Archive | February 2012

Making the game safe

Not a post about the advisability of batsmen wearing helmets, teenage quicks bowling eight over spells or crowds being prevented from ambling across the ground at the end of match. No, safe here means cannot be beaten, having an unassailable lead. I am returning to my theme of Test match declarations.

The story so far: in the history of Test cricket 37% of third innings declarations end up in victories and only 2% as defeats. Looking at the last three calendar years, successful declarations are associated with major nations playing minor nations, many overs remaining for the fourth innings, higher targets and lower target run-rates. This post looks at the drawn matches in the sample period to query whether the declaring captains were over-cautious.

I am going to draw on, and so want to prominently acknowledge, the fascinating work of Dr Philip Scarf and Sohail Akhtar of the University of Salford. I came across Dr Scarf’s work while researching this piece and am very grateful that he has allowed me to draw on some of it. In brief, Dr Scarf is an academic statistician who has analysed ten years of Test matches to model their results. The statistical proofs used are beyond me, but the conclusions illuminating. A full reference to the paper I borrow from is at the end of this post. I am making use of a table on p8 of his paper which calculates the probability of the three outcomes of a third innings declaration. For example:

Scenario – Target: 300. Overs remaining: 100.

Result probability – Win: 0.465   Draw: 0.274   Defeat: 0.261

What follows is a distillation of a review of the 18 drawn tests following third innings declarations in the sample period. Distilled out are: three declarations made to end the match early without a fourth innings getting under way; four declarations which were made for the purpose of nuisance – i.e. to discomfort the opposition late in the game, rather than as a serious attempt at winning the game (England at Brisbane in November 2010 is the archetype.)

The review comprises three perspectives:

  1. hindsight – how close to victory (or defeat) did the declaring captain get and so would an earlier declaration have made the crucial difference? I calculate and depict closeness to victory as a percentage – for the bowling team, not of the 10 wickets required, but using the average duration (in balls) of each completed wicket partnership (1st to 10th) in the sample period. This gives a more meaningful weighting of the significance of top order wickets and the proximity to victory when amongst the tail – on average!
  2. anecdotal – did the captain appear to delay the declaration? What was in it for the captain to make a bold declaration (e.g. Series situation, relative strength of the two teams)
  3. Scarf predictive analysis – according to Dr Scarf and Sohail Akhtar’s model, how much could the skipper have altered the balance of odds in favour of a victory (or defeat) with an earlier declaration?

And then I judge: Captain Cautious, Skipper Intrepid or just Captain Sensible. Five captains were the decision-makers and each is dealt with in turn.

Andrew Strauss

Eng v WI in Antigua (February 2009)

Strauss declared mid-way through the second session of the fourth day, over 500 ahead. Just one West Indian wicket remained between England and victory (96% of the target requirement) the following evening. Hindsight says that any additional time could have secured a win for England, who had the incentive of being behind in the series (although two more matches were to be played).

Dr Scarf’s analysis doesn’t consider targets above 450. However, the likelihood of winning has peaked for fourth innings with 140 overs remaining with a target of 400. The model suggests that batting on for 20 overs cost England a 90%+ probability of winning, reducing the probability to below 80%. Captain Cautious

Eng v WI in Port-of-Spain (March 2009)

Two matches later and Strauss was able to set a total of 237 at lunch on the final day of the series. England had the West Indies eight wickets down (91% of target requirement) at the close of play. Just a few more overs and Strauss may have had the satisfaction of levelling the series.

Dr Scarf’s table shows that Test matches are rarely won by sides setting totals below 250. With as few as 66 overs remaining, a draw was the most probable result, but a successful chase more likely than the side being bowled out. The model indicates there was little to be gained from an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible

Eng v SL at Lord’s (June 2011)

Strauss made this declaration during the final afternoon of the match. England’s three wickets and Sri Lanka’s total of 127 both represent 37% of their respective targets. While this suggests Strauss required a lot more time, his attack had skittled Sri Lanka on the final day at Cardiff the previous week. One-nil up with two to play, Strauss had no incentive to gamble.

The model would have given England a one-in-eight chance of victory. Declaring 20 overs sooner would have more than doubled the probability of an England success, but given Sri Lanka a 15% chance of squaring the series. Captain Sensible

MS Dhoni

Ind v NZ in Wellington (April 2009)

Dhoni set New Zealand 617 in 160 0vers. They survived due to the loss of 70 overs to the Wellington weather when eight wickets down before play was ended ahead of lunch on day five. India were defending a one-nil lead in the final game of the series, which influenced their decision to carry on batting, setting a target over 30% higher than the record fourth innings chase.

Dr Scarf’s model doesn’t cater for targets so large, but he does conclude: “if a very large target is set, the team batting last will not attempt to play for a win and a draw becomes more likely.” Captain Sensible

Ind v WI in Bridgetown (June 2011)

Dhoni’s declaration set the West Indies 283 in 83 overs. With 15 overs lost to rain, India still managed 85% (7 wickets) of their target. Dhoni was praised for his boldness, which gave a filip to a rain-affected match with a tense final day. What’s more, India led the series one-nil with the third Test still to play. On the debit side for the Indian captain, he was fined for a slow over rate, which may have reduced his team’s chances of winning.

The probability table suggests a pretty even chance of each of the results and nothing to be gained from an earlier declaration. Skipper Intrepid

Younis Khan

Pak v SL at Colombo (July 2009)

Pakistan declared three overs into the afternoon of the fourth day, with their tenth wicket pair at the crease. A day later and 15 overs before the scheduled close, Sri Lanka were closer to victory – 79% of the way towards their target of 490 – although both teams attracted criticism for not pursuing victory more urgently. The game was a ‘dead rubber’.

Extrapolating from the probability table, Pakistan were very heavy favourites (c.90%), giving themselves 160 overs to bowl Sri Lanka out. Captain Sensible

Graeme Smith

SA v Eng at Centurion (December 2009)

Smith set England 364 in 96 overs and came within 4% (or one wicket) of the victory on a fifth day of swinging fortunes. It was the first match of the series and Smith was without Steyn, the spearhead to the attack. The England tenth wicket pair survived three overs, with number 11, Graham Onions, facing 12 balls (shown at the head of this post).

The probability tables suggest a victory as the most likely outcome, and defeat at under 10%. Chances of victory grow steadily however, with the more overs available with targets between 300-400. Captain Cautious

SA v Eng at Cape Town (January 2010)

Three weeks later, now one-nil down in the series and Smith again declares to set England a target: 466 in 141 overs. 47 more overs than South Africa had available at Centurion. The result, in graph form, is identical, but England’s dogged defence more consistent than in the earlier Test.

Scarf’s table put the chance of a South African victory at over 80%. The same probability as if Smith had declared 20 overs earlier and set a target 100 runs fewer (as would have been the case). The probability of an England victory would have been much higher, however, with the earlier declaration. Captain Sensible

SA v Pak at Dubai (November 2010)

Smith set Pakistan 451 in 131 overs in the first of this two match series. While the declaration was seen at the time as ‘on the conservative side’, Smith’s side were the clear favourites. As the graph shows, however, Pakistan were closer to their target than South Africa with the largest percentage point advantage to the batting side in these drawn matches (76% v 37%).

The probability table suggests a c.70% chance of victory and only 1% chance of defeat. A declaration at lunch on day four would have lifted that probability to 80% but increased the chance of defeat to 16%. Captain Cautious

SA v Pak at Abu Dhabi (November 2010)

One week later, Smith again set Pakistan a total, but from a less commanding position: early on the fifth day with a lead of 353. The value of batting for five overs on day five was questionable, but seems unlikely to have tipped the balance as Pakistan lost only three wickets before the match was brought to a close. The series ended in a ni-nil draw.

Scarf’s table suggests a two-thirds chance of a draw, with only marginal improvements to South Africa’s odds (and larger increases to Pakistan’s chances) with an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible

Tillakaratne Dilshan

SL v Pak at Sharjah (November 2011)

Rain delayed the start of day five, with Sri Lanka 237 ahead with 67 overs remaining. The slow scoring rate in the match would mitigate the risk to Dilshan, whose outfit were one-nil down in the last of three tests. But Dilshan batted on for four overs, increasing the target by 18.

The probability tables show the draw was the favourite (50-60%), with a successful chase more likely. With lower targets rarely producing victories, Sri Lanka’s chances would not improve with an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible

Acting as judge of the positive intent of these Test captains, I’ve concluded that on three occasions (out of eleven) the timing of the declaration was over-concerned with making the game safe, reducing the chance of victory. There were two other tests where declarations came later than appeared to be necessary, but I judge the delay as having little impact on the result.

There exists some evidence, from a minority of declarations, to support my original contention that ‘losing feels worse than winning feels good’. None of the delays to declarations was flagrant, but each were in series still ‘live’ and so could have made a difference beyond the match itself.

In this review, I have isolated the timing of the declaration decision, but do acknowledge that what followed in the fourth innings, e.g. quality of bowling, fielding, determination of the batting, umpiring decisions, pitch and weather conditions, all played a part alongside the declaration in bringing about result.

Acknowledgement: An analysis of strategy in the first three innings in test cricket: declaration and the follow-on. Philip Scarf and Sohail Akhtar. Salford Business School Working Paper Series. Paper no. 337/10.

Success and succession planning

This last year has seen various stages in the decline of three Test playing nations:

  • Australia have continued the descent from their two decades as the game’s most powerful team. The Ashes were lost on home soil with three defeats by an innings and they failed to defend their World Cup in India.
  • India went in under twelve months from winning the World Cup and reaching top ranking in Test cricket to seven successive test defeats.
  • Sri Lanka have lost their first home Test series in over five years and slipped down the ranking lists from the heights of second place in both Test and ODI ratings.

In each case, the downturn in fortunes has been associated with the aging or retirement of eminent players. I have read the same charge levelled at all three countries: their decline is because of a failure of succession planning.

My journalese bullshit antennae first twitched when I read this censure in an article about Sri Lanka. It came about the time of Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket lecture that was direct in its criticism of his home cricket association. Not managing to plan for the replacement of older players fitted well with the picture of corrupt and venal administration: they rested on the laurels of the team’s success, failing to anticipate the cliff the team were progressing towards as Muralitharan neared retirement.

Murali.. succession planning.. antennae twitched. Who else had left the Sri Lankan Test team? Malinga. Murali and Malinga, two unique bowling talents. What sort of replacement policy should Sri Lankan cricket have put in place? One based on nurturing cricketers with double-jointed bowling arms and extraordinary delivery actions that defy all coaching orthodoxy? Anybody capable of slipping into their shoes would already be playing in the Sri Lankan team.

It is one of the strengths of the human intellect to seek an explanation for change. It is one of the weaknesses of that intellect, that unfavourable change must always be accompanied by blame. And a contemporary weakness is that business jargon is appropriated and applied to give a sense of authority to explanations.

It is ridiculous to believe that a successor can be planned to the bowler who took 40% of all the wickets taken by Sri Lankans during his career. Sri Lankan cricket declined after his (and Malinga’s and Vaas’s) retirement, because their cricket entered a new era – one where they are a lot less lucky about who they have available to bowl for them. That is the ebb and flow that is visible in all areas of human activity, and particularly sports.

Having said that, I am by no means a fatalist. The performance of a Test team can be enhanced by, amongst other things: developing a competitive playing culture that produces cricketers able to score runs or take wickets under pressure; astute selection of those most able to thrive at the top level; implementing tactics that make the most of the players you have and that target weaknesses in the opposition. Whether Sri Lankan cricket has failed to do these, I am not sure. What about the case of the second power in decline, Australia?

Australian cricket success in the 1990s came at the time of the professionalisation of its coaching infrastructure. The Australian Cricket Academy became the model for English cricket. With the long-established grade and shield cricket, the academy seemed to be producing the competitive culture required for success. There was a glut of quality players, many more than could be fitted into the Test team. But, Shane Warne, who had a transformational influence on their cricket, was not an academy graduate. Succession planning didn’t get him into the Test team, just recognition by the selectors of an exceptional talent. At his height, young Australians wanted to be leg-spinners, not quick bowlers. We imagined a future of English batsmen facing unreadable leg-spinners in Ashes series into the future. That it didn’t happen had nothing to do with the effectiveness or otherwise of succession planning. It just proved very difficult to reproduce a player of Warne’s talents – even in a country able to invest much more in its cricket future than Sri Lanka.

Warne retired within 12 months of five other champion Australian Test cricketers. The coaching infrastructure had remained. Selection wasn’t really at fault and tactics didn’t let the team down. The wheel had turned: Australia had fewer top-class cricketers. Handy as it may seem to blame decline on a management failing, succession planning was irrelevant. And it has stayed irrelevant to the emergence of Patrick Cummins, thought by many to be the future champion cricketer. He forced his way into the team with compelling, yet limited experience – not as the planned successor to Brett Lee or Glenn McGrath.

This I know isn’t the view of the Argus Report, commissioned after the Ashes defeat. It concluded that Australian cricket culture was rotten. It prescribed a series of structural reforms, including a Head Selector with responsibility, amongst other things, for succession planning. I’m sure a thorough review of a system little changed over two decades of success will identify some important areas for improvement. It would be too much to expect it to take a step back and say, “Wow, they were great players. Things will be tough for a while, until we unearth some more.” That would have had a ring of truth and an absence of business blarney.

The third leg of the trimvirate on the slide, India, have a slightly different story. Whereas the eminent cricketers of Sri Lanka and Australia continued to perform well until their retirement, there is a feeling that India’s stars are neither performing, nor moving on. Is this then a failure of succession planning? One explanation seems a little simpler – selection; and one is a good deal more complicated – have the Indian cricket authorities’ priorities undermined the culture that produces top class Test players?

I do see one role for identifying and cultivating an individual who one day may take a particular role in a cricket team. Captains do not burst onto the scene. Leadership skills are exposed through experience and those thought to be potential leaders will benefit from being given opportunities to demonstrate and develop those skills. Generally, this is the luxury of successful teams.

England find themselves in that situation right now. This week, with Pakistan beaten in the one-day series, so soon after the shock Test series defeat, England’s careful nurturing of Alastair Cook feels like the most effective example of succession planning.

Winter nets

Exactly three years ago, I drove across South Manchester in the dark one evening to find a sports hall. I would have been relieved to have got lost, or to have been unable to find the hall. That way I could have satisfied myself that I was at least making the effort.

Displays of courage have been neither frequent nor prominent in my life. It’s not with any great pride that I reckon one of the bravest things I have done as an adult is to have gone into the sports hall, said a few ‘hi’s’ and put myself forward as a cricketer.

I know I nearly turned back to the car as I approached the net, which was busy with the sounds of 20 unknown cricketers practising hard. When I pulled back the heavy green curtain to enter the practice area and walked forwards it was just to see through what I had set running, not that I was doing something I would enjoy. The cricketers I joined were young, nonchalant with their strength and so much taller than I.

This, aged 40, was the beginning of my comeback. I had last played regular cricket 14 years before in London. A diet of one or two matches each season had kept my cricket metabolism ticking over. The year I turned 40, I had a personal incantation: Jack Hobbs had scored 100 hundreds after his 40th birthday. And I scored a few runs on my annual college old boys tour. I stayed long enough at the crease (with bowling friendly enough) to feel I had an ‘innings’, where choices could be made over shots, some momentum built, not just reflexive responses to a blurred ball.

At the net, I stood against the green curtain for three-quarters of an hour. I didn’t have a ball and wanted even less to have to bowl. I would rather be seen as a little odd, than humiliate myself, send my confidence plunging before doing what I had really come to do.

Eventually, I was invited to pad-up. I borrowed a bat and made my way down to the end of one tunnel. The first ball was bowled by one of the very tallest of the cricketers, a medium pacer. I lunged forward, ball taking the inside half of my bat. A start. In the next 10 minutes, I played enough shots to send my spirits rising. I was also tied in knots by a young and very talented leg-spinner (the U18 wicket-keeper). The Saturday XI captains quickly saw that I would not be skewing the average age of their teams, but a playing role would be found for me in a large club.

I was back at the sports centre every week. The 10 minutes of batting were a highly distilled physical challenge that inhabited my mind through the following days. I was exhilarated. By week three I was trying to bowl.

Pre-season practice for the fourth season of the second half of my career is about to start. Winter nets still excite and make me nervous. I adore the intensity of the experience they provide, but more broadly wonder about their value. Just as taking exams is perfect preparation for.. taking exams, so indoor netting is its own activity with questionable transferrable value. Here’s my stock-take of the good and the bad:

All the time in the world

Graeme Smith called in his batsmen 40 minutes into the afternoon session of the fourth day. Smith’s declaration left England 141 overs to survive, and a target of 466 to chase. Three weeks earlier, Smith’s South African team had been defied by England’s tenth wicket partnership, which had batted out the last four of 96 overs. Smith wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, one down in the series and only one further match to play.

Roll forward 28 hours and improbably England had once again clung on to draw, nine wickets down.

Ask Graeme Smith if there is a formula to a successful declaration and I suspect he’d answer with a withering look. The pitch condition, weather, fitness of bowlers, state of the series and tenacity of the opposition are all complicating factors. This post continues a series that began with the psychological insight that captains may be hindered in their search for victory as ‘losing feels worse than winning feels good‘; and continued with a high level survey of third innings declarations in test cricket that showed a victory conversion rate of only 34%.

In this post, I start to assess, through a series of charts and brief comments, whether there are features of declarations that are associated with success. I use a non-random sample, but one that is most relevant to Test captains of today. It takes in the 38 third innings declarations made in the last three completed calendar years of Test cricket.

53% (20) of the declarations in this period led to victories – a higher proportion than in the history of Test cricket. Three of the declarations leading to draws are excluded from the analysis as they were made to end the game early, with no fourth innings occurring, leaving a sample of 35. There were no defeats for the captain who made the declaration in this sample.

Chart 1 shows how results relate to match-level factors: venue, state of the series and strength of the two teams (minor = Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; Major = the rest).

There’s a lot of inter-relationship between these factors, but they point to stronger teams and home teams being more likely to turn the advantage of being in a situation to set a total into victory. I’ll move on quickly as I sense Graeme Smith’s attention wandering at the predictability of those results.

The remainder of the analyses look at the match situation at the point of the declaration being made.

Chart 2 shows the size of the target set in each declaration, team by team. The black diamonds represent the targets, with the highest ever fourth innings total conceded by each team in defeat shown as a blue square.

Captains are, as predicted, risk averse. 57% of targets set required Test record breaking chases of the side batting last (i.e. above the 418 hit by an inspired West Indies in Antigua against Australia in 2003). 80% of the targets, had they been achieved, would have set new national records for totals conceded in the fourth innings of a match in defeat.

Chart 3 sets the result of the game against the target total and required run rate.

The higher the target set in this sample of matches, the greater the chance of victory. None of the ten lowest targets produced a victory (or a loss). The lowest target to result in a victory was 366 set by New Zealand for Zimbabwe to chase in Bulawayo last November. In a tight finish, Zimbabwe fell 35 runs short. There was also a strong relationship to run rate required. Only one total with a required run rate above 4 runs per over had a winning outcome for the declaring captain: Jayawardene had set Bangladesh a target of 624 at 4.22 runs per over in Chittagong in January 2009. The remaining victories came in chases where required run rates varied from 2.33 to 3.91.

Chart 4 refines this analysis, by providing a context in which the target is set. The horizontal axis shows the ‘relative target’ – i.e. difference between the target and the highest innings of the three earlier in the game. The vertical axis plots the ‘relative run-rate’ – i.e. difference between the required run rate and the run-rate achieved across the first three innings of the match.

Victories were more likely to occur if the ‘relative target’ was high (i.e. above or not much less than the highest score in the match at that point). An exception (the red diamond furthest to the left) was New Zealand’s victory over Bangladesh in Hamilton in in February 2010 having set a target of 404, some 149 below the hosts’ total of 553.

Victories are associated, however, with lower ‘relative run-rates’. Over half required a lower run rate of the team batting last than had been achieved in the match to that point. This was true of only two of the draws.

Chart 5 depicts the overs available for the fourth innings.

There is a very clear association of victories with having more time to dismiss the opposition. The drawn match furthest to the left (India v New Zealand at Wellington in April 2009) is misleading as 70 of the fourth innings overs available, were lost to poor weather. Sri Lanka were the team that survived the longest fourth innings without defeat, lasting 150 overs (the match was declared a draw after 134 overs) at Colombo in 2009 against Pakistan. Not a single Test was won in this period with a team declaring on the final day.

In summary, this analysis of results following declarations shows that:

  • captains are conservative, generally only being prepared to set targets that would establish new national records for sides batting fourth were they to lose
  • higher totals, lower run rates and more overs are all positively associated with victories.

Does this mean that, as I hypothesised, captains are too cautious and are missing out on victories, fearing defeat? In the next article in the series, I’ll look in detail at the drawn matches in this sample to ask whether their caution is costing their team success.