Monday, 2 September 2013

Post-Ashes reflections (II): sometimes close isn't anywhere near


Statistics can mislead you. Often they're selected deliberately for just that purpose. More often people confuse apples with pears. Even more often, the raw material on which they're based is just inadequate for the purposes they're being called on to serve.

They can also be used inappropriately, to show that things are big when they are small - or that sporting contests have been close when the two sides (or participants) have actually been light-years apart.

Take this year's cricketing Ashes contest between England and Australia (above). You know what? It wasn't close. England won 3-0. They might have won only 3-2, had the weather not intervened at Old Trafford and the Oval, but we'll never know. But they won. And nothing - absolutely no other overall result at all - ever looked that likely.

But look at the batting and bowling tables, and things look a bit different. Let's take the six batsmen who scored the most runs first. Four of them were Australian. The top six wicket-taking bowlers? Three of them were Australian, too. Or what about the top six batting averages? Er, three Australians again.

The Australians had the better wicket-keeper. They had the best bowler of the series. And yet still they lost - in a slow-motion landslide that sometimes made them appear ragged indeed, and on a few occasions actually made them look pretty foolish.

Why? Because whenever England were challenged - when they were forced out of their increasingly disliked and annoying stupour - they roused themselves to sharp displays that swatted the opposition aside. Ian Bell, the batsman of the series by a mile, scored so many runs that he made the difference of run totals on his own - and against all the opposition bowlers, too. They knew how to seize the moment - how to win the critical sessions and hours that turned most of the games - a capacity that's very, very hard to capture in data tables and graphs. Then they fell asleep again.

This gap between what the statistics appear to show, on the surface, and what they really illustrate when you've sat through hours and hours of this stuff (someone had to) is a very wide one. It reminds us of the chasm between popular perceptions of the 2012 US Presidential election, in which Mitt Romney was 'close' to President Obama, always 'closing the gap', with the reality. If you've forgotten, it was this: Romney was always just behind, and he stayed there. A hundred polls showing that you're one per cent behind will still mean that you lose, 98 or 99 per cent of the time.

That's what it was like in the Ashes. Australia were at the races. But they never looked like they had a winning ticket.