Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Value of the Statistical Intangible

Harbhajan Singh has been bowling flat, defensive, around the wicket nonsense for more than a couple of years now. But when people argued for his exclusion, the counter argument was the 400 wickets and the fact that his stats were on par with the so called "best offie" in the world Graeme Swann. Why then did Harbhajan Singh finally get shown the door?

Last season, to the surprise of many, OKC traded their third highest scorer Jeff Green for Boston Celtics centre Kendrick Perkins. Jeff Green averaged 15.2 points, 5.6 rebs, 1.8 assists and 0.4 blocks till that point in the season. Perkins averaged 7.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.8 blocks. Now, it is understood that a centre will pick up more blocks and rebounds than a hybrid forward. Considering that, the statistical goons would certainly laugh at OKC. Why then did OKC pull the trigger on the trade?

The answer of course is in the intangibles. What is the point of picking up wickets as quickly as anyone if you don't look like picking up a wicket on any of the other deliveries? What is the point of scoring and rebounding, if you're a leaky faucet defensively? What is the point of a football midfielder having a high pass completion rate if the majority of the passes are sideways passes that amount to nothing? What is the point of a goalkeeper making 300 saves in a season if he makes 5 howlers? That, is the problem with statistics.

The failure of statistics to truly represent a sportsman's ability and value, is sometimes dismissed as a notion of the romantics. But the problem with stats, is that a lot of things that happen on a sports field cannot be quantified. No one can state with certainty, the chances a delivery has of picking up a wicket. No can quantify the hustle and defensive leadership Kendrick Perkins brings to the basketball court. Michael Carrick's pass completion rate is quite similar to Xavi Hernandez. Yet there is no question as to who is the better player.

The intangibles in sport is what makes sport what it is. If stats could explain everything in sport, there would be no purpose of actually playing on the field would there? Long live the intangibles.


  1. I don't know how anyone can claim Harbhajan's numbers are comparable to those of Swann. As for the 400 wickets argument, Kapil Dev has them too. Doesn't mean he can play test cricket.

    The easiest thing to do when you want to justify a player's selection is to point to his "intangibles", which is ridiculous because if it's an intangible then you can't really point it out. Yes, there are some things which cannot be captured in statistics, but there are enough parameters out there to distinguish between a brilliant and a mediocre record.

  2. Actually, statistically (and I verified this as well), Swann's record over the last 2-3 years is quite comparable to Bhajji's. The difference of course lies in how big a threat each bowler is through the innings. That's defined by the intangibles. Like how much Bhajji bowls flat and around the wicket and Swann is at least looking to get wickets.

  3. Last 3 years,;class=1;filter=advanced;orderby=bowling_strike_rate;qualmin2=25;qualval2=wickets;spanmax1=05+Dec+2011;spanmin1=05+Dec+2008;spanval1=span;template=results;type=bowling

    Last 2 years,;class=1;filter=advanced;orderby=bowling_strike_rate;qualmin2=25;qualval2=wickets;spanmax1=05+Dec+2011;spanmin1=05+Dec+2009;spanval1=span;template=results;type=bowling

    There's a world of difference between their stats.