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The Changing Approach of Batsmen to the Nineties

Cricket always puts a lot of emphasis on milestone achievements and none more so than scoring a century. The television graphics always show the number of hundreds that a batsman has scored, there is always discussion about conversion rates of fifties to hundreds and it is always celebrated by a batsman when he reaches that milestone. Last week, I ran a poll on Twitter that asked which of two batsman - both with the same number of runs and the same average, but one with 43 100s and the other with 0 100s - would be perceived as the better batsman.

The results came out in favour of the player with more centuries as one might have expected. I will admit that I expected it to be even more in favour of player 2, but various alternative theories were mentioned that did explain why some people voted for the former. In reality, the two batsman were created by simply taking Virat Kohli's career innings, but for player 1, every century was replaced with him being dismissed on 99 and for player 2, he was dismissed on 100 (and a few extra runs were scattered around for player 1 to ensure the averages were the same). All that player 2 achieved was to scored one extra run in 43 innings, but he is perceived as comfortably the better player.

This brings us to the question of whether the considerable emphasis on the century milestone changes how batsmen approach batting when they are closing on that milestone. There is always mention among cricket traders of the idea of a century slowdown, where a player plays more risk averse in the nineties to give himself a better chance of reaching his century, potentially to the detriment of the team. It would be entirely understandable why players might react this way - as long as there is emphasis on the milestones when it comes to player evaluation and team selection, it is beneficial for an individual player to maximise their chances of reaching that milestone.

As a very simple first step in looking at what happens when players are close to their century, we can look at their average and strike rate when they are on a score of 80-89, 90-99 and 100-109 to try and identify any obvious changes. In this article, we will exclusively focus on 50 over cricket.

Across all 50 over matches in the past five years, we can see that both the average and the strike rate for batsmen drops when they move into the nineties. Interestingly, this might suggest that players both look to play slightly more conservatively, but that change could also lead to an increased chance of being dismissed. Once they reach their hundred, the average does increase a touch, but the most striking difference is the change in strike rate. It would appear that almost immediately after reaching their century, players really go on the attack.

So, on the whole, it would appear that there is a bit of an effect of the approaching milestone. The next thing to look at is how that varies across teams - do players from certain countries put different emphasis on milestones?  

Focusing on countries at this stage, we can see a few interesting things in this table. The majority of countries see a slowdown when players move into the 90s, although the drop for the West Indies in particular is notable. England, South Africa, New Zealand and Afghanistan are the countries that see a continued increase in strike rate as players move into the 90s and they also all see a significant increase in the average during that period.

The West Indies demonstrate the unfortunate pairing of a significant slowdown in scoring as players go into the 90s, combined with a much reduced average. Either West Indian players have a big problem with nerves as they approach their century or they change their style of play in a way that leads to an increase in the likelihood of being dismissed. India also see a reasonable drop as players close on their century, but their players are far less likely to be dismissed in this period.

Looking at what happens after the players reach their hundred is also interesting. Almost across the board, we see a fall in average after reaching the century - whether this is due to greater risk taking or whether players lose concentration after reaching the milestone can be debated - however batsmen from different countries attack differently. We can see that England, India, West Indies and South Africa batsmen really accelerate after reaching their milestone, although with varying rates of success. English batsman really look to attack, but we can see that the average falls dramatically, suggesting that they really take risks to up the run rate potentially to their own personal detriment. Conversely, we can see that there is no obvious rapid increase in scoring from Australian, Pakistan and Sri Lankan batsmen, who appear to revert to their scoring rates from the 80s, although that doesn't always appear to reduce the chance of being dismissed compared to the more attacking approach of other countries.

So, can we look at some of the individual players to try and spot players that really slow down approaching their century or players that continue to attack?

These are a selection of the players with the biggest increase in their strike rate between the 80s and the 90s. Top of the list is AB de Villiers, whose strike rate approaching his century is quite ridiculous, although that applies to his strike rate at all stages around the milestone. Having noted before that English batsmen do not appear to generally show a slowdown around the milestone, it is no surprise to see Malan, Morgan and Stokes all appearing close to the top of this list. England have had great success in ODI cricket over the past five years and maybe some of that is down to players being confident of their place in the team, so not feeling the need to play for personal milestones?

At the other end of the scale, we can see the players that show a big century slowdown. It is also noticeable how many of these batsmen return to a rapid scoring rate once they reach their hundred, suggesting the slowdown is a fairly deliberate decision to attempt to reach the milestone. For example, Rohit Sharma, one of the very best limited overs batsmen, scores at 133.5 during the 80s, before slowing right down to 92.9 during the 90s. Once he reaches his century, he immediately returns to scoring at 131.5, almost exactly the rate he was scored at in the 80s.

Ultimately, this slowdown in the 90s might not have too much of an impact in the bigger picture. Taking Rohit Sharma again as the example, the change in SR means that he is expected to spend around 10.8 balls to score the 10 runs to take him from 90 to 100 rather than 7.5 if he had continued at the same rate. Whether the difference of those roughly 3 balls actually makes an impact in the majority of ODIs can be debated - clearly in the tightest of matches, those balls may make the difference, but I'd estimate that the majority of ODIs do not come down to that sort of margin. However, it does give an interesting insight into potentially different views on milestones between different batsmen.

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