How much is a century against Zimbabwe worth?

Are series against weaker opposition effective in judging a fringe player's suitability as a long-term prospect? AFP

Another ODI series against Zimbabwe, another whitewash by India. The bowlers set every game up nicely for India, before the young batsmen finished the job without fuss. Zimbabwe lost 30 wickets in three games to India's three. Not once did Zimbabwe manage to bat the full 50 overs or score over 168 runs.

Considering these were home conditions for Zimbabwe, and India had sent a second-string team, you wonder if this series should even qualify as international cricket. It isn't an exaggeration to assume that a state team from India might have put up a better fight than Zimbabwe - as Sunil Gavaskar said in one of his columns recently.

Since 2010, India have toured Zimbabwe four times and the 15 ODIs on these tours have featured 15 new faces (including three who made their debuts against Sri Lanka on the 2010 tour). Of those, only five have gone on to play more than ten matches each after their trip to Zimbabwe. During this period, India have played 153 ODIs excluding the games in Zimbabwe, and only 20 players made their debut in these games. While every game in Zimbabwe featured one debutant on average, only one new player featured every 7.65 ODIs on average otherwise. These are disturbing stats, raising the question of whether the India cap was handed out prematurely.

Before questioning the merits of these selections, let's put forward the selectors' case too. Most tours to Zimbabwe follow a busy international and IPL season for India. Taking that into account, plus the opposition's strength, selectors are more or less compelled to pick a second-string side. Only tours of this nature present an opportunity to test those who have done well on the domestic circuit, but on the other hand, the gulf between the sides has been so huge that it is impossible to read anything into these performances by young Indian players.

So it's understandable why the selectors try out new players, and also why they do not persist with them after they do reasonably well against Zimbabwe. Series of this sort are ones where no progress is made and you do not get to know anything that you didn't know already.

It's quite disturbing to realise that these international runs scored and wickets taken aren't telling us anything about the quality of the players concerned. Worse, conventional statistics treat them on par with the numbers acquired in vastly different, more difficult, circumstances. A century against Zimbabwe while chasing 150 on a good batting surface and a century against Australia on a seaming pitch at the Gabba are given the same weight. Isn't that bizarre?

Let's forget the variations in the quality of the opposition and look only at the conditions. In the subcontinent, it's relatively easier to score a century on the first day of a Test match than on a wearing pitch in the fourth innings of the same game. But since both are added to the overall tally, they are considered equals. Similarly, it's somewhat criminal to treat a century in a 220-run total as equal with one in a 650-run total. Shouldn't the first one fetch more points than the second?

Cricket is a game obsessed with milestones - centuries and five-wicket hauls are considered to be an effective measure to judge a player by, and while it's fine in most cases, it isn't that way all the time. If a Test match has lasted only three days, no team has scored over 180 runs, and no individual has scored a fifty, shouldn't a 45 be given as much credit as a double-century in much easier circumstances? A hard-fought 45 will neither inflate the averages nor will it add to the tally of 50-plus scores, and so it will be forgotten soon.

What about absorbing more pressure than the rest of the batsmen, when wickets are falling around you, or walking in to bat at 40 for 5, or containing the batsmen with economical spells that result in wickets falling from the other end? Anil Kumble did that very often - he would make it difficult for batsmen to score from one end, which made them take chances at the other, often resulting in wickets. Conventional stats won't reflect the bowler's contribution in these situations, unless he took those wickets. It's clear that dismissing top-order batsmen is a lot tougher than wrapping up the tail, but conventional stats fail to indicate that in the wickets tally. So dismissing an opener is considered as equal to dismissing a No. 11.

With the ICC seriously considering a two-tier system for Tests, this is going to become a huge issue. How can there be no visible difference in the way we view runs scored and wickets taken in tier one and tier two games? Some might argue that the teams in each tier are going to be roughly evenly matched, but it can't be disputed that the quality of cricket in the lower tier will largely be inferior.

With so much emphasis on data crunching these days, it's a travesty that individual contributions aren't viewed through a team prism yet. Shouldn't we have an option, alongside conventional stats, to view these numbers in a more meaningful context? There are statisticians who have been doing something of this nature for a while, but unfortunately those standards haven't found wide acceptance among the cricket community. Unless the connoisseurs of the game warm up to the idea of viewing stats differently, the modern game and its players will still be judged by archaic methods, and that's unfortunate.