Sizing up the opposition
The net facilities were good in Bridgetown. A lot of local bowlers came along, all of them pretty quick, and the temptation from our point of view was to look at them and think, ‘Bloody hell, they’re only club bowlers, but they look better than we do.’
Angus Fraser, My Tour Diaries – 1989-90.
A precious insight into the mentality of England Test cricket in the 1980s/90s – even in the run up to one of the team’s most famous victories – and one that grants me a connection to one of our most admirable cricketers of that time. In the opening overs of most matches, certainly at the start of the season, I find myself drawn into these thoughts about the opposition:
- When I’m in the field: “their batsmen hit the ball a lot harder than we do; how are we ever going to get past a bat that straight and broad?”
- And when at the non-striker’s end or umpiring: “they have expert bowlers who make the ball hum as it’s delivered, or swing away late. What do we have?”
I big, not just size, the opposition up. However, those thoughts are easily exposed as fallacies. It’s all about perception. I don’t field to our batsmen, so don’t have my hands stung by their drives. I don’t face our bowling – not that I would notice late swing if I did – and couldn’t hear a humming ball delivered by a teammate from wherever I am in the field.
Fraser, too, regained his confidence.
You soon realise, however, that they’re not [better than us]. It was just this image we had that if they were big, black fast bowlers, they were automatically as good as Sylvester Clarke or Wayne Daniel. The thing is, bowling quickly is not enough at professional level and we were soon reassured that these guys were not actually superior to the England cricket team, when they joined in a couple of practice games and didn’t have either the control or the ability to do as much with the ball as we did.
Sizing up the opposition at the level Fraser played is delegated now to analysts and coaches, who feed the players with the information they need. In the debate over the merits of the England Test team that won the Ashes this year, there is consensus on one thing: they were the best prepared of any team visiting from this country.
Four years earlier, the Ashes already lost in record time, the selection strategy in a mess, details of England’s counter intelligence found their way into the hands of the media. For a couple of days, England’s colour coded bowling plans were debated: who had leaked them? why weren’t they being executed? what could be meant on Hayden’s analysis by ‘dot balls (Ego)’? Matthew Hoggard took one for the team, dismissing the sheet during a press conference grilling with the comment, accompanied by groans across the nation from ECB qualified coaches:
I just close my eyes and whang it down anyway, so there’s not much planning there.
Back down to earth with amateur cricketers: what to do if you are prone to big up the opposition and so enter a game with a negative mindset? If Moneyball was the empirically researched strategy for the poor baseball franchise, then I have a fact-based solution for the penniless cricket team.
My college cricket team passed a body of cricket lore down from year to year. Just as clubs have a kit bag, used season after season, dipped into by new players or those looking for a crucial piece of equipment ahead of a knock, so we had our lore. And those kit bags tend to have just one set of pads with fastenings intact, or a single bat with middle, edges, toe and shoulders undamaged. So the body of cricket lore had one guide used again and again. It didn’t have a name, but in shorthand was the opposition score estimator.
In longhand, it comprised the following algorithm to be operated in the period from the arrival of the opposition team to their spilling out onto the ground for pre-match practice or general larks. (NB the values and criteria 2-4 are particular to declaration games played on the green wickets of Oxford in the months of April-June in the 1980s)
1. Base score: 10 for each player. Note this requires calculation and cannot be assumed to be 110. Most captains could not be sure of fielding a full side, for a mixture of reasons, including exam pressure, indifference to the game and hangovers. Some teams couldn’t be sure of fielding their captain for two, but predominantly one of those reasons.
2. Cricket bag adjustment: +10 for each player seen carrying a proper cricket bag into the changing room, subject to an additional 5 for each ‘coffin’ used to transport kit.
3. Footwear adjustment: -5 for each player wearing trainers, with a further 10 subtracted for players wearing black trainers.
4. Tracksuit adjustment: -10 for each player wearing tracksuit bottoms.
5. Club colours adjustment: +10 for each player wearing a sweater with club crest or colours. +20 for each player wearing a traditional cricket cap sporting a club crest. Note that care must be taken distinguishing sweaters with crests for hockey, tennis, etc from genuine cricket club sweaters.
If the total exceeded 135, par for all matches until the end of a dry June, the team readied itself for balls hit harder and propelled with more spin or speed.