Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.
To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.
Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.
A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.
The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.
The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.
I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.
International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.
Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.
I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:
- Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
- Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
- The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
- From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.
My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.
But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.
I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.
International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.
England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.
India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe.
South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.
The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:
|Option 1||Option 2|
|H v England||A v England|
|H v New Zealand||A v New Zealand|
|A v Pakistan||H v Pakistan|
|A v Sri Lanka||H v Sri Lanka|
|H v South Africa||A v South Africa|
|H v Australia||A v Australia|
|A v Bangladesh||H v Bangladesh|
|A v West Indies||H v West Indies|
In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?
I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”
If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.
The suggestion that something big might be coming the way of grassroots junior cricket could be detected last year. There was a connection made with ECB’s new Director of Participation, whose appointment in 2015 was welcomed, but still seemed unlikely to impact directly on the cricket played by children in my environs.
From late 2016, as the upper echelons of the recreational game were ushered to hear the word and get with the programme, snippets emerged: a name, an age group, a new way of doing things we’ve all been toiling away at for years. Seats for the launch event could be reserved months in advance.
The show, now about half-way through its 20 stadium itinerary, reached my town this morning. Admission only came after a spot of queuing to identify yourself and confirm the precise spelling of your contact email. An enterprise that is prepared to make people wait so that it can collect key data accurately has an air of purposefulness.
Into the hall, we moved, to take tea amongst displays of All Stars equipment. “Look, they’ve rebranded the old Kwik-Cricket stuff,” observed someone close to me. It did look a little as though they had. And symbolically, that played to the scepticism that greets the new venture with the knowing nod that we have all been here before.
Then, jarringly, the presentation got under way with something unexpected. Not the Australian accents, but the challenge to cricket to win the battle of the playground. Maybe it’s the years of feeding off football’s scraps, a learned if unhappy submissiveness to that bulldozer of a sport. Or it might just be the choice of words. There’s nothing martial in my work with junior cricketers. Diplomacy, persuasion, bad-mouthing the enemy (football), but not warfare. That would be suicidal.
Yet, within minutes, these twin doubts – we’ve heard it all before and we’re being lead to a bloody rout – were dismissed. The first telling blow came from Matt Dwyer, who spent equal amounts of time identifying himself as a moving force in Australia’s Milo In2Cricket programme and as a twenty year cricket club volunteer. He is one of us (who’s one of them), who just happens also to be a marketing guru.
Then the video of primary school kids chattering happily about football and technology, but clueless about cricket. Holding a photo of Alastair Cook (CBE) wearing his England kit, one child guessed the subject worked at Waitrose, before folding up with giggles.
Followed up with the blunt tool of survey figures showing the irrelevance of cricket to our children. Alongside which, given the same prominence as the 60% of kids who don’t name cricket when giving a list of ten sports, was the statement ‘volunteer burn-out’. All Stars aims, Dwyer emphasised, to introduce new volunteers just as much as it is about more kids playing the game. They are not asking us to do more, and not as I feared, denigrating what we do, but summoning reinforcements.
The presentation, to several hundred veterans of junior cricket coaching and organising, continued to outline its research basis, its methodology, the resources and support structure that will make it happen. The battle-cry caught our attention; the campaign logistics showed that our national leaders are ready to commit troops and have a credible plan of attack.
In many parts of the country, All Stars may find a junior sport in terminal decline. In my area, it flourishes in the shadow of behemoth football. The challenge at my club, and the many like it, will be how to integrate this sudden arrival, signalled with a modern fanfare of radio ads and mumsnet coverage, without doing damage to the quiet and steady, or steadily expanding, club junior section.
I own up to one more reservation about All Stars. Its ambition is substantial. It aims to make cricket the popular choice of young children and their families. It wants to take cricket well beyond the point to which 10,000 clubs like mine could lead it on their own. And if it succeeds, cricket will be popular and my slightly eccentric obsession will be ordinary. I will be part of the mainstream.
I will just have to deal with that and make an advance on the playground, skirmish with football and computer games or, if exclusiveness is really what I cherish about cricket, take up crown green bowls.
As Karun Nair surged to a triple-hundred in his third Test innings, commentators dared the Indian selectors to drop the young batsmen for the next Test, when the three more senior players, whose injuries had opened the way for his debut, will have returned to fitness. That’s a recurring selection dilemma – form versus seniority; promise against proven ability. Nair’s situation raises another dilemma, one that I find even more interesting, but suspect selectors do not.
Measurement of the impact of fielders has become topical. It has found official recognition in Cricket Australia’s publication of a fielding index. To appreciate the broader scope of the subject and its potential there’s no better source than Jarrod Kimber’s ESPNCricinfo post, Why doesn’t cricket have proper metrics for fielding?
Now that fielding performance is being subjected to more intense analytical scrutiny, it follows that its impact on batting and bowling performance also needs to be understood. This post presents some options for adjusting batting statistics to take account of certain aspects of fielding performance, drawing on data collected from the India v England series and reported in the Declaration Game post, A series of missed opportunities.
The end of series batting tables showed the dominance of Virat Kohli, the impact of Nair’s mammoth innings and the continuing prolific run-scoring of Root, Pujara, Bairstow and Vijay. But in a series of 49 dropped catches and missed stumpings, how dependent were the batsmen on the competence of the fielders? I have assessed the impact of missed chances on the output of the 18 players who scored more than 100 runs across the series.
42 missed chances were distributed across these 18 batsmen. No distinction is made between chances of different levels of difficulty. All chances that went to hand (or body), or flew between fielders stationed close together are counted, but not those that looped just out of reach or through areas where one might have expected captains to have placed fielders. Also excluded are missed run outs and missed opportunities relating to umpiring decisions or to the operation of the Decision Review System.
The bar to the far right of the chart represents Alastair Cook who benefited from the highest number of misses: six; Ben Stokes is one place to his left.
More interesting than a count of drops is how the missed chances impacted on batting performance. A measure of this is the number of runs scored, had each of the innings ended when the batsman gave their first chance. The full height of the column in the graph below shows the total number of runs scored by the player in the series. The filled blue part of the column shows the number of ‘chanceless’ runs accumulated by each batsman; runs scored after a missed chance are depicted by an unfilled (white) area.
On this measure, Root supplants Kohli as the most prolific batsman in the series, with the Indian captain falling to third place behind Pujara. Nair and Jennings have the highest proportion of their runs bitten off by this metric. At the other extreme, Rahul and Patel were unaffected having not benefited from any missed chances.
With four comfortable victories, India’s batsmen had fewer innings than England’s. Standardisation can be achieved by converting the measure into a batting average – the ‘chanceless’ average – by dividing by the number of dismissals.
Patel, Kohli and Rahul are the three players who maintain ‘chanceless’ averages (orange columns) above 50. Kohli’s average when only chanceless runs are counted falls 43%. But it is Nair with the steepest drop from a conventional average of 160 to just 17.
By including only the runs scored before giving the first chance of an innings, this measure has the drawback of giving no credit for runs that played a part in the match result. I have calculated a second alternative measure of batting performance: the batting average per chance (orange columns). Total runs scored are divided by dismissals plus missed chances.
Kohli, the dominant figure of the series with the bat, returns to the top of the list, followed by Patel. Nair, showing how he made England pay for their errors in the 5th Test, rises to third-place. Cook is near the bottom of the list, having managed just 23 runs per chance.
Adjusting measures of batting performance in this way offers some insights: it shows how certain players’ success relied upon the opposition making fielding errors, while others enjoyed no good fortune of that kind at all, and some failed to capitalise on the good luck that came their way. In this series, there is also a pronounced levelling out of individual batting performance when chances given are taken into account. The range for batting average of the players in this sample fell from a factor of 11 separating top from bottom with conventional batting average, to eight using the chanceless batting average. This type of analysis may, with a far larger sample, start to factor out elements of luck in batting performance measures.
A single Test match series does provide far too small a sample for drawing statistically robust conclusions. Yet, it is exactly the sample most pressing on the attentions of international team selectors, particularly when assessing the contribution of players new to the Test arena. My contention is that selectors and other observers are better served by a batting measure that attempts to control for the varied dose of luck experienced by players than the conventional and crude batting average.
Eleven pieces of writing, independent and unremunerated. All from the last twelve months and, in Wisden-esque fashion, excluding any bloggers featured in my four previous annual selections. Please read, enjoy and remember to support your local (i.e. global) cricket blogger with comments and social media plugs.
SPIN: A New Zealand Story (on the Mind the Windows website), by Devon V. Mace, manages to be both the story of the Vettori Era, and of the history of New Zealand spin bowling. It is a tour de force, intertwining its two narratives, with one clearly the culmination of the other. Nothing I read this year was more meticulously prepared and it repays a long, detailed read.
Jeremy Henderson’s Guerillas in the Night (Pointless Beauty) celebrates something very different: the drunken, impromptu broadcast by a pair commentators on the Internet’s insurrectionist Guerilla Cricket.
What a perfectly shitty morning it was – I’d just been to the vet, and held my beautiful 16 year old dog as she breathed her last. Tears, grief, gratitude and love were bouncing around my head. It was 44⁰ in the shade, and my mind was melting.
And then the extraordinary happened. Playing in the background was the stream of the previous night’s match between South Africa and England on Guerilla Cricket, when, all of a sudden everything changed. Two very familiar, and extremely slurred, voices materialised, announcing that, as it was 4.00 am and they were at a loose end, they had decided to commentate on England vs Namibia Under 19s. Thus began six hours of what may well go down as the most remarkable world wide cricket broadcast in history.
The next two posts were inspired by the very same match: the World T20 contest between India and Australia. Traveling On An Indian Match Day (The Chheeman blog) by @Risabhism describes the seven hour journey from Plibhit, famous for its flute manufacture, to Delhi, delayed by traffic jams, “the Shahid Affridi of road journeys”. Will he arrive in time for the match?
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, a respected and experienced writer on cricket, recorded on Sidvee Blogs the match-winning performance in The remarkable Mr Kohli. Kohli’s combination of ultra-attacking orthodox stroke-play and, as in this extract, restless gesturing, are captured vividly:
Virat Kohli grimaces. He is wearing a helmet but camera technology is advanced enough to show us his facial contortions. We are in the 16th over. The asking rate is two runs a ball. And Kohli has missed an offcutter from Josh Hazlewood. This, he seems to be telling us, is unacceptable. He practises the cover drive (which he had wanted to play), then imitates Hazlewood’s wrist-tweak.
Lev Parikian, in The Wisden of Solomon, wrote about fulfilling his lifetime’s ambition of featuring in Wisden – by entering its Writing Competition. He shares with us his two competition entries, the first of which, set a couple of hundred years in the future, looks back, with wry detachment, at cricket’s demise.
Despite its many faults, Cricket enjoyed the devotion of a significant, if localised, pocket of followers. But the rapid rise and global domination of Slog™ left its sister sport gasping for breath. So where did it all go wrong?
…Cricket died a quiet death. The last international game was between Slog™ minnows England and Australia.” (England won by an innings and 498 runs, whatever that means.)
Notes from a Cricket Novice, by NJ Brown, was the new blog I returned to most often in 2016. Brown had decided to take an interest in cricket for the first time in nearly 20 years; an interest that had him attending Lancashire county fixtures regularly. As Brown’s (and Lancs’) season unfolded, we found out more about the author. Reporting from Lancashire v Surrey, 23-24 May 2016, he writes about one of the passions that distracted him from cricket in the 1990s – the Manchester Music Scene. It’s his music cultural knowledge that he deploys so well describing Neil Wagner:
Wagner may share his surname with a classical composer, but his bowling is pure punk – hard, fast and often very short. It couldn’t be any more punk if he was doing it with spiked green hair and a safety pin in his ear. Certainly no bondage trousers, they would just spoil his run-up.
In 2016, Subash Jayaraman brought to a close his Couch Talk podcast interviews, but when inspired, or provoked, he continues to write on The Cricket Couch. A former England player and media figure was the main provoker. Jayaraman noticed similarities between an article on ESPNcricinfo and one published earlier in the Economist. After judicious enquiries, the blogger called out the plagiarism. Jayaraman followed and updated the story. I have selected the third piece in the series, Ed Smith pulls a Melania Trump, in which the author, respectfully and proportionately, rages against the double-standards of cricket’s premier on-line publisher.
The statistics post that caught my eye, came from Omar Chaudhuri (5 added minutes) who writes more regularly on football. In The batting age curve Chaudhuri carries out a deceptively simple piece of data wrangling to identify the peak age for Test batsmen – and it’s younger than unreliable received wisdom would have us believe.
Sam Blackledge is a proper journalist as well as a proper cricket blogger on Learning is Fun. In this post, 444-3. Extraterrestrial cricket. But where will it end? he reflected on England setting a new world record. Re-reading it in December after England’s Test series defeat in India, I think I have already attained the wistful bafflement Blackledge anticipates for some point in the future:
“Dad,” my kids will say one day, leafing through Wisden 2016. “Do you remember 444-3?”
I will smile and gaze off into the distance, before answering: “No…not really.”
The Full Toss featured in the 2014 Select XI, but reappears in 2016 courtesy of a post from a guest writer. Everyone wants to wax lyrical about cricket’s elegant stars, but Garry White chose a stodgier subject in About Gary Ballance, Batting and Toffee.
Ballance is one of cricket’s shovel wielding tradesman. An altogether cruel irony considering that he’s an old Harrovian. When, like Ballance, you lack the innate ability to deliver pleasing aesthetics then the only currency in which you can pay out is runs. When the “run” currency dries up your position plummets with all the restraint and control of the Zimbabwe Dollar.
Rounding off this year’s selection is a post from someone who had not sought to write about cricket. Carlie Lee (Diary of a country housewife) wrote about the cricket ground she circles with her dog. On Monday 8th February, Lee experiences the winter weather..
Today is a day of restlessness, I can feel it fizzing in my feet, my hands. Last night’s storm is still here, the wind spiteful and violent, sending rain to rattle on the pavilion windows like hard-flung pea-gravel.
.. continuing to describe just as beautifully how the ground will look mid-summer, as well as reproducing the sounds of its players to differentiate the 1st XI from the 2nds.
I am going to finish by flouting my self-denying ordinance of only mentioning bloggers who haven’t appeared in past years’ select XIs. Cricket blogging in 2016 was never more intelligent, nor more entertaining than that written by Backwatersman on The New Crimson Rambler – my nomination for Leading Cricket Blogger in the World.
In the Test match in Mumbai, there was a lot said about the fact we played four seamers and two spinners… [but] if we’d caught our catches, we wouldn’t have been talking about our combination; we’d have been talking about how we probably had a chance of winning a game of Test cricket. But consistently, we’ve missed chances – and you can’t afford to do that against the best teams in their home conditions.”
Paul Farbrace – Assistant Coach (speaking after 5th Test at Chennai)
The focus on England’s dropped catches in the series in India is understandable given that, in four of the five Tests, one or more of India’s first innings century makers was dropped early in their innings. Vijay, Kohli (twice), Jayant Yadav, Karun Nair accumulated a combined 649 runs from five innings after an initial escape. England committed seven drops in those five innings and a further eleven across the whole series. Understandable but, in the round, is it justified?
Using ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary, I have recorded each chance of a catch given during the series. I have included any chances that went to hand (or body) and those described as passing between two adjacent fielders. Excluded are balls that looped out of reach, or fell short of, fielders making reasonable attempts, as well as those that passed where one might have expected there to be a fielder, but there was not.
The raw results are shown in the table below. India committed 26 drops compared to England’s 18 and converted a lower proportion of chances into catches.
In October 2016, Charles Davis published in The Cricket Monthly a summary of the results of his analysis of almost 15 years of fielding errors in Tests – Tracking the Misses. Courtesy of Davis, it is possible to put into context the numbers from the India v England series (NB Davis included stumpings in his data, which I have not).
Davis found around 25% of opportunities were missed in the field – an average of seven per Test match. In this series, 31% were missed – 8.8 per Test. Both sides under-performed their recent record: England 24.8%; India 27.2%. This comparison does support the view that fielding errors were a feature of the series. But is it simply losers’ regret that has the England team pointing at missed opportunities? They did, after all out-perform India in terms of the proportion of catches taken.
England, as hinted at above with the roll call of India’s century makers who were dropped, bore a higher average cost for the chances they missed. The mean number of runs scored by an Indian batsman after a drop was 44 (median 22). The equivalent figure for England was 28 (median 21) [footnote 1].
The contrast is most acute when looking at the two captains. Cook was dropped six times (the most of any player) but only added 134 runs. Kohli made 282 runs after the three misses he benefited from.
The two captains were also the most frequent offenders. Cook shelled four of his seven chances; Kohli could not hang onto five of his ten catches.
This analysis supports the conclusion that England, had they taken their opportunities, would have shifted somewhat the balance of the series. However, I believe there are associated conclusions that are probably more profound about the cricket England and India played.
India’s ability to limit the damage of their fielding errors was a great strength: their bowlers were able to continue to create opportunities. England’s bowlers, on the other hand, lacked the penetration to keep their opponents under the kind of pressure that would, sooner rather than later, lead to another wicket-taking opportunity. Moreover, England were significantly more reliant on their fielders for taking wickets. 72% of the wickets taken by England in the series were catches. India’s equivalent figure was almost twenty percentage points lower (53%). Ashwin and Jadeja, in particular, threatened the England batsmen’s stumps to an extent unmatched by the England attack.
The argument that England’s fortunes were hampered by their inability to take the catching chances that came their way obscures the greater insight that England were over-reliant on snatching any opportunities falling to their fielders because they were unable to trouble India’s batsmen often enough and in a sufficient variety of ways.
Footnote 1 – in calculating the number of runs scored by a batsman after a drop, I have subtracted the score when dropped from either their innings end score, or in the case of batsmen dropped more than once in a single innings, from the their score when they were dropped again.
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.
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|
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|
|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|
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.
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.
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.
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.