Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Thrashings are the norm in test match cricket

As the cricket watching community picked through the smouldering debris left behind by Steven Finn at Edgbaston, I noticed one theme come up several times: isn't it odd that these two teams keep thrashing one another?

A 2-1 series scoreline suggests two teams who are fairly evenly matched, and yet none of the individual matches has been even a tiny bit close. The margins of victory to date are: 169 runs (England), 405 runs (Australia) and 8 wickets (England). Shouldn't evenly matched sides produce evenly matched games?

And yet, test cricket confounds that expectation rather often. Australia's tour of South Africa last year  or the 2009 Ashes spring to mind as examples of test series which somehow contrived to be close overall, without producing a single close game.

So to place this years sequence of shoeings in some context I've had a look at the proportion of margins of victory in non-drawn test matches since 2005, to see just how prevalent hammerings are in modern test cricket and conversely just how much of a rare and priceless jewell a close test match is.

Our first chart shows the proportion of various margins of victory in all test matches since 2005. As you can see, nearly 50% of the pie is taken up by really big wins: innings victories and those by more than 200 runs or 9 or 10 wickets. By contrast, truly down-to-the-wire games (I believe the technical term is "arse nippers") form only a tiny proportion of test matches. Wins by less than 50 runs or 3 or less wickets make up only 7.6% if the total.

You may at this point be thinking that the stats are skewed by the inclusion of matches involving the relatively weak teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. You might also be thinking of the shoddy away performances by the likes of England's last Ashes tour party or the Indian side that toured England in 2011. It's no surprise that those teams got thrashed, you might say.

In the chart below, to isolate the proportions in games between relatively evenly matched teams, I've restricted the sample to include only matches in series where both teams won at least one game- thus proving themselves at least capable of beating their opposition in those conditions. 

As you'd expect, this restriction does alter the proportions. But not by very much.

The region of pie chart given to the biggest victories (innings, >200 runs, 9-10 wickets) shrinks a little bit, garnering a slice of more than 40%. Nevertheless, games with margins smaller than 100 runs or 7 wickets still occur less than a quarter of the time and very close games (<50 runs, 1-3 wickets) only 8% of the time- even between relatively evenly matched sides.

In this light, it doesn't seem anomalous at all that we haven't seen any close games in the Ashes yet. With only two games to go, it wouldn't really be surprising if we don't see any at all.

To be honest, I think anyone who's followed test cricket for a few years knows that games with really narrow margins of victory are quite rare. What looking at these numbers did for me is throw into sharp relief how much we as cricket fans over-react to both heavy defeats and large victories. Even if your team has been absolutely walloped in one game, it doesn't necessarily mean they won't be a match for the opposition in the next. On the other hand, those of us with triumphalist tendencies, when rejoicing in a big win should remember that even that hapless Aussie team of 2010-11 absolutely smashed England at Perth.

I don't think I know of any other sport in which it is so common for games between fairly evenly matched teams to end in very large margins of victory.

"It's not unusual to get thrashed at any time,
Even when you're evenly matched and in your prime"

as Tom Jones sang in his hymn to the strange fluctuations of cricketing fortunes, before his manager persuaded him to make the song about love or some nonsense like that. I think it's pretty hard to pick a winner for the Trent Bridge test. But I doubt it will be close.

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