, firstly from 1985 to 1992 and then 1992 to 1994. His overall career record is 10,927 runs at a batting average of 51.06 and 92 wickets at a bowling average of 37.4.

If Waugh’s career had ended in 1991, and in a stronger era for Australian cricket it may well have, Australian cricket would be a very different place. We would have missed 16 in a row, the last ball century in Sydney and maybe even the “you’ve just dropped the World Cup”.

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Shane Warne celebrates with Steve and Mark Waugh

(Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Mark Waugh’s nickname would certainly have been different (Afghanistan, the forgotten Waugh). Shane Warne may have become Australia’s best or worst ever Test captain, depending on his on-field and off-field exploits.

After that point the Australian selectors had their faith (or more likely their desperation) repaid many times over. Waugh’s peak period was as good as any player in history.

So which Steve Waugh should be judged by history? The turbo charged Mk2 or the overall numbers which, while still very healthy indeed, put Waugh in the second tier of batsman behind the likes of Steve Smith (61.8), Kumar Sangakkara (57.4) and Greg Chappell (53.9).

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Let’s look at Player C. On those numbers, he is a useful third seamer (the strike rate is a bit high) who could bat at the Mitchell Johnson or Paul Reiffel level. He would definitely get a few Tests but would be looking over his shoulder if more dangerous bowlers come along.

Player D is just about the best cricketer in history. Over 52 Tests (the ‘Bradman best’, thanks JGK) this player averaged over 51 with the bat and under 20 with the ball. This player was also their team’s captain, just to add another string.

Have you guessed it yet? These are the two careers of Pakistan legend, Imran Khan.

Imran Khan

(Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

On overall numbers he is still one of the best all-rounders to have graced the game, with a batting average of 37.7 and a bowling average of 22.8, but for nearly 60 per cent of his career he was untouchable, batting like Jacques Kallis and bowling like Keith Miller.

The official ICC player rankings have a best ever section. Without going into too much detail, this measures a player’s peak performance over a two-year period. In addition to many of the usual suspects, the top-20 ranked peaks for batsmen includes names such as Peter May (sixth all time) and is missing the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. On the bowling side Tony Lock comes in at seventh, well ahead of greats such as Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Lillee and Jim Laker.

There are other players who would benefit greatly from a peak average, arrived at by either selecting the best block of a number of Tests or by shaving a certain per cent from the beginning and end of a player’s career.

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The semi-esteemed Roarer JGK recently reminded me of his ‘Bradman best’ using a block of 52 Tests to simulate the career of the great man. You can, of course, insert whatever parameters you like to skew the results for your favourite player and then present the result as undisputable fact because, you know, numbers – that’s how statistics work!

Let’s look at some batsmen to see how different definitions of ‘peak’ might skew our view of their career.

Player Top 52-Test block Top 20-Test block Shave 10% off either end Total career
Ricky Ponting 74.53 89.79 55.76 51.85
Kumar Sangakkara 68.12 82.43 66.63 57.40
Kevin Pietersen 50.54 59.12 49.90 47.28
Mike Hussey 51.23 85.44 47.69 51.52
Brian Lara 61.27 74.39 53.81 52.88
Sachin Tendulkar 66.37 79.34 58.50 53.78
Steve Smith 75.04 86.21 67.11 61.80
Don Bradman 99.94 118.78 106.74 99.94

Some interesting things come out of that table.

Ricky Ponting had the second best 52-Test block out of this arbitrary group of players and his best 20-Test block was out of this world. Ponting’s career average may do him a disservice and the gap between his best 52-Test block and his total career is greater than any other player in this table.

Taking the first and last per cent of Tests away didn’t help much so Ponting’s slow rise and long decline were long indeed and did him no favours. He still only averaged 40 after 45 Tests. Ponting’s last block of 20 Tests also happened to be his worst, averaging 33.2. However, peak Ponting was as good as anybody in history.

Ricky Ponting of Australia works the ball to leg

(James Knowler/Getty Images)

Kumar Sangakkara famously averaged 66.78 over 86 Tests when not playing as wicketkeeper, compared to 40.48 over the 48 Tests where he donned the gloves. That launches Sangakkara’s career as a specialist batsman ahead of Steve Smith into ‘best since Bradman’ territory. Sangakkara’s peak block of 20 Tests was very high as well and he never averaged under 40 for 20 continuous Tests. On all measures the Sri Lankan great exceeds Sachin Tendulkar and he did it while keeping for 35 per cent of his matches.

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Kevin Pietersen has a reputation as a player of amazing innings and being a bit of a loose cannon otherwise, but he is actually Mr Consistency, with the smallest gap among all those examined between his best 20 Tests and his career average. Pietersen’s career average never fell below 43 and he still averaged over 40 during his worst 20-Test match block.

Mike Hussey’s best 52-Test block was from his second Test to his 53rd and his best 20 were also from his second Test onwards. He was also the only player where removing the first and last ten per cent of his Tests actually lowered his average from his career total. Mr Cricket certainly hit the ground running. Hussey also had his troubles, with one 20-Test block having an average of just over 30, which is why his gap between top 20 Tests and career average is higher than any other player. I hope he gets well soon.

In contrast to Hussey, Brian Lara’s best block of 52 Tests finished in his second last Test. Did the great left hander retire too soon? Like Pietersen, Lara was actually super consistent, which may contrast slightly with his reputation. Lara’s peak was not as high as some, but he maintained his standard better than most.

Sachin Tendulkar, in an ironic twist, has an almost identical pattern to his great West Indian rival, but with all measures coming in that little bit higher.

Steve Smith is still in his prime, so this is not a strictly fair comparison, but there are some interesting things here. Smith’s best 52 Test block took his overall average from just 34.6 (after 16 Tests) to 64.6, a remarkable turnaround. Of itself that run was slightly better Ponting’s top 52. Smith’s top 20-Test block is in Ponting and Hussey territory.

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Steve Smith.

(Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

I didn’t shave off Smith’s last ten Tests, only his first ten, given he is not showing any signs of slowing down. That leaves Smith with an average on this measure just ahead of Sangakkara. From just his 28th Test, Smith has never experienced a block of 20 Tests where he has average less than 61.8. That is an amazing run of form, unlike any in history… except Bradman.

Sir Donald Bradman is just added to demoralise the other players, although there was a 20-Test period where the out-of-form batsman struggled to hit it off the square averaging only 91.7, which of course is higher than any other player’s best 20-Test block.

So where does that leave us? Does a whole of career view provide a truer picture of the career of Steve Waugh and, even more remarkably, Imran Khan, or can we allow for players to grow, change and decline?

Do we need to tailor the peak period for each batsman and maybe add a weighting measure for those who manage to sustain a peak level for longer than others, such as Steve Smith?

Does the Bradman-esque peak achieved by Ricky Ponting give him the edge over the relentless consistency of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar?

Did anyone realise that Kevin Pietersen was actually a really stable character? And can anything halt Steve Smith’s march into greatness?

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