Stats Incredible

For as long as I recall a small cluster of cricket tragics have congregated in roughly the same location, every day of every Pura Cup contest their beloved Victoria is engaged.   They are a rag-tag bunch of social misfits to say the least.  Their banter, even their intermittent sledging which reverberates around the cavernous MCG, is well informed.

One buff diligently records every ball in his classic green scorebook, despite two massive digital scoreboards displaying all you need to know.

Why?  Perhaps it makes him feel more closely connected to the game, maybe it’s a compulsive obsessive habit.  Possibly it prevents him nodding off.

I must admit, I’m as guilty as any sports nut of filling the nooks and crannies of my brain with useless trivia.  While millions are concerned with where their next meal is coming from and horrible recollections of war and oppression, I’ve stored the location of every Olympics, all the AFL/VFL premiers since 1897, an array of cricket records and more Melbourne Cup winners than I care to know.  I’m no Rainman, but if only I could have used those portions of my intellect for something really useful!

Statistical data was once recorded largely for its own sake, a celebration of players and teams’ feats and failures.  99.94 is burned into our consciousness as an astonishing measure of near-perfection, and apart from anecdotal evidence, statistics are just about all we have to assess athletes of a bygone era.  Now, there is barely an aspect of sport that isn’t dissected to within an inch of its life.   Everything is counted and everything counts.

The Yanks, once again, have a lot to answer for.  Baseball set the benchmark over 100 years ago with its passion for all things numerical.  American Football is not far behind. Anyone who doubts thatAmericais the one stop shop of hardcore statistical obsession need only log onto websites such as Statsology or Amstat and follow the myriad of links, blogs and articles.

Swinburne University’s Professor of Statistics, Stephen Clarke, is the pre-eminent sport stats researcher in Australia.  Clarke’s career in the field was born during his Masters degree when in 1977 he assisted a lecturer with a dilemma facing squash over two different scoring systems.  Clarke has since authored over 125 papers and articles on a range of sports.

I think that statistics are sometimes seen as a bit dry and mundane, and I wanted to show that not only can statistics be fun, but they relate to everyday life.  I think that sports statistics have been very successful in achieving this.

Stephen Clarke

Clarke’s most satisfying reference paper investigated one day cricket run rates in the days when we were satisfied with Marsh and Boony ambling along to 0/45 after 15 overs.  Clarke’s findings highlighted the value of scoring runs faster, earlier, and set the framework for the mysterious Duckworth Lewis system for rain affected games.

“I certainly see a big future for the use of statistical modeling in betting applications, either for making life difficult for the bookies or in assisting them to set odds” says Professor Clarke. “With the growing developments in communication and betting in running (betting on events and outcomes during a game), they will need to use statistical models to set the odds with the necessary speed.”

Clarke has consulted for Tattersalls and has a spin-off company Sportsbet21 which provides odds for unique running forms of cricket and tennis betting.  Surprisingly, the Australian Open tennis is the most popular non-racing event for gambling.

Does Professor Clarke believe that some sports are over-analysed to the point where the basic fun and enjoyment of a physical entertainment are diminished?

“Well yes, when I see run rates given to two decimal places – completely meaningless!   But I think that some people enjoy watching sport, others analysing.  I do think a lot of stats are collected, but never analysed.  For example, if the Australian Open and other Grand Slams made available to scientists all the stats they collect at their Championships, they may learn a lot of new things about tennis.”

For coaches, selectors, journos and sports connoisseurs who pore over faded annuals, stats matter.  May the passion, skill, creativity, inspiration, emotion and theatre in sports not be lost amongst all the numerical ‘evidence’.  Don’t be surprised if one day there is a statistical ranking system for all those intangibles too.

Hang on – wouldn’t that be the attendance figures and TV ratings?  See, I knew there’d be stats for that!

Jeff Dowsing, December 2009

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