Test cricket’s evolution and professionalism

Imagine a sport where only a handful of its best players participated full time. There would be an elite few head and shoulders above the rest, and a lot of weak players. That’s how the era of amateur cricket looks statistically.

Here I’ll demonstrate that the quantum leap in Test Cricket was the 1960s, with professionalism ensuring the brightest talent wasn’t lost to the game.

A 1950’s professional cricketer could earn twice what a manual labourer could.[1] A good wage, but sporting careers are short. There’s no way cricket was attracting all the talent that was out there. In 1963 British county cricket turned fully professional. I don’t know about the evolution in other countries, but it’s striking that in 1962 Richie Benaud was described as “a newspaper reporter by profession” when being recognised as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year.

In the two decades after the Second World War, the depth of talent increased. We can see that in the distribution of batting averages:

Fig 1 – Top order Test averages. Min 10 Tests.

The 1960s distribution reflects a mature sport: lots of players of similar ability, a sprinkling of duffers, and few standing out from the crowd.

Contrast that with the 1930s – over a quarter of the players averaged over 50. Admittedly there were only 42 players that met the criteria, and averages were noisier because there were fewer Tests played then. Bradman’s average should be considered as a function of the era he played in: in the 1930s four others averaged over 65, nobody has achieved that in the last four decades.

There were far fewer batsmen averaging under 25 by the 1960s: this will be a function of a more talented player pool. Interestingly, this wasn’t driven by improving the batting of wicket-keepers: they averaged two runs per wicket less in the 1960s than the 1930s.

Here’s the trend year by year:

Fig 2 – “Mean absolute deviation” is a measure of the extent to which performances differ from the mean. The higher it is, the more outliers there were. While there is a lot of noise, the trend is of a reduction over time.

But what about all the developments since then- improvements in bats, coaching, and technique? These improve all players similarly, so don’t impact the mean absolute deviation. Thus, they aren’t detected by this technique: there will never be one number that says how high the standard of cricket was at a point in time.

For completeness, here’s the decade-by-decade view:

Fig 2 – “Mean absolute deviation” by decade. Top order batsmen, min 10 Tests.

The maturity of Test Cricket was complete by the 1960s. Note that there wasn’t significant impact from the addition of Test teams through the years: indicating sides were generally added when ready (some would say we waited too long).

Professionalism swelled the ranks of the most talented. What we don’t know is the proportion of the high potential players that ever play cricket: could Rooney have been better than Root?

The logical extension to this maturity analysis would be to look at T20 and/or women’s cricket. Let me know if you’d find this interesting.

***

P.S. while researching this piece, a story from the late David Sheppard about the social division between amateurs and professionals (like Tom Graveney) caught my eye…

When I was at Cambridge we played against Gloucestershire at Bristol. I had made some runs, and, as we came off the field, Tom Graveney, with whom I had made friends in 2nd XI matches said, “Well played, David.” A few minutes later the Gloucestershire captain walked into our dressing-room and came over to me. “I’m terribly sorry about Graveney’s impertinence,” he said. “I think you’ll find it won’t happen again”.[2]

[1] Rain Stops Play, Andrew Hignell

[2] Amateurs and professionals in post-war British sport, edited by Dilwyn Porter & Adrian Smith

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