Opinion: We can't manipulate statistics for argument's sake


Renowned professor Aaron Levenstein once said: "Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." Peter Miller substantiates the claim.

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination." – Andrew Lang.

Cricket is a game of numbers. Almost everything anyone does on the field is counted. Balls bowled, runs scored, wickets taken, extras conceded. Everything has a column it needs to be chalked into.

There are pie charts, wagon wheels, bar graphs and line graphs. It is a sport that is in the thrall of numbers. You can chart a player's progress from the minute they begin their career until they decide that it is time to fill the airwaves with cliches from the commentary box.

The only downside to statistics is that people then decide to try mould them to fit their preconceived argument. They are like a zoo keeper trying to squeeze an elephant into his Ford Fiesta. Statistics are brilliant for helping us to form an opinion, but they are very far from the only indicator of the value of a cricketer.

They probably aren't even the most important one. You cannot decide whether a player is the next Don Bradman or the latest Rob Quiney with a screenshot of his career numbers, but people will try.

The crimes that people will commit in order to get statistics to fit their case are numerous, but here are the worst offenders.

<b>If You Exclude The Innings Where He Succeeded</b>

During the last Ashes there were countless people that wanted to tell you that if you excluded the innings where Joe Root succeeded he was a failure. This was said knowingly as if it was brilliant and cutting-edge insight.

The whole point of an "average" is to find the middle ground between success and failure. If you start to remove the outlying successes (or failures) it becomes meaningless. If you ever think about wanting to remove bits from someone's figures to prove your point, don't.

<b>I Don't Count Those Runs/Wickets</b>

This is a favourite of those that have an issue with a particular player. We are told that runs or wickets taken against weaker opponents shouldn't count. Virat Kohli has a ridiculously impressive 17 ODI centuries after just 119 games. Rather than gawping in amazement at such a record we are told that runs against certain teams (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka) don't really count.

If we take this approach we will have to exclude Bradman's runs against weak South African and Indian teams, 19 of Sachin Tendulkar's 100 tons and 113 of Muttiah Muralitharan's 795* Test wickets. Someone's career record is just that, a record of how they have done against all opponents, weak and strong. Runs are runs, wickets are wickets.

<b>This One Statistic Proves My Point</b>

You can't pick one stat and decide that proves your argument. Like everything in life, numbers need context to have meaning. While someone's career record is just that, it does not signify their worth as a player.

There are players who have improved over time, those that have held up an end for another bowler to take wickets, those that have often sacrificed their wicket in the pursuit of quick runs. James Anderson averages over 30 with the ball and people will tell you this means he is a poor bowler. Rather than looking at the two stages of his career after coming back from a lackluster start his record is regarded without analysis.

Ashley Giles averaged 40 with the ball in Test cricket, yet England would not have won the 2005 Ashes without him. Adam Gilchrist finished with his Test career with a creditable average of 47; he would have had one well north of 50 if he had not given his wicket away so often in the pursuit of runs ahead of a declaration.

Andrew Flintoff has a poor Test record, with bat and ball. That doesn't change the fact there was a time when he was just about the most exciting cricketer in the world. All of these crimes have one common element, it is the cherry picking of numbers to best suit your argument. Statistics should add to the nuance of a cricket debate, not shut you off from having your mind changed.

Enjoy the numbers cricket produces, but don't think they tell you everything. If nothing but statistics were used to judge cricketers Graham Gooch would have been dropped after his debut, Shane Warne would have been abandoned back in 1992 and Jacques Kallis would have been dumped after a handful of matches. Statistics are as pure as fresh snow fall, they lose their beauty once you have created massive foot prints and snowmen around your argument. You are left with a jumbled mess.

Remember: "Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital" – Aaron Levenstein.

*I haven't counted the five wickets Muralitharan took against the World XI in the so-called 'Super Test' of 2005, as no right thinking person should.

<b>Peter Miller</b>