Who’s more ‘clutch’? Tendulkar, Lara or Ponting?

By Ajit Bhaskar (@ajit_bhaskar)

Who is the most clutch among these three legends from our generation?

The Stage

Given the somewhat sensitive title of the post, I tried to think of a lot of emotional, heartfelt introductory content but I failed miserably. But it suffices to say that these three players are the best from our generation, particularly in the ODI format of the game. A couple of folks (Ian Chappell and Nasser Hussain) have opined on who’s the greatest among the three ‘modern greats’. Honestly, it is a tough ask to rate the three for each is excellent in his own ways.

I’m not here to ‘rate’ which one of them is the best among the three. What I’m going to address, is each batsman’s ability to perform in the clutch, which is one of the measures of a player’s greatness. After all, such performances tend to ‘define a player’s legacy’!

I am going to compare (statistically), the performance of these three players under ‘clutch’ situations.

Also, it makes some sense to compare these three players in particular because:

  • They have played in the same era.
  • They are all top order batsmen and have spent a vast majority of their careers batting in 1-4 spots in the batting order.

Ground Rules/Assumptions

  • I’m going to restrict this conversation to ODIs alone.
  • Clutch’ is defined as chasing a target. I will try to make things more granular as I proceed further.
  • Only India, Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, New Zealand, England and South Africa have been considered for this analysis. Sorry Zimbabwe, Bangladesh et al.
  • Only run chases are considered.
  • The pronouns HE and HIS used in generic sentences encompass BOTH male and female human beings. Do not hassle me with ‘sexist’ and other epithets.

A brief note on ‘clutch’

Various images flash across our minds the instant we hear the word clutch. Like Michael Jordan’s buzzer beating “The Shot” against Cleveland (followed by Jordan jumping in the air and then throwing his elbows exactly three times after planting his feet on the ground), Javed Miandad’s last ball six off Chetan Sharma (I hate Nataraj pencils just for that) and so on. As far as ODIs are concerned, a clutch situation typically involves chasing a target. The pressure that is associated with chasing a target, particularly when two good, competitive teams are playing makes for good drama and excellent cricket. The players who shine repeatedly and consistently under such circumstances become legends of the game.

The reason for emphasis on run chase will become clearer during the course of this article.

The Statistics

These are obtained from Cricinfo directly after applying a filter for ‘fielding first’.

Key observations:

  • They’ve been involved in enough run chases to qualify for statistical analysis
  • Lara has scored nearly half his runs chasing targets!
  • The ‘chasing average’ of all three players is pretty close to their career averages. This suggests that the pressure associated with a run chase doesn’t influence their performance significantly. In fact, Lara (on an average), scores 3 more runs during chasing.
  • All players show the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, i.e. elevated averages when their teams win during a run chase and reduced averages when their teams lose while chasing a target.
  • It’s the extent of this syndrome exhibited by the three players that is quite intriguing.
  • If we define Differential Chasing Average or D = Chasing Average during Wins – Chasing Average during Losses, it represents the degree of discrepancy in individual performance while a team goes on to win or lose. In principle, a ‘legendary’ player is expected to play the same way and produce at a high level regardless of the outcome of the game and the performance of other players on the team. So lower the D value, greater the degree of consistency of a player during run chases.
  • The D values for Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting are 19.53, 40.11 and 39 respectively.
  • Let’s pause and ponder over this for a moment. Taking Lara as example, when WI chases a total successfully, he tends to score FORTY MORE RUNS than when WI fails to chase a target. While an average of ~68 runs is fantastic during successful a run chase, that also indicates a lot of variation in performance. In other words, consistency is lacking. The same is true of Ponting (Differential = 39). However, the key difference between Lara and Ponting is that when their teams lose while chasing a target, Lara still manages to score a decent 27.5 runs, Ponting manages only 19 runs.
  • Tendulkar, on the other hand, shows the least variation (D = 19.53). In fact, the variation is half of Lara’s and Ponting’s. This indicates more consistent performance during run chases.
  • Lara has the best Chasing Average in Wins by a distance. He scores nearly 10 more runs than Ponting and 16 more runs than Tendulkar during successful run chases.
  • Tendulkar has the best Chasing Average in Losses. It’s is about 13 runs or 67% greater than Ponting’s. He also scores 4 more runs than Lara during unsuccessful rn chases.
 Figure 1. Graphical representation of performance of Sachin Tendulkar (SRT, blue), Brian Lara (BL, Red) and Ricky Ponting (RP, green) during run chases.


Cranking up the pressure to ‘ultimate clutch’

While the analysis so far has provided an indication of the extent of consistency of these players, it hasn’t truly separated them as to who is the best among the three. So I’ll up the ante a little bit and crank up the pressure.

I’d like to evaluate these players’ performances under extreme pressure.  In many cases, teams are chasing fairly small targets of 100 or 150. While the task is still challenging, it is not as daunting as chasing a larger target. Say 250.

How do these players fare when chasing targets of 250 or above? The reason for choosing 250 becomes clearer when we take a look at how teams fare when they chase such targets.

Data Acquisition

  • Get the ODI inning by inning list for Tendulkar on cricinfo.
  • Set a filter for ‘fielding first’.
  • Open every single match/scorecard and choose only those where targets of 250 or above were chased.
  • Note the runs scored in each inning under two columns based on whether his team won or lost.
  • Calculate various parameters (Average, average during wins and losses etc.)
  • Not outs are considered as outs for calculating averages
  • Repeat the process for Lara and Ponting. Note that in Ponting’s case, a tied match is included for calculating chasing average.

Here’s how the three batsmen fare:

Key observations:

  • There is a LOT of collective failure! Just take a look at the W-L records. With these legends representing India, West Indies and Australia respectively, they have won ~30, 25 and 40% of their matches while chasing 250+ targets. The collective success rate is just 31%!
  • So, if anybody tells you chasing 250+ is an easy task, just show him this table. Even the ‘invincible Aussies’, who have boasted some of the game’s premier batsmen, bowlers and perhaps some the most balanced sides ever, have failed to win even half the games while chasing 250 or above!
  • Tendulkar’s average while chasing 250+ targets (39.9) is virtually same as his regular chasing average of 40.03. This is remarkable consistency. Lara and Ponting on the other hand, tend to score nearly 5 and 3 runs lower than their regular chasing averages respective, when chasing 250+ targets.
  • Tendulkar also averages the most during 250+ chases. While Tendulkar and Lara are separated by one run, Tendulkar scores nearly 3 more runs than Ponting.
  • The differential (D) values for Tendulkar, Lara and Ponting are 10.3, 34.2 and 46.6 respectively.
  • Let me emphasize a bit more on the D values. Regardless of W or L, you can expect consistent performance from Tendulkar. Lara and Ponting, on the other hand, tend to play extremely well when their respective teams are winning, but tend to score poorly when their sides are on the losing side. This is particularly true of Ponting, whose average of 18.5 when the Aussies lose chasing targets 250 (probability is 26 out of 44 games or 59%) or above is quite frankly, poor!
  • WI has lost 39 out of 52 games while chasing 250+. But even under these circumstances, Lara pretty much assures you 30 runs (chasing avg. during losses).
  • Tendulkar, on the other hand, gets you 7 more runs than Lara and nearly 18 more runs than Ponting on days when your team is not doing a good job at chasing. This is a very significant difference in my opinion, given the fact that India and WI do not end up on the winning side often while chasing 250+ targets.
  • But when their teams win, Lara and Ponting fire and fare much better than Tendulkar. This is clear from their chasing averages during wins.

Figure 2. Graphical representation of performance during 250+ run chases for Tendulkar (blue), Lara (red) and Ponting (green).

Bottom Line

The bottom line is, no matter how high the pressure is, whether the game is being played on earth or elsewhere, no matter what kind of target the team is chasing, Tendulkar provides the most steady, consistent performance. Lara is a gambling man’s pick, while Ponting is (compared to Tendulkar and Lara) more of a hit or miss case. If snoring is a problem, you may need ZQuiet.

To me, this analysis puts Tendulkar and Lara a cut above Ponting. Particularly because Ponting has enjoyed the benefit of better overall teams than Lara and Tendulkar have enjoyed over their careers. But more importantly, the averages of 18.95 during unsuccessful run chases and 18.5 during unsuccessful run chases involving 250+ targets is something I wouldn’t call ‘stuff of legends’.

In a nutshell, if I were to pick one of these three legends to help chase my team a target of 250 or above, which in my book, is a clutch situation given the rate of failure involved, I’d flip a coin. Heads – Tendulkar, Tails – Lara.

Sorry Ponting, you just don’t make the cut on my list. Certainly not in ODIs.

13 responses to “Who’s more ‘clutch’? Tendulkar, Lara or Ponting?

  1. brilliant analysis! also notable is the fact that Tendulkar was the one who was under more pressure than anyone else and also carried the burden of his team almost single handedly for several years in ODI’s.
    I twould have been interestinf if you had included even Jaques Kallis in this comparison.

    • Thanks for your comment Vaibhav. Kallis is a great suggestion! I might follow up on that sometime 😉

  2. “Lara and Ponting, on the other hand, tend to play extremely well when their respective teams are winning, but tend to score poorly when their sides are on the losing side.” – completely tail-backwards imho. It’s not that Lara/Ponting score well when their teams are winning – it is that their teams win when Lara/Ponting score well. Significant difference.

    • Thanks for the comment Saurabh!

      You’re right. There is a significant difference between the two statements (the way I’ve phrased it and the way you’ve phrased it).

      – The reason why I phrased it that way is because WHILE a player is playing (constructing an inning), the outcome of the match is not known. I mean let’s say WI is chasing 280 and Lara is batting at 75. Then he gets out and the score is, for example 256/4. Let’s assume WI is comfortably placed with 8 more overs to go to chase the target. So WI IS ‘winning’ the game in the sense that it’s their game to lose. In other words, they are in a position of advantage in this match.

      – There are two scenarios possible (I’m going to ignore a tie for simplicity). The rest of the team screws it up and they go on to lose the game. OR, the team manages to win the game.

      – To me, regardless of the outcome of the game, this is a clutch inning. Also, this particular example is relevant because a) WI and Ind in particular have poor success rates in 250+ run chases, which means many good knocks by all the three players have “gone in vain” from a purely result perspective. b) the scenario that I’ve described is not too uncommon 😉 c) these are top order batsmen so you don’t expect them to ‘see through’ an entire 250+ run chase.

      – In a nutshell, “player X plays well when his team WINS the game’ to me is a bit of hindsight based analysis and it’s a bit of a subjective filter to evaluate a clutch performance IMHO.

  3. Venkatraman V

    we discussed on Twitter today. Clutch performance is outlier performance in crunch situations& hence is performing at considerably better than his normal average to get team past the winning post. That should be the yardstick. So normal ODIs will not do but a multi-team event like WC or Champions trophy or at least an event with 2 teams should be considered and contributions for that.

    A simple google search yielded these results on Clutch factor:


    and http://bit.ly/LATjhc

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. Yes, I remember our discussion earlier today.

      I’m glad you brought baseball in the discussion since that’s a sport I’ve followed more closely than cricket over the last 6-7 years. Acc. to the Wiki link you’ve mentioned, it clearly suggests it is very hard to ‘define’ clutch hitting. The reason being baseball is a fundamentally different sport than cricket because baseball is EXTREMELY pitcher (bowler) friendly than cricket. A player who hits a ball mere 30% of the time (batting average of 0.300) over a career of 15 yrs is considered a legend. That’s certainly not going to cut it in cricket.

      Also, I don’t agree with your view of ‘outlier’ performance as the only metric for clutch, if that is your suggestion. That’s because then, the standard deviation on the analysis would be extremely high. So any conclusion drawn would be highly unreliable.

      Also, the objective of this post is to evaluate only these three players since they are probably the most celebrated (ODI) players of our era. Looking at only ‘outlier’ performances would give a plethora of players like Yuvraj Singh and even Kevin O’Brien. But the point is in crunch situation, these players are not the once you’d put your money on repeatedly because of the lack of consistency, which to me is extremely important in evaluating a player under clutch circumstances.

      To cut a long story short, the objective of the post is to evaluate only these three players under clutch situations. Also, I’ve taken the quality of opposition into account by leaving weaker teams like Scotland, Kenya and even Bangladesh and Zimbabwe etc. out of it. The analysis includes all kinds of ODIs, be it World cup or two-team tournament. I don’t understand how different a 250+ chase is in a 2-team tournament than in a multi team tournament? how is the presence of a third team affect the performance of the two teams that are involved in a 250+ run chase?

      I think our definition of clutch is different which is why we are differing in our opinions. But only when difference of opinion arises, a good, healthy discussion ensues. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your time 🙂

  4. Saying that the D factor being minimum equals least inconsistency is correct. However, if a batsman averages significantly more in wins, another way of looking at it is that, whenever he bats well, team has high probability of winning.
    In other words, Tendulkar doing well, may or may not result in win, while Lara and Ponting doing well, mostly results in win. Hence, people may have two opinions from this as well. And the opinion they choose will depend on their who their favourite player is.
    But, must say, it is a well written, unbiased post 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments!

      First of all, I appreciate that you consider this piece unbiased 🙂 That was my intention.

      Regarding Lara and Ponting doing well, let me take up Lara first. If you look at WI’s record chasing 250+ scores, it is only 13/39 or 25% probability of winning. So regardless of how well or poorly Lara plays, WI wins only 25% of the time chasing 250+. To me that’s a poor success rate. That suggests that beyond a certain point, it becomes how the team surrounding him performs.

      This becomes clearer if you look at Ponting. Both Lara and Ponting have averaged ~63-64 when their teams win. But if you look at AUS, their success rate chasing 250+ is nearly 41%, as opposed to 25% for WI. So even though Lara and Ponting have averaged nearly the same while chasing 250+, their respective teams’ success rates are very different. That’s most likely because AUS have had much better teams than WI. In other words,while the batsmen doing well obviously increases the probability of the side’s winning, it becomes a lot more dependent on the other team members’ performance, which is out of the scope of this article.

      Imagine if these three players had played on the same team 🙂 I’d expect that success rate to go up by a lot 😉

  5. Tendulkar, especially in ODI cricket has had two different careers. His batting average opening the batting is 48, as opposed to his overall batting average of 45. He has played more as an opener than most other player’s entire careers. So any analysis has to look at their dominant positions.

    For Ponting it is 3, For Tendulkar it is Opening, For Lara, I’d look at both, because Lara’s record as openers is superior to Tendulkar’s, but it was a very short career (about 50 games i think).

    • Hi Karthikeya, thanks for your comment 🙂

      Your point is valid. Tendulkar has played ~75% of his career as an opening batsman. The only reason I didn’t concentrate on that is given various filters (chasing, chasing 250+, not playing against Zimbabwe, Kenya etc.), I didn’t want to narrow my sample space too much. Also, I would guess that given all these filters, one might not come up with a huge number of games that satisfy all the criteria. But yes, your point is taken.

      I completely agree about Lara. Which is why I didn’t separate his contributions.

  6. Lara spent most of his ODI career batting MUCH LOWER down the order than Ponting and Tendies and suffered a rarely mentioned eye condition for almost a decade.

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