Watching the NBA playoffs recently, and the articles that came with it, the most conspicuous aspect had been the rise of analytics in importance. A freeform sport like basketball does not immediately adhere to the sort of revolution that Michael Lewis made Billy Beane famous for, but it hasn’t stopped the people trying. The rise of analytics in general in American sports, to the point of over importance, has been significant. John Hollinger’s success at Memphis will only make the snowball bigger. We’ve moved beyond the boxscore to plus/minus and PERs to whatever else is the trade secret right now. The Sloan conference, for example, is something that could not have happened even just fifteen years ago.
Across the pond though, other sports have not gone through similar revolutions. Jon Wertheim wrote only last month about the lack of analytics in tennis at the top level. But even tennis can argue that it has too many variables, especially since it’s an individual sport, for it to be restricted to mere stats. But like baseball, it too is a sport that focuses on repetition of the same processes. But even more than tennis, it’s cricket which gives itself most easily to that sort of thing. The same scenario (a ball being delivered) can be done more than 2500 times during a single Test match.
But I digress; the issue of analytics is one that writers far better and more passionate than moi are dealing with. This whole tirade was due to having read “statistics don’t tell the whole story” one too many times in articles by ex-players. The more important question is, regardless of cricket’s equivalent of the box score, why hasn’t cricket statistics moved beyond the basics? Economy and Strike rates were first popularized in the mid-90s, since then why hasn’t something like Scoring Shot Percentage (as @shah1r has painstakingly contributed to, and Peter Della Penna has called for) not become the norm? Even in the age of statsguru, do we actually know what the real value of anything is? Perhaps we too need a Bill James who will answer his own questions. Not to say, I am that person – I can’t even do shit in excel – but someone reading this might be tempted to do that.
Anyway, I am rambling again; the point of this whole rant came from the recent debate of the value of Kamran Akmal. His detractors argue that he misses chances at important moments, and his work with the bat cannot compensate for it. His fans argue that he is still the best wicketkeeping batsman that Pakistan has, by some distance. And neither side has any quantitative argument.
So, in the most basic and rudimentary attempt to understand his value, here goes:
Kamran’s career can basically be divided into three parts: until summer 2006; then to the 2011 World Cup; and since the comeback. In the first phase he was the best wicket keeper batsman that Pakistan has had in many a year; a true successor to Saleem Yousuf, Rashid Latif and Moin Khan. He was someone could save or win a match on his own as a batsman, and wasn’t Edward Scissorshands as a keeper. That lasted until the 2006. A tour to England in particular (Pakistan’s first Test series loss in awhile), where he could not deal with the swinging ball behind or in front of the stumps; his confidence shattered, he devolved as a player, but as he continued to be part of the team he became complacent and unfit, safe in the knowledge that there was no one to replace him. At least that’s my theory.
The more important phase of Akmal’s career and how he will be defined is from that summer to the 2011 World Cup when he pretty much cemented his reputation. Phase 3 is everything since his comeback last year.
A couple of myths to be busted first: His fans believe that Akmal should only be an opener, since he isn’t suited for late order hitting, and batting at number three either makes him come in under pressure with an early wicket or too late to do a proper powerplay assault. The numbers seem to disagree with these fans of his. His average and strike rates are pretty much consistent in these conditions: averaging 26 @ SR of 81 as an opener, 29 @ 79 at number 3 and 22 @ 91 at numbers 6-8. The fact is that Kamran performs at his threshold. This is just who he is. He is closer to Ramdin than to Dhoni. So the question is what is his actual value?
Trying to find that out, I’ve tried to do the most basic and rudimentary calculation possible: how much did his drops costs practically – ignoring the affect they have on the batsman who’s been given the life, and the loss of confidence for the bowler – and whether his batting can make up for it. The basis of that came from this post on PakPassion, which isn’t completely accurate, but provided a foundation from which to build on. The decision for how to define the missed chances (MCs), including the stumpings and catches, was mostly subjective. For example, I did not include entries 2, 18, 34 and 59 among others from the list given in that link. The starting points for Phase 2 are different for Test and ODIs (England Tour 2006 for Tests, 13 February 2006 for ODIs – due to the list again).
PHASE 1 (2002-2006) – The Potential Superstar
Kamran is a budding superstar. Within two years of making himself the first choice he has become one of Pakistan’s more important players. His keeping has been praised by the likes of Ian Chappell and Osman Samiuddin, who called him “the second best wicket-keeper batsman in the game” – considering that Gilchrist was still at his peak, those were pretty strong words. And he did deserve that. From the start of 2005 till that England tour Akmal had scored 4 hundreds in 14 Tests (at an average of 42); two of those hundreds should be in Pakistani folklore considering the opposition and the context of those games. Akmal was on the verge of greatness.
PHASE 2 (2006-2011) – Mr Butterfingers
And then it all fell to pieces. Those 18 months are the outlier in Akmal’s career. He scored 7 of his 11 international hundreds between January 2005 and May 2006. The five years that followed were perhaps the worst run any non-Karachiite cricketer has had in Pakistan’s recent history*. So after days of manual recording these were the observations I came up with regarding this time period:
- Akmal regressed with the bat. His Test average in 30 matches during this time period was 30.5. That is worse than Prasanna Jayawardene’s career average, who is the keeper that Akmal can’t be even if he practices for 10,000 hours.
- Akmal was even worse with the gloves. He had 30 MC – basically one a match. Not exactly something you can build your team around.
- I wondered if his MCs had anything to do with what time of day it is. Perhaps he is tired in the final session, or struggles in the first session when the ball moves more. Well, the number for each of the session respectively were: 10, 10 and 10. Quite simply, he was a bad keeper all day long.
- And now the clincher; to those who still argue that his runs with the bat could outweigh his keeping, consider this. The number of runs he scored during this five year period was 1496. The number of runs he cost Pakistan due to his blunders was 1358** – at an average of 45.3 per missed chance. So his contribution, if we were to do a plus/minus, would be 4.6 runs per Test. That, quite frankly, is pathetic.
- That 45.3 average could have been far more actually but for Mohammad Asif, because more than once he dropped off Asif’s bowling. Asif in turn decided to get the batsman out again, just for the sake of it. You can almost imagine him thinking “oh Kamran’s dropped another clanger? No worries, lets remove the batsman anyway.” Which is in contrast to what you can imagine going on in Sami’s mind, “Kamran’s cost me another wicket? WOE IS ME.”
- It wasn’t even as if he wasn’t given confidence by the team and the selectors. He played 30 of 39 matches during this period. Also played 101 off 115 ODIs. So, that’s one more argument made invalid.
- Moving onto ODIs, the numbers don’t speak of the batsman-wicketkeeper that he is supposed to be. Averaging 26.5 @ 81.9 in 101 matches; not impressive, to say the least.
- He had 41 MCs in 101 matches (1 : 2.46). His MCs in ODIs ‘only’ cost 1161 runs, which means that his actual positive contribution to the team was 988 runs.Quantitatively, his positive contribution to the team was 10.98 runs per innings.
So, it’s pretty obvious that Kamran the Test Wicketkeeper had to be put out of his misery; those numbers are something to remember the next time someone brings up the possibility of his inclusion. In ODIs, the jury is still deliberating his success. The question then becomes, does Pakistan have better alternatives?
Anyone But Kamran
The most important point for all Kamran supporters has been the lack of alternatives Pakistan has in his stead. Adnan’s competence, if not excellence, has made him the ideal person to replace his elder brother in the longest format (despite the selection of Sarfraz in the Tests against South Africa), but the ODI position is still up for grabs. In fact, Kamran has reclaimed that position in the past eight months or so. And why is that?
- The ABK (Anyone But Kamran) doesn’t exactly scream out quality when keeping either. Since 2006, five other keepers have played for Pakistan and their record of MCs is 12 in 45 innings (1 : 3.75), which isn’t as bad as Kamran’s but still really not that exceptional.
- Surprisingly the worst ratios among those five have been for Zulqarnain Haider (2 MCs in 4) and Sarfraz Ahmed (6 MCs in 22 innings). Even more surprisingly, the best ratio is for Umar Akmal (1 MC in 7 matches), which explains my reservations about sample sizes. More than once during those matches (as per the Cricinfo BBB) he dropped the ball, but only once was it when the edge had been taken. I am pretty sure that as his sample size increases, his ratio will worsen. Adnan’s ratio (1 MC in 5) is closer to his level of quality though.
- The batting record for ABK isn’t that impressive; although it is still pretty close to what Kamran has put up historically. 747 runs at an average of 26.3 @ 74. That sounds reasonable enough, except that it is heavily influenced by Umar Akmal’s record, who averages 49.8 @ 82 in his 7 matches as the designated wicketkeeper.
- Even in Tests, the ABK record isn’t that impressive (21.4 in 23 matches), but Adnan averages 27 and is a far better keeper than both of his brothers combined.
- The conclusion, as of now, is that Umar Akmal might be the closest thing Pakistan have to a limited overs wicketkeeper – a move that I would wholeheartedly disagree with, since getting a better batsman and a worse keeper than Kamran really isn’t a solution to anything.
- The emergence of Mohammad Rizwan in the just-finished domestic season could provide Pakistan with one more alternative to try.
- Sarfraz averages 15.4 in international cricket, and has a MC ratio worse than 1 in 4. He seems to have the Owen Hargreaves syndrome; he becomes something far greater in his absence as the cheerleaders praise him to the highest skies. I would still prefer Adnan to him in the ODIs for now though; he deserves a run of 5-10 ODIs before Pakistan completely discards him. Incidentally the number of runs he has scored in ODIs (172) is less than the number of runs his MCs have cost (210). Something to remember.
- Randomly going through other teams’ keepers, I wondered if international cricket existed in a world like club football where it would be possible for Pakistan to cover this deficiency. During that I discovered that since 2007 (in over 50 ODIs) when he was the designated wicketkeeper, AB de Villiers record is: Average 74, SR 98. That, quite frankly, is obscene. In an alternative universe, would an ABdV-Ajmal swap be acceptable to both sides?
Phase 3 (2012-?) – The Comeback Kid
There is a belief that Kamran’s return has resulted in him being the sort of keeper he was pre-2005. That is supposed to be good news. I, being a glass half-empty person, have question why this change has occurred. Is it because he is now fitter (which he visibly seems to be) than he was from 2006 to 2011? In which case I have to question his professionalism – being unfit for half a decade is not acceptable. Is it because his time off has made him focus on his keeping once again? In this case, again, I have to question why it took him five years of failure, and one year of sitting out, to realize this. Or is it because he has stopped his alleged nefarious activities? Well, I never believe that he did that in the first place. But even the comeback isn’t that rosy.
- Has Kamran kept well since his comeback? Yeah, mostly. Except his ratio reads (5 MCs in 17 games) – two of those MCs I didn’t deem suitable as per my subjective standards, but even then 3 missed chances is three too many for my liking. The reason why they haven’t been highlighted? Those three missed chances have cost Pakistan a grand total of 19 runs. The bowlers have done what Kamran never did for them: saved his skin.
- More importantly, Kamran’s inclusion was supposed to be on the fact that he is the best batsman among Pakistani wicketkeepers. An averge of 16.3 in those 17 matches does not speak of him fulfilling that reputation.
So, what happens now? Most sports fans, as we all know, aren’t persuaded by mere numbers; it takes years for their biases to develop, so much like religious nutjobs, they won’t be convinced by quantitative experiments. But hopefully, this can be the start of a debate of higher quality. Is Kamran the one eyed main the kingdom of the blind, or is he a black mark in the history of Pakistani cricket? I’ll sit on the fence for this one.
*I decided not to use Karachiites because the presence of Muhammad Sami, Faisal Iqbal and Danish Kaneria would have suddenly made Kamran look better.
** This does include two innings where the runs are being counted twice (one of them being Hussey’s Sydney innings), because I do believe that if you drop a guy at the score of 10 and then at 20, and he goes on to score a hundred, you should be penalized for each mistake. The “real” number of runs is closer to 1050 – still not something to write home about, I’d say.