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Think of a number

Published:Saturday | November 6, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Gleaner Writer

A statistician is a mathematician broken down by age and sex, and statistics, according to Mark Twain, are like ladies of the night - once you get them down you can do anything with them. Perhaps, that is why we have such a contradictory approach to statistics and statisticians.

We say 'the figures don't lie' and yet we accept, as Lord Disraeli, the former British prime minister, is reputed to have said, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." Following Twain, Stephen Leacock, the Canadian humorist, quipped, "In earlier times they had no statistics so they had to fall back on lies." Another humorist stated, "97.3 per cent of all statistics are lies." However, the remaining 2.7 per cent gives some interesting information.

For example, three out of four Barbadians make up 75 per cent of the population of Barbados. A person can have his head in the oven and his feet in a bucket of ice and on average will feel fine. Experience teaches us if there is a 50-50 chance that something can go wrong then nine out of 10 times it will. Perhaps the best example of how statisticians and statistics work is the story about three statisticians who went out hunting and came across a large deer. The first statistician fired, but missed by a metre to the left. The second statistician fired, but missed by a metre to the right. The third statistician didn't fire, but shouted in triumph, "On the average we got it!"

Despite the cynicism, in certain situations over time I trust the figures. Wisden, the famous British Cricket publication, and its website, have demonstrated that cricket is literally a numbers game and that the statistics do matter. For example, only two previous West Indies captains, Courtney Walsh and Floyd Reifer, have lower Test batting averages than the new West Indies captain, Darren Sammy. Walsh's average is 7.54 and Reifer is 9.25. However, Walsh was picked as a bowler and got 519 wickets at an average of 24.44 runs per wicket. Reifer was picked as a batsman. Sammy, an all-rounder, has a batting average of 19.40 from eight Test matches, a bowling average of 27.74 in Test matches, and 43.06 from one-day internationals (ODIs). Interestingly, a lady named Jasmine Sammy, who played for the West Indies Women's Team in the late '70s, had a batting average of 14.88 from six Test matches and a bowling average of 9.75. This compares extremely favourably with the new captain's averages.

In terms of former captains, Chris Gayle has a batting average of 40.31 in Test matches and 39.42 in ODIs, Brian Lara retired with a Test average of 52.88, and Sir Vivian Richards with 50.23. The abandoned Ramnaresh Sarwan's Test average is 41.73 and his ODI average is 43.94. What do the averages mean? Over time, you can expect Sarwan to contribute 41.73 runs per innings of a Test match, as compared with Sammy's 19.40 or Devon Smith's 24.81.

Interesting statistics

A recent article in the 'Numbers Game' column by S. Rajesh highlighted some extremely interesting and, for all fans of West Indies cricket, appalling statistics:

Since January 2004, the West Indies team has won a mere five Tests, and never more than one in any given year;

The bowling has completely fallen away since Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose retired. In every year since 2003, the bowling average for West Indies has exceeded 40. During this period, the batting average has been at least 10 fewer than their bowling average every year. The difference this year is nearly 25.

In the last three years, West Indies' bowling average has been the worst among all teams, including Bangladesh. In these 24 Tests, they've conceded nearly 45 runs per wicket. Sulieman Benn, the highest wicket-taker, with 50, averages more than 40 runs per wicket.

When they have played, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan have all been among the runs. Their statistics compare favourably with the best batsmen in the world but the same cannot be said for the bowling over the past 10 years.

We can question the statistics as much as we want and point out that in the case of Sammy and some of the others like Baugh, we have to wait until they have completed at least 25 matches. However, Devon Smith has played 31 Test matches and if he keeps doing the same things the same way, he will end his playing career with roughly the same (or worse) statistics. In cricket, the bad news is that over time your average, if anything, goes down because of increasing age. The good news is that averages can improve with changes in leadership and team selection. However, there are four 'Ps' in team selection and one of them is the killer.

The first 'P' is 'performance', and if you follow that you will do well. The second 'P' is 'potential', and that will work as a philosophy if you have a judicious blend with performance. The third 'P' is for 'playing conditions', or even 'pitch' conditions, which would mean that you pick horses for courses. The one that destroys them all and has always been the most powerful 'P' in West Indies cricket is 'politics'.

If you include 'parochialism' within it and 'pressure', you have the present situation - a team with a batting average of about 25 and a bowling average of almost 50 and without one of the few batsmen who has scored runs recently. In simple terms, for every run you now score the other team scores two, and you have reduced your team's scoring potential by about 41 runs an innings.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that statistics are so weird that three per cent exceeds two per cent not by one per cent but by 50 per cent.