Catches rhymes with matches

Folkestone's Cheriton Road ground

Folkestone’s Cheriton Road ground

The outfield at Folkestone was bone hard and sun seared. Hot and weary we made our way across it to the pavilion. Tea, the innings break and shade were all welcome. As our fielders funnelled together over the last 20 metres, a teammate spoke at me, over my shoulder: “Catches win matches.”

It was an accusation, not acclaim. Early on I had dropped the opener at second slip. But that had been a good effort. Four runs saved. An over or three later, the same batsman had got a leading edge, sending the ball spiralling up and in my general direction at point. I shuttled to my left, backwards, turned, stretched and got the barest scrape of the fingers of one hand on the ball. I thumped the ground, picked up the ball and flung it to the keeper. A teammate pointed at the sun and nodded. Yes, the sun had got in my eyes, as it inevitably would at some point when you do a pirouette with head tilted skywards on a clear day. The batsman went on to score 80, playing barely another false shot and providing the backbone of the Folkestone 2nd XI total.

The exertions of fielding and bowling had wilted us. We never challenged the total, but took the game deep before losing. I don’t remember my innings, but it must have been brief. Ready for an early night, I was tied to my lift and eventually made it back to London at 11pm.

Contributing little; taking no pleasure in the company of my team; and seeing a whole Saturday pass without reward; that day, 19 years ago, sealed my disenchantment with regular club cricket. I played the last couple of league matches of the season and didn’t return.

Even now, if I hear the phrase, ‘catches win matches’, it triggers uncomfortable associations with that Kent League fixture. Putting aside the discomfort, however, the phrase intrigues me. It sits at the centre of the great unresolved quandary of cricket selection: how does a player’s fielding ability balance against his or her batting and bowling contribution?

An answer (not necessarily ‘the’ answer) is provided in a piece of research, ‘Do catches win matches?’ (1) carried out by Seamus Hogan, economist at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Hogan’s work looks at one day internationals and analysed every opportunity for a fielder to make a dismissal in 122 matches, using Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentary. Fielders are scored for their performance. A strong fielder is defined as one with a score one standard deviation above the average. Their contribution is compared to that of the strong batsmen and bowlers – each defined as performing one standard deviation above their respective discipline’s average. The superior fielder is found to contribute less than two runs per innings, well below the equivalent bowler (six) and batsman (eight).

After identifying some caveats to the findings, Hogan concludes:

the “catches win matches” cliche¬†should be put to bed.

Then in response to a comment to his piece, Hogan placed the cliche in its context:

it would also be true that “groundsmen win matches”, “tosses win matches”, “boundaries win matches”, “singles win matches”, etc. I do think there is something about a brilliant catch or a horrible drop that sticks in the mind more than any single cover drive or or even a seaming jaffa that earns an LBW, leading to the importance of catches being overstated in people’s intuition.

And catches happens to rhyme with matches.

Nearly two decades on and 300 miles north-west and I am back in club cricket. Drawn into the world of club administration, I find the work continues after the playing season has finished.

I attended a local club forum last week. The ECB’s club cricket survey results were the headline item. The presenter, from the county cricket board, noted that participation rates stayed constant for players at all ages between 26 and 56. It was in the ten years up to the mid-20s that saw a steady decline as youngsters left cricket. The presenter regretted that the full results of the survey were not yet available, but he was anxious to see the feedback from this crucial age group. Match duration, start time, travel distance, pitch quality, competitiveness of fixtures, umpire reliability and that malleable notion, the spirit of the game, were all independent variables that could be evaluated and changes made to accommodate the game’s younger players.

The discussion took me back to my withdrawal from the game, that hot day in Folkestone, the ball looping out of my reach, the teammate pointing the finger of blame at me and the late return home after a day wholly wasted.

Just as the result of a cricket match cannot be distilled into something as simple as which team takes its catches, the players’ survey results won’t be able to single out just one step that will keep more young men in the game. But there is a factor, in the hands of the players rather than the administrators, that my experience suggests does determine whether members return year after year. It’s not the format of the game, the competition, where or how it is played. The key ingredient is that teammates enjoy each others’ company.


Footnote 1: Do Catches win Matches (UPDATED) was published by Seamus Hogan on the Offsetting Behaviour website on January 31, 2013.


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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

12 responses to “Catches rhymes with matches”

  1. Gareth says :

    The catches win matches cliche is a funny one. On the one hand the research you cited is reasonably interesting in that one drop or one good fielder will not have a big impact on the game it is does not actually disprove the adage.

    I worked as a fielding analyst with the ECB and when you crunch the numbers (also taking into account that with out own software we recorded significantly more drops than cricinfo does for a variety of reasons) and then ask the question does a higher successful catch %age result in a higher win %age then the answer was a resounding yes.

    Moreover catches are the only fielding metric that seems to significantly affect match outcome. I postulated that this is due mostly to the fact that 50-60% of all dismissals are caught (the percentage varies across format). Imagine then that a team that catches a 100% (and thus an average of ~5 wickets caught if 9 or 10 wickets fall) of it’s chances has to effectively take one less wicket than a team with an 80% success rate to take the same number of wickets (assuming the run out, stumping etc effectiveness and umpire efficiency are uniform).

    • Seamus Hogan says :

      Gareth. As a co-author on the study that Chris cited, I am interested in your experience with the ECB. Part of this comes down to what we mean by the adage, and what use we want to make of it. It matters hugely which format of the game you look at. More important, is how you operationalise the concept of “importance of ….”. If you compare the outcomes for a team that can take, say, all 5 of the catching opportunities presented to it in an innings compared to one that could take only 5 out of 6, the former will do much better, and there is unlikely to be any corresponding ground fielding measure that will look as stark. But going from an 84% to a 100% record is a huge improvement, not one that you could reasonably expect to achieve by selecting players based on their catching ability or doing more catching drills in training. This is why we looked at the standard deviation of fielding-dismissal performance (combining runouts with catches) in comparison to the standard deviation of batting and bowling performances. A number of standard deviations of improvement you would need to move up to go from an 84% to 100% catching record would be huge. The benefit that a team would get from the corresponding improvement in batting and bowling would dwarf the benefit of that catching improvement.

      That said, our study was based only on ODI games, in which catching opportunities come disproportionately at points in the game where the cost of a wicket to the batting team are low. I do believe that the value of catching is higher in test format.

      If you have any shareable data from your work with the ECB, I would love to see it, but I realise it is likely subject to tight commercial sensitivity constraints.

      • Gareth says :

        Hi Seamus – I read your piece and found it very interesting. I think you rightly point out that one player who is a standard deviation ahead of average in catching terms is unlikely to affect the outcome of many matches.

        My brief was to take a more holistic approach to the problem and essentially identify the level of fielding performance needed to gain a significant competitive edge for the team as a whole and then identify specific areas for improvement for England (diving catches or catches one handed to the right or catches at a certain fielding position etc). As I said in my previous comment catching was the only fielding metric that was significant (and WK catching especially so). I’m afraid I can’t share any of the findings specifically but you are not wrong to say that the effect is much more noticeable in Test cricket where the ‘punishment’ for a drop is potentially much worse as there is no restriction on how long the batsman can remain after the drop (Hashim Amla say when he was dropped in his 311).

        The other thing to point out is that if all teams improved to say 90% catch success rate then the advantage such a success rate had in terms of win%age would of course be lost.

        I would also say that it is fair to suggest that fielding ability is not high on international selectors priority list and is really only used as a tie break (if ever). Moreover it is the one skill even at the highest level that is easiest to train – as far as we were concerned having a bad run with bat or ball happened but there was no excuse for poor fielding.

      • Seamus Hogan says :

        One more thing, Gareth. Did you work find that the relative importance of ground fielding across the formats was the reverse of that for catching: that is, that ground fielding is relatively more valuable in limited-overs cricket than it is in test cricket (albeit less important than catching in either format)?

        I am also interested in your comment that catching is the activity easiest to train. I am a data-and-theory guy whose cricket experience is as a spectator tragic, not a player, so I really don’t have a feel for the extent to what I see happen in games is the result of natural talent versus coaching drills. But my sense was that the ability to take blinders is natural, and the ability to not drop sitters has a lot to do with match temperament. I just think of what happened to Botham’s catching in ’81 (along with his batting and bowling) after he was relieved of the captaincy, and, more recently, the reverse effect on Ross Taylor after he lost the captaincy. But of course, i might just be making the mistake of letting a few salient events cloud my perception.

  2. Gareth says :

    To be honest ground fielding had very little affect on a game in terms of overall success rate vs win%age but yes it have a slightly higher significance in the shorter formats (where one stop that save runs is much more likely to be significant when the margin of victory is considered).

    With regards to training I was referring to fielding skills as a set. I meant that selectors will choose the most talented batters/bowlers because it is much easier to raise fielding to an acceptable standard than improve the other disciplines.

    Moreover natural talent was something of a dirty term where we were concerned. Put simply nobody is born with the natural ability to hit or catch a cricket ball (with it being a wholly unnatural action) but that some people had certain advantages that made them more likely to succeed (height etc). That’s why the ECB and other cricket boards are so focused on talent development and the science of training and learning to allow them to develop the best candidates from the youngest age. This all touches on the psychological point you made with those factors also assessed early on to try to develop both the skill and mental aspect of players in the development programs.

  3. Tyrion says :

    Sorry for putting this post here, but does anyone know which is a better predictor (has a better statistical ‘fit’) with individual test match averages – first class (red ball) cricket or one day international (white ball) cricket?

    • chrisps says :

      No need to apologise. I don’t have an answer to hand, but can have a look at this. Could you clarify whether the question is about selecting a player for Test cricket when the only evidence about them is First Class or ODI performance; or is it about assessing the entirety of a player’s career and determining whether their Test performances followed their career First Class or ODI numbers?

      In the meantime, do have a look at this post on the blog, where I looked at how batsmen get into the England test team: The Root route or the Compton climb

      • Peter Franco says :

        Thanks for responding so promptly!

        While I am interested in which form of cricket is the better predictor for test cricket, it struck me that the best way to test this would be to:

        1. Obtain a sample of cricketers who played test, ODI and FC cricket over the same period; and 2. Have someone familiar with stats see whether the ODI or FC stats provide the best fit with the test stats.

        The job is beyond my pay grade unfortunately.

    • Seamus Hogan says :

      Tyrion. I started to write a reply, but it go too length, so I wrote it up as a blog post: Anyway, I would be interested in what your gut instinct is as to the answer to your question.

  4. Russ says :

    Chris, good spot and discussion. I had a couple of thoughts on it for yourself and Seamus.

    Firstly, that if the catching and runout component of fielding is worth 1/3 of a bowler’s value and 1/4 of a batsman’s then that is huge. Because as Gareth indicates above, it isn’t assessed as worth anything like that much at selection.

    In tests, we know that batsmen tend to score their average from any particular score, so the cost of a dropped dolly is potentially significant, particularly for keepers who get many opportunities.

    Secondly, it intuitively makes sense that fielding would be worth half of bowling or batting, because a non-keeper will generally be involved in around half the number of balls that the average batsman or bowler will be. But the size of their involvement needs to be multiplied by the magnitude of change they can apply to each event. Which perhaps is lower for fieldsmen.

    Thirdly, the caveat I have with the methods used here is that commentary is very inexact, and very biased towards what looks spectacular or an error (in the baseball sense), but won’t mention footwork. What is missing is a sense of range: the ability to make more or less of an opportunity through anticipation and pace (and the strategic impact of that ability – noone ever ran on Jonty after his reputation got around). There is a good discussion of the difficulties of calculating this in this piece on Derek Jeter (a low-error, limited range player). We don’t have (publicly available) data on range, because it needs both the fielding position, and ball position and speed to calculate difficulty, and the ability to measure batsman’s running ability and decision making. I’m still partial to the idea that cricket massively under-estimates the value of good fielding.

    • Seamus Hogan says :

      Russ, I mostly agree with you, but I don’t think the issues you raise will change the underlying conclusion. First a couple of points about the data. I agree with you totally about range. I remember as a kid reading Pelham Warner’s description of Wally Hammond–that he took catches with ease that other player’s wouldn’t even have considered a chance. What this will mean in terms of our analysis coding a degree of difficulty from on-line commentary is that fielders with good anticipation will by making a difficulty chance look easy have too much credit going to the bowler and not enough to the fielder. Against that, however, is the fact our estimate of the contribution of fielding to dismissals is hugely overstated as fielders only enter the dataset for a match if they took or dropped a catch in that match (we would like to correct for that, but it is not a simple thing given our database). So when we say that a fielder who is one standard deviation above average contributes about a quarter as much as a batsman who is one standard deviation above average, both of these are contingent on the fielder actually being involved in a dismissal chance and a batsman coming to the crease. As the latter is far more likley than the former, the estimated standard deviation of the former is overestimated to a far greater extent than the latter.

      I also agree that fielding should receive some attention from selectors when choosing a test team (as catches are surely more important in test cricket than ODIs). But we have to be careful not to let the lack of readily available data on fielding give us licence to overplay its importance. Even in ODIs, we see that the importance of fielding dismissals is heavily reduced if we remove wicket keepers from the mix. In test cricket I would guess that keepers take a greater fraction of the dismissals (although maybe not given the number of slips catches). I think most selectors do think mostly about fielding ability rather than batting when selecting a keeper, although they clearly do trade-off the two attributes. After that, I think that selectors, having chosen a team based on batting, bowling and a keeper, should ask who will field at first siip, and whether it would be good to replace one of the weaker batsman with someone else because of his fielding. My guess would be that most teams would find that their best slips fielder is already in a team selected on batting alone, or that the improvement that would be had by dropping a player to bring in a slips specialist is too small to be worth the cost.

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