Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sir Jack vs. Sir Don

Yesterday while pouring over data on espncricinfo, the idea of a cricket blog struck me. Recently I started blogging about economics and business and it is an enjoyable experience. I have spent countless hours on espncricinfo in past the few years, pouring over statistics and hence I think it would be nice to write my inferences. Although I love reading about cricketing incidents and anecdotes, especially by English authors, I lack the skill to pen down such eloquent pieces. So, for now I will concentrate on cricketing statistics and see how it goes. 

Recently I read a blog on Tumblr ( about selecting an all time Test 11 and the author made an interesting point. He argued that Jack Hobbs played in an era when wickets were notoriously difficult to bat on and hence his average of 56 equates to 80 in current era. It was a nice argument and I set about to check the veracity of his claims. Cricket fans love comparing players across generations and it is common to hear young Indian fans claiming Sachin Tendulkar to be better than Don Bradman because Tendulkar has played across countries, formats, oppositions while Bradman just played in 2 countries and 1 format. Another widely used argument in favour of Tendulkar is that Bradman played in an era when the standards were quite low and he would not have averaged more than 60 in modern era. But the question is if during Bradman's era (1928 -1948), pitches were easier to bat on and bowling abysmal, why is his average so much better than that of all his contemporaries? The nearest rivals of Bradman were Herbert Sutcliffe and George Headley and both averaged around 60. So easier pitches or not, Bradman was miles ahead of his contemporaries. But what about the batsmen who played in different periods than Bradman? Pitches in late 19th and early 20th centuries were notoriously difficult to bat on and that is reflected in both low bowling averages and batting averages of players who played before WW I. Great players like WG Grace and Victor Trumper averaged less than 40 and I find it difficult to accept that they would have averaged less than 40 had they played in the modern era or during Bradman’s time. 

I chose to compare Jack Hobbs to Don Bradman because Hobbs played test cricket both before and after WW I and is considered one of the greats. I used statsguru on espncricinfo for numbers in this post because it is amazing software for cricket fans who are interested in statistical analysis. So what are the results and does Hobbs's average of 57 is actually worth 80 in modern times? Sir Jack Hobbs was by any standards a great cricketer and the first professional cricketer to be knighted. But how good was he? He embarked upon his Test career in 1908 when he was 26 and played for more than 22 years till 1930 when he was 48. His longevity in Test cricket is matched by Sachin Tendulkar but Tendulkar started much younger at 16 and played for almost 24 years till he was 40. In a Test career of 22 years, Hobbs played 61 games and averaged almost 57. These are impressive numbers and on top of that, Hobbs lost his best batting years (age 32 to 38) due to WW I. There was no test cricket during WW I and when it resumed in 1920, Hobbs was 38, a bit old for an international sportsman by any standards. The team batting average in the 61 tests that Jack Hobbs played was 29.82. Herbert Sutcliffe averaged 77 in 25 tests he played alongside Hobbs, Don Bradman 103 in 9 tests he played against Hobbs and Walter Walter Hammond 70 in 13 tests when he was part of the same team as Hobbs. So evidently there were players who were statistically much better than Jack Hobbs in the later part of Hobbs's career. But all these players were much younger to Hobbs and their early career coincided with fag end of Hobbs's career. Also it is unfair to categorise the entire career of Jack Hobbs as one era because pitches became easier to bat on after WW I which was evident in rise of batting superstars like Bradman, Sutcliffe and Hammond. Assuming Hobbs's entire career as one era, how does his average of 57 compare with Bradman’s astronomical average of almost 100? Don Bradman played 52 tests from 1928 to 1948, interspersed by WW II and team batting average was 32.45 in those 52 tests. Just for comparison, Tendulkar test batting average is around 54 and the team batting averages were 34.17 in 200 tests he played in. Hence, Hobbs’s average of 57 translates to 62 accounting for easier batting conditions or weaker bowling attacks or both during Bradman’s era. It is obviously impressive and a slight improvement but still nothing compared to Bradman’s average. If we use the same extrapolation technique, we can infer that Hobbs's average is worth 65 in Tendulkar's era.

Now if we divide Jack Hobbs’s career in 2 parts i.e. before and after WW I, a very different picture emerges. From his test debut in 1908 till 1914 when WW I put a stop to international cricket, Hobbs played 28 tests and averaged 57.32, slightly higher than his career average. Other batting superstars in this era were Aubrey Faulkner (average 51 in 16 tests between 1910 - 1912), Warren Bardsley (average 45 in 20 tests between 1909 - 1912) and Victor Trumper (average 45 in 19 tests between 1908 - 1912). A total of 38 tests were played in this period with a team batting average of 25.62. Lower team batting averages make it is clear that batting was far more difficult business in those times. Only 3 teams, England, Australia and South Africa, played test cricket with England playing a maximum of 30 tests and Hobbs played in 28 of them. Now if we consider the 28 tests Hobbs played, team batting average drops down to 23.99. Assuming a team batting average of 32.45 (Team batting average in 52 tests that Don Bradman played in), Hobbs’s career average translates to 78. Now this compares much more favourably to Bradman’s average although is still a fair bit shy of Bradman’s near 100 average. So in pre WW I era, we can safely say that Hobbs was the best batsman in the world with only Faulkner in proximity.

The second part of Hobbs’s career presents a contrasting picture. Although he was 38 when test cricket resumed, he still averaged a fair 56.63 in 33 tests albeit in a much easier batting era. Bradman played 9 tests alongside Hobbs and averaged 103 while Sutcliffe averaged 67 in 36 tests while Hammond averaged 59 in 22 tests in years after WW I till Hobbs’s retirement. CG Macrtney (Test Career: 1907 – 1926), who played more or less in the same era as Hobbs is an interesting case study. He averaged almost 70 in 14 tests he played after WW I till his retirement in 1926 against a partly 27 in 21 tests before WW I. Team batting average ballooned up to 32.63 in 64 tests in these 10 years (1920 – 1930) while it reached a stratospheric 35.40 in the 33 tests that featured Hobbs. This increase can partly be explained by a batting phenomenon called Don Bradman who averaged 103 in 9 tests he played against Hobbs while Sutcliffe had his most productive period, averaging 77 in 25 tests, when he partnered Hobbs at the top of the order. Messrs Macrtney, Armstrong, Hammond and Woodfull all bettered their career average while playing alongside Sir Jack.

So the question remains how good was Jack Hobbs and how does he compare to Don Bradman? The answer is not straightforward and we must look beyond statistics in search of it. Cricket historians unanimously agree that Jack Hobbs invented modern batting. Numbers show us that Jack Hobbs was in an altogether different league before WW I but was overshadowed by many in easier batting conditions after WW I. His long time batting partner Herbert Sutcliffe considered Don Bradman a better overall batsman but thought Jack Hobbs was better on bad wickets. A lot of cricket writers from that era say that Jack Hobbs lacked the killer instinct of Don Bradman and often gave away his wicket after scoring a century. This argument has some merit since only once Hobbs crossed 200 in his 15 test centuries while Bradman did it 12 times in 29 times he made 100. So was Jack Hobbs overall a better batsman than Don Bradman? Maybe not but he was easily the premier batsman in the world since his debut till WW I intervened and probably the best bad wicket player the world has ever seen. On top of that Sir Jack Hobbs played first class career till he was 52 and scored a small matter of 61,000 runs and 199 centuries!