One of cricket fans’ favourite pastimes is comparing Test batters within and across the generations.
These debates over who is better are never-ending and inconclusive at best. The common refrain used is that it is impossible to compare players from across generations as the circumstances were different. It is imprudent even to compare performances of the same batsman across two innings of the same Test match. As we saw in the Oval Test between England and India, the first innings’ conditions were drastically different from the second innings’.
The imprudence of these comparisons is not because it is impossible to compare these performances but because we don’t capture the necessary data and apply the relevant analysis to deduce it. With the availability of technology and data, cricket must analyse and start showcasing a player’s skill in a new light.
A batsman’s career is measured based on the cumulative runs he scored in his career in today’s world. By that measure, we regard Sachin Tendulkar as the best Test batsman in the world. The moment I say that, the typical response is that Don Bradman scored close to 7000 runs on uncovered pitches. Or someone will point out that Sunil Gavaskar scored most of his runs against the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers. The list of arguments is never-ending. To stop these arguments and make cricket an objective sport, I propose adopting a par score method like what they use in golf.
In golf, every hole in a course has a par score which is arrived at based on different factors such as the playing length, altitude, terrain, obstacles and so on. A player’s performance is measured against this par score as the number of strokes above or below par. In an 18-hole game, the scores are totalled and the net score above or below par for the course determines the winner of the game.
The concept of par score is not new to cricket. We have seen umpteen times when ex-players assess the playing surface and declare a range or a specific number as a par score for that pitch. The ex-player makes this inference based on his experience and past performances on the ground. It is a crude number arrived at based on a simplistic assessment of data. Now, there is enough data and technology to make this crudely-derived number into a scientific number.
How can we measure par score?
We know at a high level that the number of runs scored by a team is impacted predominantly by the skill levels of its batsmen, the quality of the opposition’s bowlers, the nature of the pitch and overhead weather conditions. All these factors are usually represented crudely by batting averages, bowling averages, amount of grass on the pitch, cloudy or clear weather conditions, amount moisture on the pitch, the type of ball used and so on.
Apart from the batting and bowling averages, the impact of the other factors has not been formally studied and quantified in the game. I know that Cricviz collects and presents data related to seam deviation, swing, spin deviation and others. This data can be used to arrive at a formula to calculate a par score for a pitch. As we know, the pitch and the overhead conditions change during a Test match. So, this par score should be adjusted at multiple intervals during the game, and a final number be formalised at the end of the game. Once this number is formalised, the team’s performance can be measured as some runs above or below par.
The beauty of this measure is that the par score will not be the same for the two teams playing in that match. As the teams have differently skilled players and may have played under different conditions during the game, the end par score for each team will be different. Even though the Test result will be decided based on the usual parameters of runs and wickets, the par score will help coaches understand how well their teams performed vis-à-vis the expected level.
The other advantage of measuring vis-à-vis the par score is that we can maintain a cumulative above or below par number to track a team’s performance over the years and until the end of time. A coach and a captain can be objectively rewarded based not only on win-loss ratio but also on the trajectory of their team’s cumulative par scores during their tenure.
The concept of the par score can be applied at an individual batter level as well, but with some adjustments. In addition to the earlier discussed factors, the number of runs scored by a batter is influenced by his position in the batting order, the number of runs the opposition has scored, the number of balls he faced during the innings and the bowlers faced during his innings. All these additional factors are also easily quantifiable. As we did for the team par score, the batter’s performance can be quantified as the number of runs above or below the calculated par score. Just like the team par score, a batter’s par score can be cumulated across his career.
The advantage of the par score system will be evident to the reader now. The cumulative par score represents the reality of the matches the batsman played under and illustrates how far ahead or below he ended up from the expected performance. Now, this cumulative par score can be compared across generations to say who performed better. There will be no more argument that Vivian Richards did not get to face his bowlers or his par score would have been higher than that of his opposing batsmen. That Tendulkar played during an era of flat pitches would lead to him being measured against a higher expected par score than today’s batsmen who play on more ‘demanding’ pitches.
What I have presented is an idea, and I am sure there are holes in it. I also know that past data for many of the factors will not be available. So, the par score for past matches and past players cannot be computed today. However, for the current and future players, I hope that cricket moves in such a direction of objectivity that fans stop making impossible to prove statements.
It is our divine right as cricket fanatics to know objectively who the best batsman in the game is then. We have the technology and data to make this happen. I hope such a rigorous measuring system becomes a reality soon.