Impregnable India

Image: India Meteorological Dept

Image: India Meteorological Dept

Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell wore down the Indian bowling in a partnership lasting nearly 80 overs on days four and five of the final Test at Nagpur in December 2012. The Warwickshire pair’s efforts were instrumental in defending England’s 2-1 series lead, recognised at the time as a great achievement and one that has not diminished since. Not only was it the last time India have lost a home series, but the Nagpur Test was the last time India have failed to win a home Test (other than a match reduced to less than two days play).

Since England’s visit, India have won 12 of the 13 Tests they have hosted. During this time, India have:

  • never conceded a first innings deficit. India’s average first innings lead has been 157.
  • won five games in less than three days play. Matches have lasted an average of 316 overs.
  • won four matches while losing ten or fewer wickets. On average India have lost 14 wickets per victory.
  • dismissed the opposition for under 200 thirteen times. They have conceded 300 or more only twice.
  • recorded 14 individual hundreds and conceded just one (Michael Clarke).
  • taken 19 individual innings hauls of five or more wickets and been on the other end of seven.

Home advantage has rarely been as telling in Test cricket as in the 2010s. But none of the other highly ranked Test nations have a home record as compelling as India’s since 2013:

  • Australia: won 12, drawn 4, lost 0
  • England: won 16, drawn 5, lost 7
  • South Africa: won 11, drawn 4, lost 4
  • Pakistan (in UAE): won 9, drawn 3, lost 4
  • Sri Lanka: won 10, drawn 2, lost 5

India’s record as a host is even stronger than those of the West Indies in the 1980s and Australia in the 2000s – albeit over a shorter period than the peaks of these two dominant sides of recent years.

The source of that supremacy is rapidly apparent from a tabulation of aggregate bowling figures. India’s spin bowlers have taken almost twice the wickets at less than half the average and more than one run per over more economically than their opposition. The home team’s pace bowlers are also more effective.

Bowling Wickets Average Economy Strike rate
Spin India 191 18.20 2.46 44.3
opposition 97 37.79 3.56 63.6
Pace India 51 29.00 2.81 61.9
opposition 68 40.37 3.02 80.2

Five spinners have played for India in these series, but two players dominate: Ravi Ashwin (99 wickets at 16.56) and Ravindra Jadeja (61 wickets at 16.47).

Looked at from the perspective of the batting (top 7 in the order) this picture, of course, persists: almost twice the batting average at a scoring rate faster by 25%. Che Pujara (1124 at 62.44), Murali Vijay (895 at 42.61) and Virat Kohli (853 at 44.89) are the heaviest scorers. Ashwin and Jadeja have each contributed over 300 runs as well.

Batting (top 7) Runs Average Strike rate 100s 50s
India 5632 45.41 55.6 14 21
Opposition 4053 23.70 43.0 1 20

To understand the causes of this run of home dominance it needs first to be acknowledged that it has come at the expense of four countries for whom the sub-continent conditions are particularly challenging: West Indies, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It is seven years since India hosted any of its neighbouring Asian nations for a Test series – Sri Lanka in 2009/10. Pakistan last visited nine years ago and Bangladesh, of course, have not yet had the honour.

Yet, India is no longer an exotic final frontier for the cricketers of non-Asian countries. There is now an annual migration in April. The format (T20) is different, but the climate, the pitches and the players are all made familiar. It has not, though, carried through into Test performances in the country. AB de Villiers (258 at 36.85), David Warner (195 at 24.37), Kane Williamson (135 at 33.75), Shane Watson (99 at 16) and Chris Gayle (100 at 25) are some of the highest profile IPL contract-holders who have under-achieved at batsmen in Tests in India since 2012.

India’s method of success, more often than not in this period, has been to choke their visitors on dry, dusty pitches favourable to spin bowlers. Slow bowling, the country’s traditional strength, has brought it unprecedented home success recently. To appreciate the change that has occurred, it is helpful to revisit where this post began – at Nagpur in December 2012. There, on a slow, dead pitch that grew gradually more worn over the five days, England secured a draw and the series victory. Three years later, South Africa played on the same ground. The match was over on the third day; 33 of the 40 wickets to fall were to spinners. India bowled only 17 overs of pace, without picking up a wicket.

The majority of pitches prepared for Tests in the period under review have been amenable to spin from the first day. In the case of Nagpur, a hot and dry location, this has produced far more compelling Test cricket than the alternative, were the pitch allowed to develop its flat, unyielding and slow character that England batted on for longer than the 2015 South Africa Test lasted. (Note 1)

Looking ahead to the England series, the local climate can be expected to deliver arid conditions for the first, third and fourth Tests (although October was wetter than normal in Gujarat, the state hosting the first Test). The visitors may prefer the option of a dead pitch on which they can dig in and force a draw, particularly for the first Test. It would be understandable and preferable from the neutral’s standpoint if the pitch preparation led to Ashwin taking the new ball and igniting puffs of dust early in the game. Rajkot, Mohali and Mumbai all appear to have the dry and hot weather that readily creates pitches on which this Indian team has been impregnable.

Average monthly rainfall
Test City Date Oct rain Oct days of rain Nov rain Nov days of rain Dec rain Dec days of rain
1 Rajkot 9-13 Nov 19 mm 1 6 mm 1
2 Visak’nam 17-21 Nov 258 mm 8 115 mm 3
3 Mohali 26-30 Nov n/k 0 n/k 1
4 Mumbai 8-12 Dec 56 mm 3 17 mm 1 5 mm 1
5 Chennai 16-20 Dec 279 mm 11 407 mm 12 191 mm 6
Source: http://www.imd.gov.in/

But the Indian sub-continent encompasses a wide range of climatic types. Average monthly rainfall in Visakhapatnam (2nd Test) and Chennai (5th Test) in the build-up to, and during their matches, is significantly greater than the summer rainfall in the damp north-west of England. The pitches, barring sustained and significant effort from the ground staff, will inevitably be moister and more friendly to seam bowling at those grounds (assuming the weather is in line with norms). We will get a feel for the extent to which the groundsmen in the country are willing, or required, to bend nature to the demands of India’s continued impregnability when the series reaches these two centres.

Test cricket benefits from a strong and interested Indian Test team. The sport also gains from fast-moving, exciting matches. I hope, though, that the pitches played on in this and future series reflect the diversity of India’s environment. And, even if England cannot breach India’s impregnability, stiffer challenges may come in the next 15 months with planned visits from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Note 1: Thank you to Nakul Pande for this observation, via Twitter, about Nagpur 2012 v Nagpur 2015.

 

Getting the point: County Championship bonus points

lords-pavilion

The climactic last overs of the 2016 County Championship were made possible by a thrilling afternoon of cricket, by the captains’ horse-trading and by a tense passage of play that took place one day earlier.

Yorkshire, in the form of Tim Bresnan and lower order partners, were batting on Thursday, trying to set as high a first innings total as possible. How high? At least 350 runs high.

Run number 350 was the 16th run of the 10th wicket partnership between Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom, which, to emphasise the drama, had included an hour’s break for rain after 15 of those runs had been scored. With it, Yorkshire accrued their fourth batting point, and so the ability to overhaul Somerset, should both Somerset and Yorkshire win their final matches of the 2016 season. Without it, that singular bonus point, Yorkshire could not have won the title and so would not have risked all on chasing the win in a manner that could gift the match to Middlesex. Somerset would, in all likelihood, have become County Champions.

Since 1968, the County Championship has been decided by a scoring system comprising: points for match results, combined with points for runs scored and wickets taken in each side’s first innings. The system has been tweaked – draws not scoring points in some seasons, alterations to the thresholds for first innings runs and wickets and the overs in which they can be earned, and fluctuations in the value of a victory. The rules for the 2016 season can be read here.

The bonus point gained when Sidebottom flicked the ball to fine-leg on day 3 was essential for the drama to unfold at Lord’s on the final day of the 2016 season. This post considers how important bonus points are in the County Championship and whether they fulfil their objectives.

Bonus points accounted for 44% of the points scored across the two divisions of the County Championship in 2016. The chart below shows the bonus points earned by each side in the 2016 County Championship (net of penalty points). It shows that bonus point totals are only loosely correlated with the position counties achieved. While one bonus point can swing the season, a season’s worth of bonus points will not necessarily decide the title.

cc-bonus-pts-page-001

I (with the help of Twitter correspondents) have identified three objectives against which the bonus point system can be tested:

  1. acting as a tie-breaker between teams with similar records
  2. rewarding teams for their performances in matches which do not reach a positive result
  3. incentivising positive cricket in the early part of the game.

Scorecards and conventional records allow some analysis of the first two of these objectives.

Bonus points as tie-breakers

Most tie-breakers in sports are secondary assessments, happening after the tie occurs (e.g. super over in T20 knock-outs) or on a count-back basis after the primary scoring system delivers a draw (e.g. goal difference in football). In the County Championship, the points for first innings performance are aggregated with those for wins and draws as primary determinants of league position.

It’s feasible that bonus points can be tie-makers (or unsuccessful tie-breakers). This has happened once in the 49 years of their use in the County Championship: 1977. Middlesex and Kent both won 9 games (as did Gloucestershire), but Middlesex lost three more games than Kent. There were no points for draws in 1977, and with an identical number of bonus points (119), the title was shared.

Nearly forty years later, with the County Championship operating as two divisions, as well as fewer matches being played, there is potentially more need for a tie-breaker to help decide champions as well as the relegation and promotion places. To assess the impact of bonus points as tie-breakers, I have re-scored the championship, without bonus points and using three different points allocations for wins/draws/losses: 3/1/0; 6/1/0; 5/2/0. The occurrence of end of season ties over the last ten years, had points only been available for match results, is shown in the table below.

ties-page-001Bonus points have successfully prevented ties in key end of season positions, which would have occurred occasionally, not routinely.

Re-scoring the championship in this way shows another significant impact of the bonus point system – how it produces different outcomes to a result-only points system. Most notably, in 2010, under two of the alternative points systems I used, Somerset not Nottinghamshire would have been Champions. The Cider-men once again denied by bonus points. Promotion and relegation outcomes would also have been different in several years.

altered-result-page-001

 

 

 

Bonus points to reward teams for performance in drawn matches

Drawn matches occur frequently (51% in the County Championship in 2016; up from 35% in 2015) and can leave a game at its conclusion anywhere from one team clinging on nine wickets down, 200 runs behind to a deadlock of two long, high-scoring first innings and on again to matches washed out before any telling advantage has been gained. There is a case for rewarding teams, whose hard won advantage cannot be converted into a victory, particularly when the weather is responsible.

I picked at random ten drawn matches from the 2016 season, to see if bonus points fulfilled this role.

draws-page-0013

I found that in the majority of this sample of drawn games (7/10) the allocation of points was fair when weighed against the state of the game at its close. Where it wasn’t, it was because the balance of the game altered after the 110 over bonus-point period of each first innings, often in the third innings. For the same reason, the absolute number of points gained, was not strongly related to the likelihood that a team would have won from the position gained at the close of play.

Bonus points to reward positive play

The Editor’s notes in the 1969 edition of Wisden recorded that:

the introduction of bonus points for positive batting and successful bowling during the first 85 overs delivered by each side, produced keener cricket in the early stages of the three-day matches. The batsmen discovered the freedom that has been there all the time.

An early success, then. But, as long-in-the-tooth cricket watchers now witness daily, positive batting has become the default approach for most players. Perhaps bonus points are no longer needed to tease it out.

In conclusion, bonus points prevent teams ending the season tied, although ties would be quite unusual if points were only available for match results. Bonus points have, from-time-to-time, delivered league positions that don’t accord with the positions of teams had they been based on match results. On these occasions, bonus points have been going beyond the role that I have imagined for them as tie-breakers. Bonus points have been needed as tie-breakers as often as they have directly influenced league positions when not required as tie-breakers.

The sample of ten drawn matches suggests that bonus points, more often than not, provide a fair reward for performance in matches without a positive result. But, the allocation of bonus points, based on first innings runs and wickets, understandably does not always reflect the state of the game when time is called.

Nearly 40 years ago, soon after their introduction, bonus points were recognised in Wisden for promoting more positive play. With most modern batsmen committed to attack, they may no longer play a useful function as incentives to play positively.

Bonus points are often superfluous and yet sometimes telling. Points based on match results alone would, in most seasons, be sufficient to identify champions, promoted and relegated teams. Given match results are the solid currency of the sport, I would recommend points awarded on that basis should be the primary determinant of league position. A tie-breaker would still be necessary. Bonus points, recorded as a secondary measure, could play that role – but so could other, simpler systems.

 

 

Not a straightforward win

Friday afternoon, just past half-way through the fourth innings, Middlesex’s disciplined, probing attack pushed it ahead of the other two teams contending for the 2016 County Championship. That was also the point when the Captain, my erstwhile opening partner, challenged me to name the 1993 Middlesex side. 

Barely an hour later, Toby Roland-Jones bowled Ryan Sidebottom to complete a hat-trick, Middlesex victory and Championship. After the match, approaching the pub, 15 minutes walk from Lord’s, I enjoyed a moment of clarity, reeling off the last three names in the Middlesex side for their final match of the 1993 season. “… and Mark Feltham!” I cried, before my pals mobbed me and carried me on their shoulders to the bar so I would have the honour of buying a celebratory round. 

Embellishment and simplification. The truth was altogether less straightforward. 

At lunch Middlesex had a lead of 80 with seven wickets in hand. To push for victory, it seemed clear that they would need to continue the acceleration Malan and Gubbins had managed before the break. Yorkshire took the new ball, but wickets didn’t fall and Middlesex ticked along at 3 to 4 runs per over. Yorkshire’s fielders had stopped jogging into position between overs. The cricket was respectable, but not Championship-winning. Neither side had a grip on the game. 

Processing the Captain’s question, I recited names of Middlesex county stalwarts of yesteryear: Barlow, Slack, Gould, Williams. I was recollecting real players’ names, but had telescoped the past, focusing on the era I had first followed cricket, 35-40 years ago. Gatting and Emburey came quickly to me, but they both spanned the period from my early interest in the game and 23 years ago. My mind had no traction on the question. 

Around 2pm, a change of bowling, of tactics, of atmosphere. Lee and Lyth bowled in the manner described in footnotes to fast scoring records as, “to expedite a declaration.” The fielders, stationed away from the busy traffic areas of cover point and deep mid-wicket, watched balls pass them, or chaperoned balls to the boundary rope. Some instincts stayed keen: Brooks took a one-handed catch at square leg before he remembered what was going on. Franklin came into bat and was talking to his opposite number, almost before he had a word for his batting partner. Collaboration, conspiracy – a pre-agreed target was being set. 

It wasn’t just my mind working on the trivia question. Four former teammates were pondering, keeping fingers away from smart phones. Tufnell, Fraser were added. But we were approaching stalemate. The Captain offered assistance – a big, juicy clue. “West Indian opening batsman.” We pounced on that: “Haynes” and our game was up and running again, fed more assistance, trying not to compromise the integrity of trivdom. 

There were a few moments of unaided excellence. We diverted to consider the Worcestershire team that took the field against Middlesex in September 1993. Our regular quiz-master (and Worcester resident), reeled off the majority of the playing XI, climaxing with a nonchalant “Gavin Haynes”. 

Yorkshire’s pursuit and Middlesex’s defence of the target of 240 in 40 overs brought sterner, more purposeful cricket. The players had to find the right balance of attack and defence. Errors might be irretrievable; a teammate lined up to replace any bowler or batter off their game. Yorkshire progressed to 80-3, slower than we had anticipated, but with Bresnan batting fluently a platform and the right personnel in place. 

Our minds now attuned to the task, we gradually filled out the 1993 Middlesex order. Discussion roved from England players of the era, to players that moved counties that might have included Middlesex. Our focus narrowing productively.

The home team’s burst to victory – six wickets in fewer than six overs – rewarded the pressure applied by Roland-Jones and Finn. But it also fed off Yorkshire’s commitment to attack come what may. To eschew the cricketers’ obligation to make the other team’s victory as hard as it can be. To fulfil an agreement made with Middlesex, that shut out the hopes of Somerset, the other team that might have won the title; that would have won a very first County Championship if Yorkshire had fought for a draw once it knew it could not win. 

My moment of clarity to remember the last three members of the 1993 Middlesex team never happened. Pure embellishment. The answers – John Carr, Keith Brown and Mark Feltham – were gifted to us, like batsmen swinging and hoping when the game is on the line. 

Perhaps it’s common for achievements to feature a share of compromise and collaboration with the opposition. It would seem fitting not to lose sight of that, the ambiguity tucked behind the victory and to acknowledge some unease amidst, or at least soon after the celebrations it creates. 

I can cope with the rain. It’s the drizzle I can’t stand

Winton heronFaced with uncertainty, the human mind devises narratives to feign predictability. All the way from answering the foundational question of ‘Why are we here?’ to the humdrum ‘Will I get wet later?’

Yes, humdrum, but dealt a 13 week season, impinged by football, school trips and family holidays, knowing whether it will rain later, has become one of the determining considerations of my life as a junior cricket organiser. Yesteryear, when the weather was really significant, we would consult seaweed, or the posture of cattle.

Nowadays, there’s a very modern indicator of coming rain: text messages. It starts in the late morning. Parents: “Will tonight’s game be rained off? I’m out of town, so would be good to know.” I understand the need to drive out uncertainty, the modern middle-class parent’s desire for the one quiet evening at home that a cancellation can deliver. The thing is I’m out of town as well.

Six years into this role and I am also very clear that if we decided whether matches in England’s north-west should be played based on weather conditions at 11am and forecasts for the early evening, our youngsters would play very little cricket at all.

Living in a temperate zone of this globe, with very few climactic extremes, weather is a state of mind as much as it is an objective fact. For cricket enthusiasts in this damp region, there is a pragmatism about conditions. We’ll start if it’s not raining (hard) and carry on if it’s not pouring. Recently, I drove through heavy traffic and heavier rain to Winton CC. As I pulled onto the drive that skirts the ground’s southern boundary, I saw a heron wading on the outfield. But the rain had stopped. Our hosts put the kettle on, joined me in conference with the neutral umpire and agreed we’d give it half an hour – but would mark the boundary anyway (cordoning off the wading bird reserve at wide long-on).

Thanks to the practicality of our hosts and the shared view that it’s only a game that nobody gains from cancelling, our teens played on. 270 runs in 34 overs showed it was a batters’ night and that weather is, within parameters, a state of mind.

To agree ‘it’s only a game’ may be a luxury that’s being depleted. Umpires have responsibility for ensuring the safety of playing conditions. That’s well understood. An opposition first team player umpiring an under 13 game once tried to bring the teams off in light rain. His legitimate concern was that the boys didn’t have spikes and were slipping. The opposition coach and I walked out to the middle to assess conditions. The boys were loving it, performing sliding stops and soft-landing dives. “No more long run-ups,” the other coach and I decreed before returning to the scorebox, out of sight of the parents fretting over laundry.

With that responsibility placed on the umpires comes an opportunity for litigation. A case has already reached court (Bartlett v ECB Coaches Association, 2015). A fielder was injured on a wet outfield after having argued with the umpire that the game shouldn’t take place. The court, in this example, dismissed the claim against the umpire, perhaps noting that the fielder, concerned about the conditions, had nonetheless attempted a sliding stop. The very fact of this legal case will cause a ripple through our recreational umpires, like a cricket bag dragged through a carpark puddle.

There’s another impediment to a laisser-faire approach to the weather and junior cricket. It’s the hierarchy of needs within the club. Ten year olds share the same square as the club senior teams. Allowing an under 11 match to go ahead and damage the first XI track is heresy. The balance is tightest on a Friday night, when the pitch will have little time to recover before the weekend’s big fixture.

On many a Friday afternoon, watching drizzle’s pathetic, stubborn dampening of the street outside my office window, my duty to play and play on, has shunted up against a wish for it to just rain properly and put us out of this misery. I check my iPhone weather app with the compulsion normally reserved for the Test score. The teasing of rain specks on the windscreen continues on the drive to the ground. The texts are coming in thick and fast. “We’re on,” I announce with fingers on keypad when I get to the ground and find the moisture hanging in the air, making the grass greasy, the square so inviting for a young cricketer to skid across and wreck tomorrow’s track.

“As long as it doesn’t get any heavier,” I explain to opposition, umpire, parents. We dig out bar towels for the fielding team to dry the ball that will still swell like a raisin in a Moroccan stew. Bats left carelessly on the grass will lose their sharp report. The fielders’ hair, that started in a variety of self-conscious shapes, becomes uniformly flattened on their scalps. Meanwhile, the pitch for our first team’s match takes on more water. Should I, shouldn’t I just call the game off? I can cope with the rain, it’s the drizzle I can’t stand.

This season, I’ve been spared the Friday game of chicken with the elements, with the matches I organise occurring on Wednesday evenings. But back in May, we played at home on the eve of a county second XI match at our ground. This was a prestigious fixture, for which we wanted the ground and in particular the square, looking its best. We got under way with grey clouds occluding the sun in the west. Club officials, looking more often at the sky than the play, stood on the boundary. Soon after the second innings started, the clouds began to leak and the covers made it to the pitch before the players reached the pavilion. Three of us stood sentry in the middle, heads cocked upwards like men have done for millennia. Then each of us 21st century men would look down and consult our smart phones, two of which told us it was raining and one claimed sunshine. Meanwhile, the square, the covers, the outfield, our heads and shoulders were rapidly filling in white as snow fell.

Big Nick

It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.

The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.

The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.

Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.

Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.

While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.

Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.

The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.

The real pleasure of his company  wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.

Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.

A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.

Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.

Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.

Imposters at the Sir Leonard Hutton Gates?

gatesPolice forces across the world have utilised the tactic of sending invitations to unapprehended criminals to collect prizes. It crossed my mind briefly that I may be being set-up, but I am law abiding, so the ECB invitation to Headingley was more likely to be a wind-up than a set-up. In turn, that anxiety slid into a more familiar one: imposter syndrome.

It’s a universal truth that there’s always someone better than you are at cricket. Only the Don is exempt, sitting at the top of that pyramid scheme. It’s almost as true about being a cricket obsessive. In the right environment you’re never more than an anorak away from someone with a finer appreciation of the skills of the game, its history, current players or ‘knowledge ‘ about why that journalist wrote a particular piece about that player. Perhaps it’s only in the security of a blog that one’s obsession reigns supreme.

And coaching, six years after qualifying, remains an area of shifting sands, few solid foundations and ever evolving puzzles. Why can that lad suddenly play that shot? How did that girl develop a throwing arm like that? Why’s that lad suddenly firing the ball down legside? The relationship of my methods and their outcomes are not just disjointed but appear to be on different planes. I am the arch-imposter when coaching.

Attending an event with, amongst others, a current minor counties player, someone who played club cricket with ‘Stokesie’, a county head of coaching and a university head coach reinforced the suspicion, as we gathered by the Sir Len Hutton Gates, that I was a little out of my league.

But inside the ground, sitting square of the wicket, trying to rationalise England’s loss of five top-order wickets to Sri Lanka’s seam attack; attempting to forecast the weather using a mixture of sky-gazing and smartphone apps, brought us all onto a level.

Maybe it was just a day of imposters – out in the middle, not just sat in the crowd. Were England’s top-order shut away in a windowless room in Leeds while a gang of look-a-likes started the English summer for them? Take Alex Hales: leave, leave, leave – no heave. Cook stretching forward, having a dart outside off-stump, when a milestone of run aggregation lay so close by. Root simply failing to be magnificent.

Yet Hales, having made the decision to forego IPL riches, has ample motivation for adopting a new degree of prudence. Earlier this month, against Yorkshire, he accumulated a mere 35 from only five fewer balls than are delivered in an entire T20 innings.

Cook had been characteristically Cooky off his pads. He attempted two off-drives, connected juicily with one, but his edge to the second may make it his last of the summer. And Root bounced to the wicket and played short balls high on the tips of his toes.

Most authentic of all were Stokes and Bairstow. The former banged a few boundaries in defiance of Sri Lanka’s rapid removal of the top order, before bunting a drive to mid-on. Bairstow banged a few balls, too, but it was his energy at the wicket that verified his identity. All but the tightest of singles saw him turning to set off for a second. He charged one 3, when most batsmen would have settled for 2, and had to be sent back from attempting an all-run 4.

Another England batsman made a fine impression. Mark Ramprakash was walked across the ground at lunch to greet the award-winning coaches, treating each, whether genuine or imposter, with quiet congratulations and wishes for a enjoyable day.

My cover wasn’t blown, or my company were too polite to out me. In truth, I had had a narrow escape – not at Headingley though, but at the conference I was to attend before I received the ECB’s generous invitation. I was to share my expertise on transforming contact centres. Imposter alert!

The wisdom of crowds – batting survey

Batting survey-page-001The start of a new season and good intentions. In this case, the intention I am trying to act on – and to which I would appreciate you contributing your wisdom – is making net sessions purposeful.

My target audience is my club’s under 16 and under 14 cricketers. They have all played four seasons or more of cricket. Some have county or other representative experience.

My aim, in this case with batting, is to encourage them to be self-aware and to practice on the edge of their comfort zones.

I think most recreational cricketers will recognise that as a season progresses, nets can easily become where you practice what you are already ok at and repeat mistakes that you already had well-honed.

To help shape purposeful practice (in the nets or outside), I have drafted a survey which asks the player to assess their ability at a range of strokes and against different types of bowling. The survey also asks them to reflect on where they score runs and how they are dismissed. I want to use the results to shape the practice we design with the players, for the whole group and individuals. I may repeat the survey at the end of the season as a measure of progress.

You can view and are welcome to complete the batting survey here.

I would be interested in any feedback on:

  • content
  • structure
  • style
  • wording
  • length
  • appearance
  • general approach.

Thank you.

Heartbeat

powerleagueMy company’s 5-a-side team had spent 12 months being taken apart by streetwise sides in one of inner city Manchester’s evening leagues. But displaying the virtues of application, teamwork and finding a ringer or two, the double digit defeats (32-1, 29-0) were behind us and we were competing.

Our rise towards 5-a-side football competence is relevant because I remember feeling excited as I leant against the mesh fencing behind a goal, gulping air and talking to Laurie. Five or six minutes into the game and we were leading. Laurie and I had finished a shift (of five or six minutes) and been substituted – regular replenishment by fresh legs was another factor in our rise.

Laurie, I recall, was about to say something to me. With my attention divided between the continuing game and my colleague, I saw him fall backwards with the rigidity of a felled tree. Within seconds he had people – players from other matches – attending to him. I ran to the office to get an ambulance called.

Laurie didn’t make it. Heart failure. In his mid-40s, he was fit. Thursday evenings he played 5-a-side with us. Weekends, he played on a team with his sons. But there was some impairment in his heart that had been dormant through so many exertions and then emerged to strike suddenly and irremediably.

The last time I recounted this story, I was taking a first aid refresher course to support the junior cricket coaching work I do. The course leader asked if anyone had experienced a situation where emergency first aid had been required. In a group of seven, there were two of us who had witnessed fatal heart attacks playing recreational sport – the other example was from a cricket match. Neither involved someone doing anything more intense or exacting than their routine.

It’s rare, yet common enough to be a story to have touched many families, friends, teammates and opponents. David Epstein, in ‘The Sports Gene’, writes about a fellow high school runner, a state champion, who collapsed and died within metres of crossing the finishing line. Epstein goes on to write about the genetic condition, hypertrobic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which is a kindred, equivalently grave, affliction to that diagnosed for James Taylor this week: Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyapathy (ARVC).

How could Taylor, I wondered, who has been around the England set-up, with its legion of backroom staff, for almost ten years, not have had this serious condition identified sooner, as part of routine health testing. Epstein may provide an answer; several, in fact.

To begin with, the most telling indicator of HCM is an enlarged heart, which also happens to be common among healthy athletes (AVRC also has symptoms that affect the structure of the heart that can be caused by other factors). Distinguishing between the medical condition and a well-developed muscle requires the input of an expert, of which Epstein wrote, “there are precious few in the world.”

Both conditions are inherited and caused by genetic mutation. Presence of the mutation does not however mean that serious symptoms will be experienced. Moreover the mutations vary greatly with many being restricted to a single family.

These uncertainties create a dilemma for clinicians diagnosing the conditions in athletes – they cannot tell which patients may be at risk of a sudden fatal heart malfunction. Understandably, the advice given will be to avoid physical exertion and so withdraw or retire from competitive sport, just as James Taylor has announced today. Epstein recalls that at his running friend’s funeral, his peers emphasised that the young man died doing what he loved – racing. Epstein demurs: “For me, there is scant solace in the poetic detail that he died running.”

James Taylor will now be deprived of the heightened experience of cricket played at its most intense: duelling with fast bowlers, challenging fielders with aggressive running and steeling himself not to flinch when crouched close at short-leg. Just as Epstein’s friend would have “eagerly rechanneled his competitive energy elsewhere,” and Laurie would have settled for watching his sons play football and to continue his active role in his family’s development and his own career, so Taylor will find another outlet for the ability, poise and commitment that took him, if only briefly, to the top of his sport. I hope he can find that fulfilment somewhere in cricket.

——-

The material on HCM is drawn from chapter 15 of ‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’, by David Epstein.

Memorable

Hooper playing for Kent

Hooper playing for Kent

Our audience cleared, taking back to their desks and their vans the quarterly dose of our distinctive homespun corporate wisdom. From the back of the crowd came Robbo. “You’ll like this. Got something to show you two,” he said to the boss and me. “You remember Carl Hooper? Well, my son met him at this event in London.”

I do remember Carl Hooper. I saw his last match for Kent. A Sunday League fixture at Canterbury. I was meeting some friends there on a stag weekend, only they didn’t show. I was watching play with one eye and scanning the crowd with the other – distracted and frustrated. I went to the trouble of finding the PA announcer to put out a message to the groom-to-be, before finally relaxing in front of the cricket. Hooper was out and received a standing ovation on his way back from the middle.

Robbo was holding his phone at waist level. I couldn’t see what was on the screen but expected there to be a photo. A selfie of a once majestic cricketer and Robbo’s son? What would he be like? Robbo, no taller than Hooper, is eccentric, rumoured to have hair that isn’t naturally his own, and a real cricketer. Not just club, but, I’m sure I’ve heard a bit of county too, back in the 80s. But I couldn’t find anything to verify that on CricketArchive.

So we built Robbo up. Each year he managed not to attend our company cricket match and each year his reputation was enhanced. Then last year we entered a company 6-a-side tournament run by a solicitors firm. The boss selected his squad and tapped the lucky ones on the shoulder while we supped ale upstairs in the Point after our company away-day. Immediately Robbo talked about hiring nets at Old Trafford. It didn’t happen and we turned up at the mid-summer tournament creaking and pasty. The boss made Robbo (creaky, but never pasty) our skipper for the day.

We won the tournament on the back of some ferocious six-hitting by two of our players, only one of whom is a regular cricketer. Robbo let his stars shine. He spent the day wearing not whites, but shorts of the variety worn by international cricketers when warming up. There was a message there and maybe it translated into his play, more club than county. Most memorable that day wasn’t his cricket but his style of communication as captain. His teammates (his company boss, included), opposing skippers, even umpires, were addressed with one of two names: “Shag” or “Shagger”. Not affectionately, not disparagingly, just matter-of-factly, we were all one or the other and probably both.

Seven months on, and Robbo is relating the anecdote that his son has told him. Carl Hooper is a guest at a financial services event. When the event breaks up, Robbo’s son approaches Hooper: “I have to ask you. My Dad is always telling these stories about the cricket he’s played. Can I ask, do you remember him?”

That’s a bold question. Especially to a player with memories of over 100 Tests, more than 300 first class matches and around 700 one-day games. I have experience of how slight an impact we can make on those with whom we share the field of play. I wrote once about my worst moment on a cricket field, playing as a ringer for my friend Dave’s team in a crucial end-of-season game. Twenty years later, I asked him about the match and my part in it, which has clung uncomfortably to me, and he had no recollection at all.

“What’s his name?” enquires the former Test player.

Robbo’s son utters his father’s name.

“Him!” Hooper laughs, “him. I know your Dad. He stole a game from me.”

At this point in his retelling, Robbo lifts the mobile phone. On screen is a scorecard of a Central Lancashire League Cup match from the mid 1980s. In the first innings, Robbo top-scored with 73 not out. The opposition’s scorecard has a long tail behind a fat middle that features 87 from CL Hooper – ct & b by my colleague, whose team scrape home by 3 runs. Scrolling down the screen to Robbo’s bowling figures: 1-0-8-2.

“We were going to lose. I snatched the ball from the skipper’s hand to get on to bowl. I was cocky in those days.”

Memories of tight matches won, catches taken, boundaries hit can sustain a player long after the best days are gone. For that memory to be recalled by a teammate or an opponent cannot be taken for granted. For it to be shared by a former Test cricketer.. That is memorable.

Future stars of the Under 19 World Cup

u19 finalSarfaraz Khan, Gidron Pope, Alzarri Joseph, Avesh Khan, Jack Burnham. Names that have earned recognition for performances at the Under 19 World Cup this month. But will they, and their peers at this tournament, be the successors to Brendon McCullum, Mitch Johnson, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara in the wider consciousness of world cricket?

An analysis of previous Under 19 World Cup participants will not tell us specifically whether, say, Keemo Paul will become better known for his exploits as a senior than junior international cricketer. It will, though, cast some light on the development of international cricketers.

For every member of a full nation squad at the Under 19 World Cups of 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006, I have recorded the highest level of senior cricket attained in their career. The ten year elapse since the most recent tournament reviewed makes it unlikely that any of the 555 players will reach a new peak. Unlikely, but not impossible: Stephen Cook, graduate of the 2002 tournament, made his Test debut this year.

Four levels of senior cricket have been identified, in ascending order: i) professional limited overs (List A or national T20 tournament), ii) first class, iii) international limited overs (ODI or T20) and iv) Test. With very few exceptions, this grading represents progress in a player’s career – ie he will have played the form of cricket considered lower than the level I have taken to be the highest level he attained.

Within each level, there is a broad range of attainment, measured by appearances. For example, from the 2000 tournament, grouped together at the first class level are Mark Wallace (England) with 249 appearances and Gareth Irwin (New Zealand) who played a single first class match in 2002/03. (Irwin is one of the exceptions to my hierarchy, as he did not appear in professional limited overs fixtures.) It might be fairer, therefore, to think of each group as containing players who have passed a common threshold, rather than attaining the same level.

The summary analysis of the 555 players shows that 45% have gone on to play international cricket (not all with the nation they represented at the Under 19 age group). 5% have not played any professional senior cricket.

attainment level-page-001

I would have hypothesised that the conversion rate of under 19 internationals to senior internationals would have increased over this period; this being a reflection of the more structured approach taken towards the development of youth cricketers. The results don’t support that hypothesis: the proportion of under 19 players going on to play international cricket has varied: 2000 – 48%; 2002 – 40%; 2004 – 46%; 2006 – 42%.

There are some stark country-by-country differences. The youngsters of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have had a higher likelihood of becoming full internationals, two-thirds in the latter case – perhaps reflecting that selection in those countries is from a smaller pool of players. On the other hand, barely one-quarter of those who have appeared at under 19 World Cups for England have played for the senior team. Unsurprisingly, England, with its 18 first class counties has had no players fail to reach the senior professional game – nor did Pakistan, South Africa and India.

U19 country analysis-page-001

I also looked at whether performance at the under 19 World Cup was a good predictor of future prospects by narrowing the analysis to the top run scorer and wicket taker for each of the ten nations at the four tournaments. 50 of the 81 players in this sample (64%) have played senior international cricket, compared to 55% of the total population, which is less of an increase than I would have expected. The outlier is New Zealand’s Jonathan McNamee, who was their top scorer at the 2000 tournament, but has no senior professional record.

U19 top performers-page-001

At the team level, success in the under 19 tournament has not been associated with having teams choc full of future international cricketers. Looking at the eight finalists in these four tournaments, 43% (Test: 31%; Limited over: 12%) of their squad members went on to play senior international cricket, compared with 45% (35%; 10%) of the total.

I was also interested in understanding the proportion of players who reach Test level who have been participants at the junior World Cup. My method provides an estimate, not a precise figure. I extracted the number of Test debutants for each nation in the period 2002-2012. The chart below shows the number of players in the four under 19 World Cups who went on to play Test cricket and the proportion they are of the total debutants in the eleven year period. It provides a rough, rather than definitive, picture as some participants in those four tournaments had debuts before and after the eleven year period; and some players from the 2008 and 2010 tournaments probably had debuts during the period.

Test debutants-page-001

Approximate though this analysis is, it does show that England and Zimbabwe are outliers. Around half the Test debutants from the other eight nations had played in the four under 19 World Cups. For England, that figure was below one-quarter. At the other extreme, those players accounted for over 90% of Zimbabwe’s Test debutants.

There are positive and negative connotations to these two extremes. England’s position could be evidence that it performs poorly at identifying future talent, or that its junior cricketers mature at a later age. It could be a strength that international selection remains open to players emerging from outside of the elite juniors. England may have the resources to invest in a broader base of juniors, making precise selection at 19 difficult. Experience of international cricket as a teenager may be a poor one, having a negative impact on English juniors, or their development is interrupted by injury. The opposite to each of these arguments can be made for Zimbabwe. The data cannot help us with this key point. I would be interested in the views of readers.

In conclusion, the data analysis shows:

  • Unless from England or India, an Under 19 World Cup participant has close to, or better than, an evens chance of senior international cricket.
  • The first class game should definitely be within reach – if not already attained.
  • Having a strong tournament (relative to your teammates), desirable in its own right, boosts by a modest amount a player’s likelihood of moving onto senior international cricket.
  • At Test level, there is a heavy dependence on Under 19 World Cup graduates, with around one-half of the debutants in the years following tournaments having participated in the junior World Cup.
  • England and Zimbabwe are, respectively, less and more likely to choose Test debutants from Under 19 World Cup players.