Here, in 1981, is John Gordon Sinclair being me, in 1981 -
Numbers are so reassuringly certain to a certain kind of teenage boy. Unlike one’s body, unlike one’s hormones and definitely, definitely, unlike girls, they’re the same from one day to the next, wherever you are and there’s always another one if you think it’s time for a change. It’s when numbers had to be turned into symbols and Pan’s People had to be turned into real people, that the trouble started.
I’d fallen in love with cricket stats at a much earlier age – 10 (or 9 and 3/4 as I would have Adrian Moleishly insisted) when I got hold of the somewhat unprepossessing Observer’s Book of Cricket 1973. Here it is, with its cover showing Dennis Lillee yorking MJK Smith while Peter Parfitt looks on -
It was just a pocket sized publication, one of a series of such titles covering a wide range of subjects, all of which adopted a didactic tone and worthiness – a kind of Blue Peter between hard covers. It wasn’t Wisden – I was too young for that slabby brick and it wasn’t the sort of book that appeared in our house, that is a book that you could buy at Woolworths or borrow from the library. I didn’t miss what I didn’t know.
I was interested in the text on the book’s shiny pages (that smelled of book), but I was more interested in its numbers – its gloriously dense the Records Section, which were the most fascinating pages I had ever seen. Having had nothing beyond the Daily Mirror’s county cricket reports (tabloid papers had only three pages of sport then – more space was dedicated to horse-racing – but they still printed all close of play scorecards in full) , here was a positive avalanche of numbers in which to wallow. And I wallowed.
The most iconic number was assigned to an iconic name – top of the Test runs chart was the impossibly exotic sounding Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, whom, I quickly discovered by reading elsewhere in the book, lived up to his moniker… and then some. More prosaic names followed: MCC Cowdrey (I didn’t get the initials’ significance), WR Hammond and DG Bradman, whose outlandish average is as bizarre today as it was then. FS Trueman was atop the wicket-taking table with 309, with Lance Gibbs (whom I had seen on telly and didn’t rate) second and Deadly Derek Underwood coming up through the ranks.
But there was more – so much more. We were still a long way off 21st century television’s torrent of onscreen graphics informing us that Virat Kohli’s 47 is now his highest score in India vs Bangladesh T20Is at Chittagong – so sighting a simple list of highest partnerships for each wicket in First Class cricket was a thrill beyond measure. Who were Vijay Hazare and Gul Mohammad and where was Baroda? Were Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe not gruff supervisors in an ITV sitcom as I would have guessed, but two real-life openers who once added 555? And what unimaginable circumstances led to Alan Kippax and Hal Hooker putting on 307 as the last pair? I would lie awake in bed while these numbers tumbled through my consciousness. So dedicated did I become to cricket’s numbers that before long, when my dad came in late after his overtime, I could recite the scorecard of a day’s Test cricket or the Gillette Cup match just finished on BBC2, the numbers just there in my head, lodged until beer chipped away at a memory that made schooldays much easier for me than for most.
Ceefax was a step change in access to cricket’s continually evolving flood of numbers, but the next real thrill was Cricinfo. Sitting at my desk in the late 90s, not only could I see the Test scorecard flick over with every ball instead of Ceefax’s every two minutes – who could wait for that now interminable time – but I could see cricket’s beautiful tables of runs, wickets, partnerships etc updated with every run, with every wicket, the players’ records sorted and re-ordered before my very eyes. I just stared in wonder as Alec Stewart nudged up towards Len Hutton and Andy Caddick pushed on towards Brian Statham. Often, as I ate a lunchtime sandwich, I would call up a table on a whim – say Most Stumpings in Career – and just stare at it, marveling as one column numbers descended predictably while the others’ seemed to have their entries flung at them, their figures almost random in their distribution. Before Statsguru made it easier, one could look for obscure connections and unexpected names, and arm yourself with a bit of smartarsery to drop into conversation at just the right moment. (I still do that now, of course).
We’re all used to these databases these days, with stats invading other sports (like football) and becoming simply too much (hello MLB.com), but, for those who lived through the data revolution, we will never lose that thrill of our first encounter with cricket’s numbers.
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