It could almost be a sport itself – debating who is the greatest sportsman of their sport / generation / all time. The great names are easy to think of – Pele, Federer, Bradman, Woods. Or is it Maradona, Laver, Tendulkar, Nicklaus?
The arguments will rumble on, but a few statistical caveats should always be kept in mind. One is: You can’t compare between sports very easily.
Here’s an example which has made me furious. In a recent issue of Prospect magazine, Jay Elwes tries to make the case for Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar being the best sportsman in the world. Fair enough, a good candidate I’d agree. But just read the following paragraph:
At which point, a question arises: can Federer, perhaps the greatest ever tennis player, be measured alongside Tendulkar? One instructive comparison is the distance by which each leads the trailing pack. Federer has won 16 Grand Slam tennis titles. In second place is Pete Sampras on 14, which makes Federer 14 per cent more successful than his nearest competitor. Tendulkar has scored a total of 32,803 runs for India in Test and one-day internationals combined. Ponting, in second place, has scored 25,769, meaning that Tendulkar has scored 27.3 per cent more again than his nearest rival. His lead is nearly twice that of Federer.
I’d like to say this is a small blip, but it’s not. It seems to be the main data to buttress his argument. What’s wrong with this? In no particular order:
- Why are total runs so important? Tendulkar is great, but he’s played more matches than anyone else too in both tests and one-day internationals.
- How on earth can you make sense of a “percentage lead” when the range is 0 to 16? And compare it to a measurement system with range 0 to 30,000 plus? Idiotic.
- If Federer wins the US Open next month, that puts him 21 per cent more successful than Sampras, up from 14 per cent. And the point is?
- Comparing grand slams to runs is just bonkers. You accumulate runs, win or lose. You can’t do that with grand slams.
- Why not compare total tennis match victories to runs? Or test match wins to tournament wins? It would be a more like-for-like comparison, although similarly meaningless.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Cricket and tennis lend themselves to some fascinating statistical analyses. But this is not an “instructive comparison”. It’s grossly misleading, shows little thought, and does the debate about great sportsman no favours. Prospect magazine is a superb publication, but this is not one of their better articles.