There is nothing that feels like building an innings. The conjunction of raw reactions and thoughtful adaptation. Respect the straight ball, don’t chase the wide one outside off are my starting mantras. Which works unless something is floated up under my nose and instinct takes over: a step forward and a lash of the bat.
As the overs pass, other scoring opportunities open up; a clip off my pads, a push towards mid off where the cricketer making an occasional appearance is drifting out of position. Defence is savoured. A forward defensive to a delivery that earns the fielders’ applause but didn’t trouble me.
A battle won as the opening bowlers are replaced and new flights and angles to deal with brought on. Constant assessing: do I have the better of this bowler, or am I in trouble if he gets it in the right place? Was that over a loosener, or can I expect more easy pickings.
And always the run rate, the state of the game – is it time to open up or should I be building a platform for the team? A false shot. Do I analyse my mistake or let it drift past me in case I break my own concentration. A couple of twos in an over and I’m puffed. Control my breathing for the next ball.
At the other end there are shots and runs; wickets and new partners – advice, caution and bonhomie. Is what’s happening at that end making my job easier or more difficult?
Ever present is the risk of getting out. In an instant the world I’m immersed in is over. From being the protaganist, the focus of every player’s attention, I could be sidelined in the second it takes to draw the bat across, not down the line of the ball; to bring bat to moving ball at slightly the wrong angle and send it upwards. The contest is over. Someone else gets to revel in this exquisite challenge of batting.
Last week, I experienced the closest pleasure yet to batting. No.1 son, already an accomplished bowler at 12, had his first substantial knock. That his team had a chaseable target was in a large part down to him. He had started with a double wicket maiden, knocking over two of their top batsmen with full, swinging deliveries. No.1 son’s team also lost a wicket in the first over of their reply, bringing him to the crease.
He and his partner got the innings going with some well-judged singles. But he batted patiently, respecting the straight one and stroking full balls into the V. A couple of plays and misses outside off-stump and a middle-stump yorker dug out. The short and ill-directed stuff came, as it always does, and on this evening, no.1 son was still at the crease to cut and steer these for runs. Mini-partnerships with three teammates; support and reminders shared to back up, to run the first one hard.
The opposition had held back their leading bowler. Big and strong – at least a head taller than no.1 son – he bowled lively left-arm seamers. This was a test. He pitched the ball short and no.1 son stayed in line and defended, was hit on the thigh, grinned, kept his nerve and his head in line with the ball and pulled another short delivery behind square. I made a mental note to buy him a thigh guard.
Batting with his friend, captain on the night, there was a surge of runs from more positive shots, aggressive running between the wickets and the team was on the verge of victory. Light fading and one last push from the left-armer. He fired a ball across no.1 son who sliced it to the third man boundary for the winning runs.
So many of the shots and techniques he had practised in the nets came off. He had worked hard for those runs since indoor practice began in February and had to work for them all over again on the night. Sweeter still for being telling, match-winning runs.
And now when I burble on about the unique pleasure of building an innings, I’ll have someone close who will know what I mean. Someone who can contrast the early dismissal to the lengthy knock, the disappointment of the former with the exhilaration of the latter. A special feeling – in person, and as I have now experienced, by proxy.
No.1 son came with me to the Sunday of the Old Trafford Ashes Test. It was his first experience of live, professional cricket. It made me think about my first visit to a cricket ground. That, too, was for an Ashes Test: day one of the Oval Test in 1977.
My son saw four and half hours of lively cricket on Sunday. Thirty-six years earlier, my Dad and I had spent a wet morning at the ground before play was called off in the early afternoon. We went to visit my Nan in Carshalton before heading home. I don’t remember being particularly disappointed at seeing no play. The day had had its excitement, beginning with an early morning journey into and through London. I do remember watching the players arrive: the Aussies by coach; England players in sponsored cars. My Dad made much of the Australians not wearing blazer and tie. I recall him attributing their series defeat to this lack of discipline in attire.
I have a memory of the scorecard bought at the ground. The names were familiar to me because that was the summer I began my vigils in front of the TV, lasting from Peter West’s introduction to his closing reminder of the highlights programme late that evening. Beside the players’ names were their counties and more alluringly, states. Queens., W.Aus. NSW, Victoria were terms empty of context that I could conjure with and savour.
And that, until the next season, was my spectating experience of cricket. That’s the story I have told and believed. I was secure in my personal cricket narrative – beginning with a washout and then taking off the next year with runs for Gower and wickets for Botham.
I was taken aback when reading the Wisden match report of that Oval Test last week, and looking at the scorecard. Something else was familiar. It was the description of the end of England’s first innings:
In Saturday’s brief spell of play Willis and Hendrick added 33, taking England to a more respectable total of 214. … The tenth wicket pair hit seven of the sixteen boundaries in the innings.
I remembered Willis swiping at the ball and it arcing over his left shoulder – a shot I knew wasn’t conventional or intended. A man in the crowd said that Willis wanted Botham’s all-rounder spot – at the time I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. These were the recovered memories of that Test. My Dad had taken me back on the Saturday. Looking at the scorecard, I then had a realisation, but I regret not a memory, that I had seen Thommo bowl. The world’s fastest bowler, with the action of a javelin thrower making one last effort for Olympic glory, had made no impression on me.
If these were the images that lodged in my memory, some buried deeper than others, I wonder what no.1 son will remember in years to come of his first visit to at Test match.
Will it be Prior and Broad’s boisterous partnership that took England past the follow-on mark and probably to Ashes retention? The dramatic pause while the third umpire and crowd looked again and again at Warner’s top-edged hook behind, that wasn’t – and England’s drama queen response? Steve Smith’s driven sixes, or his run out, where he nearly completed three, while his skipper was content with the single?
It might not be the game. It could be the antics of the crowd around us. The trumpeter, the large man singing falsetto, the Barmy Army chanting? All these things, along with the beer snake construction, seemed of more import to many in our stand. It might just be the squeeze on the tram that sticks in his memory.
Just possibly it will be the incident that, second to him thanking me for taking him and asking when we can go to a county game, gave me the greatest contentment. Queuing in the rain for the tram home, we stood beside four Somerset men who had travelled north for a day of Test cricket. For ten minutes we swapped cricketers’ names and grounds we had played on, comfortable that we were in company of mutual understanding. Could my son find space in his memory for five middle-aged men taxing their own memories to locate names and places, and keeping amateur cricket’s undramatic narrative rolling on?
4 August 1997: Roshan Mahanama walked out to the middle with Sanath Jayasuriya at the start of the third day of the Test. It was the beginning of the second wicket partnership – the first wicket of the innings had fallen to the last ball of the second day.
5 August 1997: The pair walked out together again on day four, having batted throughout the third day – a very rare occurrence.
6 August 1997: An unprecedented feat – batting unbeaten through two full days of Test cricket – the pair started day five still in partnership. At this point they had amassed 548 runs together, surpassing the previous record for a partnership for any wicket in Test cricket by a clear margin.
Sri Lanka batted through day five to reach 952-6, setting the record for the highest total in Test cricket. Opposing captain, Sachin Tendulkar, was full of praise for the Sri Lankan batsmen, but branded the pitch unfit for Test cricket.
Jayasuriya and Mahanama had taken their partnership to 576 on the fifth morning when the latter was dismissed lbw by Anil Kumble. Two balls later Jayasuriya was out caught at silly-point. After twelve and a half wicket-less hours, India had prised out both batsmen in a matter of minutes.
It is a commonly made observation in cricket that after a long partnership, the two batsmen fall in quick succession. Jayasuriya and Mahanama are the archetypes of this phenomenon.
I find the idea that two well-set batsmen will lose their wickets suddenly, one after the other, intriguing. There are conventional cricket explanations – wickets falling to the new ball; an old ball beginning to reverse; or some other change in conditions. But what interests me is that the idea is suggestive of a range of psychological explanations.
There is the simple notion that the disruption in concentration caused by the first wicket makes the remaining batsman vulnerable. More complex is the possibility that the two batsmen during a long partnership have developed an equilibrium, where each has an understood role and has become secure in their relationship. The loss of one wicket and replacement of the established partner with a new batsmen, upsets that equilibrium, making the surviving partner struggle to adapt to a new role and so prone to dismissal. An even more extreme psychological explanation could be that the surviving batsman is grieving for the loss of the established partner and subconsciously wants to re-join them – analogous to the elderly couples whose deaths follow fast upon the other.
But before I indulge in any more psychology, there’s a more basic question to be asked: is there any truth in this cricketing received wisdom that the end of a lengthy partnership often results in both batsmen falling quickly?
To test the theory, I have taken as a sample all Test partnerships of 200 or more since July 2007. I have recorded whether the surviving batsman was the next, the second, third, etc wicket to fall after the partnership ended; how many runs were scored and overs elapsed between the dismissal of the two partners.
I have also taken a control sample of other partnerships (96) to compare the aftermath of a large partnership with randomly selected partnerships (footnote 1).
There were 98 double-century partnerships in this period, 8 of which were unbeaten and so excluded. The fate of the surviving batsman after a 200+ run partnership ended is shown below. 24% (control: 21%) remained not out. 44% (control: 41%) were the next batsman to be dismissed, which is less than the one in two chance of a random result and lower still than the received wisdom of partners falling in quick succession after a lengthy alliance. The results of the control sample are similar, suggesting that the surviving batsman is not much more likely to be the next wicket to fall after a large partnership than any other partnership.
How long was the portion of the surviving batsman’s innings that remained? 85% (control: 82%) were still batting four overs after the partnership ended; 62% (control: 62%) when ten overs had elapsed. In terms of runs, 84% (control: 86%) added at least 10 runs; 62% (control: 65%) were still batting with the score 30 runs on. The majority of surviving batsmen are not falling hard on the heels of their erstwhile partner. The length of their stay after a major partnership does not differ significantly from the control sample of partnerships
These figures point to the received wisdom about partners falling one after the other not being supported by the evidence.
I had sought a psychological explanation for a batsman falling soon after his long-standing partner was dismissed, when I should have been looking for a psychological explanation for cricket viewers believing this to be a commonplace. That phenomenon is known as ‘confirmation bias’ and it comes about because our memory is biased to remember the ‘hits’ (Jayasuriya and Mahanama) but not the ‘misses’.
Footnote 1: the control sample was drawn from some of the same matches as those involving the double-century partnerships. If the large partnership was for the first wicket, the control figures were those of the other first wicket partnerships in the match.
Acknowledgement: Gabriel Smith (no.1 son) assisted in the collection of data for this post.