A side note before I go on my way in discussing this: I hate composing pieces like this in first person and refuse to do it. So without referring to myself in this piece, I believe it is of some note in this argument that I work professionally in sports stats, with a focus on cricket.
Run again this June, the Kwibuka Women’s Cricket Tournament is held to remember the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where up to a million people lost their lives in one of the cruelest attacks in human history.
Starting in 2014 and held every year, the Kwibuka Tournament trophy has been shared between Kenya and Uganda in 3-2 split. Mali, a country who came to Rwanda’s aid in 1994, joined the tournament for the first time this year, along with Tanzania. Unfortunately the Kenyan team was a late withdrawal due to lack of funds.
What is important to note in this year’s tournament is that it is the first where the matches are classed as full T20 Internationals. In an applauded move made last year by the ICC, cricket’s governing body granted all 105 members T20 international status, with the move part of a plan to globalise the game. Others took swipes at the move, claiming that the record books would be tainted by lopsided results and bullying individual performances.
Those clinging to this reason of ‘statistical integrity’ probably fainted upon reading scores from Kigali this week, after Mali were bowled out for 6 in just 9 overs against the tournament hosts. Only one run came off the bat, with Rwanda chasing the target within an over.
No one in Mali had picked up a bat or ball in organised cricket until 2002, when students took up the game in a region of Bamako, the nation’s capital. The Kalanso School held the nation’s first ever tournament, before its popularity spread across other parts of the city.
Those caught up in their own frustrations of these matches counting in their beloved records forget that the achievement of Mali playing international cricket is an achievement in itself. For a Francophonic nation in West Africa to field an international team 17 years removed from having no cricket at all is incredible. This tournament and everything it stands for should be what steals headlines. Afghanistan, a Full Member by comparison, still face the cruel political struggle of women participating in sport. Their stories and situations may be a case of comparing apples and oranges, though it helps to illustrate just how special Mali is for fielding an international Women’s team less than twenty years after school kids took up the game.
As Paul Frame on Twitter rightfully points out, the lowest First Class total also happens to be 6, made by “The Bs” against England in 1810.
Some cricket statisticians, believing they have this ownership of these stats were almost offended to include these numbers. This is some weird false entitlement that only hinders the development of cricket and its growth. One statistician had the audacity to “call on” the ICC to rethink their change of handing every member T20 international status, so the records of the most skilled are not tainted. This urge failed to consider the fact that players of Associate nations, deprived of this socially-constructed “status”, have never been allowed the opportunity to ever prove their worth. And the lack of funding that would have accelerated this development and opportunity? Tough luck according to some people and their databases. They might as well say, “unlucky for not being colonised by the British. Your numbers don’t count. Sorry.”
Stats and records in cricket are far from sacred, with some scores in the game’s infancy definitely not within the ideal parameters of what these self-professed gate-keepers would consider acceptable. As Paul Frame on Twitter rightfully points out, the lowest First Class total also happens to be 6, made by “The Bs” against England in 1810.
“The Bs” was simply a team made up of English First Class players who were lucky to have a surname starting with B, plus a sprinkling of other players to make up the numbers. If we want to talk about integrity of statistics, surely we can go back and debate the status of this team. Though, because we look at these matches with romance, through rose lenses, no one questions why matches like this are in the history books. So why, when Uganda then took on Mali and posted a score in excess of 300, did no one congratulate Uganda for breaking records? Provovia Alako became the first Associate player to score a women’s T20 century, though failed to receive the scale of plaudits she deserved.
A few years ago, ESPNCricinfo ran a story from a concerned reader who had the nerve to say that Adam Voges Test career had ruined his beloved list of Test batting averages. The reader, whose “only real dream in life was to be the first Test cricketer to bridge that seemingly absurd gap between the Don and the best of the rest”, couldn’t handle when Adam Voges achieved the same dream. With Voges and now Steve Smith in the gap between Bradman and “the rest”, the poor bloke probably can’t breathe. He then has the audacity, sarcastic or not, to blame the West Indies of ballooning Voges’ numbers, forgetting that those playing Test cricket in a bygone era most likely took on bowling attacks far weaker in comparison. You can’t get romantic about something so absolute, so objective. Voges met the criteria. Sorry that someone changed your precious list because he made runs. Give it a rest.
Here in lies another problem. Due to the different playing and climatic conditions, plus the unique ground dimensions, scores will always be different around the world. To add another dimension to this, different eras have produced different totals and records as the relationship between bat and ball has shifted. Finally, the laws (and associated playing conditions, once introduced) of cricket have dramatically evolved. The One Day International format has changed in over allotments, fielding restrictions and now with multiple new balls.
Eight ball overs were still bowled in international cricket as late as 1980. Cricket’s rules and its records evolve, so why are people still clinging onto some faux-sanctity of old numbers? People outside cricket would laugh and question why some international matches meet status requirements while others do not, and it’s image of elitism would only hinder bringing new people into the game.
Blowouts and skewed numbers are found throughout every sport, yet other sports never face issues of stats keepers on some self-professed high ground rubbishing records. Baseball, a sport more meticulous in its metrics than cricket, certainly didn’t panic like cricket would when the Texas Rangers gave the Baltimore Orioles a 30-3 thumping in August 2007. On top of Baltimore’s performance, riddled with poor pitching and fielding errors, Oriole Park is also one of the smaller parks in Major League Baseball. Just like ground dimensions in cricket, there is no strict guideline on how a ballpark needs to be set out. It’s an added charm to both bat-and-ball sports, and no doubt affects stats and scores.
The added challenge this brings for competitors in both sports forces them to adapt to solve problems on the field to win the match they’re playing in, with records accumulated from this being repeated over and over again. Not every match is played at the centre wicket of Lord’s, on an 18 degree day in July. Cricket’s charm lies in its subtle differences around the world. One boundary is 60 metres, though another boundary is 80 metres. On top of this, pitches are as individual as the players who bowl and bat on them. Bertus de Jong’s “Of stats and status anxiety” on Cricbuzz last year discusses cricket’s match-to-match curiosities in more detail.
No one put an asterisk on Australia’s 31-0 victory over American Samoa in their 2002 Men’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier. Even when it was reported that several American Samoan players were unavailable to play due to visa issues and a second-string side were thrown out onto the ground, no one at FIFA wanted to erase the game from the records. Archie Thompson’s 13 goals didn’t automatically make him the most prolific striker in history, and the result is not and never will be compared to Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Germany to ultimately claim the 2002 World Cup trophy. Though, in the eyes of some in cricket, they would see a 31-0 result as simply a result of 29 goals better than another international match. That sentence is ridiculous enough to read, let alone try and understand.
Other sports are smart enough to conceptualise and give context when outliers enter the books. At the time of writing, India’s Sunil Chhetri has more international goals than Lionel Messi. Iran’s Ali Daei has more goals than anyone, though any knowledgeable football fan can compare his record to others in the esteemed list and deduce that he isn’t the best striker of all time. Through comparing goals per game and difficulty of opposition for example, Daei slides down a hypothetical ranking. To add to this, football like other sports have evolved, with a shift in defensive focus in the modern game compared to say the 1950s and 60s. Players of the ilk of Pele and Puskas revolutionised attacking play (Puskas is credited for ‘inventing’ the drag back), though enjoyed opposition throwing men forward, and thus enjoyed better goals per game ratios than elite attackers today. For the Brazilian Ronaldo and Messi, constant international play against strong South American opposition hurt their numbers.
To continue with the football metaphor, when we look at the records of some of Europe’s top strikers, do we ask them to not count goals scored against lesser teams who fail to qualify for the Euros or the World Cup? Miroslav Klose has five goals against Azerbaijan, three against Kazakhstan and two against both the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg. People are smart enough to take the data they are given to help but not completely tell a story with the data.
By the logic of those who feel matches like Mali’s shouldn’t count, it’s fair then to ask how they feel when Associate players achieve greatness against Full Members. Do they think of Ireland and Kevin O’Brien’s miraculous chase in Bangalore against England at the 2011 World Cup as some double achievement due to the against-all-odds outcome? Were they jumping up and down after Scotland’s win over England last year? It’s fine for them in this case to have them in their records because it suits them, though it’s rather convenient that neither of these results have barely been mentioned so far at a ten-team Cricket ‘World Cup’. The Netherlands yesterday defeated a full member in Zimbabwe convincingly, curiously in the first ever occasion where an ODI was held outside, but during, a World Cup. No mention of the result filtered through in World Cup coverage, and one must ask if those reading the scorecard are blaming Zimbabwe’s downward slide for the result, or rather praising Dutch fight. In the end, neither should decide if this match should count. These results are worth just as much as the World Cup game between New Zealand and South Africa that was played at the same time, but those in this weird hegemony think they hold the aces and choose not to worry about them. They shouldn’t even have a hand in this metaphorical poker game.
Are statisticians that narrowed in to only want to keep track of 12 international teams? Are they that scared of having to remember names and scores of obscure associate cricket countries whose participation numbers are booming? Do they forget that those in Associate countries have been denied this opportunity purely because of something so arbitrary as “status” until now?
This is the elitist nonsense that limits cricket and its growth, and has done so for too long. What’s the issue that there are young teenagers playing international women’s cricket? Young teens have played men’s Test cricket. There is no such thing as integrity in records, and yes, Hasan Raza would still have debuted at 14 even if record-tracking gate-keepers ran onto the field in disgust. For records’ sake, no one even knows how old Shahid Afridi was when he made his One Day International debut in 1996. Not even him, it appears.
Records are meant to be broken. Cricket like every other athletic endeavour goes through revolution. Numbers end up different across different eras and for different reasons, and for that, the numbers may not lie but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Context and conceptualising needs to be done to done to come to conclusions. Technologies change. Formats change. Bradman’s 99.94 isn’t just special because no one has come close since, but because no one in his era was within 10 miles of him. Plus, he did it on uncovered wickets, among other things. In saying this, Bradman’s averarage isn’t sacred because it’s a number we memorise growing up and aspire to, but because there is a possibility that no one will eclipse it. If someone was to reach or surpass Bradman’s numbers, one should applaud them, though the attitude shown by stats gate-keepers suggests they’d rather this happen when they are six feet under.
Cricket numbers are already skewed by eras, climate, pitch conditions, ground dimensions and playing opposition. We don’t see golf tragics take a -15 at Pebble Beach and put it against a -15 at a comparatively tougher Augusta National. Those with any knowledge know how skewed the numbers can be, and people selecting cricket teams are paid good money to balance and debate one score’s significance over another, because they know how stats don’t tell the whole story.
The idea that Mali and Rwanda’s records don’t count because they include two relative newcomers, and the people carrying this attitude, only stunt the growth of the game. This hinders any chance to break down the stereotypes of the game being upper class to those unfortunate to start from the outside of cricket’s exclusive Full Member club looking in. To add to this, to think that stats are pure, absolute markers of one team or player’s ability over another is flawed and foolish.
Let’s call upon those stuck in the cricketing hegemony to embrace a more diverse and inclusive game, complete with records that reflect the same. Every country should have the right to play international cricket. No one cares about record books of personal sentiment, and those records are rubbish when they can’t tell a complete story anyway.