There is a feature of my first ever cricket match and my most recent that has barely occurred in the thirty-odd years in between. This element of the game has always been there, it’s just not something that I have experienced, been tested by, or suffered with any regularity. Yet now, as plans are being laid for the 2019 English season, it looms large. It defines and frames most thoughts I have about this summer – family, work, other past-times, my older son’s A levels, my parents being in their late 80s, holidays, meeting up with friends, not forgetting the Men’s World Cup, the Ashes, my own batting, junior coaching and even Declaration Game.
When my season starts in mid-May, I will be 51, with batting prowess and fielding mobility on the wane and, most significantly, a novice captain.
That first cricket match took place thirty-nine years ago. I was in my last year at primary school and our new head-teacher had made an early impression by insisting that the school would have a cricket team. The teacher who ran the football team and the running club, and so identified as the lead on school sports, was tasked with finding fixtures and organising a team. He didn’t know a lot about cricket, but must have picked up that I had pretensions to know a great deal, and so appointed me as captain.
My first duty in the role, carried out one afternoon in place of lessons, was to mark a pitch on the school playing-field for a practice match. My knowledge didn’t extend to an understanding of crease dimensions. After school, the boys (yes, just boys) wanting to try out for the team gathered. I had my own kit and so padded up to face the first ball. Cautiously, I moved onto the back-foot and in my back-swing, knocked a bail off the stumps, that I had pitched too close behind me.
Despite the first ball dismissal in the practice match, I was retained as captain for the season (and career) opener. The evening before we played, I sat with my Dad who had captained his club team in South London for a decade in the 1950s and ’60s. We talked about how to use five bowlers (one to switch ends) and place a field. Of course, I knew all the fielding positions, but had never had to exercise judgement over fielders’ locations. My Dad sketched a field on a scrap of paper, which I kept in the pocket of my whites for the whole of that first season.
Our first game was won comfortably. I think I stuck rigidly to my Dad’s plans – probably for the other handful of matches around the county primary schools of South Buckinghamshire as well. The only captaincy-related memory I have is of a team-mate’s Mum lobbying me to get her son more involved. I tried to explain that by placing him in the covers he had the plum fielding spot.
The following summer I was at secondary school and as Easter approached and cricket began to be considered, I faced the disadvantage of not being a footballer known to the PE staff. It can only have been precocious use of my growing cricket knowledge that got me noticed by the sports teacher running the first year cricket side. I was appointed captain. Then virtually run-less and probably not compensating with much in the way of leadership, I was dropped after a few matches in that administratively efficient fashion: name not on the list pinned to the PE noticeboard. Like a blow to the un-protected part of the thigh, it hurt, and while I might try not to show it, tears pricked my eyes. For the rest of that season and the one that followed, I was in and out of the school side, sometimes as captain, other times not.
Meanwhile, at my village club, I was part of a colts team captained by the England school-boy rugby skipper and soon was the youngest member of the Sunday friendly XI. Captaincy was in more capable hands. It stayed that way through seasons of occasional matches, interspersed in my twenties and forties with more committed attention to playing the game. I had half-an-eye on the office in my second-year at college, but my friend and opening partner, Ged, stitched the job up for himself by taking the man in post, who had the honour of appointing his successor, out for a night of drinking and in the argot of the time, ‘hackery’. Both the college team and I benefited from the decision, even if it was made under the influence.
On the occasions that captaincy did fall to me, the experience was not a happy one. One summer as an undergraduate, I had a holiday job in a factory in Liverpool. The stores officer invited me to play for his club’s Sunday friendly team, led by a sociology lecturer of unconventional cricketing tastes. He liked to have two and if possible three wrist-spinners in his side. He would take up fixtures at places that interested him and so, from our north Liverpool base, we travelled to matches in Mold and Leek. It was a curious, but enjoyable summer where I was treasured as the team’s southern posh boy (known as ‘Smythe’) and, living in an unfamiliar town, I was grateful for the team’s friendship. Before returning south, in my farewell appearance, I was given the honour of skippering the team. I lasted maybe ten overs in the field, until confused and with no sense of control of the game, I handed the reins back to the regular captain.
Half-a-dozen years later, at another farewell occasion, I was delegated on-the-field control by the appointed captain in a match organised to mark a friend’s departure for Italy. He had been teaching at a public school in East Anglia and was granted use of the ground and facilities for the day. This time, I negotiated the role in the field satisfactorily. But waiting to bat, wearing first a jumper and then a coat, I noticed that I was the only player feeling cold. I drove back to London in the grip of a fever. I thought of stopping to find a bed for the night, but pushed on and crawled up the stairs to my flat, which I didn’t leave until the flu subsided.
More recently, I have captained teams at the annual cricket matches organised by my company. Opposing me has been the (now retired) Chief Executive, whose ruthlessness at work carries across to the cricket field, but not his workplace sense of fairness. My team-talk one year concluded with the injunction that the ideal result for us all would be a one run defeat. Several hours later that was the exact result. But I gained no satisfaction from such precise game management. That single run (and a couple more as well) were wides called by the opposing skipper off my bowling, when balls had hit the batters’ pads.
And so to the last game of last season. The 4th XI skipper was injured and I agreed – willingly – to step up. Our side was heavy with juniors – nine – all of whom I have coached or run matches for. Perhaps I imagined it, but I felt a couple of my interventions – field placements, bowling changes – paid off, or drew in players otherwise on the margins. The weather was warm, the hospitality of the home team warmer, the ground a picture, the team cheerful, the beer in the pub afterwards so tasty. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
I didn’t get dropped afterwards (last game of season), feel overwhelmed, catch influenza, or get into a public dispute with the head of my company. As long as I use these as the success criteria for my season as a novice at the helm of the 4th team, the summer of 2019 should go well.
What value do you place on your bat?
How much money would you stake on your blade? In our game of bat and ball, the latter come and go. Bats endure. You are in contact with it throughout an innings, crudely as a hitting implement, but more deeply as an ally, an accomplice in your campaign of attack and defence. A fruitless swish and it attracts a disgruntled stare. A stroke to the boundary and the eyes first follow the ball, then return with warmth to assess the bat. In between deliveries, you repeatedly check on the bat, how it is held, weighing it, more attentive than a suitor on a second date. Then you take off for a run and it is your dependant, needing to be carried, slightly slowing your progress until the stretch for the crease and like a clever child it gives you a timely boost. At the non-striker’s end, it’s a stick to lean-on, a pointer to show your team-mate a change in the field, a partner in the dance of shadow-play.
You reach a milestone and it’s your bat you raise to acknowledge your score. How much does its value appreciate when you mark your first fifty or hundred for this team, in this competition, or ever?
Your bat affords you surprising power. Balls sent hurtling away, with little effort on your part, build up your self-regard. Just as easily it undermines you, sending the thinnest of edges to the keeper, or translating your epic swing limply into a looping catch to mid-on. How do you value something so capricious?
You lug your bat to matches, practices and nets. It’s the piece of equipment that doesn’t quite fit in your bag. It catches on doorways, trips up team-mates. Blemishes and cracks appear. The rubber grip shifts down the handle or frays. Your bat needs attention. It’s mortal and replaceable. But at what cost?
I am preoccupied with this question. I have been offered a bat by someone at the club who was themselves given it by a somebody (not a nobody). I’ve been invited to pay what it is worth to me.
Context affects value and now is a good time to be replenishing. I am about to embark on my first full season of weekend cricket in over two decades. Not only might I get a return on a new bat, but with my current bat damaged and neglected I may need to find a replacement by mid-season.
Perhaps unusually for someone with my interest in the game and identification as a batsman, I have scant interest in bat brands and models. Partially, it’s a recognition that I am really not good enough to merit owning a ‘good’ bat – pearls and swine. I also have an intense dislike for the commercialisation of sports equipment that encourages the cost of the logo to exceed the combined cost of the materials and workmanship. I’m a sceptic: aren’t bats priced deliberately to extract the maximum cash that any cricketer is prepared to pay? Their names – evoking nature’s forces and human myths – and their endorsements by professional players are part of the subterfuge?
My recollection of my own bats is imperfect. I can only remember three bats that I have owned: a Slazenger to start off with; an SS Jumbo for a birthday present aged around 12 and my current Woodworm. That must be wrong as that last bat was bought when I returned to club cricket ten years ago. I probably had another Jumbo through the late 1980s to the 2000s, but I can’t remember buying it or burying it.
I bought the bat that now pokes from my cricket bag on-line, seduced by the savings on offer. Untested, it arrived too heavy, but otherwise (!) fitted the bill. I took it to a local cricket equipment shop, who sent it to what I think of as ‘fat bat clinic’. It came back marginally sleeker.
A week ago, the bat without a price was handed over and I was given the chance of a test-drive. It showed few signs of being used. The taping of the edges was preventative, not remedial. ‘Have a go with it at indoor nets and then come back with your price’, I was encouraged.
Last Wednesday night, the bat and I had our trial run. It was a comfortable fit. I put away a couple of meaty cuts. It didn’t help me connect with two sweeps, which I’ve missed all pre-season, or prevent me misreading an out-swinger that looked ready to land on leg-stump, and went on to knock out off. But there was one drive on the up, with no follow-through, that connected high up the blade and skittered back past the bowler. Worth a single, maybe two and probably evidence of a superior bat.
So, what would I spend on a bat; one that isn’t new and probably needs some knocking-in to be match-ready? Ignorant of brands and marques, I went on-line. The particular bat is no longer on sale from the manufacturer. Retailers, though, have stocks. The SE on the label, it becomes apparent means ‘Special Edition’. The bats are being sold with chunky discounts.. but at three or four multiples of what I last paid, and have ever entertained, paying for a bat.
I hop across to eBay. Sellers have ‘nearly new’ versions going for more than twice what I’ve ever spent on a bat. I am faced with a dilemma. The invitation is there to pay what I would value this bat at. The market values this bat at a price that I would not have considered paying. Thoughts spark: what if this is the bat that helps me reach my first ever century? Maybe, wielding this piece of prime English willow, I’ll stop chipping catches to the in-field and will apply myself to play lengthy innings each weekend.
Should I pay what it’s worth to others, or respond to the invitation to pay what it’s worth to me? I already have a bat, albeit one that might not last the season. I don’t genuinely believe that I have unfulfilled potential that a better bat could help me tap into. It would be a luxury, an appealing one, in an area of my life that’s important to me.
I’ve turned this matter over and over. A simple solution has bubbled to the surface. Tomorrow, I will return the bat, commenting on its balance and satisfying middle. I will recommend my club mate sells it on eBay for as much as he possibly can.
I am out; and down. I eye my cricket bag. Facing homelessness, the bag seems as promising a shelter as any. I have speculated away my life: family, job and very soon, home.
Months ago, I was sitting at Lord’s, watching the Test with my son. After tea, he asked, “What happens to the overs that won’t be bowled today?”
“Nothing, they’re just lost.”
I was wrong. I was the one that lost.
A few days later, an email arrived, with a most curious offer: to buy surplus international cricket overs. Intrigued, I followed the link. There, on the dark web, was a market. A novel gift for my Father’s birthday I reasoned, making my first purchase. Instead, a week later, I bought him a Cardus – first edition – with the proceeds of my initial trades.
The market was picking up. The supply-side, with players failing to complete 90 overs per day, was burgeoning, but never quite able to keep up with demand, as new Twenty 20 leagues proliferated. I found the options market particularly lucrative: anticipating which days would leave spectators sold short and me buying long. I even dabbled in the world of fixers, offering players incentives to go slow. Nothing matches the exhilaration of seeing a Test match opening bowler crouch at my bidding to tie his shoelaces. But that was a vanity investment: Test cricketers needed no bungs to create a daily diet of orphaned overs.
I had a strategy. Prices spiked whenever the ICC met to discuss a World Test Championship. I was stock-piling overs, ready to soak up the demand of a five-day extravaganza. More and more of my income was invested. My family, neglected, moved out. Work was a charade that I played out to fund my habit. The closer I felt to owning cricket, the further away from it I drifted. I stopped playing, reading match reports and paying my SkySports subscription. But I held a Test match-worth of lost over assets. ‘Be patient, wait for the opportunity,’ I said, although I had nobody left close to me to listen.
The first shock came when the ICC announced its meagre plan for a Test Championship of mostly two-Test series. The market, like an erroneous umpiring decision, suffered a correction. Then another stinger as South Africa’s Global League evaporated. I clung on, determined to ride out the rough patch. Finally, the announcement that shattered my defences: the Hundred. The ECB shaved three and a bit overs and with it any margin. Prices no longer fell. The market just seized up.
With no trading to distract me, I can take stock: I’m left rich in overs, but impoverished, contemplating sleeping in a cricket bag. I’ve paid the price for trying to own the game that belongs to no one. Cricket as a moral enterprise has found me wanting.
But there is hope. If my deficiency has been ethical, then I can be rehabilitated. I may be able to sit beside my son again, watching a match.
There is an alternative, more prosaic, harder to stomach, less meriting a son’s forgiveness: gullibility. Was I conned?
In the UK, you may be paying £100 or more to watch the England team play in a one day international (ODI). Based on the ODIs of recent years, you have around a one in ten chance of seeing a match with a tight, even thrilling climax. On the other hand, you are three times as likely to see one of the teams trot to a comfortable victory (margin of over 100 runs or with ten or more overs to spare).
The spectating experience depends on much more than whether the match delivers jeopardy to the very end. But the competitiveness of the format is topical and a feature that the game’s administrators appear to want to promote.
The evidence for my assertion that there is a one in ten chance of seeing a thrilling finish to an ODI can be reviewed in my post ‘Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game’. In this article, I extend that analysis by updating the sample to February 2019 and by reviewing the competitiveness of ODI series.
In the 12 months since my earlier post, there has been something of a revival of the tight ODI. Spectators in this period have had a one-in-five chance of seeing a game with a thrilling finale. The criteria I use for defining tight matches comprise: a tie; a victory batting first by fewer than 10 runs; if chasing, winning in the final over or with eight or nine wickets lost.
On the other hand, there has been no let-up in the incidence of crushing victories: 34% by margins of over 100 runs or with more than ten overs to spare.
One-sided or closely matched series?
This analysis is based on the 79 series of three or more ODIs played between two teams since the 2015 World Cup and completed by the end of January 2019 (note 1). It omits shorter bilateral encounters and tournaments involving three or more sides – all of which are included in the match analysis chart above.
The table below summarises the results by series duration. One-half of series remained undecided heading into the final match. Sample sizes are small, but shorter series (three matches) were more likely to deliver a final match with everything to play for.
The unwanted spawn of the uncompetitive series is the dead rubber. Matches that had no bearing on the series outcome occurred 44% of the time that they could potentially have happened. Of the 52 dead rubber matches that went ahead, eleven ended up as consolation victories for the series loser. Six of the games (11.5%) produced ‘tight’ finishes, but 22 (42.3%) were crushing victories. The value of these games, other than selling air-time and bringing international cricket to more towns and cities is questionable.
A useful benchmark of competitiveness can be found in Test cricket. In Test series in the same period, 55% of the 36 series with three or more matches were wrapped up before the final game was played, creating dead rubber games. ODI series, therefore, have recently been more competitive than the Test match equivalent. Moreover, the Test match draw raises the probability of teams playing that format reaching the last game of a series with the result undecided.
Looking more broadly – at pure probability – gives further evidence that ODI series are not particularly uncompetitive. A ‘best of three’ coin toss would produce a definitive result with the first two tosses one-half of the time; five percentage points higher than that seen in three match ODI series.
The five (or more) match series, presents a more mixed picture. A definitive series result was obtained from the first three games in over one-third (34%) of match-ups – compared to 25% in a ‘best of five’ coin toss. The seven clean sweeps (18%) is three times the likelihood of five coin tosses ending all heads or all tails. Yet, 45% progressed to a fifth match decider, exceeding the expected 37.5% in the coin toss scenario.
In conclusion, ODI series sustain interest to their conclusion relatively frequently. The problem the format faces perhaps isn’t uncompetitiveness, but inflexibility of scheduling. On the occasions that a series is decided early, the remaining fixtures have been booked with broadcasters and grounds, who have sold ad space and tickets. The show must go on, even if intensity and interest decline.
Note 1: 3 match series in which either the first or second scheduled match was abandoned or cancelled are excluded (ie considered as 2 match encounters). If the third match was a victim of the weather, the series is included in the analysis.
This 2018 selection of cricket blog posts features topical issues, stories from the past, the minutiae of the game, insightful numbers, artful descriptions and the deeply personal. All the pieces selected have in common that they are independent and unremunerated writing from the web (note 1).
Leading off, we have a measured and expert riposte to the ECB Chairman’s comments about the demise of the junior game. Neil Rollings addresses the question ‘Is Youth Cricket really dying?’ unswayed by nostalgia or any agenda other than giving kids the opportunity to play.
It is not batting and bowling that have become unfashionable, but sitting on the side or fielding in redundant positions. Seeking ever shorter formats does not address this fundamental issue.
Junior cricket and its wider lessons, even if unheeded by the adults who attend games, is the subject matter of a letter written by the 17th Man to his 15 year old nephew (‘Diary of the 17th Man’). Whilst the letter refers to incidents in the young player’s matches, it was written in early April, days after this advice could have averted the year’s biggest cricket drama:
When you are an adult you see how people behave and shift their ideas about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, depending on the situation or the advantage they can extract from it…
When you know you have done the right thing your conscience is always clear. That is something to cherish.
Blogger ‘Cricket Stuff’ responded to the ECB’s ‘the Hundred’ proposals with a look back at the Lambert and Butler Floodlit Cup, held at football grounds in 1981, concluding: “It had been new, it had been inventive, but it had not been right.” Having introduced Cricket Stuff, I can’t recommend highly enough his work in another medium: the podcast series ‘Cricket and England Through Five Matches’ – a highlight of my cricket consumption this year.
The CricViz initiative made available regular innovative use of game data and quality analytical writing in 2018. While acknowledging the excellence of their work, I have selected a trio of independent statistical posts for this eleven:
- Introducing a T20 captaincy metric: Joe Harris (White Ball Analytics) is a data scientist who makes the most of the compressed and systematic T20 format to explore deep patterns and possible areas of advantage in the short-form game. In this case, Harris proposes a method for measuring the impact skippers make through their bowling changes.
- 1 schoolboy error that even elite batsmen make, also probed an aspect of T20 cricket – specifically, should a batsman try to hit a wide ball? The answer reached by ‘No Pictures in the Scorebook’ is, ‘no’ and in this respect, if no other in 2018, Virat Kohli’s batting was found wanting.
- No place like home, relied on fewer statistical techniques but on Kit Harris’s (@cricketkit) time-consuming research to trace the backgrounds of all 392 professional cricketers in the English county game. The outcome is a picture of the global and local in balance.
Another trio of pieces concerned the game most of us play: recreational, club, mixed age, mixed ability, weekend cricket.
With Quantum of Cricket (‘The Raging Turner’), Liam Cromar relishes the context (playing alongside his old junior coach, six youngsters and a dad), the anticipation and the tiny moments during and around the game (a balanced scorebook!), above all the catch:
The ball starts to die. Staying stationary will result in a half volley. At the last moment, I fall forward to the ground and pouch it at arm’s length a few inches proud. I rise and hold the orb aloft with one hand.
The entire movement forms a perfectly natural, fluid, indivisible quantum of cricket.
The description and the meaning of the moment communicate so clearly why we continue to play, despite age, dubious competence and our busy lives.
It is a theme rendered in verse by Marco Jackson (‘From inside right’): Ode to a Saturday village game. Four stanzas of four lines capture the game and its significance lightly and economically.
‘The Wait’ described by Hector Cappelletti (‘Yahoo over cow corner’), dives deeply into a rarely considered aspect of the game, as true of international players as it is of the club player who is being observed. The no.3 batsman, impatient and anxious, is followed from the the start of the innings until the seventh over when, after expending a lot of nervous energy he finally goes out to bat.
Rounding off the XI are a pair of moving, personal pieces. In 1982 Nick Campion (‘Smell the Leather’) recalls the emotional pinnacle of a dads v lads game of cricket. Nine year old Nick faces his first ball, bowled by his Dad:
I remember as I swung my bat with vigorous abandon being aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that awful moment between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the devastating sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.
Writer and broadcaster, Cate McGregor provides the most tender and revealing account of cricket’s role in her life. Mystic chords of memory exhibits enormous integrity, while writing so attractively about the difficulties of an extraordinary life.
As a bereaved kid it [cricket] gave me a quiet solace and a respite from bullying. As a trans woman it has given me acceptance and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity. By choosing to live that night in Adelaide I earned a second innings. I am following on.
With my XI selected, I must make my annual injunction that you should read not just these pieces but other of each bloggers’ material and continue to follow their blogs in 2019.
Finally, my nomination to the accolade (borrowed, of course, from Wisden) of World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year (note 2). The honour goes to King Cricket. If the King (and his court) is not known to you, may I humbly suggest that you are not doing this cricket blog following thing correctly. Long may he reign.
Note 1: the qualification for the select XI is that the blogger must (to the best of my knowledge) be unremunerated for the post, which must feature on an independent website and the blogger must not have featured in any of Declaration Game’s six previous end-of-year blog post selections.
Note 2: the ‘World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year’ as a self-consciously over-blown title to award to the blogger whose work I have most enjoyed reading over the previous 12 months. The two past winners are Backwatersman and My Life in Cricket Scorecards.
Basingstoke in the mid-1990s; the scorer’s hut. “I’ll give you our top five,” said our skipper to their scorer. “Dunn, Mann, Smith, Brown, Wood.”
“Sounds like a team of aliases.”
A top order of monosyllabic names. And now we find ourselves short of one syllable.
Greg was tall, often sunburnt, unhurried and calm. He smiled, bearing lightly our ritual teasing of the team’s sole Yorkshireman, replying with gentle ripostes in an immaculate accent unaffected by three years spent down south studying. University for most is a launch-pad away from home, giving energy to the search for new experiences and changed identities. For Greg, comfortable I imagine with who he was and where he came from, undergraduate study was a detour.
Some years, Greg would show on tour the benefit of his time playing club cricket in West Yorkshire. Once, we were mismatched against a Devon club 1st eleven. Greg, after the loss of most of our monosyllabic top-order, faced their teenage quick who was relishing the chance to pick up his 100th wicket of the season against some fragile tourists. I was pleased to have made it to the non-striker’s end, from where I saw the young bowler dig in a delivery that was heading for Greg’s torso. With a speed of reaction that surprised and contrasted with everything we had offered hitherto in that innings, Greg pivoted and pulled the ball with a clean crack through square leg. A moment of class that communicated that we may be hung-over, but we weren’t to be push-overs.
Greg missed several tours owing to a prior commitment. He had become involved with coaching his club’s junior section – a genuinely selfless act as he wasn’t following (or steering) his own child’s activity. On August Bank Holiday, Greg organised a cricket festival for the primary school kids of his area. In his absence, naturally he was a topic of our discussions. There was a story of Greg earnestly telling a young player’s Dad that his son’s bowling action was suspect. “That’s not what Martyn Moxon thinks,” was the reply. I also remember one of our number saying that each morning, when John Simpson cued up the BBC’s business correspondent, he amused himself by imagining it would be our Greggy’s Yorkie tones that he would hear, not the bland voice of his BBC namesake. Greg’s former team-mates will be experiencing a lot of fond imaginings of their friend.
These memories are so arbitrary and slight, as is the way when there’s no particular purpose for storing a recollection. Thinking back, Greg is associated not with sharp images but feelings: the easy companionship of our team’s reunions; threads of familiar stories picked up, spun a little, then put down safe in the belief that we will continue the narrative together.
We do, though, have some more deliberately formed memories: of a ludicrously warm weekend spent in Leeds this past summer. We had thought it sensible to locate our Friday 13th get-together close to Greg’s home, hoping he could join us. But Greg, with a vigour that defied his condition, played the part of host and local expert. Our weekend culminated in an afternoon under blazing Yorkshire sun, watching Pudsey St Lawrence play a Bradford League fixture. Our vantage point: camp-chairs and benches, on the boundary beside the sightscreen, with tea in the pavilion and an all day bar. Greg gave us fresh stories that we can enjoy reliving, but that have come to a conclusion.
So, now we find our batting order short of a syllable; and I find myself short of the words that convey the warmth and affection in which our team holds this dear man.
Would you prefer a batsman who scores 50 every innings, or one who scores 100 half the time and 0 the rest? The ‘expected value’ (batting average) each player offers their team is the same. The decision appears to rest on whether consistency or the potential for a match-defining innings contributes more to your team.
Jarrod Kimber and Andy Zaltzman discussed this conundrum on a recent episode of the ‘Cricket Sadist Hour,’ acknowledging @analytics_jonas as the source of the riddle. The discussion suggests that there is an answer to the question, if sufficient mathematical heft is applied to it. Indeed there may be, but how often in the real world of cricket, or any other occupation, is a difficult decision subject to rational analysis and resolution?
Suprisingly rarely, according to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner in Economics and author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. Kahneman challenged the orthodoxy in the social sciences that, “people are generally rational and their thinking is normally sound.” Kahneman and others put judgement to the test by running experiments. What they consistently found were “heuristics and biases.. the simplifying shortcuts of intuitive thinking.”
Following Kahneman’s lead, I won’t try the tricky statistical enterprise of devising an answer to the question. Instead, I will draw on his book to understand why and in which conditions team-mates, fans or even selectors may choose one of these theoretical batsmen over the other.
The numbers (50, 50, 50, 50… and 0, 100, 0, 0, 100, 100…etc) will play a part in these answers, but to begin with, let’s acknowledge that for most of us, much of the time, decisions are not based on numerical analysis, which Kahneman has shown is too effortful and our brains tend to shun.
This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Kahneman, p12
Instead of attempting the difficult question (which player, based on their pattern of scoring, and the complex structure of a cricket match, will over time contribute more to the team?), we substitute an easier one. In this case, it might be: “Who scored more runs when I last saw them on TV? or, which player has the purer cover-drive? or, which player is being lauded by the ex-player whose opinion I respect?” Kahneman gives examples of how choices are made over political candidates, investment opportunities and charitable donations, but could easily have added cricket team selection to his list.
I will now engage more directly with @analytics_jonas’s original question but introduce some small aspects of context in order to understand how each of the batsmen might, in different circumstances be our preference.
Experience and memory
Our experience of the two batsmen, aggregated over time, will be very similar (if not identical) in terms of the number of runs we see them score. If decision-making were based on lived experience, we may struggle choosing between the consistent batsman and the success/fail player.
However, studies carried out by Kahneman and other psychologists have shown that decisions are not driven by the lived experience, but by the retained memory of the experience.
The memory that the remembering self keeps.. is a representative moment strongly influenced by the peak and the end. (Kahneman, p383)
Taking the ‘peak’ effect first, the success/fail player will clearly have provided greater peaks to plant in the memory than the steady accumulator of half-centuries. The second aspect, the recency effect works equally well for each as around half the time each of the batsmen will have recorded the higher score in their last innings. Combining the ‘peak effect’ and the ‘end effect’, the success/fail player will have created the more favourable impression.
Put now in the position of selector opting for one of our two players for the next match, rationally there is nothing to choose between them, as over two innings they are, on average, expected to contribute the same number of runs.
Daniel Bernoulli, Swiss scientist of the eighteenth century, refined this understanding by observing that most people dislike risk. So while the expected value of the two batsmen is the same, there is a premium on the player guaranteed to score 50 each innings (or a discount on his alter ego). For the selector this may make sense. There may be only one innings in the match, so better bank 50 runs than risk 0. Even with two innings, we cannot be certain that our success/fail player won’t make two ducks, before bouncing back to form in a later game.
Kahneman added further nuance to Bernoulli’s theory from the empirically observed standpoint that people’s decisions are context dependent. The pattern found, and stated in Prospect theory, is that the decision-maker whose prospects are poor is more likely to gamble. On the other hand, when faced with a situation that offers only an upside, decision-makers tend to be averse to risk and seize the sure thing.
One-nil down in the series with one match to play, the opportunity of having the century-maker is more appealing. One-up, at the same stage of the series, and the cautious choice is preferred. As explored in a previous post on declaration decisions, when a skipper is on top in a Test match, losing feels worse than winning feels good.
It is important to emphasise that Kahneman’s work is descriptive of the decisions people (Test selectors?) make and not prescriptive of the decisions they should make. Indeed, Kahneman emphasises that these systematic biases, based in this case on decision makers’ reference points (i.e. their context), can create unfavourable outcomes, with good opportunities passed over and poor choices pursued.
While we wait for advanced cricket analytics to tell us whether absolute consistency trumps its opposite, selectors will have to pick players, pundits will continue to push the interests of their proteges and we followers of the game will invest great hopes in our favourites. By making some effort to examine our preferences we might reveal biases and so move towards more informed selections of, lobbying for and championing of players.
David Barclay, Turl CC quizmaster, has concocted a new challenge. In David’s words:
I reckon there have been 28 Christophers who have played Test cricket – all are represented here cryptically and in some cases tortuously so. 15 are English, there are 6 New Zealanders, 3 South Africans, 2 Australians, 1 West Indian and 1 Zimbabwean.
There is of course only one Chris Smith.
Good luck! Answers to follow.
Three sudden jarring cries carry the 75 yards from the middle. A pause and then a broader chorus cheers, still high-pitched, but with less urgency. The batsman walks away from the wicket. The chorus members converge from their fielding positions. A wicket has fallen.
Evidence of the eyes: the stumps stand upright, location of bails unclear; the ball has now been returned to the umpire.
Rewind a few seconds. Grab a memory of this, the sixth, sixtieth, perhaps, 360th delivery watched today. Scan for clues: the batsman’s movement, the ball’s destination, keeper’s line, close fielders’ inclined heads.
Apply heuristics of many years of watching, layer with knowledge of the competitors, inject with understanding of the conditions of the pitch and the ball.
Settle on a theory: a thin edge, to a good-length, seaming delivery, gathered to the keeper’s left.
Away to your right, the scoreboard flatly conveys the truth: LAST MAN lbw b 9.
Watching cricket live is a challenge of concentration and observation. The difference between an edge behind, a drive to the boundary or a cautious leave, is found in a fraction of the seconds the ball is live. An experienced eye can make a lot of those fleeting images. But much of the appreciation when watching play at the ground is in the aftermath of the delivery and interpreting the movement of batsmen, fielders and bowler.
There are exceptions, where the key moments of action play out at the same pace as an alert spectator’s attention. My favourite, an incident that can crown any day at the cricket, is the running catch. The usual pulse of action is extended, introducing jeopardy, with just enough time for speculation and ‘will he, won’t he’ thoughts.
The flash of activity that ushers the chance is articulated: an advance down the wicket perhaps, invariably a full swing of the bat that grabs the eye. Following the ball’s course, the brain calibrates trajectory with boundary and deep fielder. Swapping focus, before settling on the fielder, carrying out her own speedy calculations.
While writing, I’m thinking of Damien Martyn ending Kevin Pietersen’s daring first Test innings, Alex Hales (and Moeen Ali) sucker-punching Misbah at Lord’s, a full-length dive at long-on by Cameron Bancroft at a T20 at Cheltenham. None was the most significant moment of that day’s cricket, but each imprinted deeply because I watched them unfold.
The fielder’s athleticism plays a part in the appeal: foot speed to gain ground towards the ball, agility to stretch or even dive to reach it on the full and dexterity to clasp and cling onto the ball while moving at pace. Yet, the running catch that resounds the strongest featured a greying cricketer, most comfortable scheming at slip. But it was from mid-on, in the closing overs of a one-day game, that he pitter-pattered with flat feet down the slope towards the Tavern, like an uncle chasing a paper plate blown away at a family picnic. Mike Brearley, at the 1979 World Cup Final, ran and ran before taking Andy Roberts’ skied pull over his left shoulder.
…Allan Donald standing, turning, dropping his bat, then running, but too, too late, as the celebrating Australians converge (Edgbaston, 1999)…
…Ajmal Shehzad clubs a first ball six as England’s 8th wicket pair gather 13 runs from the final over to tie the game on the final ball (Bengalaru, 2011)…
…Grant Elliot launches Dale Steyn over long-on, over the boundary from the penultimate ball of the 2015 semi-final… (Auckland, 2015)
These are the dramatic conclusions to One Day Internationals (ODIs) that come to my mind when I think of what makes the 50 over format so exciting. Matches that have run for hours but are decided by a pressure-forced error or a single audacious act. Games when all 22 players look back and can each reflect on just one thing had they done differently – pushed to turn a long single into a two; not bowled that wide; collected the ball cleanly on the boundary – that may have made all the difference.
Major tournaments are felt to be smouldering, not truly catching alight, until they feature at least one of these thrilling finishes. TV stations shelving the next scheduled programme so they can stay with the action until the very end. Pictures of fans chewing fingernails, or covering their eyes from the spectacle that both holds them rapt and that they cannot bear to watch.
Thrilling finishes seem to be the essence of one day, limited overs cricket. Yet how representative are they of the format? How often is the team batting second still chasing in the final over, or with their lower order batsmen stretching for the target? To approach an answer to these questions, I have analysed results and victory margins for ODIs since the last World Cup (March 2015 – January 2018). To provide some context for that analysis I have completed similar reviews of national, list A competitions and two non-full member 50 over tournaments from this year.
To be engaging, ODI cricket doesn’t have to culminate in a final over where all three results are possible. 100 overs gives plenty of opportunity for fortune to swing back and forth, with the final decisive swing happening deep into the second innings and producing a convincing margin of victory, rather than a nail-biting conclusion. An individual innings or bowling spell may blow away the opposition, yet provide adequate reward for the spectator or viewer. But still the sport yearns for the crazed uncertainty of a match that hinges on cricket’s high pressure equivalent of the duel.
The ODI sample I have assessed comprises 312 completed matches: 157 won by the side batting first; 153 by the side chasing; and two ties. The tied matches (0.6% of the total) qualify automatically as thrilling finishes.
Looking at the matches won by the side batting first, 13 (8.2%) were won by single figure margins (fewer than 10 runs) and so were likely to be in the balance going into the final over. Another 12 had victory margins of between 10 and 19 runs and so delivered some degree of jeopardy for players and fans deep into the game.
The chart below shows the distribution of victory margins for sides batting first (one decile is 10% of the matches in this sample). Not only are tight finishes relatively rare, but substantial wins are the norm: the median victory is by 70 runs and almost 30% of matches are won by 100 runs.
ODIs won by the team chasing were unresolved until the final over on 10 occasions (6.7% – excluding five matches decided by Duckworth Lewis when the side batting second was already ahead of the par figure when weather intervened). 27 (18.2%) reached the target in the penultimate over. Over half (14) of these had five wickets or more in hand, suggesting a well-calibrated chase rather than genuine uncertainty over the result.
The tactic of chasing teams to set a pace to their innings based on the target set, rather than the optimum score they might achieve, can make victory margins based on ball remaining in the innings misleading. Nonetheless, the chart below, showing the distribution of balls remaining in matches won by chasing teams, again shows that convincing victories are far more common that thrilling conclusions. The median margin is almost five overs and more than 30% of these games are won with 10 or more overs to spare.
A chasing side, of course, risks losing a game by being bowled out. There were eight (5.4%) instances where the game was won by one or two wickets. Five of these are already recognised as tight finishes as they finished in the last or penultimate over. At the other extreme, 35 games were won with the loss of three or fewer wickets.
Of the 312 completed matches in the sample, 28 (9.0%) appear to have delivered a truly tight game to the end, giving about a one in eleven chance of seeing a thrilling finish. Those do not seem unreasonable odds of a game staying alive until its very last passage of play.
More concerning is that 30% of the sample produced games that were not just comfortable victories but, achieved by margins of over 100 runs or with more than 10 overs to spare, were veritable blow-outs. Excluding matches involving non-Test playing nations made little difference to the incidence of crushing defeats/victories.
International sport has in-built inequalities with the population size and wealth of countries acting as constraints on their performance. The same is less true (although it remains a feature) of domestic sport where counties, states, provinces and clubs are able to recruit to strengthen sides and players migrate to where there are better opportunities to play. List A (i.e. top level domestic 50 over competitions) matches, therefore, provide something of a control sample to test whether the frequency of one-sided ODIs is a function of the match format or of international competition.
I drew my sample of domestic 50 over matches from the most recently completed List A competitions in Australia, South Africa, Pakistan (2017/18), England (2017), India, New Zealand and West Indies (2016/17). The results of 315 completed matches were analysed.
Using the same criteria for a thrilling finish (victory margin: batting first < 10 runs; chasing in last over or by 1 or 2 wickets; or a tie), there were 51 (16.2%) games that stayed alive until the very end. With odds of a little over one in six, List A matches produced tight finishes nearly twice as frequently as ODIs.
At the other extreme, trouncings were also rarer – but only slightly. 28.6% of the matches were won by 100 runs or more or with 10 or more overs to spare.
There were significant variations between the national competitions. England and New Zealand produced closer matches – shown below with the median margin of victory for each competition. The incidence of games curtailed by bad weather and decided on the Duckworth Lewis system may have played a part in creating closer finishes in those two countries.
Returning to international competition, two recent tournaments provided contrasting records for tightness of matches. At the 2018 under 19 World Cup, the median margins of victory were:
– batting first: 101 runs (ODI median: 70 runs)
– batting second: 63 balls, 7 wickets (ODI median: 29.5 balls, 6 wickets)
Only two of the 48 matches in the tournament (4%) met my criteria for a very close finish: batting first – victory by less than 10 runs; batting second – victory in final over or by two wickets or less.
Fans of thrilling finishes should pay attention to World Cricket League, Division 2. Six of the eighteen matches in the recent tournament qualified as very close finishes, with one team featuring in four of those games. On that basis, Nepal deserves to be the favourite team of every cricket fan who cherishes the tension of a 50 over game fulfilling its potential of going down to the wire.