Cricket Commentary’s Math Problem

M.S. Dhoni has been giving some pretty interesting interviews lately, a nice contrast to his usual, “Well, of course, [insert useless, inoffensive, cricket player talk here].” I particularly liked this note about his future plans:

“I can’t become a television commentator. I would not be able to remember all those statistics and will have problems in matters relating to techniques,” he added.

Two points: 1) Why has commentary become so obsessed with statistics? There is this idea that all these numbers will yield some insight into what players are trying to do (i.e., their strategy), but there’s plenty of nonsense stuff — like wagon wheels. Has anyone looked at a wagon wheel and discerned any insight? Unless you come across a rare innings in which a batsman has decided he will absolutely not score anything on one side, wagon wheels just don’t tell you all that much. I’m also relatively neutral about pitch bowling maps: yes, on several occasions, they will show a bowler’s erratic ways, but most of the time, they show bowlers hitting the “good” or “full” lengths. Big deal.

I recognize that silly statistics — “Record sixth wicket partnership between two Jharkhand players for India in India against Australia at Rajkot” — are a long and respected part of cricket discourse, but is the emphasis on “analysis” as old? Wasn’t there a time when commentators preferred to deal in narratives, characters, and plots, rather than numbers? Say what you will, but I like Harsha Bhogle; I think he’s still up there with the best commentators precisely because he knows he needs to tell a story. The TestMatchSofa kids are similarly intriguing because they seem to resist the statistical nonsense; they treat their players like villains and heroes — and are more than happy to let us know (in the foulest of language) what they think.

2) It’s impossible not to read Dhoni’s statement about techniques as a pointed critique of commentators’ know-it-all tone. Dhoni seems to be saying, “I have a shit technique, yes, but I am also India’s best ODI batsman and enjoy a more than sufficient Test average.” Certain commentators — Sunil Gavaskar, definitely — act as if they wrote the cricket textbook, and they delight in pointing out players who violate the orthodoxy. Pedantry is terrible, and cricket pedantry is the most terrible.


3 thoughts on “Cricket Commentary’s Math Problem

  1. Tony Tea says:

    Stats (and graphics) are ideal for sports broadcasters. It mean they can worry less about nuance, and concentrate on easy to present filler.

  2. I agree about Harsha Bhogle – he just always sounds enthusiastic and his voice is able to get you in a good mood.

  3. chrisps says:

    I learnt a new word recently: Apophenia – finding meaningful patterns in random data. I wish at least some of the commentators were numerate. I suspect we would hear fewer numbers mentioned, but they’d be penetrating, rather than dished up to support a hunch/prejudice or as a lesser alternative to the ‘story-telling’ that marks out the few great commentators.

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