It’s fair to say we like stats here at the New Zealand Cricket Museum. They allow us, like so many others, to put a player or team’s performance into perspective, whether that’s nationally, globally or across time. We can plunge the stats of any player into the deep sea of cricketing stats that now exist and then extrapolate all sorts of things from the figures. We can do even more; we can assess the importance of winning the toss in various countries, how well teams travel, how well players perform if they have had a cooked breakfast rather than cereal – the list is pretty much endless. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, are perfect for the quick dissemination of stats with their short, sharp bursts of numbers that form patterns that we can all understand. Or can we?
When New Zealand selector Gavin Larsen, on a recent cricket show, suggested that, when he was looking at promising cricketers, a player’s statistics were only part of what he looked at, it gave me pause for thought. Then, reading a lovely essay by John Arlott (On English County Cricket) in his collection The Echoing Green, had the same effect. Arlott suggests (and this is 1952, remember) that “The breaking of Test records is… to be more esteemed than the winning or losing of a game”. That’s a danger I am sure we are all aware of and probably, at times, is something we have all been a little guilty of placing emphasis on. He goes on to argue that representative and Test cricketers are craftsmen. A dour twenty runs on a turning wicket is, in his view, a thing of beauty. Taking three wickets as a fast bowler on a pitch that is a feather bed should be celebrated. Sometimes more does not mean better. Sometimes it does. Once we look at the stories behind the numbers only then do we get a sense of what all those numbers really mean.
Many of us, of course, know that already. It’s simple; all we have to do is put the numbers in perspective. Put flesh on them, if you will, and the numbers become meaningful. A recent post from the Museum on Brendon McCullum reflects this beautifully. The question is, though, now that we deal in highlights – both in the press and on the screen – where does the cricket fan find this flesh, so to speak? Short, sharp action reports that entertain us but, somehow, don’t portray anything like a complete narrative of a game, or indeed the complexity of, say, five days play. Two other books in the Museum library serve to remind us of that fact.
The first, Tenth Wicket, concerns the tenth wicket stand of Blunt and Hawksworth for Otago against Canterbury in December 1931. It’s a compendium of reports from Christchurch’s The Press newspaper, probably written by Arthur Cane. It’s marvelous reportage and so different from what we so often read today. The writing is slow and languid with an impressively detailed eye on the game that doesn’t tell us what to think but allows us to make our own minds up once we have reached the end of each day’s play. It’s a similar scenario with England Skittled, which details the defeat of England by New Zealand at the Basin in February 1978. This time the writer from The Press is Dick Brittenden, one of the greats of sports’ journalism in this country.Once again the style is detailed, engrossing and engaging.
When Arlott wrote about his concern over the growing interest in the breaking of Test records, it was a trend. A trend that, if you like, was counteracted by people like Cane and Brittenden (and Arlott himself, of course). Any record was seen in the context of the game when it was reached. Other performances in that game were carefully detailed. Not just that of the record breaker. Perhaps we need, sometimes, a style of cricket writing that carries on from the writers I have mentioned and others similar to them.There is something pleasant (and dare I say democratic) in being allowed to come to your own appreciations of a player’s performance when you have been provided with the rich context to put it in. With that richness stats become incredibly useful and informative. Without it, less so.
This post was written by Barry Pateman, a New Zealand Cricket Museum volunteer with an open appreciation of John Arlott and his cricketing prose.