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We need to talk about SENA

Dear Mahesh

There is a four-letter word that has been pissing me off over the last few months. 

SENA.

This, of course, stands for South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. And a cricketer’s or team’s record in SENA countries is often brought up when discussing Asian players and Asian teams. 

The underlying assumption among this SENA brigade seems to be that South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia are currently the toughest tours for Asian teams. If a batsman or bowler – usually a spinner – can perform in these four countries, then he is viewed in a new light. 

What began as some fanciful stat among a few cricket geeks on social media has now wormed itself into mainstream discourse. I heard SENA being mentioned on TV during the India-Australia Test series. And there are enough journalists and editors talking about it these days to suggest that it has gained widespread acceptance.  

Here are some of my problems with this filter:

1 To put these four countries on a pedestal is to implicitly undervalue performances in non-SENA countries. An Indian batsman may score a hundred on a minefield in Sri Lanka – with the series tied at 1-1 and the weather oppressive – but it will still not match up with a hundred in a dead rubber in a SENA country (on a flat pitch with weather congenial and the bowlers second-string).

2 There is no SENA equivalent for Australians, English, South Africans and New Zealanders. Nobody seems to care which SENA players excel while playing in Asia. I am yet to see a list of SENA batsmen who average over 40 in Sri Lanka, UAE, Bangladesh and India (SUBI).  

3 SENA averages can be heavily misleading. A player may have played two Tests in South Africa in 2013, missed a tour of New Zealand, had a poor series in England and been injured midway through a series in Australia but people pass judgement on his SENA record. Did he play in conditions that were challenging? Was his team facing a massive total? Was he making a comeback into the side? None of this is taken into account. Just the SENA numbers tweeted out. 400 RTs and 1400 likes. 

4 Using SENA for historical comparison is plain absurd. Towards the end of the recent Melbourne Test, ESPNcricinfo’s editor in chief Sambit Bal tweeted: 

“When India wrap this up, they would have two Tests in a SENA country for the first time since 1986, when they won in England #INDvAUS

I took issue with that right then. Leave alone the factual oddities around this tweet – South Africa weren’t even playing international cricket back then, Australia were frail for the second half of the 1980s etc – but it was not like teams went to Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka in the 1990s and 2000s and won comfortably. India didn’t win two Tests in a series in Pakistan until 2004. They didn’t win two Tests on a tour to West Indies until 2016 and in Sri Lanka until 2015. So to go back to 1986 is to brush aside the achievements of the teams that triumphed in Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka. 

Also, SENA makes no sense when talking of the 1980s. The two teams that were near-unbeatable at home in the ’80s were West Indies and Pakistan. India’s 0-0 draw against Pakistan in 1989-90 was a huge achievement. But nobody seems to remember that series. Even Sanjay Manjrekar, who had such a good series, didn’t bring it up when discussing India’s famous away performances. If India’s 1-1 draw against a Warne-less and McGrath-less Australia in 2003-04 is so fondly recalled, is a 0-0 draw against Wasim, Waqar, Imran and Qadir (and a formidable batting line-up) not worth even a footnote?      

SENA is also irrelevant through the ’90s because England were hardly a force then, even at home. Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka: all these teams beat England at home then. 

5 Sri Lanka was – and remains – a really tough place to tour. Just because India and England have beaten them 3-0 recently doesn’t mean SL have become minnows. In fact, their 3-0 win against Australia (in 2016) and 2-0 win South Africa (in 2018) show what a force they can be at home. I was watching an interview with Kevin Pietersen recently and was glad he picked his Colombo hundred (in 2012) as his most challenging knock. He spoke of the poor form he had been in and the extreme humidity he had to endure (constantly changing shirts and gloves). 

6 The more one takes SENA seriously, the more one ignores great victories at home. I wish someone had asked Cheteshwar Pujara if the bowling and conditions he faced in this Test series were more challenging than what he faced when Australia came to India in 2016-17. India suffered a heavy defeat in the first Test in Pune. Pujara then made 92 in the second Test in Bangalore, 202 in the third Test in Ranchi and 57 in the final Test in Dharamshala. All three venues offered different conditions. Lyon and Steve O’Keefe were threatening for much of the series and Cummins had some terrific spells in Ranchi and in pace-friendly Dharamsala. 

Pujara may well cherish the victory in Australia more (this was after all the first time India had won a series there) but I dream of a day when an Indian batsman scores 500 runs in a SENA country and 500 runs in a home series – and ranks the second over the first.

Sidvee

Update:

Hat tip to @Tope_Bhau on Twitter: Around the six-minute mark in this interview, Pujara talks about both the recently completed series as well as the series against Australia at home. It warms my heart to see that he refers to the home series as the “toughest series” he has been part of.

12 Comments

  1. Mazher Arshad Mazher Arshad

    First of all, we need to understand why there was a need to have SENA filter (even though I don’t know who was the first to bring it into stats/discussions). I have been providing stats to many commentators/experts and on many occasions when there was a stat about Asian players and teams outside Asia, they would ask how does it look like minus Windies and Zimbabwe? It is quite sad that Windies is not the force it once was and the nature of the pitches there has also changed.

    There was a Test between Pakistan and Windies couple of years ago in Dominica. If somebody had told you the square in Dominica was brought from Abu Dhabi, you would have believed him. That is one of the reasons both Yasir Shah and Ravichandran Ashwin have a good record in the Caribbean but struggled in SENA (Ashwin hasn’t played in NZ though).

    I agree that using SENA filter for Asians for historical stats would be misleading because West Indies used to be one of the toughest places in the previous century.

    Now, let’s come to the points you have raised.

    1) If someone is talking about coffee, it does not mean he is talking against tea. So, if an Asian batsman’s performances in SENA are being discussed it does not mean his performances in Asia or Sri Lanka for that matter are being ignored. Yes, an Asian batsman would have played a better innings on a minefield in Sri Lanka but then a non-Asian batsman might have also played a good innings on a flat-track at SSC or Iqbal Stadium Faisalabad.

    2) Totally wrong. The corresponding filter for SENA batsmen is ASIA. I remember doing a list of highest average by non-Asian batsmen in Asia to highlight Alastair Cook’s performances in the subcontinent conditions when he scored a double-century in Abu Dhabi. As recently as last October, I did same to highlight Mike Hussey’s performances in Asia. Pretty sure many other statisticians must have also done it.

    3) Any average or a stat can be misleading. Yasir is fastest to 200 wickets and Ashwin fastest to 300 wickets. That does not mean these two are the greatest spinners of all time. Both are rested/dropped when the conditions don’t suit them. Statistician’s job is to throw numbers and experts/commentators’ job is to analyze. A good commentator would always think about the stats and then give his opinion and ignore those numbers that do not make sense.

    For example, I once told a great commentator that average first innings total in T20Is in Dubai is quite low. And the first question he asked me was: how many games Associate teams have played here?

    I also recently did a stat about Pakistan fielders having the best percentage of making run outs in T20Is and when I gave it to Bazid Khan he said more than fielding it is due to bowling as the bowlers draw dot balls and force batsmen to look for singles.

    4) Agree that using SENA for historical stats is absurd. But no harm in using it for recent performances.

    5) Sri Lanka is not the toughest place. Maybe it is for non-Asians but certainly not for the subcontinent teams. Pakistan have never won a series in Australia or South Africa but won many in Sri Lanka (even when Sri Lanka had Mahela and Sanga).

    Yes, KP called his P Sara century the best but that was because he had an extremely bad tour of UAE few months back and the conditions in Sri Lanka are hot and humid so physically it is a very challenging place.

    But ask the subcontinent batsmen to choose between hot & humid Colombo and cold & cloudy Leeds, nine of out ten would pick Colombo.

    6) Same as point one.

  2. Sidvee Sidvee

    Thanks for the comment, Mazher.

    The WI series v SL last year was played on challenging pitches. This upcoming Eng series will tell us if things are changing. To suggest that Kusal Mendis’ hundred in PoS or Chandimal’s hundred in St Lucia are in anyway inferior is to do them a disservice.

    Also, India went to West Indies in 2002 and played on largely slow and flattish pitches. They were up against a bowling attack that was nowhere as threatening as even the current WI bowling attack is. And they lost the series. History tells us how difficult it was to win in places like West Indies and Sri Lanka. To suddenly discount them as venues seems odd to me.

    As for the rest of your points:

    1 This coffee-tea comparison is not convincing because SENA implicitly is a ‘quality’ filter. So one can make a hundred in a tough pitch in India and SL (with severe scoreboard pressure) but it won’t be as celebrated as a great SENA innings.

    2 You may have made a number of lists on players’ average in Asia but I was talking about the more general sentiment. How many non-Asian players are criticized for their poor record in Asia? How many of them have their greatness defined by how well they do in Asia? I offer you Dennis Lillee as one example. Greg Chappell too.

    3 Yes, any stat can be misleading but SENA is even more likely to mislead because it is so narrow in its scope. Unfortunately a majority of the commentators around aren’t as good in offering the viewers a nuanced view of these stats. So viewers are easily mislead.

    5 Pakistan’s performances in Sri Lanka are particularly good but that doesn’t mean it is true for other teams. Indian teams with some of the greatest batsmen have failed to win a series there. It is only in the last two tours that India have found a way. But that is not to say that they will keep winning every time they go.

    As for your last point: “… ask the subcontinent batsmen to choose between hot & humid Colombo and cold & cloudy Leeds, nine of out ten would pick Colombo.”

    And my question to you is: why on earth should that be the case? Aren’t filters like SENA only reinforcing this belief that a good innings in Leeds is somewhat more superior to a good innings in Colombo?

    And please ask yourself another question: Isn’t KP an exception here? Wouldn’t a majority off English and Australian batsmen choose Leeds over Colombo?

    Plenty to ponder.

  3. Ravi Ravi

    Gents,

    A layman’s perspective on the SENA debate, but which borrows from other sports.

    Nadal has 17 grand slam titles but no one puts an asterisk next to his record to say “11 French Open titles” . Lewis Hamilton has 5 F1 world titles but no one puts a little star next to it to say “4 with dominant and incredibly strong Mercedes car”. Ditto Federer or Serena or Schumi or Indian hockey and its countless hockey gold medals.

    If that distinction isn’t made in other sports why should cricket do so?

  4. Akash Akash

    3 replies before me… and my head is spinning a bit… and I thought I knew “a lot lot” about cricket.. 🙁

    Probably shows easily I’m misled..

  5. Himanish Ganjoo Himanish Ganjoo

    I believe “SENA” thing is important because these countries represent alien conditions to SC batsmen, with a relative closeness among themselves due to the dominance of bounce, pace, swing and seam, all fast bowling skills that might not test batsmen on the subcontinent. Traditionally, SC batsmen have fared poorly in those conditions, or so the perception goes.

    Regarding point 2, I believe there is some discussion of the weaknesses of great batsmen on the subcontinent, although I agree that it doesn’t have an equal weight in the prevalent discourse as discussing the inability of SC bats in “SENA”.

    Regarding point 3 and 4, completely agree. Mainstream cricket media is clueless and resorts to absurdly engineered “stats” to create headlines, ignoring the massive variability in conditions, and the small sample sizes in each nation that skew numbers. For instance, Pujara has played 2 games in NZ, but the statement that he averages 15 there is taken to prove the absolutism that he cannot play in NZ.

    Cricket media is, to say the least, daft about numbers and their relevance. That’s why one sees bullshit like “first team to win in a year in SENA”, as if all teams play in those countries every year. It’s ridiculously brainless, but no one has better insights, alas.

    Yes, I do believe people ignore the toughness of touring the subcontinent, as evidenced by teams like Aus and SA getting mauled in SL recently. This, I sense, is a manifestation of the “Anglocentrism” in cricket. However, this changes as SC teams become serious competitors on the world stage. For instance, in recent times, an Australian player / fan mostly considers winning a Test series in India as the toughest and most prestigious assignment.

    On the same point, SL will surely not be as tough for a touring party from Ind or Pak. And that’s because of the relative similarity of conditions. Ind / Pak batsmen grow up playing spin, which is the main weapon that dismantles other teams in SL, for instance. The same spinners might not be potent enough to thwart better spin-players. I believe strongly that the weak showing of touring batsmen has a lot to do with their absolute lack of technique and temperament against spin. The inherent skill of the spinner plays a part too, but I believe that a better player of spin, like a Cook or a Pietersen, or even a Smith in the 2017 series, will be comfortable against the same Indian / Lankan spinners. This lack of ability and attention towards spin is another manifestation of the aforementioned “Anglocentrism”, because those cricketing cultures have dominated the discourse and look upon spin as a second-class skill, or a mystery.

    Agree with point 6. India itself provides varied and tough conditions to bat, even for home batsmen, as shown by the Aus series. But the overwhelming perception is “India = easy to bat”. Cricket’s not that simple.

  6. Sidvee Sidvee

    Himanish: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with most of what you have said, except:

    1 “… these countries represent alien conditions to SC batsmen, with a relative closeness among themselves due to the dominance of bounce, pace, swing and seam, all fast bowling skills that might not test batsmen on the subcontinent”

    This needs to be qualified because there is a wide diversity in conditions and pitches within these four countries. The MCG and SCG were nowhere near the Perth Stadium or Adelaide. The Gabba will host a D/N Test soon (which will provide different conditions to even Gabba day Tests). The variables are plenty. So to group everything into SENA is crude. Look at India’s tour to England itself. Lord’s was really really tough to bat on. The Oval – not so much. Southampton was good for the spinners but Trent Bridge was more seam friendly. We need to provide a nuanced take.

    2 As for your other bit: “SL will surely not be as tough for a touring party from Ind or Pak…”

    I am again not sure. Pakistan have a good record in SL compared to many other countries but India struggled to win a series in SL between 1994 and 2015. Some of their greatest batsmen (and spinners) couldn’t pull off a win there. Yes, SL are relatively weakened after Murali’s retirement (and more after Herath’s retirement) but there is no guarantee that India are going to go and dominate there each time.

  7. PaajivsPunter PaajivsPunter

    Dear Sidvee,

    You’ve raised some very pertinent points (especially about the grating but TINA abbreviation SENA). We have some points to add, which will hopefully add to the debate. Please note that these are personal opinions.

    1) Many years ago, we had a separate term for SENA, called “Temperate zone countries” where many of these boxes are ticked: grounds are beyond the tropics, weather isn’t tropical, outfields are a lot more pleasing on the eye, English is the dominant local language, cricket is a summertime sport, the average ground would see more swing, bounce and seam (and lesser spin) than the Asian zone, and the opponents are mostly white. Of course, these are broad brushstrokes and plenty of counterexamples exist (Pakistan lies north of the tropics, many pitches in the temperate zone aren’t the extra swing/seam/bounce variety and so on).

    2) The penchant to use SENA in recent times, in our opinion, stems from 3 reasons: remnants of an inferiority complex and a need to seek acceptance w.r.t the ways of the “white” man, a literal and figurative case of grass being greener on the other side, and poor, lazy storytelling where facts are cherry-picked to suit a predetermined storyline (Eg. Asian players struggle in most alien conditions). It will be interesting to see how things will change in, say, 20 years.

    3) The bias and “caste system” that you mentioned surely exists. In our opinion, this is the hierarchy: Aus/Eng> NZ/SA and everyone else. The other side of the argument has always existed, as others have pointed out–Asia. Only thing is that it isn’t invoked as often. The “other side” doesn’t seek the need to get validation from this part of the world as often as the other way around. For example, it was a bit rich when Jimmy Anderson referred to Virat Kohli’s showing in India as “he’s fantastic in these conditions”, but hardly any non-subcontinental journo/pundit called out his relatively poorer numbers outside England. Ashwin’s record, for good or for worse, was always prefaced with his overseas record but this didn’t apply to everybody. Dale Steyn, Richard Hadlee never got as much bhaav/column inches as an Anderson, Broad or Lillee did even though they were levels above. Yes, they are acknowledged as great players but receive disproportionate coverage w.r.t their feats. There are news opinion favoured Asian players as well, who receive great coverage (Imran, Sachin, Dravid etc.) but not everyone is lucky.

    4) Right now, SENA countries pose decent challenges to the visiting side and it isn’t a bad idea to use it as a filter; it wasn’t the case earlier and hence comparison with historical stats is especially problematic (Eg. NZ was a bad team for a long time, England wasn’t strong and WI was the toughest opponents) as you’ve rightly said. What would be great is if commentators and analysts used a dynamic model to include the toughest opponents rather than use blanket statements which don’t hold historically.

    5) On another note, we did this analysis (you might have read it earlier at: https://www.thehindu.com/thread/sports/article16932170.ece) where we looked at overseas performances of spinners and how they should be looked at. We found that spinners were more likely to do well abroad when they had fast bowling support. That is, a random spinner with excellent fast bowling support has excelled more often against top opponents compared to a great spinner with mediocre fast bowling support. Therefore, to say that Ashwin hasn’t performed abroad is unfair without taking into consideration fast bowling support.

    Regards,
    PvP

  8. Sidvee Sidvee

    Thanks for the comment. Agree with most points. I like the idea of a ‘dynamic model to include the toughest opponents’. It will work well across the board rather than simply take geographical blocs into consideration.

    Good analysis about spinners in overseas conditions.

    • PaajivsPunter PaajivsPunter

      Thank you Sidvee. In light of our analysis, we find it annoying that commentators and pundits always look at only “temperate zone” countries to evaluate spinners (especially Asian). Our analysis shows that bowling spin away against a strong country is tough as it is, and it doesn’t need a “SENA” filter (that said, Ashwin has looked a better bowler overall since 2014-15) to rate a spinner highly. This point gets lost in the overall storyline and fans get swayed. Swann too benefitted from having Broad and Jimmy chipping off at the top. On that note, we feel that Murali edges Warne as he dominated away as well with very little bowling support; Warne had McGrath and others to flatten the opponents. Murali’s numbers overseas were really commendable in the ’00s and for this, he deserves special credit.

  9. Deepu Narayanan Deepu Narayanan

    One of the most widely used parameters to look a batsman’s quality is his away numbers. This is a very primitive way of looking into the things but with the underlying assumption that everything evens out in the long run. So yes, a batsman from the sub-continent would have made an odd dead rubber hundred against a second string attack on a road in Australia but such occasions come way too scarce and it doesn’t significantly alter the scheme of things when you look at the bigger picture.

    The very nature of basic parameters in cricket such as average, economy rate, run rate, strike rate etc are that everything evens out in the long run.

    But if one stresses on the fact that each and every parameter should be considered for a layman analysis it would look like something below:
    Highest average for a batsman after coming in at four down for < 75 runs with the opposition having at least three bowlers ranked below 20 in ICC ratings
    A simpler version would look like this:
    Highest average in away games with a minimum of N innings
    The second one is easier to present for a statistician and easier to grasp for a fan. Brevity is also the soul of a good stat bit. 🙂

    One problem with the SENA filter is the fact that it doesn't take into consideration the Tests in West Indies where winning was near impossible for sub-continent teams till the turn of the century. As a statistician, I make sure the SENA filter is used only for a stat from the recent times and all other times I use outside-Asia filer (at times, excluding Zimbabwe numbers).

  10. Sidvee Sidvee

    Thanks for your comment, Deepu. I agree with the sentiment about everything evening out (somewhat) in the long-run but I don’t think that holds true when you narrow the scope of the stats to something like SENA. There is no way Pujara would have been termed a great batsman if he hadn’t had a great series in SENA (mostly England or Australia but okay, maybe SA or NZ even). But Pujara is a great irrespective. He is an absolute legend in the subcontinent (perhaps the greatest Indian batsman in Tests in Asia) and has had a significant part to play in India’s rise as a Test side over the last 5-6 years. His performance against Australia in the previous home series must rank alongside some of the great Indian performances of the past. Though we all know that it is this particular series (in Australia) that will define him more than that.

    As for West Indies – pitches there are changing. The SL series showed that. This Test in Bridgetown is also giving us a hint. The WI team too is improving. So I would not discount them at all. If England pull off a series win here they will consider it a big achievement (as they must). They haven’t won there since 2004 and if they manage to fightback from the hole they are in it will be as big an achievement as their win in SL late last year. So to put an Asia filter for their players and not include WI is odd right?

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