Short of a syllable

IMG_0818Basingstoke 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.

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Thinking cricket, fast and slow (and sadistically)

Source: YouTube still


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.

Question substitution

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.

Prospect theory

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.

Thinking slow

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.

Chris crossword

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.

Running catch

Brears-page-001

Credit: Lord’s TV

 

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.

How?

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.

Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game

YouTube still – Ramakrishna Chowdry

…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.

One day wonder Down Under

Picture credit: Robelinda2


The Test series, the Ashes no less, slid away like a fall down a mountainside in a dream. Moments of stability, then another slip, painful scrapes, bruising, but when the bottom came, we were on the whole intact.

When, a little dazed, English minds turned to the one day series, first thoughts were of Moeen even more exposed and Woakes, blinking, but never scowling or swearing, getting carted around the park. Those were the instant notions I had, anyway. But, then, quickly they were chased away by something more upbeat and exciting. Not foresight of Roy’s fast starts, Buttler’s sprint finishes, Wood’s slippery speed or even Rashid’s googly. But the anticipation of an event with associations of its own. Exotic and intense, cricket played on its margins of performance and under lights.

From memory

The source of this thrill felt for limited overs, day-night cricket in Australia, pre-dates Bayliss’s supercharging of the England team, survives the years of plodding competence overcome by Australian boldness, precedes even England’s best team in the world World Cup runners-up of the late 1980s. It springs from the last minute Larry (Kerry?), almost improvised tour of 1979/80.

Australia celebrated peace breaking out between Packer and its cricket board by inviting over their common enemy. England agreed to come and perform as the object of ritual sacrifice before Australia’s united and very strongest team, as long as the Ashes weren’t at stake.  There was more wrangling over format with the hosts insisting on Packer’s innovations and the visitors trying to hang onto their dignity, just as they had not given up the urn.

The limited overs internationals fell between and after the Test series that Australia won (without regaining the Ashes). England picked teams for both formats from a single tour party. 38 year old Boycott, naturally, stood aside from the short form games. Until, that was, England found themselves lacking fit batsmen. Boycott, who had made 50 from around 30 overs in the World Cup Final at Lord’s the year before was brought in to open the batting. I suspect he took more pleasure in confounding expectations than he did in his attacking innings of 80-odd, lofting down the ground the bowlers he might preferred to have dead-batted.

It felt that England, despite their recent form as World Cup finalists, were entering a new arena. Floodlit cricket at home meant novelty bashes held on damp nights on a carpet pitch laid over the half-way line at Stamford Bridge. In Australia, light flooded its vast cricket grounds, under spectacular twilight skies. Tens of thousands of passionate, partying Australians, watched from the dark fringes of the ground. The cricket was physical, demanding and unsettling. England, under grey-haired Brearley could get swept away. Their insistence on wearing white marked their naivety and discomfort.

But a single incident showed that England could raise themselves to compete, could be inspired by the novel challenge, not implode sulkily. It was more stunning and memorable even than Boycott lashing Lillee back over his head.

The Australian batsman flashed hard, lifting the ball over the infield. The ball was over the infield, when one of those infielders arched up and backwards, taking the shape of a high-jumper stretching hand first, followed by arm, head and back over the bar. Derek Randall emulated Dick Fosbury’s technique, and surpassed him by catching the ball mid-leap.

That single reflex action showed that England had the vitality and panache to play a full part in the heightened atmosphere of day-night cricket. At home, Randall’s catch was talked about all day before the footage could finally be seen.. on the evening news.

I carry with me the thrill of seeing Randall hurling himself backwards to grasp the ball. It remains dormant until, every four years or so, I think about England taking on Australia in a one-day series, under lights. The whites have gone, as have (usually) the Ashes by then. One day cricket has been normalised. It has been tarted up with rule changes to save the format from itself. End of tour series are derided. Individual matches and performances blend into insignificance. Yet, when this team is playing in a particular country it creates in me an excitement that I can trace back to that one instant.

From the book
England played Australia and the West Indies in a twelve match, three-sided series running from late November until the end of January. Two of the three Test matches between England and Australia fell during the one-day series, the last after the one-day, best of three game finals. West Indies defeated England 2-0 in the finals.

The one-day series began at Sydney on 27 November 1979, where Australia and West Indies contested the first ever ‘official’ ODI under floodlights. The following night, England played the West Indies. Randall’s catch came late in the game. Andy Roberts (not an Australian!) chipped the ball into the leg-side, where Randall launched himself to the ball. England won by two runs, placing all ten fielders (including wicketkeeper Bairstow) on the boundary for the final ball defending three.

England played in their Test match whites. Australia and West Indies wore stylised white outfits, with coloured piping and shoulder panels as well as coloured pads.

Geoffrey Boycott (39) was not selected for England’s first match, but replaced Geoff Miller for the second game, with Brearley dropping to seven in the batting order. Boycott scored 68 (85 balls) in a successful chase of 208. Boycott finished second top scorer in the tournament despite only playing six of a possible nine games with 425 runs (avge: 85), with one century and four 50s. His strike rate (69/100 balls) was higher than that of Gordon Greenidge, Greg Chappell, Alvin Kallicharan and Graham Gooch, amongst others.

Rewilding England’s bowling

We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.

Four-fifths of the way through the Ashes series and England’s bowlers have taken 51 wickets. At Brisbane, not only could they not defend a target of 170, but they couldn’t dislodge the Australian opening pair in a game where hitherto, bat and ball had been in balance, with a wicket falling on average every 28 runs.

At Perth, Australia amassed a record 662-9 on a pacy pitch that could reward bowlers – fast and slow – who are able to harness its extra bounce.

At Melbourne, Australia batted out 124 overs on days four and five for the loss of four wickets to secure a draw and nullify England’s strongest position of the series.

England’s bowling attack didn’t lack quality, nous or endeavour. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, supported by Craig Overton, Chris Woakes and Tom Curran often made the Australian batsmen work hard for their runs. The attributes that England had lacked can be summarised as diversity, variety, dissimilarity, points of difference. This was never more apparent than when the team did encounter, under the lights at Adelaide, conditions for which it is supremely well adapted. Ten wickets fell in 58 overs of penetrating seam and swing bowling; contrasting with the 750 overs bowled for the other 41 wickets to fall – barely five wickets per full day’s bowling.

And so the fuel was provided for every England follower to bemoan the flaws of the game in England; to open up the arguments that had only perhaps been closed shut in the ECB’s business plan about formats, competitions, traditional structures and new enterprises.

The lack of meaningful diversity in England’s otherwise admirable bowling attack brought to my mind another source, far from cricket, distant from discussions of historic counties and franchise teams. What I had seen operating in England shirts, whether toiling at Perth or prancing at Adelaide, was the product of a monoculture.

The drive towards monoculture causes a dewilding, of both places and people. It strips the Earth of the diversity of life and natural structures to which human beings are drawn. It creates a dull world, a flat world, a world lacking in colour and variety, which enhances ecological boredom, narrows the scope of our lives, limits the range of our engagement with nature, pushes us towards a monoculture of the spirit.

George Monbiot’s Feral is the most thought provoking book that I read in 2017. What Monbiot saw when looking across the barren Welsh uplands – ‘dismal.. devoid of life’ – provided an analogy for the over after over of steady fast-medium bowling delivered by England’s bowlers. There’s also a tempting parallel between how he contrasts the countryside with his experience of London, and cricket’s own post-modern, metropolitan dynamo of T20:

The fragmented eco-systems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest

So, it is through the frame of rewilding that I have attempted to understand what might restore colour and variety to England’s cricketers.

The working definition of this process, adopted by the organisation Rewilding Europe, is:

Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species play a much more prominent role in the land – and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.

Monbiot describes some of the key steps that need to be taken – by motivated humans – to create the conditions for rewilding. Under my appropriation of his ideas, the England cricket authorities take the place of motivated humans.

Keystone species provide a starting point. A keystone species is:

..one that has a larger impact on its environment than its numbers alone would suggest. This impact creates the conditions which allow other species to live there.

The identification of the native keystone species and, if absent from that environment, their reintroduction is a critical intervention. For Britain, the archetypal and almost completely absent keystone species is the beaver.

Beavers radically change the behaviour of a river. They slow it down. They reduce scouring and erosion. They trap much of the load it carries, ensuring that the water runs more clearly. They make it more structurally diverse, providing homes for many other species.

As a by-product, beavers’ actions reduce damaging flooding downstream and prevent the spread of illness caused by the flow of bacteria through populated areas. All this is starting to be empirically demonstrated. I don’t have any scientific studies to identify English cricket’s keystone species, but have a strong hunch, nonetheless.

English cricket is not as far from salvation as England’s rivers, because its keystone species hasn’t been wiped out and doesn’t need reintroduction, although protection and encouragement is required.

The spinner – right and left arm, finger and wrist – fulfils the role of keystone species for cricket. The spinner, by using little energy to bowl long spells, enables other bowler types to rest and recuperate. When their time comes to bowl, they can commit more effort, confident that the spinner will return when they tire. This is particularly important to the out-and-out fast bowler, who should be used in short spells of high, shocking pace.

The spinner demands a greater diversity of skills of his fielding teammates. Close fielders need to be able to swoop on balls dying from bat-pad deflections and dodge full-blooded blows. Boundary riders come into play as wicket-takers, if able to judge, move nimbly underneath and handle lofted drives, pulls and sweeps. Adaptability is needed to fulfil roles required for specific batsmen in specific conditions: short gulley, leg slip, short mid-off ‘on the drive’. Wicket-keepers are tested standing up, where the skills of a transplanted goalkeeper are not sufficient. Even the slip and fielders on the single have different challenges from the shot played to the spun ball.

The spinner’s prey benefits, too. Batsmen must develop footwork to prosper or even survive against the spinner – down the wicket to nullify spin, back onto the stumps to play the ball late, along the crease to use turn to create angles for scoring strokes. The diversity of shot-making should increase, with almost any shot played to a seam bowler available, as well as sweeps – conventional, slog, paddle and reverse – and chassees. Observation skills improve to detect changes to the orientation of the bowling hand, of the ball’s flight or direction of rotation.

The playing surface is another beneficiary of the spinner, whose walking or trotting approach to delivery, causes much less damage to the wicket ends than the pounding ball-after-ball of a seam-heavy attack.

Another step in rewilding is the promotion of trophic cascades. This isn’t the momentum gained by a trophy-winning team, but the natural process that occurs when an environment has top predators present. Human activity, long before industrialisation, depleted many ecosystems of their major predators, with perhaps a counterintuitive effect of reducing the diversity of nature.

A trophic cascade occurs when the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.

The most celebrated example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Under pressure from a predator, deer kept away from valleys; their absence allowed trees to grow beside rivers, providing cover for animals who proliferated in range and numbers, and reduced soil erosion, so supporting the growth of other plants. There is even evidence that other predators – bear – profited as well.

English domestic cricket, almost as much as its hills and valleys, has been shorn of its big beasts. The national team’s regulars now make only rare appearances in the county championship. Over the last three seasons, Joe Root has played four matches for Yorkshire, Ben Stokes six for Durham. When they do appear, it can often be tentatively, on the road to recovery from an injury, when tooth isn’t bared and claws quickly withdrawn. The absence of the country’s best players from its national competition has a damping effect on the standard of play. To be successful, players don’t need to prove themselves against the very strongest of their peers. Players who are just ‘good enough’ can thrive and, with bowlers, extremes of pace and spin – required to dismiss the best batsmen – are not so valued because of the risk they pose to the fielding team keeping control of the scoring rate.

Applying the analogy of rewilding, England must let its top players – the regular internationals – frequent the domestic game to sharpen the other players, create turnover where mediocrity might be enough for a player to cling onto their place and encourage the development of the diverse range of skills needed to dismiss the best batsmen and repel the best bowlers.

In Monbiot’s analysis, humans have a deadly ally in their dewilding of Britain’s uplands, which have been ‘sheepwrecked‘ by the “woolly ruminant from Mesopotamia.. Because they were never part of our native ecosystem, the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.” Restoring diversity requires that the hegemony of this non-native species in the uplands (shown by Monbiot to be uneconomic anyway) is ended.

English cricket has featured many non-native participants. While, at times, their success has seemed as pervasive as the sheep flocks in the English countryside – Australian batsmen of the 1990/2000s; West Indian, South African and Pakistani players in the 1970s – they have played the role of the big predator, raising the standard of the game and stretching the native players. An exception might have been the few county teams recently packed with Kolpak qualified players, who may for a time have displaced local cricketers, without adding greatly to the standard or variety of the game.

The pointing to the ‘non-native’ as the culprit can see rewilding veer towards regressive and backward politics. Monbiot acknowledges this, showing how some of the most dramatic rewilding has happened following the forced removal of populations by oppressive and racist regimes. There is no positive lesson for English cricket here. Players from other countries and of different ethnicities add diversity, interest and culture to the game played in this country. Unlike English flora, whose evolution takes thousands of years, English cricketers have no excuse for not adapting to new challenges introduced to their domestic game.

Keystone species and trophic cascades provide, by analogy, some clues as to how to rewild English cricket. But the deeper we go into Monbiot’s thesis the harder to apply it becomes.

 

Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding.. does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.

There is a relevant warning that English cricket should not be backward-looking, trying to ‘re-create’ a particular Golden Era. Perhaps we should be open to the notion that there is not ‘a point at which it can be said to have arrived’, but most England followers have a strong sense that an Ashes victory or World Cup triumph would provide that fulfilment. The ECB website does appear to have shelved its objective of ‘winning a global ICC tournament’. It now expresses its priorities a little less inflexibly as being to ‘Develop clear strategic plans for sustained success in Tests, ODIs and international T20s’.

Cricket in England – and possibly anywhere – is too encased in formal structures to allow the game ‘to find its own way’. Diversity – rewilded players – may be good for the game for its own sake, but our longing for them is purposive: to compete and win against the best teams whatever the playing conditions. For many – certainly those in authority – there is probably a quiet dread of what might happen to cricket if it isn’t constantly stewarded. Others might argue for an end to the interventions and grooming of the game for the twenty-first century. But they can’t know where the game would go if it was allowed to find its own way and may end up carrying out their own conservation activity if what they value about cricket is threatened.

I sincerely hope that Monbiot’s vision of rewilding can be given the opportunity to work in the UK. While it provides some handy tools for understanding how diversity might be reintroduced to an activity where it is withering, the forces that want to tame and control cricket will continue to hold sway.

 

A select XI – cricket blog posts 2017


Purpose: to draw attention to the most interesting, insightful and amusing independent cricket writing.

Format: a prose review, structured around a list of eleven selected posts, without clever (or laboured) analogies to the selection of a cricket team.

Criteria: posts published on-line, with authors (to the best of my knowledge) unpaid and having not appeared in any of the five previous Declaration Game annual select XIs. Ultimately, each selection is nothing more than my subjective judgement of what is interesting, insightful or amusing.

The select XI for 2017 begins where almost all cricketers start (and most remain): the grassroots. Being Outside Cricket is a multi-blogger site created by the blogger known as Dmitri Old (select XI 2012). The post ‘Community Service‘ by thelegglance, extols the virtues of club cricket’s dedicated servants before, wholly in keeping with the tenor of the host blog, turning its ire on the cricket establishment:

The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game.  Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish.  But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive.  Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power.

John Swannick moderates a LinkedIn group for club cricket administrators, on which he posted a link to an article by the former Chair of Westinghouse CC. This piece was the most compelling long read of the selected XI. It tells the story of the decline of the club from a thriving institution enjoying on-field success to, within a matter of years, folding.

The warning signs had been creeping into the club for the last four or five years. As players left it became harder & harder to find replacements. As volunteers reclaimed their free time, it became impossible to find others willing to step up. Committee roles became something people recoiled at the thought of.

But as much as we can pinpoint the cause of the apathy, & believe me I do share the feelings of our members, it cannot hide the cold facts. Not enough of our members cared enough about the club to see it through to the end. Too many egos skulked behind rocks & into hiding when a once proud club was relegated not once but twice in the space of a few years. When the time was right to fight for the club & return it to glory, too many seized the opportunity to desert the ship before it sank further.

I doubt any cricket club official in the UK could have read this piece without recognising some aspect of their own club in the meticulously related account of Westinghouse CC’s fall. An uncomfortable, but important read.

A quick change of pace: satire. In the spring, That Cricket Blog wrote a county championship preview, extrapolating the excesses of 2017 to the competition in 20 years’ time – 2037; for example:

Surrey

Background:

Defending champions after another season where bonus points based on corporate hospitality Yelp reviews left on-field performance largely irrelevant.

Dan Liebke has an excellent sense of the ridiculous, which comes across well on Twitter and in the podcasts to which he contributes. I have, though, tended to struggle to get past the sub-title on his liebCricket header (“funny cricket > good cricket”) but was glad I did when he wrote about the end to the 3rd England v South Africa Test.

The tension was immense. A hat trick attempt is always thrilling. A delayed hat trick attempt even more so. A delayed hat trick to win the Test would seem to be just about the pinnacle of Test cricket excitement.

And yet Joel Wilson – a lateral thinking marketing genius disguised as an umpire – found a way to top it.

One of the strongest features of cricket blogs in 2017 was the quality of statistical pieces. Fielding analysis came to the fore. Kesavan trawled through ball-by-ball commentary of 233 Test matches to gather the material for the most comprehensive analysis of slip-fielding that I suspect has ever been published – with breakdowns by bowler type, position, country and individual fielder (Steve Smith and Kane Williamson come out on top).

Paul Dennett had a similar interest and no less an obsession. Dennett introduces Fielding Scores for every player in IPL 2017 thus:

The lack of any worthwhile fielding statistics has always bothered me.

So for this edition of the IPL I tried to do something about it. I’ve spent the last few weeks reviewing every ball of the group stage of the tournament, creating 1,666 entries in a spreadsheet for all the fielding ‘events’.

It has been an absurd amount of fun.

Data visualisation is an adjunct field to statistics and of ever increasing importance. The strongest example I came across in 2017 was the blog post ‘Bat first or field. The choices teams make in Test cricket‘. It uses a background the colour of a Wisden dust jacket, over which charts, maps and monochrome photos slide in and out of view, as the data and its interpretation gradually unfolds.

Charles Davis is a doyen of cricket statisticians, with a prodigious output of analyses, lists and reports on Z-score’s cricket stats blog. One thrust of Davis’s work is to fill the gaps in 19th and early 20th century match records, by using newspaper archives to recreate the detail with which we have only recently come to expect of the recording of international fixtures. In ‘The Odd Fields of the Early Days‘, Davis has surmised, by studying reports in The Times, where the fielders were positioned at the start of the innings in fourteen late 19th century Tests, illustrating how in 1893, Johnny Briggs bowled to a field with five players positioned between mid-off and mid-on.

Raf Nicholson is also a cricket historian, specialising in women’s cricket, and a moving force behind the CricketHER website. In February, Nicholson published her ‘Thoughts on the batter/batsman debate‘. Her contribution is of note not just because of the side she takes, but because of her command of historical source material. The post also very neatly encapsulates one of the challenges facing girls and women’s cricket: whether the game’s growth will come with closer alignment to the men’s game or striking out and creating a distinctively new sport.

Recent history is the subject matter of That 1980s Sport Blog. Steven Pye’s post on the 1984 County Championship was as entertaining as this introduction promises:

The script would involve an underdog who nearly became a hero; a substitute fielder earning himself legendary status for a county that he never played for; panic on the streets of Chelmsford; a case of so near, yet so far for one team, and unadulterated delight for another. There might not be the angle of a love interest, but come the end of September 11, 1984, Keith Fletcher would quite probably have kissed Richard Ollis in relief.

My eleventh choice comes from Matt Becker’s Limited Overs blog. Becker has woven the personal story with the public cricket narrative as effectively and affectingly as anyone. This was hard, it was fun was Becker’s resurfacing after a one year absence from the blog.

And so I came back here. To write about this game I remembered that I loved, and to get away from the book I don’t want to think about anymore, and to keep writing in a space where I feel comfortable.

Becker fulfils that aim throughout the English/US summer of 2017 until, marking the final day of the England v South Africa series, he discloses his motivation for returning to the blog. It is moving and meaningful blogging.

Limited Overs is one of five blogs in the selection – the others are Being Outside Cricket, liebCricket, Z-score’s cricket stats blog and cricketHER – which published regularly during the year and from which selection of a single post was more difficult. I would encourage readers to spend some time visiting each and find their own favourite.

Last year, I introduced – ironically in terms of my appropriating the title, but genuinely in terms of my appreciation of the blog – the World’s Leading Blogger citation, which (as in Wisden) doesn’t restrict me to mentioning those who have not featured in previous years’ Select XIs. I nominated Backwatersman’s New Crimson Rambler and have come very close to announcing his retention of the WLB status for 2017.

Top of the tree, however, as my favourite blog and nomination for World’s Leading Blogger of 2017 is Peter Hoare’s My Life in Cricket Scorecards. Throughout the UK summer, Hoare blogged weekly about the parallel events – cricket and otherwise – of the summer of 1967, when as a young boy he had seen his home county challenge for honours and win the Gillette Cup. The material was fascinating, the writing crisp and the treatment of that earlier time both respectful and questioning. On top of all of that, the delivery through a cricket blog of a sustained project has taken the medium somewhere new and – for anyone with Hoare’s dedication – fertile.

Please read, share, disagree and generally engage with these and the many other independent cricket writers out there on the web.

Warm-up matches. It’s just the way it is.

It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.

(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)

When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.

Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.

I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.

Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.

What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.

A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.

But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.

As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.

On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:

  • Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
  • Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
  • Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
  • Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).

Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.

Bedroom cricket

Cricket is in abeyance. A fallow period. Cricket grounds in the UK swirl emptily with fallen leaves or give grudging access to junior footballers. Even the latest of late finishes to the County Championship was over a month ago. An Ashes series lies ahead, but the shallowness of England’s batting line-up and Ben Stokes’ alleged assault only serve to distract from each other.

Football is everywhere, not even having to pretend cricket might steal a fraction of its audience. I comply with the hegemonic order, if only to the extent of touchline support for my sons’ junior teams.

In cricket’s absence, I have a new enthusiasm. I ride a bike. That simple. Early morning, careering along the tow-path, a heron rising above the mist on the canal, I ask myself: is this more enjoyable than cricket?  Finding a new route, further from the roads, for my commute, gives great satisfaction. On the days I ride, I sleep longer and deeper. It’s a new pleasure and one I hanker for if too many days pass without the chance of a ride.

I am not, of course, living a life denuded of cricket. I watched a few overs of India v New Zealand. I’ve helped out at my club’s first autumn junior cricket training – targeting the youngsters we have senior cricket designs on for next summer.

And, in a fashion, I have played.

Cricket is adaptive and has found a new form that means its grip on my life has barely loosened. I suspect this innovative format arose out of my sons’ refusal to do anything truly active during the long, summer school holidays. Just so they could answer, ‘Yes, we’ve exercised today,” they invented an indoor game. Invention gives them too much credit. It’s closely related to the corridor cricket I played during evenings in our digs on tour. Big Nick propelling twisty-twosties along the hall, while we took turns defending our wicket from the tennis ball, everyone else crouching ready to catch, unless swigging from a glass or bottle. It has crossed the path of my boys in a game played in the changing room at the club when rain stops play. One-hand, one bounce.

Our version takes place exclusively in no.2 son’s bedroom, although he is the less interested of the two. As the youngest child of three, he’s bagged the biggest bedroom, giving just enough space from window to wall for intense sporting contest. We use a bat – size 2 – and a wind-ball. Our stumps are stylish: a pair of jeans draped over a mattress on its side against the wall. But the feature that draws us back to this game, night after night, is the carpet. It’s deep and soft, giving a purposefully rotating sphere just enough purchase to skip and jag off the straight.

Our bedroom cricket is played in conditions that simulate Galle, Mumbai, or Taunton (2016-17). Batting requires avid concentration, attention paid to the line of the ball, but above all to the bowler’s hand. Bowling is where the game departs furthest from convention. The ‘bowler’ sits with back to the radiator below the window – comfortably warming as November’s nights close in – and chucks the ball. 15 degrees of flex has been inverted – it’s the bare minimum any elbow would bend.

Batting is required to be defensive: one warning per innings allowed for an attacking shot (although there is tolerance afforded to sweep shots). Most of the nine modes of dismissal are available – hit-wicket is an exception – and ‘caught’ has been extended to include ‘one hand, one bounce’. It is a battle for survival; a test of defensive technique and of the ability to read the ball from the bowlers’ hand, and failing that, off the pitch.

No.1 son has seven variations: front-of-the hand off-break and doosra; back-hand leg-break and googly; round-arm googly; left-arm something-or-other and a straight one. If I survive the first dozen balls, playing inside a few off-breaks, inside edging those turning the other way, I start to pick his front of hand deliveries, even pulling off a reverse sweep when I spot the off-break outside my (left-hander’s) off stump. Those he flicks with the back of his hand facing me remain inscrutable and I have to smother or play off the pitch.

When it’s my turn to bowl, I have just added a fifth variation to my off-break, arm ball, back of the hand top-spinner and doosra. This last delivery is my most productive, beating no.1 son’s outside edge and taking his pad or bowling him. But I ration its use, in case he starts to pick it from my hand. My most satisfying dismissal has been drawing an outside edge to an arm-ball after three off-breaks that he played with ease. Never really a bowler (despite efforts ‘late in the day’), in moments like those, I’ve enjoyed a flash of insight into the mind of a spinner: laying a trap, defeating through deception.

Heady stuff from a simple indoor game with my sons. But it has helped bridge the gap between the English season and the long winter tour. I am hoping it will continue, filling those anxious evening hours in the build-up to the Tests in Australia.