A ramble on Nuggsy, cricket, statistics and life
Tue 20 Oct 2020 
Club news item

***WARNING – This piece of writing is not a regular News Item***

This started as a match report of the annual James “Nuggsy” Gleadow Memorial cricket match between PCC and Old Citizens, the Old Boys of James’s alma mater City of London School. However, in True Nuggsy Style, it quickly spiralled out of control into a discursive ramble about statistics, life, and cricket compared to other ball & bat sports. Dinsey suggested putting the words here so as not to waste them and also so they didn’t interfere with Jas’s proper match report which I invite you to read HERE. In the meantime...

Everyone has a few cricket stories about “The Nugget”, one of mine is straightforward: he is the only batsman I’ve ever bowled to who walked. I bowled him a topspinner, back when I was playing a lot and had the fluency to bowl those, and it rose off the pitch at Wray a bit more than he expected to just breeze his glove. I thought I heard something and optimistically put my finger up, nobody else appealed, and Nuggsy nodded his head and then off he went before the umpire could figure out what was going on. Perhaps that small anecdote says enough about the character of Mr. Gleadow. Reminiscing about this got me thinking that, while the Memorial match exists specifically because of the premature passing of our beloved PCC compadre, it also exists more generally because of people like James who will play cricket into the middle of October and beyond. Why would Nuggsy, or any of us, do this?

I think it could be because, of all the sports, cricket most directly reflects the Phenomenological ideal of the “lived experience”. What I mean is that when I’m on a cricket pitch in the middle of a cricket game, the relationships and structures I experience around me are directly analogous to those I experience around me when I’m not on a cricket pitch...i.e. cricket is like life.

For example, like life there are rules to what I see going on, and like in life these rules seem to be arbitrarily devised and they don’t really make a lot of sense. Like life, cricket can be vastly tedious for long stretches, and yet, like life, it has the potential to turn at any moment and be changed forever. Occasionally this happens through an unexpected or astonishing display of skill, but most often - again, like life, and especially at our level of cricket - this happens through blind, dumb luck. Like life it’s also impossible to ignore the sheer absurdity that surrounds you...the bustling ‘fast’ bowler who sprints in but gradually slows down as he gets closer to the crease, finally just walking the ball over the line. Or the mystery bowler who wangs their arm round three or four times in the delivery stride. Or the batsman who takes their first ball in the ging-gang-goolies and their second one through their middle stump. None of these descriptions are foreign to any casual cricketer, but you relay them to a non-cricketer and they have trouble understanding that what we do is a Sport and not a Series Of Cascading Random Events.

I grew up playing baseball, a ‘constructed’ sport if there ever was one in which the game has slowly been whittled down to five fundamental essences performed with a uniform ball...pitching, hitting, running, catching, throwing. It wasn’t always this way: in the early days you could scuff up the ball, put spit or sweat or anything else on it, or observe its natural deterioration through the game and adapt your play. Then in 1920 The Baseball Powers That Be created the “Live Ball Era” when they banned using the same ball for the entire match. Now, whenever there was any wear on the ball it was replaced with a new one, and it was also made illegal to manipulate the ball in any way. As a result of using a constantly bright, white ball that can attract no deviations, home runs skyrocketed and the legend of Babe Ruth was cemented (54 home runs in 1920, compared to his 29 in 1919). Pitchers eventually adapted, and then in 1968 The Baseball Powers That Be intervened again to lower the height of the pitching mound from 15in to 10in because one pitcher in particular, the St. Louis Cardinals Bob Gibson, had become too good. They wanted to check pitching dominance as they were worried all those 1-0 games would lead to fan discontent. Rule changes don’t seem to happen the same way in Cricket, and I suppose I’m thinking of the “Monster Bat Incident” of 1771 when a player used a cricket bat as wide as his stumps – this brought about Law 5 limiting bat widths. Or, 208 years later, Dennis Lillee rolling up with an aluminium bat which brought an amendment to Law 5 specifying that bats must be made of wood. Cricket laws aren’t changed because the overriding Authority wants to protect profit margins (that’s done through political interference in international scheduling and restrictive live broadcast licenses), they’re changed because some chancer has found a loophole and tried to game the game itself – cricket imitates life, yet again.

Yet it’s baseball that (in the States, anyway) is called “The Thinking Man’s Game”. This is often said to be because of the huge variety of analytical statistics which can be applied to the sport: On Base Percentage (OBP), Slugging percentage (SLG), Groundout to Airout ratio (GO/AO), Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), etc. These statistics are then combined to create further derivative statistics, often referred to as “Sabermetrics”, such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) – the average number of Wins per season that an individual player will give your team, compared to the statistical mean of the players of the same position across the league. There’s even a statistic called “pNERD” which is a measure of the expected aesthetic value of watching an individual pitcher.

There are plenty of cricket statistics too, mind you, but for the most part they are aggregate records and not empirical analysis of in-game activity. Batting average, highest scores, Most 100’s in a year – fairly primitive stuff. Why don’t Sabermetrics type stats exists in cricket? For starters, in baseball the use of a uniform ball on regulation fields means there’s always a baseline standard, and the minimum 27 outs per side (and 54 batting outs overall) per game means there are large numbers of short, repeated, comparable actions. The outsized (25 man) rosters with unlimited in-game player substitutions also means there are more players generating more of these comparable actions. There are also no strike rotations so batsman have uninterrupted contests with a pitcher each at-bat, and the playing field has a 45 degree angle instead of a 360 degree one, which significantly reduces the types of strokes batsmen might want to attempt. So in a sense, all these baseball statistics exist simply because of the more limited and more repeatable actions that happen in a baseball game, and which can be added up and compared like-for-like. Perhaps the title of “The Thinking Man’s Game” is then really a charade, a Trumpian self-confidence boost, and all it means is that the limited number of options in Baseball make it feasible for the limited minds of many professional athletes to sort through most of them.

What would be the point of cricket Sabermetrics anyway? In next year’s Ashes when Dom Bess - or whichever spinner gets picked - rocks up to bowl to Steve Smith there is no way to calculate his ASH59HCLC average to inform his approach (Arm-balls bowled in the Southern Hemisphere with 59% Humidity in Cloudy conditions Leading to a Catch). In the Ashes, like in cricket everywhere, you have just the basic qualitative axioms upon which all the further unmeasured complexities of the sport are constructed: Bowler’s are “quick” or not, or they “turn it” or don’t. Spun balls have “flight” or “drift”, or not, and you look at total wickets and a basic average. Batsmen are “in form”, or not, and you tell this by how many runs they score in an indeterminate amount of time, on average, during entire games. And in Australia, England will lose. That’s just how it works.

Baseball’s entertaining and skilful athleticism is fundamentally finite and quantifiable. Cricket is not like that. Sure there are statistics, records great and small, numerous basic strategies, and probably many more sophisticated ones for people who play at higher levels, and all you’re doing is banging a ball into some dirt under the sun. The catch is that the ball, the dirt, and the sun all have inter-related effects on each other that are constantly changing all the time. If baseball or any other sport that uses the exact same new ball on regulation fields can be statistically modelled by Classical Computation, Cricket is best described as a quantum system that resists linear analysis. In quantum computing, the basic unit of information is a “qubit”, which in addition to the binary (1 or 0) states of a traditional “bit” can also inhabit a “superposition” state of both at the same time. This makes them more powerful than classical computers by several orders of magnitude for specific types of problems. Perhaps one of those problems is how to calculate Jos Buttler’s test match Wins Above Replacement (WAR) average. Or, perhaps of more interest to certain PCC members, Ian Bell’s. Isn’t a qubit also a fitting analogy for every single LBW shout at our level of cricket? How many batsman have you seen out LBW, but then also simultaneously not out, because of an incomputable set of factors that sometimes has something to do with front foot/back foot/time in the game/how good a bat they are/if it’s a league game or not/if the umpire is even paying attention/is the batsman an obvious asshole/does the current umpire want to go home/etc. Unlike other sports, basic fact in the game of cricket is not True or False, or a 1 or 0, it’s a probability distribution.

Anyway, I’m writing all this because it’s the sort of discussion that Nuggsy adored. Cricket about cricket because of cricket, especially when there might be a cricket match on. On his behalf we proudly played the James Gleadow 2020 Memorial match in typically crap conditions, in the middle of October, as he would have it. Big shout to the Gleadow family and friends who popped by, and if you’d like to read about how we absolutely mashed his Old Boys on this occasion I would again refer you to Jas’s match report.

As an addendum, people should really know by now that in these late ‘season’ matches, PCC tends to put out a decent team because we have so many players available. On this day we were so decent that we gave the oppo Rizwan and Keyana, who top scored, and we still spanked them. A word of advice to the Old Citizens: bring the High Grade next year. You know who I’m talking about...Mike Brearly.