Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: April 2015

James Anderson’s record highlights England’s weakness

470122776Amid all the articles congratulating James Anderson for surpassing Ian Botham as England’s all-time Test wicket taker, I’ve not seen one to put the numbers in perspective. It’s a fine achievement, certainly, but compared to other countries, it’s pretty small beer.

Just like the centuries record that three years ago fell to Alastair Cook, the England Test wickets record was abnormally low.

For starters, England still is the only major Test nation (bar Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) to have its leading all-time Test wickets record below 400.

Put another way, if Anderson was from India or South Africa, he would be just 4th on that country’s list of all-time wicket-takers. His mark of 384 would put him third in Australia and the West Indies too.

Essentially, Botham’s record has been there for the taking for a long time. England play a lot of Test cricket, so there’s no excuse in terms of matches played. There just hasn’t been a bowler of the class and longevity required to take the record.

Botham was top of the whole world for a while, with a test record that stood for a couple of years. But then the record was pushed up over 400 by two other all rounders, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev; and and then 500 by Courtney Walsh.

Subsequently, the two spinners Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan took the record out of sight, over 600, then 700, with Murali on exactly 800 at the end of his career. The all-time list is below the break.

test-wicket-progression-1

Anderson is a fine bowler, but I would be surprised if he gets over 500 wickets when he’s finished. He may well end up around 6th on the all time list if he can stay healthy and get to 450+ wickets. But Dale Steyn of South Africa is ahead of him already, despite playing 22 fewer tests. (A bit old now, but a superb Steyn-Anderson comparison is here that shows how far superior Steyn really is.)

England have not had a world-class consistent bowling attack for a generation. When the team has done well, the bowlers have flourished, but have then faded – such as Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, who had the potential to become a combination as good as any. Great test teams have needed bowlers who work as a unit, and stick around. Anderson has too often carried the attack alone, and while he has earned the record, it is a figure born of hard work and persistence, rather than from blowing teams away.

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2 strange things about the Boat Race

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The Boat Race is a bizarre event in many ways. The course is incredibly winding and gives a potentially huge advantage to the crew on the Surrey station (the south side). It’s elitist. The participants are typically now international rowers rather than amateur undergraduates. It’s way longer (over 4 miles) than usual rowing races (2k).

But there are two other odd things going on.

1) The race is getting slower

For many years, as boat technology improved and crews trained harder and smarter, and the rowers became international pros, the winning time came down. From the 1950s to 2000, typical times went from around 20 minutes to 17. The course record was set in 1998, at 16:19 by Cambridge. From 1996 to 2005, 5 of the 10 winning times were sub-17 seconds.

But since 2005, there have been none below the 17 second mark. As the chart below of the rolling 10-year average shows, since 1999 the times are getting slower. (I’ve used the 10-year average to smooth out what is otherwise a very bumpy chart, and show the trend. The average also mitigates the impact of the bad-weather years.)

boat race 10 year rolling average winning time

Why the drop in pace? It’s hard to say for sure. My guess is that technological and fitness improvements are now very incremental. The shift to a global talent pool happened a while back. Instead, the races are tight, with clashing oars and cat-and-mouse tactics. It’s all about winning, not the clock.

This leads to the second odd thing:

2) The reserve crews are frequently quicker

Obviously, you would expect the Blue crew to beat the reserves (Goldie of Cambridge, Isis of Oxford). But some years the reserves, who race just before the Blues, are quicker. In fact, in seven of the last 18 years, the reserve crews have registered a faster time. The average gap between the winning times is also narrowing.

blue vs reserve

This suggests that there is a deeper pool of talent available to both teams. But it also backs up the idea that the Blue race is all about winning.

 

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