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Cricket’s debatable statistics: The team strength effect

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Roar Guru
21st May, 2021
129

There are two aspects here that require examination.

Firstly, what effect should being a star in a weak team have on our view of their career records? Secondly, should an individual’s place in history be influenced by the success of their team?

The Murali-Warne paradox
Shane Warne’s career ratio of wins compared to losses is just over 3.5 (92 wins and 26 losses), compared to 1.3 for Muttiah Muralitharan (54 wins and 42 losses).

At some point in every Warne versus Muralitharan debate we come to the question of whether a player’s greatness should be discounted or enhanced by playing for a weaker side. The answer in part probably depends on whether you support Australian or Sri Lankan cricket.

Broadly the arguments in favour of the Warne view are as follows.

Muralitharan didn’t have to share his wickets with other top-class bowlers. I have some sympathy with this. During Murali’s career his record compared to all his teammates was as follows. Murali took 800 wickets at 22.7 versus the rest, who took 1168 wickets at 36.5. So Muralitharan took 40.7 per cent of wickets at nearly 14 runs better than his peers.

In contrast, Warne took 708 wickets at 25.4 versus the rest, who took 1793 at 27.9. So Warne grabbed only 28.3 per cent of wickets at just two runs better than his stronger peers.

The Sri Lankan pace bowlers rarely ran through opposition sides leaving the spinner with little to do. Apart from some Chaminder Vass heroics, Sri Lanka weren’t known for incisive pace bowling and Murali was often into the attack at the earliest opportunity.

He bowled less than 15 overs in only 8.7 per cent of his innings, compared to Warne with 20.1 per cent. I can only find five times in 239 innings played where Muralitharan genuinely bowled less than 15 overs in a substantial completed innings by the opposition (and only one of those innings was lasted for over 200 runs).

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Murali

(Photo by Rebecca Naden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sri Lankan pitches would be tailored to favour Murali. This is broadly true. There is no way Murali was turning up to Galle and finding the groundsman busily adding water to the pitch.

However, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Sri Lankan pitches have always favoured spinners leading to the rise of players like Murali and Rangana Herath. Australian pitches tend to produce bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. English pitches tend to produce bowlers like Jimmy Anderson and other assorted dibbly dobblers.

During the Warne era, Australian pitches were still holding their own characteristics favouring Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie as well as Warne.

Add to that a good point by a Roarer on my last article (thanks Chris Kettlewell) that Warne’s profile was home Tests on non-friendly tracks, half his away Tests in similar conditions like England and South Africa, and then a small number of away Tests in spinning conditions, but against players used to them.

In contrast, Murali got 50 per cent of his Tests in friendly conditions at home, and at least half the time the visitors were players to whom those conditions were foreign (like Australians and Kiwis). Warne rarely got to bowl against clueless batsmen on helpful pitches.

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As an aside, does anyone else remember the first couple of post-Warne Ashes series in England? With Graeme Swann running rampant, we saw some very dry English pitches. Funny that.

Murali bowled a greater proportion of his team’s overs. There was definitely more opportunity for Muralitharan to take wickets. His team struck every 66.7 balls compared to Australia’s 58.1 balls. Murali bowled 33.5 per cent of his team’s deliveries, compared to 28 per cent for Warne.

Was this actually an advantage to his record in terms of average and strike rate? The great Sri Lankan must have had some mighty tired fingers at times.

When winning the toss, Sri Lankans would always make sure Murali got to bowl last. This is broadly true, however Australians have a healthy aversion to send the opposition in as well, unless you are Ricky Ponting and you’ve just seen your strike bowler roll his ankle.

Sri Lanka won the toss and bowled on 23 occasions out of 133 Test matches involving Murali. The record for Warne is 13 and 145, a lower proportion than for Sri Lanka.

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Shane Warne bowls

(Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

In contrast, Muralitharan supporters might point out arguments like these.

A lack of quality bowling partnerships means that it is harder to maintain pressure on the batsman. There was no way batsmen could have a rest down the other end while Warne was bowling, as they were likely to run into a combination McGrath, Gillespie, Brett Lee or Stuart MacGill.

Against Sri Lanka, players could just sit on Murali and score down the other end. Of course, if a player tried to just stonewall Murali or Warne, it was often an invitation to head on back to the pavilion for an early shower while commentators tried to come up with any variation of the ‘deer in the headlights’ analogy.

Opposition teams would tailor pitches to try and combat Murali, given they had no one else to worry about. I have no evidence, but I’m pretty sure the English and Australian curators weren’t out on the ground the day before a Test match against Sri Lanka showing their skills with a wire brush.

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Murali had to act as both a strike and stock bowler, wearing him out and risking ineffectiveness and injury. This also led to Murali struggling on even when the pitch was unfavourable to him, whereas Warne could always throw the ball back to McGrath.

Warne never had to bowl at the champion Australian batting side. This is very true, and Warne’s Sheffield Shield record of 161 wickets at an underwhelming average of 34.7 suggests some of his greatest battles were at the domestic level.

Murali fans also point out greater pressure on Murali given if he didn’t perform, the team had no chance, with an entire country sitting on his back. Okay, so I literally despise this argument. Let’s call it the Tendulkar argument.

If you ever listen to post-career interviews with professionals from any sport, the pressure they all feel is immense – to not let down their supporters, family, themselves or teammates. A great player puts that pressure on themselves and whether their supporter base is 15 million or one billion doesn’t matter.

In some previous articles I measured players’ performances compared to their teammates in those same matches. The results for Warne and Muralitharan are as follows.

Average compared to peers: Warne +8.99 per cent, Muralitharan +37.9 per cent.

Strike rate compared to peers: Warne +1.68 per cent, Muralitharan +26.46 per cent.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the weak team discussion. How would Warne and Muralitharan have fared if their situations had been reversed? We can never know and we almost certainly will never see their like again.

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The Andy Flower perplexity
Should an individual’s worth be influenced by the success of his team?

Andy Flower is the best batsman-keeper in cricket history. From 55 Tests as a wicketkeeper he scored 4404 runs at a batting average of 53.7. He passed 50 in one out of every 2.9 innings. Often coming in under tremendous pressure, Flower scored 16.6 per cent of his entire team’s runs over his career.

Even including his few underwhelming innings as a non-keeper (because I couldn’t work out to exclude them), Flower’s career average was 51.54 compared to the rest of his top seven in those matches of only 26.93. That’s a 91.4 per cent difference in output. The man was a colossus.

His three rivals for this title would be as follows.

Player Matches Runs Average Scores >50 Win/loss ratio
Adam Gilchrist 96 5570 47.6 1 in 3.2 6.64
AB De Villiers 24 2067 57.4 1 in 2.8 2
Kumar Sangakkara 48 3117 40.5 1 in 4.5 1.26

That last column – win/loss ratio – is Flower’s great weakness. During his career Zimbabwe won just seven Tests from 63 attempts for a win/loss ratio of 0.2.

In contrast I showed in a previous article that Adam Gilchrist is the winningest player in Test cricket history. Gilchrist is often described as a match-winner, Flower is most certainly not.

Should this matter? Flower’s batting average in those rare wins was a truly massive 84.5, which was more than double than his peers in those matches. Gilchrist’s average in wins was just 2.3 per cent better than his fellow batsmen in those games. Flower did the heavy lifting, Gilchrist put the icing on the cake.

Adam Gilchrist plays a pull shot

(Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

Gilchrist’s record is likely negatively influenced by having runs stolen off him by Australia’s very strong top order and by sacrificing his average for the good of the team chasing quick runs.

In contrast, Flower batted at five or above in 85 per cent of his innings and came in with the score under 150 on many occasions, which Gilchrist rarely did.

Flower had many more opportunities to dig in and bat for big scores, but he also faced better bowlers than his own team had at its disposal and they were usually fresh and confident by the time he walked to the crease. Which circumstance makes for the better player?

Maybe we should just defer to the remarkable AB De Villiers, with a batting average as keeper of 57.4 (although from just 24 matches) and the sweetest 360-degree game on the planet.

Greats Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul have lost more Tests than just about any other players in history. The superb Sir Richard Hadlee had a 25.6 per cent winning percentage. West Indian legend George Headley was the ‘black Bradman’ but only won five Tests in 22 attempts. He averaged 95.75 in those wins.

On the other hand, Brett Lee won 71 per cent of Tests he played, second only to Adam Gilchrist in all of cricket history (minimum 50 wins).

So despite me devoting months of my life to a series of articles showing how players performed in wins for their country, when assessing a cricketer’s place in history, does winning really matter?

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