Archive | January 2012

Personalised medicine for England

A dozen-or-so times a game, a man wearing a helmet and shoulder pads comes onto the American football pitch. He stands poised for the play to start, catches the ball and punts it as far and high as he can. Then he goes back to the sidelines. He’s accompanied on and off the field by ten teammates, only one of whom is likely to touch the ball. The rest act as human barricades.

American sport has taken Taylorian division of labour onto the playing field. The ‘special team’ (named surely to compensate them for having such a limited role in the match) of punter and blockers in American football is one example. In baseball there are pitchers who are brought into the game at crucial points to throw maybe as few as three pitches and are then withdrawn. Ice Hockey, I recall, has ‘goons’. A friend in the US told me about his college mate who was selected for one of the pro hockey franchises’ development squads. In his first match he got caught up in some argy-bargy. Off the ice, his coach went wild. “Those two goons over there are in the team for fighting. I picked you to play hockey.”

Sport in the US has given specialisation a bad name: sportsmen who play ball games, but almost never touch the ball; skaters whose role is to hit the talented opponent, not the puck.

A detail in Pakistan’s spin-driven series victory over England may be a far more interesting sporting specialisation. Mohammed Hafeez, under the astute captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq, has a precise and well-defined role: to bowl at top-order left-handed batsmen. The third choice spinner in the Pakistan team, it is to Hafeez, that Misbah has thrown the ball when replacing one of his opening bowlers in the first and second test matches against England. Hafeez actually bowled the first over of England’s dreadful second knock at Abu Dhabi. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are left-handed batsmen, who have prospered in Test cricket in all countries. But facing Hafeez with a new ball has been a novel and baffling challenge. He has dismissed Strauss once and Cook twice in two tests.

Hafeez is preying upon the English openers’ technical shortcomings and discomfort at not facing fast and medium quick bowlers at the start of an innings. However, there is more to his success than a couple of confused Englishmen abroad. His test bowling record against left-handers features a bowling average four times better than his average against right-handers. In one respect, Hafeez is a part-timer, not getting a bowl in every match he has played and averaging fewer than 10 overs per Test appearance. But part-timer doesn’t do justice to the niche he has found. In the last 20 innings in which he has had a bowl, he has opened the bowling or been first change 11 times. Of his 26 Test wickets, 20 are left-handers. 14 of these are top-order batsmen, including Graeme Smith, Brian Lara and Darren Bravo.

In Abu Dhabi, Hafeez opened the bowling, tied down the openers, accounted for Cook and was then removed from the attack. He has a pronounced facility, recognised and exploited, to trouble left-handed batsmen.

Cricket teams are a fusion of specialists: opening batsmen, wicketkeeper, quick bowlers, spin bowlers, slip fielders, etc. Hafeez’s specialism isn’t one of these conventional roles. It’s a super-specialism. It’s certainly not unique. It can be argued that Jimmy Anderson is a ‘super specialist’ slip fielder to England’s slow bowlers. Stuart Broad thought he had a ‘super specialism’ as the England quick who could rough up batsmen with short-pitched bowling. England, in the field, have prospered, once he shed this pretension.

Hafeez, I assume, made it into the Pakistan team because of his batting. He averages over 40 and with Taufeeq Umar has established a successful opening partnership that itself averages over 40. When Duncan Fletcher coached England, he insisted that the cricketers he picked should excel in two of the three cricket disciplines. It was clear thinking that finally took England away from trying to find all-rounders to succeed Botham, but uncovered players who could bat and bowl at county level and hold their own as neither in Test cricket. I can’t be sure that Fletcher would have selected Hafeez had he been available to him, but he does seem to be an evolution to the Fletcher approach to team construction.

To prosper, international cricketers must be able to adapt: to different pitches, opponents, weather conditions, match situations and variants of the sport. Hafeez isn’t succeeding because of a narrow, focused skill. He’s an all-round cricketer, who through Misbah’s understanding of his particular strengths and the opponents’ weak-spots is having one of his attributes deployed to telling effect. I have made the argument before that batsmen should bat in the order that suits the game situation not in an inflexible scorecard order. Similarly, cricket teams seeking the advantage in closely fought series should know which of their team is best suited to the challenge of the moment. That understanding may come from statistical analysis of past performance or from a nuanced appreciation of technical ability. By following predictable patterns of play – thirty overs of seam, followed by some spin, back to seam after intervals and again immediately when the new ball is available – teams won’t eke out those advantages.

The ultra-specialisation of American sport doesn’t turn out to be a good analogy for Hafeez’s role. Those sports have squads of players available for use during each match, encouraging specialisation of function. Cricket teams need to (in a final borrowing from the States) cover all their bases with the 11 selected on the morning of the match. I think a better model comes from a completely different domain – medicine. Moving into the future, treatments for ill health won’t be determined merely by the diagnosis and the symptoms, but by an understanding of the genetic characteristics of the patient and so which pharmaceutical interventions are suited to the individual. Blockbuster drugs are being replaced by personalised medicine and we are watching Pakistan mete out some very personal medicine to the England team.

Pity Mrs Tahir

The scene: the Tahir’s living room.

Mr and Mrs Tahir are hosting some family and friends. The occasion is another Test match appearance for their son, Imran. It is the third afternoon of the Test match at Newlands. Tahir has just been brought into the attack. He’s cut for four behind square by Perera. The commentator reassuringly advises, ‘He [Tahir] won’t mind that.’ Next ball, Tahir pitches in the same area, but the leg-break turns out of the bowlers’ footmarks into the left hander, who cannot adjust his shot and is bowled, falling backwards, the intended cut shot tailing off into a chop down, but over, a ball veering towards and past him.

At home, the Tahir’s cheer and rise from their seats, backs slapped by their guests, smiles and laughs , sharing their pleasure.

At Newlands, Tahir runs with arms outstretched into the covers.

Head tilted upwards, he continues his dash which takes him in a wide arc and into the empty outfield. He slows and takes his right arm back and hurls an imaginary javelin into the Cape Town crowd and pounds his chest three times before clenching both fists and turning back to his teammates gathered on the square.


At home, eyes back on the screen, the laughs and compliments are quelled as Imran’s extravagant celebration proceeds. Before he gets to his solitary position in the outfield, Mrs Tahir has turned to her guests, not accidentally obscuring the screen, asking for drinks orders and a route out to the kitchen. Mr Tahir invents interest in the performance of his neighbour’s business, ‘accounts? no, insurance?’.

The gathering settles back to watch Imran bowl to the new batsman. Their pleasure has been tinged with embarrassment. Spirits, despite Imran’s success, are deflated.

[Tahir’s dismissal of Sangakkara and similar celebration can be seen on a recording of a TV news show.]

What fuels my imagination of this scene is my experience as a father who cringes when my five year old celebrates a goal at his football club with a sprint and a knee slide, arms open wide. Watching Tahir celebrate brought to mind the contrasting footage I remembered seeing of Jim Laker taking 19 Australian wickets at Old Trafford in 1956. Tahir had dismissed the Sri Lankan number eight. It didn’t break a significant partnership, win the match, let alone set a Test and first class cricket record – the second on a list of cricket records that are predicted to never be broken.

Laker’s response to each batsman falling to his off-spin was off-hand, matter-of-fact. Even his teammates seem to me low key in the presence of his achievement and their destruction of the Australians. The video on YouTube bears out this impression. Laker’s response to taking a wicket got no more animated than wiping some sweat from his face or hitching up his trousers.

Generationally and celebrationally, I am found somewhere between Laker and Tahir. Their reactions appear to me equally disproportionate to their achievement but in opposite directions. But that’s judging them by my own standards. What does the response of their peers tell us? We see Jaques Kallis looking amused – can I assume by Tahir’s antics? None of Steyn, Morkel, let alone Kallis, charges around the outfield when castling a tail-ender. Tahir has also drawn criticism from his countrymen. In Laker’s case, his teammates are as mellow as the bowler is when taking a catch or having an LBW appeal upheld. Much as I’d like to think they’re wishing Tony Lock was wrecking destruction from the other end so they could see him turn some cartwheels and nail a few hand-springs, it just wasn’t so.

It seems that Imran Tahir may be a little out of kilter with his age and Laker in tune with his. But some great change in men’s public displays of emotion has occurred in the last 65 years. When did the fall of a wicket occasion more than a pace down the wicket and brief handshake with the catcher and instead feature raised arms, a bound and bared teeth? Sexual intercourse, according to Larkin, began in 1963, seven years after Laker’s achievement. Was that the point in time? Or was it 1966, the year of the first and only football World Cup victory by a Test playing nation? Can anyone remember when, on the cricket field, austere, deferential England gave way to punchy, proud Eng-erland?

And so I go back to my imagined scene in the Tahir family home.

His parents are continuing to watch. They are nervous for their son making his way in Test cricket, and anxious too that he may embarrass them: wishing him success and a more humble way of celebrating it.

The Laker family may have watched the Old Trafford Test on television, too. Maybe ..

Mrs Laker chuckled that James always did bottle up his feelings, but better that way with the toffs from Lord’s ready to drop any professional who didn’t fit the mould. James even seems reluctant to lead the team from the field when he bowls the Aussies out the first time. Such a modest lad. But what’s that? Just as he approaches the boundary. What’s he doing with that finger? Not picking his nose? Oh no. [1min 48 secs into the clip]

Pity Mrs Laker.

Setting a target

What was AE Stoddart the first to do, Michael Clarke (above) the most recent, and Ricky Ponting the most frequent? The answer is that they are three of the 148 captains in Test cricket who have declared a third innings to set a target for the opposition.

In a recent post, Does losing feel worse than winning feels good?, I committed to researching Test match declarations. My aim was to find out whether captains are too cautious in the timing of their declarations, drawing matches that they should have won. This post, the first in a short series, begins to explore the question by taking an overview of the third innings declaration in Test history.

Those 148 captains have declared 483 times in Test cricket. It’s a frequent occurrence, happening in 24% of matches played. The next statistic, depicted below, throws some early light on the object of my quest.

The left-hand bar shows the spread of results of all Test matches for the team batting first. The right-hand bar shows the results of all matches that involved a third innings declaration – a sample that is a subset of the matches comprising the bar to the left (NB ties are excluded from both). The most evident variation is the great reduction (16-fold) in the incidence of defeat. That is consistent with the observation that declarations are usually made when a team has the upper-hand in a match. The incidence of draws almost doubles, while the proportion of victories rises by one-tenth.

Based on my theory of over-cautious captaincy, I suggest this points to skippers, their teams having built up a strong position in the match, batting on until their lead and the target set for the opposition, makes losing such a remote possibility that drawing has become more likely than winning. I have often heard commentators express the view that the best thing for a team beginning its second innings with a healthy lead on first innings is to be bowled out. With control of the progress of the match removed from the captain’s hands, his team are more likely to capitalise on their advantage than if it is left to the skipper to decide when to bring his batsmen in.

It is easy to develop theories behind two more charts of declaration outcomes. The first shows the spread of results for each of the top eight Test playing nations in games where they have made a third innings declaration.

Only Australia and Sri Lanka have converted one-half or more of the games where they have declared into victories. Bold captaincy or potent fourth innings bowling attacks could be part of the answer. India, England and New Zealand languish at the bottom.

The second charts match outcomes following declarations decade-by-decade through Test history.

The highest proportion of victories for the team declaring have occurred since 1990. This tallies with a sense that Test cricket is played more positively – e.g. higher scoring rates. I also suspect the higher proportion of all Tests played by the ‘minnows’ – Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – is playing a part in the higher victory conversion rate.

The final set of ‘global’ analyses look for evidence to support or refute my general theory of over-cautious captaincy from the state of the third innings when the declaration came – specifically, how many wickets were down. This provides a very limited view of that innings and its progress, which would ideally include run-rate, lead, overs/time remaining, etc. However, it is the only one that I am able to obtain at the ‘global’ level.

The more wickets that have fallen, the more limited the remaining run scoring potential. Therefore, it could be argued, the captain who declares with, say, eight wickets down is not taking much a risk in terms of his team’s match position by bringing his innings to a close. 29% of third innings declarations came with eight or nine wickets lost. However, 42% came with five or fewer wickets down, and so considerable run scoring potential un-tapped. The picture is ambiguous.

A more telling analysis may come from relating result to the number of wickets lost at declaration. Does a prolonged innings (using wickets lost as the proxy) reduce the chances of having a positive outcome?

In fact, there is no clear association of wickets lost at a declaration and the result. Declarations with five wickets down have produced the highest proportion of victories; those with three wickets lost, the highest proportion of draws.

In summary, this overview of the third innings declaration in Test match history has shown:

  • a team that declares and sets a target very rarely loses, but doesn’t greatly increase its likelihood of winning compared to the results spread of all teams batting first
  • there is a large variance in the rate at which different Test match countries convert declarations into victories
  • victories following declarations have become more frequent in recent decades
  • there’s no association between the match result and how far the captain has allowed the third innings to run – in terms of wickets lost – before declaring.

The next article in the series will move down a level of detail to a sample of third innings declarations. It will consider the impact of the size and required run rates of targets set, as well as how they relate to other scores and scoring rates achieved in each match.

This series owes everything to the mathematical and programming genius of the people behind Cricinfo’s Statsguru. Any errors are mine, not theirs.

Old father makes time

I would have come to cricket eventually, but the path was hastened and eased by my Father. By the time I was twelve I had been to four days of Test cricket, a World Cup Final, and seen in the flesh tons scored by Viv Richards, Graham Gooch and David Gower. There was a specially mown strip in the garden and a half-length net, where he would coax me to play forward. He had several shelves of cricket books, enabling me to be probably the only eleven year old reader of ‘Sort of a Cricket Person’, EW Swanton’s autobiography. The book meant little to me, but more than David Niven’s ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’, read at about the same time.

My Mother deserves credit too. She let me spend my summer holidays watching cricket on TV, which I did while annotating the current Playfair Cricket annual to keep players’ best performances up to date. She didn’t inflict me with any Why don’t you turn off the telly and do something less boring instead kind of nags. I used to relish the seven day marathons. Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Test match days 1-3; Sunday: JPL match; Monday, Tuesday: Test match days 4-5; Wednesday: B&H quarter final.

All very natural and it has persisted as a cherished, life-long connection with my Father.

When one of my friends became a Dad, before I had children, I saw the potential for this Dad-Son shared interest to go awry. Andy used his paternal influence to make his son, in his image, an Arsenal fan. They went to their first match together when Charlie (named after a former Gunner) was three. What I could foresee was a 12 year old turning on his Dad and shouting ‘I hate Arsenal. I hated all those afternoons at the games. It was rubbish! I’m going skateboarding.’

So, I made a note to myself that I would let cricket come to any sons I had, not take the game to them. (I should have thought this about daughters, too, but I won’t pretend that I did).

My older son was born in 2001. The Ashes series of 2005, and my reaction to it, alerted him to the game and we began to play in the garden. I hacked him a bat from a piece of wood, not wanting to spend money and feel as though I was investing in his keenness to play. In retrospect, buying a bat from Woolies would have been a more disinterested step than making one. It may be the only thing I’ve ever made.

No. 1 son’s interest grew. If he asked to play, we did. He demonstrated a natural, fluid bowling action – strong evidence that I wasn’t intervening. Late in summer 2009, I took him to the third of three net sessions I had bought for myself with the club coach. We were going to have 30 minutes each, but once he began bowling (‘he’s faster than you’, the coach noted), I stepped aside and he had an hour of quality instruction and fun.

2010 saw no. 1 son attend junior indoor nets and then practice sessions through the summer. On his competitive debut, he took two wickets and held a catch on the boundary. We called Grandad from the car park. The season ended with a hard-ball game within the squad. It was a turning point. He had never worn pads, gloves, helmet, let alone box, before. Walking was a challenge, running out of the question. A ‘teammate’ made a comment. The covers went on, so to speak, and cricket was off, except in the garden, for almost a year.

There was one exception. I had accepted an invitation to take a course and then to join the club’s junior coaching staff. This I did, initially unaware of no. 1 son’s determination to avoid the game. The final assessment involved an observed coaching session. The course participants were asked to provide the coaching fodder. No. 1 son agreed to help me out and accompanied by his friend, spent five hours being ‘coached’. Through some poor ‘shot selection’ on the part of the organisers, they learnt the backward defensive four times that morning.  I passed the assessment; he was one of the most able youngsters there. I went on to spend a lot of time coaching other people’s children that summer while the covers stayed on.

Not wanting to pressure him, I delegated to my wife any discussion of his intentions towards cricket. And so it made sense that when he decided to push back the covers, I didn’t learn it from him. The club coach, running a multi-sport camp in the summer holidays, had taken no. 1 son to the nets and kept him there. The club coach told me that play was back on.

So, the need to equip no.1 son has featured prominently in his Christmas presents this year. He’s had some practice running in his pads and quickly forgot how ‘weird’ they feel. Yesterday, we went to buy him a bat. This afternoon, side-by-side, father showed son how to rub linseed oil into the face and edges of the new bat. A rite of passage, a homecoming, choose your favourite sentimental model. Then no.1 son dropped the unsealed linseed oil bottle, whose contents oozed around the room.

Does English cricket need its own Boxing Day Test?

70,000 cricket fans went to the first day of last week’s Melbourne Test. Another 120,000 attended the next three days. 2.6 million viewers caught the first day’s play on television, accounting for two-thirds of the television viewing audience in Australia’s metropolitan areas on Boxing Day. The post-Christmas match-up, held in the country’s largest cricket venue, is established as the pillar of the Australian cricket season.

The English domestic season has the shape of a cushion that has been sat on by many different backsides.

There is no equivalent to the Boxing Day Test. The Lord’s test sounds so definitive, and has the sense of a homecoming. But for the last 20 years the ground has hosted two test matches and they have shuttled across May, June, July and August. The county one-day knock-out final comes late in the season, but doesn’t have a place in the neutrals’ heart and calendar. Twenty20 finals day has tried out a few locations and dates and perhaps will settle to become a focus of of the domestic season.

The nostalgia paragraph. Growing up, the overall season had a shape, as well as a weekly pattern. One-day international series at the start of the summer, alongside B&H zonal county competition… Tests underway midsummer, with England traditionally losing the series by July, around the time of the B&H final… Gillette/Natwest final following the Oval test, with the touring team announced on its back… Tests began on Thursday, finishing on Tuesday… County knockout matches on Wednesday. County championship matches beginning on Saturdays and Wednesdays… The Sunday league being faithful to its name.

For the cricket follower, the price of knowing where you were in the week and the season, appears to have been mediocrity at Test and first-class level, studded with the odd outstanding performer: Botham, Gower, Gooch in the former; Richards (x2), Zaheer, Proctor, etc in the latter.

Maybe having our own Boxing Day test would give some definition to the season: a fixed point around which to rally public interest. Test match ticket sales remain robust so it wouldn’t have to be a Test match. The late May and August Bank Holidays could be anchor points. In May, three ODIs held across the Thursday, Saturday and Monday of the long weekend. In August, the Oval Test running from the Friday or Saturday of the Bank Holiday; or the twenty20 finals day and the one day final played on the Saturday and Monday. Events like the big screen in the park parties run alongside the last Ashes series could share the experience wider than the match-day ticket-holders.

The English domestic cricket season, unsure how much to trust and invest in twenty20, feels like a work in progress. I usually run a mile from manufactured traditions. However, the Boxing Day Test, highly popular and part of the infrastructure of Australian cricket, only became an annual fixture in the 1990s. So maybe a conscious effort to big-up a weekend of cricket and stick with it, could help the process of a rational timetable cohering around it, as well as giving the sport a weekend of  prominence.

Perhaps the most critical step would be for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to place this fixture in the list of Group A sporting events that have to be made availabe to channels that broadcast for free and have coverage of 95% of the population. Then we may be getting somewhere. To return to my earlier, soft-furnishing metaphor for the season, we could find ourselves with a jewel fit to sit atop a velvet cushion.