Archive | April 2015

Short pitch: top of the order

IMG_0306“I’ll be batting top of the order,” my Dad, 84 this year, said ahead of his school reunion. He meant that there would be no one senior to him at the event.

Afterwards, he was more cheerful. He had a great ‘find’ to report. A film shot in 1950 at his school had been discovered. It featured my Dad, in his final school year, playing cricket.

Stories of my Dad’s cricket exploits have featured on Declaration Game: his ’10 for’ denied by a failed all-run four; him netting with Surrey’s 1st XI while at school. But I’ve only had words with which to conjure an impression of my Dad as a cricketer at his peak. He had stopped playing club cricket 20 years before the only, memorable match we played together.

IMG_0300But now I have images. Two close-ups of my Dad playing a sweep shot. One sequence of him bowling, which was shot from the mid-wicket boundary. And with that a nugget he’d never mentioned: his run up and action modeled on Alec Bedser.

IMG_0302The film can be found here. The cricket sequences are brief, running from 6:50 to 7:30.

The very top of the order; no doubt.

Quick single: the fourth innings 400 barrier

A lead of 400, entering the fourth innings of a match, is an impregnable position – virtually. A score that is routinely accrued in the early part of a match, becomes unattainable (almost) for the side batting last.

The trend of diminishing run-scoring returns as matches enter their final phase is one of the known, understood and acted upon patterns of cricket. There’s no mystery to it, not if you get close to the action and see the deterioration in the pitch that makes it less and less reliable for batting on as three or four days of play pass.

According to this list, Middlesex’s score of 405-5 against Somerset today is in the top 70 winning fourth innings totals in first class cricket history. This list spans 120 years, meaning that successful run chases of this size, or greater, occur slightly more than every other year on average. In fact, 13 came from the last decade, showing that their frequency is increasing, probably because the condition of pitches alters less as matches progress making run-scoring less hazardous deeper into a match and faster scoring rates mean that leads of 400 plus are achieved at an earlier point in games.

Nonetheless, they remain rare and noteworthy achievements (albeit Middlesex’s second in two years after scoring 472 against Yorkshire in 2014). And each time they happen, their effect is to make another occurrence both more and less likely. Teams facing a target of more than 400 have recent examples to emulate and may opt for the chase rather than survival. But teams setting targets, who can time when the fourth innings begins, will be a little more cautious, asking more in less time of their opponents. For a team on top after three innings, this maxim is particularly true: losing feels worse than winning feels good.

Quick single: 99.3% precision

As Shannon Gabriel struggled with his run up in the 2nd Test in Grenada, a commentator noted that he was starting his run-up from a different spot each delivery. On twitter, I saw an exchange that concluded that Gabriel’s imprecision wouldn’t be tolerated in US sport.

I thought I had come across the archetypal example of American sport’s attention to detail in Ed Palubinskas, who featured in Planet Money’s episode The Free Throw Experiment – about the introduction of skill-based games to US casinos. Palubinskas claimed a free throw (1) conversion percentage of 99.3%. More credibly, and validated elsewhere, Palubinskas coached Shaquille O’Neal at the LA Lakers and in the course of one season helped lift ‘Shaq’s’ free throw percentage from 39% to 68%. Despite being “an absolute ringer” – a term I didn’t know Americans used – Palubinskas didn’t win the casino free-throw contest.

A few minutes of research revealed something notable and unexpected about free throw percentages. For the last 50 years, the conversion rate in professional basketball has remained close to 75%. In that same period, the conversion rate of shots in open play (field goals) has increased from 34% to 46%. For some reason, one that doesn’t relate to any notion of balance between teams as the shot is uncontested, professional basketball players are not getting any better at this simplest endeavour.

Free throws should mean free points. But, perhaps seduced by more complex tactics and skills of other areas of the game, US basketball coaches seem to have settled for a three-quarters return from the free throw.

Shannon Gabriel bowled 29 overs in the 2nd Test. Six no balls gave him a 96.66% front foot precision rate. It’s not Palubinskasian, but neither is it a departure from the disciplines of modern society. Avoiding no balls, shooting free throws – are they the uninteresting details of sport that if given too much focus by coaches would leave too little time for the skills and tactics that win matches?


Note 1: A free throw is an unopposed shot, like a penalty in football, awarded against a team responsible for a foul. The throw is taken from a line just under 5m from the basket.

Short pitch: Giveaway

shirtAt my club, the junior membership package comprises for a single fee: all matches, training sessions, sports club membership, an end of season event and a giveaway.

The free item has, in recent years, been a club playing shirt, a club cap and a training shirt. We have thought of giving a ball, stamped with the club crest. But this year, with a new sponsor in place, we have reverted to providing a club playing shirt. 

The shirts arrived one week late, but just in time for this evening’s training session. With gratifying pride in the club’s colours, some of the players changed straight into their new shirt. 

The manufacturer described the shirt as offering:

Improved cricket specific fit to aid athletes’ movement during sport for greater comfort and performance.

Some of our younger boys put the shirt to the test and found its versatility was being undersold as it afforded the athlete a comfortable fit, not just for cricket, but wrestling, tumbling and grass-sliding.

As the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped into the low single figures and spots of rain fell, we waited for another day to try out the remaining features of the shirt’s specification:

Moisture controlling materials draw heat away from the body.
Collar for UV protection

Maybe next year, I’ll suggest something really useful and sensitive to the local climate for our junior membership giveaway: pocket hand-warmers.

Quick single: Jonathan Trott walking out by himself

Jonathan Trott’s short and uncomfortable innings on the final day of the 2nd Test led to a discussion on Test Match Special about the difference between opening and batting in the middle order. Michael Vaughan took the declarative approach initially: “It’s just different”. But pressed by Ed Smith, Vaughan revealed how he didn’t like having to wait to bat when first playing for England as a middle order batsman, with a background for Yorkshire as an opener (my recollection is that he didn’t have to wait long to bat on his debut against South Africa). Then, thinking of Trott’s move in the other direction, Vaughan suggested that he might not like sharing the walk out to the middle, as an opener does, as distinct from the lone walk of any other batsman. 

It all sounded pretty trite. 

Ed Smith ventured an explanation based on technique. He likes, he said, to see openers keeping their heads still when on strike. Trott at the start of his innings in this series had not just engaged a trigger move but his head was in motion as the ball was delivered, Smith observed. 

Smith sounded insightful. 

I have previous in this area. I wrote a piece over two years ago, What is an opening batsman? I looked at the conventional definition (orthodox technique, etc) and the performance of openers in recent years. There appeared to be no correlation between effectiveness and a match to the conventional definition. I concluded that four things made a batsman suitable for opening in Test matches:

  • Experience of the role
  • Complement to the opening partner (the weakest factor)
  • Not the best batsman in the team
  • Wants the job. 

Smith was making a useful technical observation, but one no less relevant to a middle order batsman than to an opener. Vaughan, struggling to articulate a reason and sounding trite, was I believe closer to the truth and an understanding of Trott’s lack of success specifically in the role as opener: he doesn’t have experience opening and would probably prefer to bat somewhere else. 

Short pitch: Ferrybridge

The sight of Mount Parnassus rising above the National Cricket Stadium in Grenada has become familiar to those of us following the 2nd West Indies v England Test this week. The dark green wooded slopes are speckled with white houses, which might give the best view from a domestic property of an international ground apart from the flats around the Oval.

Despite Grenada’s backdrop, the most striking image I have seen this week of the environment of a cricket ground is reproduced here.


The ground belongs to Ferrybridge ‘C’ Power Station CC in West Yorkshire. My coaching colleague, Abi Bates, played a match there for Vernon Carus. During that match, Abi said she thought it had begun to rain. It turned out to be condensate from the cooling towers.

That reminded me of my first club cricket ground: Chalfont St Giles, in South Buckinghamshire. It was situated close to an abatoir. Late in the afternoon, if the ground was downwind, smoke from the slaughterhouse chimney would drift, noxiously across the ground. It wasn’t something you wasted photographic film recording.









Quick single: Ballance’s bat

FullSizeRenderGary Ballance’s virtues are found in terms of outputs, not process. Four hundreds and four fifties in his first ten Test matches make him one of the faster starters of England batsmen at this stage of their career.

He isn’t elegant. Amongst the many left-handers who defy the stereotype of graceful shot-making he doesn’t repel the eye as much as, say, Graeme Smith or Kepler Wessels. But it’s solid, focused, unexceptional batting at which he excels.

Now, in this series in the West Indies, he’s starting to look scruffy – because of his bat. Last summer, his New Balance blade was clear, pale willow. Then, it was his cheeks that attracted comment for their rosiness. His newer New Balance bat looks like it has been used to protect him from assault by flying tomatoes. Bright red splodges from one edge to the other, thickly spread from splice to an inch above the toe of the bat.

To his credit, there’s something honest and straightforward about leaving the marks where they appear on the bat. I have been known to sand-off those close to the edges of my bat. Perhaps the appearance of Ballance’s bat is a sign that he is free of any such insecurities about his own batting.

Short pitches: fairer selection

Selectors, I have argued, should have fairness to players very low on their list of priorities. The selector’s job is to assemble the team best equipped for the task in hand – usually a match, but sometimes a future series of greater significance.

I was, of course, writing about the realm of international cricket. A long, long way from there, one week into the season, my junior coaching colleagues and I are actively debating selection in junior club cricket.

Junior cricket is, of course age-group based – under 16s, under 13s, etc. There is some flexibility: usually the groups mix players across two years; and younger players can, where safe, play for an older age group. It’s also worth noting that in the league where our juniors play, girls are allowed to play for an age group two years below their school year – a good initiative to encourage their participation.

But, as one of my colleagues has argued, it’s expedient and far from ideal.

Cricket is organised in age groups. Let’s consider why? Children of the same age can exhibit a huge range of abilities. I’m sure we can think of Under 9s who wouldn’t be out of place in an U11s team, and U11s who wouldn’t be out of place in an U9s team. If we were to pick a team based on abilities, it’d have a very wide age range – a bit like the Sunday 3rds, where 40-something Dads struggle to match the skills of the 14 year olds (I speak from bitter experience).

The reason teams are grouped by age is simple: it’s not that it’s a GOOD way to do it, but it’s an EASY way to do it, as it mimics the school years. There’s no universally-adopted unit of measurement for bowling skills, or batting, or fielding, or captaincy – but we can measure someone’s age easily, and group them using a September 1st cutoff. So that’s become accepted practice – at cricket, as well as school.

The ideal would be that each junior player represented a team, participating in a competition, that stretched their abilities and maximised their opportunity to develop. We are able to cater to some degree by having younger able players represent older teams. But we cannot offer anything to the older player whose needs would be better met in a younger team.

Junior football in England is even more age-bound than cricket, with almost all teams spanning a single school year. And it was from this more tightly organised sport that has emerged a novel suggestion. Rather than eligibility being defined as ‘players born on or after a certain date’, it could be based on average age (1). In this regime, an under 13 team could give the opportunity to a couple of 15 year olds to find their level, as long as there were a couple of 11 year olds capable of playing in the older age group.

It does sound fairer than the inflexible application of birth dates. On the other hand, it makes something very straightforward, quite complex. There would also be the fear and accusation that teams were gaming the system; for example, choosing a strong over-age player who could have a disproportionate impact on a 20 over game of cricket.

Should we stop ourselves running junior cricket in a way that could help all players develop their game because of a bit of complexity and fear that unscrupulous opponents (never our team, of course) might get one over on us?


(1) The average team age eligibility rule was brought to my notice by Steve Lawrence (@stevelawrence_)

Quick single: fair selection

Trott and Cook open again for England, while Adam Lyth, the premier opener in county cricket last season, acts as 12th man. Mark Wood, seen by some as the fastest bowler in the touring party, waits for his international debut, while the four seamers who took nine wickets between them in the first Test, get another game.

It’s not fair.

And I’ve not even mentioned Nick Compton.

Unfair selection; worthy players who are ‘hard done by’. It’s just, well, unjust and the selectors should pay the price.

That’s a characterisation of opinions expressed by many followers of all major teams. It’s not one I share.

Fairness, I believe, has no place in the selection of international cricket teams. Selectors should aim to field the team that, in their expert opinion, is best suited to achieve the objective set. Most commonly, that objective is to win the next match; but it could be to prepare a team for a more stretching challenge ahead (Cook’s continued selection may fall into this category).

A very simple algorithm could pick a team based on statistics from domestic first class cricket. The selectors’ role is to assess whether a player with an impressive first class record could reproduce that success in international cricket. They must judge whether an encouraging start to a Test career is likely to be sustained and, if not likely, that it is better to cut it off before it goes sour. Selectors must know when to bring to an end the career of one of the mainstays of the team. Selectors must search for the clue that distinguishes the potentially international-class from the group of pretenders. They should not trouble themselves with fairness.

And given that license to make judgements, selectors should be held accountable for results. I expect selectors to be ruthless and to be treated ruthlessly.

Short pitch: and we’re off

One accident report (no lasting damage).

Two late coaches.

Three lost balls.

Four missed calls on my phone as 6 o’clock approached.

5km of walking and running with and between practice groups.

Six.. seven.. yes! eight players confirmed for Wednesday’s under 9 pairs match.

92 brand new club shirts gone astray.

These are the vital statistics of the first day of the junior cricket season. I’m shattered, but a couple of hours after the session, which was attended by nearly 100 boys and girls, and helped by a bottle of Blue Moon from the George Wright Brewery, my anxiety levels have dropped and I am feeling satisfied: we’re off – the season is under way.