In August 2008, a scientist turned statistician called Charles Davis uncovered what he thought might be Don Bradman's 'missing' four runs, the boundary that would produce the 'perfect' career average of 100.
It came in the final stages of the eight-day fifth Test of 1928-9 at Melbourne, where Bradman made 37 not out batting at number seven [decent top six in that game, evidently]. A boundary attributed to Bradman's partner Jack Ryder appeared in a couple of the 'wrong' sections of the book, suggesting that it might actually have been struck by Bradman.
Davis was not sensation seeking: his was an endeavour of forensic, almost thrilling, nerdiness. He spent some years re-scoring Bradman's entire career, and found along the way that there were many small anomalies in the books, concerning Bradman and others too. He was diligent enough to confess that there are several plausible explanations for the Melbourne error, of which Bradman notching an extra boundary is just one.
'At least one resolution involves transferring the boundary to Bradman,' he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. 'If so, a Holy Grail of statisticians has been found, and the 'perfect' average of 100.00 achieved. Is it really possible? Well yes it is, but unfortunately it is unlikely'.
The interesting reaction is Davis's regret. It's understandable from the view of a statistician who has laboured long and hard, panning his numbers for years on end awaiting that sliver of gold in the mud, but the truth is, the best thing about 99.94 – aside from its ability to inspire awe – is its imperfection. Contained within it is the story of that last innings, when the Don, with watery eye, let one from Hollies slip through. Along with everything else, he was human, too.
Ninety nine point nine four, when spoken, almost alliterates; anyone can remember it. While '100.00' might have its glassy, unapproachable sheen, the reality is that had Bradman survived that first over from Hollies, he was unlikely to have made just four. We would have been left instead with something like '100.32' or 101.09' or some other figure that lacked both the lyrical fragility of 99.94 or the roundness of 100.
Buried now by time, unalterable, monolithic, we don't often stop to think about 99.94. It just is. One day, there will be Sachin Tendulkar's final tally of international centuries alongside it. It's becoming just slightly conceivable that it too will stay shy of three digits, mildly more so that it will finish on the round 100, but most likely to end up just over.
In terms of statistical impact, such fractions matter little. Bradman remains, by average, 30 per cent better than anyone else who has ever played, a distance that makes him not just the best cricketer of all time, but the best sportsman [as I've blogged before, Usain Bolt would need to run the 100m in six seconds to be 30 per cent better than other sprinters; Woods would require another ten majors and so on]. Tendulkar's feat, though, is perhaps even greater, and he will be more than 30 per cent better than anyone else in terms of international hundreds scored.
Yet there is an undeniable romance to his finishing on 99, if that's what he does. It's the number he'll be remembered by, purely because it's the number that best represents the epic grandeur of his enduring brilliance. If the number shows both his greatness and his humanity, if it tells his story the way 99.94 tells Bradman's, then it will be perfect whether it's 100 or not.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
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