Book Review: Numbers Do Lie

The high impact rating the book gives players from unexpected quarters is its most interesting and valuable part.

Impact Index rates Ajit Wadekar as the highest impact player for India by a distance in her first overseas series win — in New Zealand, in 1968. Wadekar scored his only Test century on that tour, and always played a leading or supporting role in India’s major victories, especially after he became captain.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Numbers Do Lie

61 Hidden Cricket Stories

Impact Index (Jaideep Varma, Soham Sarkhel and Nikhil Narain) with Aakash Chopra

(Published in India in 2017 by Harper Sport, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers; Price: Rs. 350)

Belonging to the “lies, damn lies and statistics” school of thought, I was initially sceptical of the value of Impact Index. It is only on some careful

investigation that I realised that Jaideep Varma, the author of this analytical tool for use in cricket, was actually setting out to prove that numbers as conventionally presented could in fact lie, or mislead the follower of the sport.

I later followed the Impact Index series that appeared in the Wisden India portal, and was quite excited to find confirmation of some of my theories about some cricketers I had always held in higher regard than their career statistics suggested.

Peter May, Tiger Pataudi and Ajit Wadekar were examples of cricketers Impact Index assigned higher value than their Test batting averages indicated. And I had admired all three men at different stages of my cricket-watching career.

Reading the Wisden India column made me a keen follower of Impact Index, giving it the benefit of doubt even when it made seemingly outrageous claims, like the one that Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest support act in the history of Test cricket or the prediction that R. Ashwin will be the highest impact Test cricketer of all time.

After reading Numbers Do Lie, I have become a total convert. It confirms some of my views on individual players and teams, numbers notwithstanding, while making surprising but well-founded revelations about others.

Confining my remarks here to Test rather than limited overs cricket, I have always had vague feelings of loyalty and admiration towards some players, my favouritism going beyond statistics. Two great Indian cricketers I had a soft corner for had been Lala Amarnath and Salim Durani. It does not need rocket science to learn that both were underachievers at the Test level, rarely doing justice to their talent, flamboyance and brilliant cricket intelligence.

Especially in the case of Durani, I had always been convinced that his impact on the team and his followers had been inspirational on the few occasions he really fired against top class opposition — even if in a losing cause, as in the case of his maiden Test hundred at Port of Spain in the West Indies in April 1962. Or take his sensational six-wicket haul at Eden Gardens after Bill Lawry (50) and Bob Simpson (67) initially took him to the cleaners.

Of course, his dismissal of Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd in the Trinidad Test of 1971 was an epoch-making slice of history.

Though my admiration and hero-worship of Peter May had been based on the high quality of his batsmanship, his towering good looks, and his consistency when the team needed him, I could not quantify the extent to which his batting had directly impacted England’s Test match and series victories through a whole decade, until Jaideep Varma’s Impact Index proved it statistically.

Again my pleasure in Ajit Wadekar’s batting had been influenced by my enjoyment of his laid-back style, his calm and unorthodox grace in the face of fire and brimstone in the form of fast bowling of serious dimensions. But now Impact Index tells me that Wadekar was the highest impact player for India by a distance in her first overseas series win — in New Zealand, in 1968. He scored his only Test century on that tour, and always played a leading or supporting role in India’s major victories, especially after he became captain.

Wadekar was both a typical and atypical Bombay cricketer, in his khadoos attitude as captain, and in contrast, his extremely relaxed, almost casual, approach to batting. Both these attributes added steel to his game, and it is nice to know that this summation of his cricket is backed by the science of Impact Index.

The high impact rating the book gives players from unexpected quarters is its most interesting and valuable part. Much of it is unsurprising to an intelligent, non-partisan follower of the game, but there are a few surprises as well. The chapters on S. Ramesh, Trevor Goddard (I am surprised that Impact Index’s Aakash Chopra had not heard of the former South Africa captain), Richie Richardson, Ian Bishop, Hansie Cronje, Darren Gough, Roger Twose, Terry Alderman, Azhar Ali and Madan Lal are particularly illuminating. I am disappointed that the likes of Alvin Kallicharran,

Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge do not figure prominently; not to mention many other great names like Learie Constantine, the three Ws, Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Colin Cowdrey, Ken Barrington, Graham Gooch, Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Polly Umrigar. Perhaps, they will be part of a future edition, along with a chapter on successful opening pairs — both batting and bowling.

The book has given importance to ODI and T20 cricket even if its main focus is Test cricket. It rues Robin Uthappa’s poor luck and lack of international recognition, almost as if the Kolkata Knight Riders opener’s sublime form in IPL 2017 were a forgone conclusion.

In addition to recruiting two highly qualified and dedicated crew members in Soham Sarkhel and Nikhil Narain, Jaideep Varma in a smart if selfless move inducted Test cricketer-turned-commentator Aakash Chopra to articulate the findings of Impact Index — even explain and justify many of them based on his own technical expertise and international experience — thus adding considerable value to the book.

In his foreword to the book, Chopra recommends the system as an aid to selectors in domestic cricket, a view I share heartily with him. Because it lays such great store by context, Impact Index can be the most reliable guide to both form and class yet known to cricket.

I believe Impact Index — or future improvements to it — should be integrated with existing scoring systems to make cricket statistics more meaningful than now. There should be checks and balances to prevent or minimise the danger of personal biases colouring opening premises and consequently some of the findings, and make it a completely objective method, and I am sure the authors will pay focussed attention to this aspect.