Friday, March 24, 2006

Not too much Cricket?

Bob Simpson says here that today's cricketers play "less cricket overall" than their predecessors did.

In an intriguing article, he finds fault with present-day cricketers taking cover under the "too much cricket" excuse to avoid practising as much as they really should, to protect themselves from injury. And this in turn affects match performance, he says. A typical catch 22 situation. Practice/Performance or self-protection?

I do agree with him when he says that practice makes perfect, and that the greatest players are the ones who spend hours perfecting their game. But the question is why does he feel that the current levels of practice are not enough?

His arguments, and the general flow of the article, seem to be directed more towards proving that the previous generations -- including his -- were fitter and played a lot more than the current crop of players, rather than pointing out the need for more practice today. And since the stars of yesteryear didn't suffer injuries at the rate that today's players are subjected to, the latter have no excuse to shy away from practice.

Nice way to put it, but then is it all true?
The article is too simplistic with too narrow a scope for my liking. Simpson's argument rests on the sole examination of bowlers and assumes playing conditions, competitiveness, the willingness to dive/slide while fielding (remember Simon Jones?), economic benefits and the pace/frequency of travel to be the same between the generations. Casting aside these shortcomings as oversight, it is still not possible to accept the reasons that he gives us to prove that the previous generation were fitter and played more cricket.

Early on Simpson says,

At present players have a restriction of 15 Tests and 30 one-dayers each year. In all that is 75 Test days and 30 ODIs per year. Not a huge load by any means and even less when you consider that Test matches are generally over in four days. So the total days of international cricket are probably closer to 90 than 105. In addition, of course, with first class matches requiring only 90 overs per day it is far less than in the past.

--Emphasis mine--

What does he mean when he says "Not a huge load" and "far less than in the past"? Does he mean to say that the workload on today's bowlers is lesser than in the past? And if so, how does one go about assessing the veracity of this statement? One way to do this would be to find out the average number of days/year that a professional used to play cricket in the past (past = 30's to 60's as per the article) and compare it with today's figures.

Take for example Simpson himself. The average number of days/year that he's played professional cricket over a career spanning 25 years is around 52 (considering 5 days per test and 4 days per first-class match). Do the same math for our own Anil Kumble, and what does the figure come to?


And this is considering 4 days per test as Simpson wants us to believe!

52 against 111! You decide for yourself. Not a huge load eh? Add to this the frenetic travel, compared to the leisurely cruises that the Aussies used to take in the 50's when they came to play the Old Enemy, and you will understand the real meaning of "load".
Another way to see if the load is really lesser than in the past is to compare the number of overs that bowlers have had to bowl per year across generations. This is what Simpson does, but let us dig deeper into the stats, shall we?
Simpson sanctimoniously quotes figures of overs bowled by different bowlers from the past during a year, or during an English tour, and compares it worth modern-day figures which are on the lower side. This approach is flawed. Like he himself admits, the tours have gradually become shorter which means there are not as many tour matches being played as before. But what is not apparent immediately is the quality of batting that the bowlers had to bowl against and the results of these tests, across generations.
England were terrorised by Shane Warne during the middle and latter half of the 90s, and when the opposition collapses, a bowler can't be faulted for not having bowled enough overs! Tests of late have been result-oriented unlike the drudgery that used to pass off for Test Cricket during Simpson's era -- I'm sure they had their share of interetsing matches but I'm talking of the overall trend. And so when tests produce results, there is a greater probability that bowlers don't bowl as much as in matches which are drawn.
A look at Shane Warne's stats would show he's bowled more than 1300 overs/year over the last 16 years, which compares well with most of the figures from the past that are quoted in the article.
What I'm more interested in are the averages (runs/wicket) and strike rates (balls/wicket) of these bowlers that Simpson quotes.
A cursory look across four leg-spin legends, as far as tests are concerned, is revealing:
Clarrie Grimmett, Avg: 24.21, S.R.: 67.18.
Richie Benaud, Avg: 27.03, S.R.: 77.04.
Shane Warne, Avg: 25.21, S.R.: 57.60.
Anil Kumble, Avg: 28.76, S.R.: 65.78.
So not only are today's greats playing more than their predecessors, but are taking fewer balls to take their wickets, with the runs conceded being more or less the same. Let me put this in perspective. If only Kumble and Warne were to bowl as a team they would take approximately a 100 balls less per innings to bowl a side out compared to Messrs. Grimmett /Benaud. 100 balls is equal to half a session. And over two innings they would save a session for their team, just at the cost of 20 more runs per innings!
I admit that the above analysis is too naive, that these are truly great bowlers and that the numbers will even out if we take a bigger sample across all types of bowlers, but I'm just playing Simpson at his own game. And the irony is -- if you take his side of the argument -- all this has been achieved with lesser practice! That says something about how accurate the article is, doesn't it?
Anyway, the point is not only is the load on today's cricketers more than what it used to be, they have been extremely successful with the current levels of practice. Like the cliche goes, there is no practice like match practice. Moreover, Simpson neither gives us data on the practice levels during his era nor says in detail, with accurate facts, why today's bowlers -- despite their successes -- should practise more.
Simpson goes on to wonder if the current generation, not "free to climb trees, throw stones", are not as hardy as their predecessors. This is preposterous, to say the least. Accepting this argument -- only for a moment though -- would mean evolution and mutation have been happening at an unprecedented rate which would make Darwin roll over in his grave and jump for joy, not to mention how it dashes the hopes of those propagating Intelligent Design. Accepted that lifestyles have changed, but what makes Simpson think that his generation were the culminating point of millions of years of evolution? Preposterous and presumptuous!
He also makes an interesting comparison with golf, citing Vijay Singh as an example. Yeah, right! So what would Mr.Simpson want Shoaib Akhthar to do at evening after stumps during a test? Go to the nets and bowl, of course! Bollocks. Why not ask Michael Schumacher to drive two practice races before each race? It is okay to draw parallels across sport, but the danger lies in cutting across contexts that are unique to each sport.
To conclude, yes practice is necessary, but in today's age, when teams and cricketers have so much to benefit by prolonging their careers, practice needs to be balanced with the number of matches being played. At the international level, the game is more often than not in the mind. Add to that the intense media and public pressures that cricketers have to face these days, when there is no rest day in between a test, and you get an idea of what these guys go through. All I have to say is, leave it to the players and coaches to decide how much practice is necessary. They certainly are not lacking in enthusiasm and most certainly don't hide behind practice bowlers, as Bob would have us believe. As for the article itself, it's nothing but the self-gratifying rant of an old man indulging in juvenile games of one-upmanship, replete with misleading statistics and unbacked generalizations.
Update (27 March): The average number of days/year figure for Simpson is not exactly reflective of reality -- see comments for more details.


catch 22 said...

Logically sound analysis corroborated with statistics is a lethal combination, couldn find any loopholes in your argument.

musafir said...

@ catch 22: Ah, but then there are. For example, the number of days/year figure is an average one. For all you know, since Simpson played for so long, he could have had a series of seasons in which he played quite a lot and then a lot of seasons in which he was injured and didn't play as much -- meaning he could have been "loaded" as much as Kumble or Warne. But then, I thought about this only in hindsight...need to dig into the stats archives to know if this could be the case. But the thing is, even if this conclusion that I drew is wrong, the average and strike rate numbers are pretty compelling.

musafir said...

@ catch 22: Simpson's case is a freak one. He went into retirement in 67/68 and came back to play against India and the W.I. in 77/78. But even then the average number of days/year that he's palyed is somewhere in the 80s. but if you do the same math for Richie Benaud and Clarie Grimmett, the number is alomost comparable to Kumble's. Shows how even the most discerning of observers can be misled by the statistics!

musafir said...

@ catch 22: Did some digging up...this is what I got:
Read as: Name, D/Y, O/Y, Career Span.

R.Benaud 113 1105 12
C.Grimmett 91* 1134 13*
F.Trueman 138 966 20

A.Kumble 117 1226 17**
S.Warne 137 1351 16**
C.Ambrose 131 1082 15

D/Y - Average number of days/year played considering 5 days/test and 4 days/first class match, not including years missed out due to injury.

O/Y - Average number of overs/year bowled.

Span - Career span in years.

* - Grimmett actually played till he was 50 -- I've taken the number of years he's played test cricket and added 2 more years for sake of approximation.

** - Career is unfinished.


So, even though the numbers pretty much even out, the conclusion is still valid -- that today's players play as much, if not more, cricket than their predecessors, and are having longer international careers (Trueman had a prolonged First Class career at Yorkshire), which inevitably means that they are not less loaded (the D/Y and the O/Y prove that) and that they are more fitter.