Sunday, December 9, 2012

Kallis v Sobers

Over the past few years there has been a debate whether South African cricketer Jacques Kallis is a best all-rounder/cricketer than former West Indian cricketer Sir Garry Sobers. Some have said there is no comparison: that Sobers was and remains the best cricketer since Sir Don Bradman. This post is not going to prove who’s better, but what it will argue is that the conclusion that Sobers was clearly better than Kallis is not easy to prove.

Sobers had the higher batting average …

Kallis’ batting average is 56.93, while Sobers’ was 57.78. So Sobers made on average about one run more per dismissal, though the difference may not be statistically significant.

Batting averages are higher nowadays…
One argument goes that batting averages have been inflated by shorter boundaries/batting-friendly pitches. If this is true, then the inference is that Sobers’ average would be higher if he batted today (or conversely Kallis’ average would be lower if he played in Sobers’ era).

However, one of the advantages of comparing cricketers’ on all-round ability is that in considering both batting and bowling these effects balance out. That is, Sobers’ batting ability looks better if it is easier to score runs now than in his era, but then so does Kallis’ bowling ability.
Sobers could take the game away from an opponent… 

What does this mean? A run is a run is a run; Sobers’ 57 runs per dismissal are only slightly more valuable than Kallis’ 56 runs per dismissal. One point that is clearly in Sobers’ favour is his better batting strike rate. He reportedly had a Test batting strike rate of 52.5 runs per 100 balls faced, while Kallis’ is 46.0. On the other hand, this also means Kallis stays in longer on average, and while this is a liability in One-Day Internationals and particularly Twenty20 matches if you have a below-average strike rate, it’s a valuable skill in Test matches in which 20 wickets are (generally) required to win the match.

Maybe Sobers’ more aggressive batting makes it easier for his teammates to score runs? But that’s hard to prove; you’d essentially have to see how teammates’ averages and strike rates changed when Sobers and Kallis are batting. My guess is not that much, but if anyone is willing to do the number-crunching I’d be interested in the results!

So in conclusion, Sobers might be a slightly better batsman due to his superior strike rate, but it’s pretty close. 


Kallis has the better bowling average – 32.57 to Sobers’ 34.04, although again the difference may not be statistically significant. We’ve already covered above the effects of the relative difficulty of batting and bowling across different eras.
Kallis also gets batsmen out more quickly, dismissing a batsman on average every 69 balls, while Sobers needed 92 balls on average to get batsmen out.

But Sobers got more wickets per match …

Yeah, not a bad point. But every ball that Sobers or Kallis bowled was a ball that someone else didn’t. For each of those balls how much better was Kallis or Sobers than the alternative? That is, is the performance of Kallis and Sobers better than the ‘average’ international bowler – if not they’re actually hurting their team’s performance on average with their bowling, apart from the benefit they provide by giving the better bowlers a rest. (This is not to deny that they’re still both outstanding bowlers in a global sense to get to that level in the first place.) Kallis’ better bowling average and particularly strike rate suggests he adds a bit more value (or at the least detracts less value) for each ball he bowls. Sobers can possibly bridge the gap as long as he added some positive value over the average bowler, but I’m not sure his figures support that.

Sobers’ bowling average would be better if he didn’t have to ‘fill the gaps’ …
This point comes from this post. The argument is that the Windies would pick their team around the other bowlers, and then use Sobers to fill whatever gap was left, so if the pitch was fast, then Sobers would bowl spin, and if it was likely to turn, he bowled pace. That may be true. But whether it matters or not depends on whether you think a bowler should be assessed on what they actually produced rather than what they could have produced if circumstances had been more favourable to them.

Again it’s pretty even, but Kallis might have a slight edge in terms of bowling, due to his better strike rate.

Well, how does one assess this? Sobers took 109 catches in 93 matches, Kallis has taken 196 in 158 matches. Not really a compelling argument that Sobers was clearly a better fielder.

To reiterate, none of this is to say that Sobers wasn’t the better cricketer – it’s just to say that it appears difficult to make a clear-cut case for it.

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