Every ‘old school’ photographer has his dark room or studio where beautiful pictures come to light. Similarly, every statistical analyst has his dungeon where the truth, or some form of it, is revealed from behind the numbers. So I went into my dungeon to examine Dale Steyn’s and Curtly Ambrose’s careers from a new perspective – a comparative era analysis. I wanted to see how well both players did in their own eras and possibly explore how well they would do in each other’s era.
The reason I chose this method lies in its similarity to how most analysts come to the conclusion that Viv Richards is the greatest One Day International (ODI) batsman of all time. They look deeply at the circumstances in Viv’s era and how much better he was compared to his peers. They also look, hypothetically by the numbers, how he would have fared in today’s era. When this is done, Viv is clearly the greatest ODI batsman of all time.
So I was convinced that this approach could finally answer a troubling question I had from my penultimate article. “Is Steyn really better than … Ambrose?” It was a question that needed to be answered. However like a child about to receive medicine, I was fearful of its possible taste.
Ambrose is one of my 7 favourite pace bowlers and in my all time World XI team. However, Steyn’s numbers were unbelievable when I did the 9 parameter extra-era comparative analysis of the 17 great pace bowlers of all time. In Part 1 of this series, only Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee were marginally better than Steyn while Ambrose ranked 11th. This was shocking! So I dove into the numbers with pure inquisitiveness and objectivity in mind, assured I would reveal the truth to the question, Is Steyn really better than … Ambrose?
During Ambrose’s era, pace bowlers averaged 29.79 runs per wicket while Ambrose averaged 20.99. So Ambrose was 42% better than the average bowler in this parameter. The pace bowlers in his era had a strike rate of 63.2 balls per wicket while Ambrose was 54.5. This corresponds to Ambrose being 16% better in this parameter. In Ambrose era, pace bowlers had an economy rate (runs conceded per over) of 2.85 while Ambrose’s economy rate was 2.30, that is 24% better than his counterparts. Taking these three main bowling statistical parameters into account, on average, Ambrose was 27% better than the average bowlers of his era. In statistics, especially for a comparative analysis like this, anything over 20% is phenomenal.
During Steyn’s era, bowlers average 33.24 runs per wicket while Steyn averages 22.56. Steyn is 47% better than the average bowler in this parameter. In Steyn’s era, pace bowlers have a strike rate of 61.5 balls per wicket while Steyn is 41.7. This corresponds to Steyn being 47% better in this parameter. In Steyn’s era, economy rates of pace bowlers are 3.24 while Steyn’s economy rate is 3.24. Hence Steyn is no better than the pace bowlers of his era in this parameter, which corresponds to 0% better. So on average, Steyn has been 31% better than the average bowlers of his generation. Remember Ambrose was only 27% better than his peers.
Each era has its specific factors that distinguish it from another era. Many will agree objectively though that Ambrose’s era was more bowler friendly than Steyn’s era. So many circumstances are heavily in favour of the batsmen now in Steyn’s era. The rule changes, field size, the number of bouncers that can be bowled per over, flatter pitches and technological advancements in the batsman’s bat, etc have all put bowlers in Steyn’s era at a disadvantage. However, how would each bowler do in the other’s era?
AMBROSE IN STEYN’S ERA
Ambrose had a career bowling average of 20.99, strike rate of 54.5 and an economy rate of 2.30 in his era. Hypothetically, if Ambrose played in Steyn’s era his bowling average would be 23.43, strike rate 53.4 and an economy of 2.63 based on how Ambrose distinguished himself from his peers in his own era. These numbers are excellent yet comparable to Steyn’s in this era: bowling average 22.56, strike rate 41.7 and economy of 3.24. Both Ambrose’s and the era’s traits are retained by this projection.
STEYN IN AMBROSE’S ERA
Steyn’s career bowling average earlier mentioned is 22.56, strike rate 41.7 and economy 3.24. However, if Steyn played in Ambrose’s era his bowling average would be 20.22, strike rate 42.6 and economy 2.85 based on how Steyn distinguished himself from his peers in his own era. These numbers are unbelievable yet still comparable to Ambrose’s in his era: bowling average 20.99, strike rate 54.5 and economy rate 2.30. Once again Steyn’s and the era’s traits are retained by this projection.
BETTER WICKET TAKER
In the end, bowlers are employed to take wickets and no other format is this more important than in Test cricket. “Wickets win matches” the old proverb says. Ambrose took 405 wickets in 98 matches that is over 4 wickets per match while Steyn has taken 383 wickets in his first 75 matches that is over 5 wickets per match. If Steyn took only 1 wicket per match for the next 23 matches he would still overhaul Ambrose’s mark. Steyn no doubt is the better wicket taker.
So the intra-era analysis is showing that Steyn has distinguished himself from his peers at a greater percentage than Ambrose did, 31% as opposed to 27%. The inter-era analysis is showing that Steyn would have better numbers in Ambrose’s era as opposed to Ambrose in Steyn’s era. Lastly, Steyn is the better wicket taker.
“Is Steyn really better than … Ambrose?” If I’m nostalgia-free and swallow this bitter medicine, then all the numbers say YES.
I think we have found the truth, or some form of it, in these statistics. Mark Twain once said: “Facts are stubborn but statistics are pliable”.
Until next time …
Author : Zaheer E. Clarke is a lecturer, sports columnist, blogger, analyst and statistician from Jamaica, West Indies who is madly in love with cricket.
Blog: Zaheer’s “Facts, Lies & Statistics”