It was April. I walked out of the conference hall into the bright spring light. No sooner had my mood been lifted by the warm sun on my skin and the beginnings of thoughts about the summer to come, than my stomach churned. The drone of a lawnmower and the scent of the grass it cut triggered associations that caused an anxious response.
I was on a work trip, attending an event designed to enthuse me about an IT system. The conference had broken for lunch and I had headed outside for fresh air, rather than into the dining room. I wasn’t, you see, about to play cricket.
But those indicators of late spring/early summer connected me to the many days over the last 35 years when I have been going, later that day, to play cricket. The game that obsesses me, that has from time to time been so rewarding, that I very rarely ever regret having spent any time playing, makes me uneasy in anticipation.
School matches used to eat into the afternoon lessons: a release from desk, blackboard and text books. From mid-morning on the day of a match I would be distracted. Lunch would be uncomfortable. The looming match drew from me nervous energy, preventing me concentrating on schoolwork, playing at break-time or simply relaxing.
At college and then as a club cricketer in my 20s, I would wake early, missing out on the recuperative sleep student life or weekends could have given me. My mornings were unproductive as I would try to get studies or chores done but be forever calculating and recalculating how much time there was until I needed to leave to catch the bus or walk to the ground.
Playing evening matches in my most recent cricket-playing phase, I learnt to schedule busy days at work, to crowd out the anxiety of a match and an innings at the end of the day.
Interspersing my nervous preparation for each match, was one clear and ever-present thought: I hope the match is called off. A rainstorm, illness in the other side’s ranks, an unfit ground, a mix-up in preparations, a coup d’etat were all summoned as interventions. Some of these, at least, would occur with some regularity and I would feel relieved – even when a full afternoon of lessons was the consequence.
I can’t quite define where the source of this game-day reluctance to play lies. It must have something to do with the fear of failure. Cricket is a very exposing sport with the individual’s performance stripped bare. There’s probably an element of imposter syndrome in there – I’ve have not always felt comfortable that what I bring to the team merits my selection. I also detect a tinge of idleness – not wanting the exertion of a whole match.
Over the years, I have gradually learned that these pre-match nerves have no relationship at all to the enjoyment I get when I am playing. However sincerely I hoped for a crater in the centre of the ground to prevent the game happening, I have been pleased to be playing once the game is under way. I am, on the whole, a happy cricketer, maybe quiet and preoccupied, but generally content to be playing and sometimes, especially when batting, exhilarated. I have learnt to disregard my negative thoughts ahead of a match and find distractions.
Last August Bank Holiday, I was on tour for the 21st and final year with my college old boys team. Sitting around our tour base on the morning before our last ever match, a teammate looked out of the window and said, “Why can’t it rain?” For years, as fewer and fewer of the team played regular (or indeed any non-tour) cricket, there had seemed to me, while I struggled with my own game-day reluctance, a delighted determination amongst the team to get on the field to play. But last August, there were murmurs of assent for the wish for rain. Then more amazing still, my teammates began confessing that for years they had come on tour and in the build up to each game hoped the weather or some other factor would intervene. It’s not just me, I realised.
Earlier this summer, several weeks after the IT Conference, I drove no.1 son to our club’s second ground, where he was making his debut as a paid scorer. I was to stay with him for an hour or so, making sure he could identify our players, interpret umpiring signals and keep the book and scoreboard up to date. On arriving, I found our team was one short. I got back into the car, drove home, changed, loaded my cricket bag and was back in time for the fifth over. I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon’s cricket, my day completely unimpaired by pre-match nerves. Finally, I had found the solution.
Not long after my surprise appearance, I was helping out at an under 9 fixture, where no.2 son was making his competitive cricket debut. I was running warm-up drills to keep the boys occupied while everyone gathered and final ground preparations were made. A late-comer charged across the grass, clasping a bat. He ran up to me and bouncing up and down in front of my face, shouted: “Hello, my name’s Sam. This is my first game of cricket and I’m SO EXCITED.” I may not be alone in experiencing pre-match nerves, but it was a good way to be reminded there are others with no such inhibitions.
The 2013 Champions Trophy has been a success. High quality cricket played by the world’s best players in front of fans of all eight of the participating nations. Even the soggy day of the final was redeemed by a dramatic match won by the more courageous team. This, we have read and heard – and you and I may have thought or said – is what the World Cup should be like.
And the whispers (actually, tweets) from those in the know is that the ICC may not liquidate the Champions Trophy after all. Something to be pleased about? A common-sense decision? Maybe, but maybe not.
The most appealing feature of this tournament was that it was played by eight well-matched sides, where the result of very nearly every match mattered. A four-yearly, or even biannual, repeat would be very welcome. But how likely is it that cricket will continue to have eight international teams so closely clustered in ability? History suggests not. For much of the last generation, there have been half-a-dozen or so teams of a fairly even standard and one other – Australia – way out ahead. Eight happened to be the perfect number for a short, sharp tournament in 2013, but I suspect, with the diverging (financial) fortunes of the cricketing nations, a competition of the same size in the future will have a few makeweights and so a loss in intensity.
The tournament was played in cricket grounds that hummed with spectators, rather than echoing to the shouts of the players, as has happened at other ICC events when the home nation is not in action. This is another aspect of the 2013 Champions Trophy that it would be highly desirable to replicate. But it is a product of Britain’s multi-cultural and densely located population, which other cricketing nations don’t offer. A top level sports tournament for international teams needs to be rotated around the major nations so home advantage isn’t monopolised, the teams are tested in differing environments and the opportunities to earn revenues for national associations are shared.
So, in terms of two of its most attractive features, the 2013 Champions Trophy may be better appreciated as a one-off, rather than the formula for a sure-fire, repeatable winner.
Other than the misplaced optimism that the Champions Trophy could provide the model for ICC tournaments, the other aspect of this discussion that struck me was the inconsistency with other, earlier comment on international cricket competitions.
Two years ago we heard and read – and you and I probably thought or said – that the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of associate members playing in the World Cup was unfair to those emerging cricket nations and would hinder their development into full members of the international cricket circuit. The critics’ consensus was that the ICC should keep its competitions open, not allow them to be closed-shops for the established nations.
And amongst the very many of us taking the side of Ireland, Afghanistan and other aspiring cricket nations, I’m sure some of us were complaining just a few weeks earlier that too many games in the group stages of the World Cup were one-sided. We want tight competition and we want encouragement to the weaker nations who cannot yet sustain that competition and so we want to keep international tournaments the preserve of the strongest. There are some critics and commentators who have stayed consistently on one side of this argument, but many have flip-flopped between the two positions. I know I have drifted.
For sensible cricket folk to take a series of such logically inconsistent positions suggests there is something else going on; a deeper uncertainty that we cannot resolve but allows us to advocate strongly heading north and then a short while later insist on having east to our left-hand side.
I speculate that the issue that pulls us strongly in varying directions is the game’s global ambition. Should cricket try, or is it even sensible to attempt, to expand its international playing base?
The ICC’s statement of strategic direction suggests an expansionist agenda, but with a clear acknowledgement of standards:
A bigger, better, global game targeting more players, more fans, more competitive teams.
Our long-term success will be judged on growth in participation and public interest and the competitiveness of teams participating in men’s and women’s international cricket.
Motivating that strategy may simply be the business commonplace that an enterprise not expanding is managing decline. Is there perhaps a moral dimension – a cricket crusade? In the ICC’s vision for success, it is aiming for a situation where, “cricket will captivate and inspire people of every age, gender, background and ability while building bridges between continents, countries and communities.”
It seems right to want to share our great sport with others, but let’s go no further than this expression of altruism. Because the next stop on this line is that cricket is a civilizing force for good. That’s the cricket of the racist British Empire, apartheid South Africa, caste-ridden India, aboriginal-oppressing Australia, civil war infested Asian Sub-Continent, etc.
Part of me thinks that cricket has enough to do tending its roots in its traditional soils, whether that’s fighting for its place in the leisure saturated industrialised countries or ensuring its popularity translates into more players and more consumers in the developing countries of cricket-playing Asia.
And then I spend my time consuming cricket works by writers and broadcasters in the USA and Czech Republic; I am moved by the story of the Afghan national team and I want Irish players to have the pride of playing for Ireland, not hopping across to England. These fans and players deserve top level cricket where they are, not merely rendered on their screens digitally.
Then back I swing again. New Zealand cricket cannot afford its players to have first class games acclimatizing ahead of a Test series in India. The West Indies and Sri Lanka shelve tests to accommodate ODIs which will earn more revenue. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have set up shop in a de facto second division. What sort of elite world of international cricket would we be welcoming Ireland, Afghanistan and the USA into?
I cannot decide what shape I want future international cricket tournaments to take. I do recognise, however, that the format selected needs to be consistent with the game’s global ambition.
Batting order or batting situation? I believe cricket pays far too much attention to the former and too little to the latter in deciding whose turn it is to bat. I’ve described it before as a personal hobby-horse.
The number three slot in one day international cricket provides a useful testing ground. It’s the only batsman in the order who faces the uncertainty of starting against the second ball of the innings, or the 300th. And in England, there is a debate of passion and parody about Jonathon Trott’s value to the team at number 3.
With the Champions Trophy upon us, I start with a review of which batsmen have the best records at 3 in the last two years of ODI cricket – i.e. since the last World Cup. Three regulars at number three head the table. Sangakkara is the most prolific, with Kohli and Trott clear of a following pack.
The next chart adds the dimension of scoring rate, plotting it against the batting average for the top number three batsmen.
Kohli’s record is very impressive as only one of only three batsman with a strike rate over 80 and the highest batting average. Trott is one of the slower scorers, but not by a significant margin. If he quickened to the median rate (76 runs per 100 balls), in an innings of average duration (51 deliveries) Trott would only score an additional two runs. If he matched Kohli’s pace – the ICC’s ODI player of the year in 2012 – he would score an additional six runs in an average innings.
The charge against Trott is that his game isn’t versatile enough. We can get an insight into the situations a number three faces at the outset of an innings by looking at opening partnership totals and durations in matches since the last World Cup.
The average opening stand is 33, and median score at the fall of the first wicket 19. 31% of opening stands end before the total reaches double figures. Over three-fifths are finished before 30 is on the board. The number three has plenty of opportunity to build an innings and shape his team’s total.
The number three comes to the wicket in the first five overs in 55% of innings and has begun batting before the end of the initial ten over power-play in more than three-quarters of instances. In the majority of situations, therefore, there is an advantage in having the solidity of a conventional top-order player batting at number three.
Looking at average opening partnership duration by team in this period, there is a significant variance (50%) between England at one extreme (51 deliveries) and India (34 deliveries), the lowest of the major nations. Perhaps this is where some of the criticism of Trott gains a little traction: despite beginning his innings after his team has had relatively good starts, his run rate remains on the low side.
Is there any evidence that ODI sides are sticking inflexibly to their batting order – at least in terms of the number three? To test this notion, I’ve looked at the 21 instances of the first wicket falling after more than 120 deliveries have been bowled and compared who batted at three in that match with the order in the other matches in that series.
In 12 of the innings, the number three was unchanged compared to other games in series. Brendon McCullum, Sangakkara, DM Bravo, Shane Watson and Trott were amongst the batsmen retained at three even when the innings was well under way when the first wicket fell. Pakistan appeared to be the team most willing to shuffle their order according to circumstance, relegating Younis Khan and Azhar Ali behind the likes of Umar Akmal, Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi. New Zealand also used Jacob Oram to add some vim to a couple of solid starts. Of the five longest opening partnerships, three saw promoted number threes, with Trott once being supplanted by Eoin Morgan.
In conclusion, I recognise that my perception of inflexibly applied batting orders, in the case of number three, is not well supported by the evidence. Teams do shuffle the stodgier ‘threes’ when the opportunity arises. However, with opening partnerships rarely providing the innings with a solid base, the continued presence at number three of players such as Trott is justified.