Ben Jones analyses the effect of drops on player’s averages.
It’s one of the most well-thumbed of cricket’s many tales. Brian Lara, 18* for Warwickshire at Edgbaston back in 1994, gave a rare chance, edging behind to the Durham wicketkeeper Chris Scott. The keeper spilled it and, in a moment of necessary gallows humour, said: “I bet he’ll go on and get a hundred now.” Lara subsequently went on to make 501 runs in his innings, the highest first-class score in cricket history.
It’s a story which gets wheeled out for a number of reasons, but primarily because it’s the perfect example of something we have all experienced in some capacity – dropping a catch off a batsman, who then goes on to define the match. How things could have gone differently if only we’d taken that chance, what could have been if The One That Got Away had been pouched.
The revenge of the fielders who make these mistakes? Using it against the batsmen, by questioning their records. “Oh sure, he’s averaged 50+ this season, but for two of his tons he was dropped in the teens, if I remember correctly”. We do it in professional cricket to, when a player we don’t like scores runs after giving an early chance, leaning on it as a snide and simple way of diminishing achievement. It’s not the best side of us.
We’re all lucky then, that we live at a time where this sort of slander needn’t pass without investigated. Cricket is in an era of advanced data collection, records kept more widely than ever before, these finer details are recorded, stored, and ready to spill the beans. We don’t have to guess and infer whether some players have been luckier than others in this regard. We can work it out.
Calculating a “Drop Average” – a player’s average if every chance had been caught, and every stumping completed – allows us to see the effect of missed chances on a batsman’s record. Say a batsman made scores of 20, 60, 120, 20, 0, and 80 in a three Test series, their average would be 50. However, say this player has been dropped on 0 when they made that century, then their Drop Average would be 30.
It’s a rather artificial way of looking at this issue, without question. In Tests, roughly 80% of catches are caught, so there will always be a degree of good fortune floating around, ready for some batsman to pounce on, and punish. Stumpings can range from the routine to the spectacular, and only recently have those differences been recorded. But it’s still interesting.
The first thing to note when we look at the list of highest Drop Averages in Test cricket (since 2006, when the data began to be recorded) is that, well, it’s not that different to the list of highest averages. Obviously everyone’s record has been scooted down by a few runs, but essentially the familiar faces are all there; Smith is still the highest, the greats all present and correct.
However, the interesting point comes when we look more closely at the difference between actual average and drop average. A good example is the Australian batsman Travis Head. His actual Test batting average is a mightily impressive 49.88, a figure which if sustained over a whole career would put him up with the elite of the game. Yet his Drop Average is just 34.00. The difference between the two figures a substantial 15.88, a substantial gap which perhaps explains why nobody is quite as excited about Head as his average would imply.
In fact, it’s is not just a large gap; it’s the biggest difference of any established player in the advanced data era. No other player has seen their average boosted more by the runs they’ve scored after being dropped or after a stumping opportunity was missed.
Head is clearly a good player, albeit a little loose outside off stump – but who isn’t. He has displayed, in a short career, the ability to compete if not dominate against some rather impressive attacks and in rather tricky conditions. To label him “lucky” is not straightforwardly derogatory, but pretty literal.
And that’s kind of the point. Head’s a solid performer, but his current record makes him look like a great. In everyone’s average is this wriggly little unknown quantity, swelling and diminishing records and reputations without people really knowing it’s there, or without properly understanding it. Hopefully, by measuring Drop Average and similar, more nuanced metrics, we can try to remedy that.
Yet fundamentally, this is a broadly whimsical measure, rather than a practical means of improving analysis. It’s a portal into a different world, a window offering a glimpse into an alternative, hypothetical history. Who knows what would have happened had Lara’s nick had been taken on that day in 1994. His career was hardly stalling, an average of 63 from the 16 Tests he’d played hardly suggesting he was on the edge of deselection, but the effect of that innings was profound. A mythology was formed, the belief of opposition bowlers already dimmed before Lara marked his guard, redoubled in the mind of Lara himself. Perhaps his career is good, rather than great, perhaps the 400 becomes 200. The point is that we’ll never know, we can never find out, and that’s sort of the best thing about it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.