Archive | May 2015

Quick single: Who’s winning?

“Well..” I start to answer.

No.2 son, who’s posed the question, has tracked me down to a quiet corner of the house. I’m hunched over my iPad, watching the early stages of a Test match. In my head, I’m turning over possible answers. Responses that convey complexity and unpredictability, that don’t rely on formulations like, “you can’t tell what a good score is until both sides have batted.”

“Oh, 180-5. That’s a good score, isn’t it?”

“Well..” This one’s easier, I could remind him that a batsman once scored 400 in a Test match. Yet, on a tricky wicket, it could still be a ‘good score’.

“Is that bowler good?”

“Well..” It’s clear he’s a marginal international cricketer, although I shouldn’t decry someone who’s succeeded at every other level and will have a far more fulfilling playing career than I could ever have dreamed of. But he has just wasted three overs with the new ball.

“Do you like Alastair Cook?”

“Well..” Should I respond about the batsman, the captain, the straightforward man, the guileless interviewee that I’ve mocked on this channel?

“Will you play football later?”

“Well..” and no.2 son has gone. His father’s inability to answer a string of straightforward questions left hanging in the air. I sink back into the game on the screen. A game that defies easy answers, that offers many suggestions of meaning, lots of false trails and rebuttals of hasty conclusions.

The ambiguity of a Test match in progress qualifies and limits its appeal to the young who are accustomed to contests being settled by celebrity judges, phone-in votes or penalty shoot-outs. If I am left feeling hesitant and inarticulate by my failure to give clear strong answers, I have evenings of cricket like today’s at Headingley as justification for equivocation.

England 215-1 New Zealand 350.

“Who’s winning?”

“Well.. Ballance hasn’t looked very secure recently.. Lyth may find it hard to keep his concentration all the way to the close of play after the elation of a maiden ton.. the weather could close in to help the bowlers.. Root is in good form, but nobody succeeds in every innings.. the new ball is due.. but England do look set for 600.”

Quick single: Maths and the opening partner problem

England have tried: the leading scorer in county cricket, the fresh graduate of every ECB age group team, an Australian, a man who survived a medical emergency, England’s most prolific number 3 batsman in decades and a bald Yorkshireman. With so many options tried, but no solution found, they could do worse than look now to maths. There’s a formula that could help find Alastair Cook an opening partner. 

It’s the solution to the Optimal Stopping Problem. Its role is to assist in situations that feature the following characteristics:

  • An agent has many options to choose from but can test only one option at a time. 
  • Once an option has been tested and discarded it’s very difficult to go back to it later. 
  • If an early choice is selected for ‘keeps’ then the agent would remain ignorant of what all the other options could have offered and whether they would have been superior. 
  • But if the agent keeps testing more and more options in search of a better one, the best option may get discarded. 

The method is also known as the ‘secretary problem’, recalling a time in the last century when recruiting the right personal assistant was the sort of issue that bedevilled business men. For not unconnected reasons, it is now talked about as an aid to singletons trying to find a life partner. 

Alastair has Alice as his life partner, but Straussy has long gone (from whites and track suits, anyway) and the search is on to find an opening partner. The Optimal Stopping Problem solution says that the agent (A Cook) should estimate the total number of partners he would be likely to try out in his (post-Straussy) Test career. In 29 Tests since the former captain’s retirement, Cook had, on average a new partner every six Tests. If his career continues for another five years, he could appear in 60 more Tests. That would equate to 10 more opening partners at the current attrition rate – and 15 in total. 

The next step of the solution is to identify the number of partners that should be tested in order to get a feel for the quality of the field. Research has shown that the square root of the total number of potential partners (3.87) gives a strong probability of getting that feel but, to be certain, the agent should divide the total number of potential partners by 1/e (ie 35% of 15 = 5.25). So, Cook should test five partners and, following the theorem, identify the best of those and then keep changing partners until another one matches that standard. 

When Cook opened with Trott, he completed the testing phase. His task now is to identify the best of the five and find another partner to match that standard. Who of Compton, Root, Carberry, Robson and Trott was the best? None, of course, made a compelling case, but with two Test centuries and one 50 in nine matches and an average of 32, I think Nick Compton has the edge. The mathematical solution for Cook is that when he comes across another opening partner who can emulate Compton’s record, he should toss aside his promiscuity and settle into a long term opening partnership. 

In (at least) one respect, selecting an opening partner differs from the classic Optimum Stopping Problems: it is of course possible to reselect a previously discarded partner. That provides a very neat solution to Cook and England’s dilemma: call up Nick Compton. 

Addendum: I am grateful to Seamus Hogan for this contribution:

@seamus_hogan: @chrisps01 Drawing on a paper by Weitzman (1979), you could add that ECB should try high-variance openers first!

I interpret this to mean that Alex Hales should be given a run in the Test team. 


For more on the Optimum Stopping Problem, listen to the interview with Matt Parker in this episode of the BBC’s ‘More or Less‘. 

Short pitch: No boring middle overs

Power plays, fielding restrictions, a new ball from each end. Innovations and devices to liven up the middle overs of 50 over cricket. Yet the sumptuous cover drive still yields an ‘agreed single’ and finger spinners angle unflighted deliveries, over after over, at the batsman’s pads. 

There’s no absence of incident in the middle overs of under 9 cricket and no artifice. Played 8-a-side in pairs format, overs 5-12 (pairs 2 and 3) are where, by convention or explicit agreement, the less experienced players bat and bowl. The seven year old, the debutant, the little sister or kid brother all find themselves in the guts of the game. 

There are runs, if the lad in the covers gets his hand on the ball and flings his return past the keeper. Near things: a ball that evades the keeper and rolls benignly into open space at fine third man. The non-striker doesn’t notice as he’s busy practicing the off-drive that will never occur to him when it’s his turn to face and an easy two remains a dot ball. 

Most runs that are completed involve a stutter as both batsman hesitate, set off, halt and then dash. Sometimes there’s a slip at the start of the run, which is nicely bookended by a dive to make ground at the other end. Batsmen are rewarded for good footwork. A chassé to short cover to belt a gently bouncing wide. Legside full tosses are spurned, body flexing inward to let the ball float by. 

Wickets fall: the batsman standing frozen outside the crease having missed the ball is stumped after mid-wicket has run to the keeper to tell him what to do. And sometimes they don’t fall as the ball nestles against the stumps without disturbing the bails after a bagatelle journey involving bat, midriff and leg. 

The danger of a runout is never greater than when a lad middles a ball straight. It feels good and instinct requires a run. The bowler has found the ball at her feet and turns to knock down the stumps. 

But the scoreboard keeps ticking. Umpires signalling after almost every ball: wide, wide, no ball, bye, wide. The game’s moving on. No boring middle overs. 

Quick single: reserve forces

One of the conceits of England’s last period of ascendancy in Test cricket (2010-12) was that so rich were its resources of fast bowlers that its reserve corps would be first choices for any other Test team. Finn, Onions, Tremlett, with Dernbach and Meaker still in the phase of getting ODI experience.

This difficult to falsify, but hard to validate argument was briefly put to some sort of test. Stuart Broad and James Anderson were rested/given injury relief for the third Test of a series against West Indies, that England led 2-0, at Edgbaston in June 2012. The match was ruined by rain. Batting first the West Indies scored their highest total of the series, with Dinesh Ramdin scoring a ton at seven and Tino Best a rollicking 95. England’s understudies underwhelmed.

The following year, over a sequence of six Tests against Australia, England brought in Woakes, Tremlett, Stokes and Rankin to support Broad and Anderson. Stokes had a successful game with the ball at Sydney, but none of the others looked deserving of a run in the England side, let alone their major rivals’ teams.

The point of recounting this recent history is to recognise the risk of lauding the strength in depth of a country’s cricket players when, by definition, those reserve forces haven’t had the chance to prove themselves at Test level. With that caution in mind, consider New Zealand.

As with England, their attack is led by a complementary pair: Tim Southee and Trent Boult. Chief support has been provided by Neil Wagner. At Lord’s, Matt Henry made a promising debut, weeks after his surprise World Cup Final appearance. Doug Bracewell, who took nine wickets in New Zealand’s first defeat of Australia in Australia in 26 years, is also in the touring party. Arriving for the short-form cricket should have been the Black Caps’ fastest bowlers: Adam Milne and Mitch McGlenaghan; Milne has had to withdraw due to injury. Fourth seamer duties can fall to all-rounders Corey Anderson, James Neesham and Grant Elliot. In the background, leading wicket taker in the Plunket Shield last season was 20 year old Jacob Duffy.

The absence of Southee or Boult would be a major hindrance, with perhaps only Bracewell offering anything close to their control and new ball penetration. But if their form and fitness holds, as established internationals in their mid-twenties, they have plenty of time to apprentice one or two of the younger bowlers and build a succession.

Three years on from Tino Best’s assault on England’s fast bowling reserve forces, that’s something England may only now just have under way with Ben Stokes and Mark Wood.

Quick single: McCullum’s next move

New Zealand surged through the World Cup playing attacking cricket, stumbled in the Final, and picked up at pace again at Lord’s, even with a swap in format and hemisphere. Opting to bowl first, the New Zealand seam and swing bowlers dismantled England’s top order in the opening hour of the match. Two days later and the visiting side had passed the England total, with just three wickets down and scoring at four runs per over.

How will their defeat this evening, in a match in which they long held the upper-hand, affect their surging style of play?

Brendon McCullum is instrumental to their approach, and culpable in their defeat. On the first morning, to no-one’s surprise, he kept a populous slip cordon while Root and Stokes counter-attacked, giving the England batsmen the space to score runs quickly at a time when the pitch’s early devilry had abated. On day three, with the New Zealand lead building, McCullum continued to charge. A top edged swipe gave Mark Wood his first Test wicket with a catch on the third-man boundary. England’s bowling tightened and a lead that could have exceeded 200 was kept in check.

Of these two passages of play, McCullum’s batting was the graver mistake. England’s green middle-order was exposed on the first morning and the side could have folded for under 150 with another quick wicket. But on the third day, there was no equivalent benefit available from a rapid strike. New Zealand’s telling advantage would come from batting on, continuing to build a lead.

McCullum’s attacking conviction brings to mind another sports figure, from another decade in another sport. Kevin Keegan managed Newcastle United in the 1990s to play a kind of football that made the Geordies everyone’s second favourite team. ‘You score four, we’ll hit five’, was the ethos. But within a matter of months, without a trophy to mark their entertaining efforts, it became, ‘we score three, you’ll net five.’

Keegan was naïve. McCullum surely isn’t. As recently as February 2014, he batted for over 12 hours (scoring 302) to save a Test at Wellington against India when 200 behind on first innings. And his side has adhesive batsmen in Latham, Williamson, Taylor and Watling. The quick bowlers can also settle into long spells, building pressure through consistency, rather than gambling on unplayable deliveries.

What we have seen at Lord’s is McCullum’s deliberate approach, perhaps stirred by the praise he attracted during the World Cup. It’s what makes his next move so interesting. Will the chance of winning in a cavalier, popularity commanding fashion continue to tug, or will he sit back and allow the skills of his team to compete at a more conventional Test match tempo?

We may have found out the answer mid-afternoon today, when McCullum came in to bat, 280 runs from victory and four top order wickets down. How would he bat? But a stinging first ball off-cutter, from the player who benefitted most from McCullum’s determined offensive strategy on day one, struck the New Zealand skipper and deflected onto his stumps. Ben Stokes pushed England towards victory and kept McCullum’s next move concealed until Headingley.

Quick single: Head Coach – without preconditions

Those of us wearied and annoyed by the ECB’s management of its limited pool of international standard male cricketers, enjoyed a little spiteful satisfaction last week. It seemed that Andrew Strauss’s decision to exclude Kevin Pietersen from England selection for the foreseeable future – in all likelihood ending his Test career – may deter the better qualified candidates for the Head Coach role. Pre-conditions, constraining who could and couldn’t be selected, made the role unattractive.

Today, however, it seems that Yorkshire Coach, Jason Gillespie, may want the role after all. Does that make the Australian weak-willed or status-hungry?

I am pretty sure neither is the case. It may be that Gillespie prefers the job with the KP question resolved without his involvement and so no comeback on him. More likely, I would argue, coaches with international aspirations are pragmatic beasts.

The teams they coach are only intermittently at full strength. Injuries, squad rotation, the lure of the T20 tournaments that clash with international commitments, or even retirement to earn more playing in another country’s domestic competition all have to be worked around.

Gillespie will also be very aware of the circumstances his peers, should he be appointed, work under. Duncan Fletcher began his stint with India with four batting greats, three of whose careers were in clear decline, installed in the team, holding up the development of the next generation of batsmen. Fletcher managed that succession to their timescale, rather than his.

Fletcher made it into the post-Tendulkar era, surely expecting to hold greater authority, but soon found the voluble Ravi Shastri appointed Team Director for most of his last year in the job. Fletcher would not have lasted long insisting on coaching without preconditions.

In the West Indies, Phil Simmons inherits a ‘West Indies first’ policy. On the one hand, it’s the strong backing that an international coach would want; on the other it may restrict flexibility the coach could take advantage of when the players pursuing T20 contracts make themselves available.

Being told to manage without KP is a far simpler task than that facing the coaches of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, each of whom will confront preconditions set by politicians, not just cricket administrators. And it’s unlikely those preconditions will be as overt and as easy to abide by as ‘just don’t pick Kevin.’

Even Gillespie’s former teammate, Darren Lehmann, took on the Australia coaching role with limited room for manoeuvre. The Ashes squad had already been selected; the first-choice opener had been sent to the ‘A’ team as a disciplinary measure. Lehmann waited, worked with the players he was given and began to shape the team culture.

Strauss’s decision to exclude Pietersen will not have narrowed the field of potential head coaches. Whoever gets the role will understand that it’s not the sort of job that comes without preconditions.

Quick single: bit of a hero

Asked at the end of the second day’s play at Lord’s about the prospect of Brendon McCullum batting against the new ball on the next day, Moeen Ali said, “Yeah, he’s a bit of a hero of mine..”

Hasn’t the lad attended the ECB media management training?

What’s all this doffing the cap, mid-match, to the opposition captain’s style of cricket?

And the use of simple, clearly spoken words? It’s as if England’s whole vocabulary of performance development had been blown away.

It could be a watershed moment.

I am left to think that Moeen Ali is a bit of a hero of mine.

He didn’t even qualify the statement with an “obviously“.

Quick single: apophenia, Stokes and me

I have been a Stokes sceptic. Muscles, tattoos and attitude, but never a telling or enduring contribution that would put him at the top of the county averages or even earn him regular use of the new ball for Durham.

His breakthrough at Perth was, I thought (ironically, as you will find, if you read on), just one of those things that happen. A bit of bold batting by a youngster on a day that things fell into place. But not a repeatable moment. Stokes’ bowling: the veering to the left in his delivery stride – a technical kink rather than an idiosyncracy from which he drew force or work on the ball. And the outcome was too predictable to bother Test batsmen.

Stokes’ 2014 made me feel sage.

Then yesterday, I switched. Above all, it was the on-driving: tight, measured and drilled to the boundary over and over again. Of the orthodox cricket shots, the most difficult to achieve because of the risk of imbalance: head in line with hands and ball, not tipping to the off-side to create the angle; top hand and bottom hand having milliseconds of dominance, with power exchanged from top to bottom at the precise moment of contact. Stokes’ muscle and attitude were deployed in controlled, balanced bursts.

The context was impressive as well. England four wickets down for thirty, New Zealand’s bowlers in the ascendancy. Stokes used the attacking field to his advantage, flaying short balls across open field.

This morning, thinking about all that Stokes’ innings meant for England, but most of all the future ability to pick the best four bowlers in the country, I remembered apophenia. Finding meaningful patterns in random data.

For all Stokes’ splendid, upright balance, why was he fed full balls on the leg-stump and long-hops? ‘The difficult first hour’ (itself a candidate for apophenic misapprehension) had passed by the time he came to the wicket, which showed itself to be true and good for strokeplay. Hadn’t there also been a few inside edges that could have seen Stokes fall before lunch?

Ben Stokes, apophenia and me: time will tell. I did, though, relish those on-drives.

Quick single: 12 game season

The ECB has, apparently, made the decision to restructure the English domestic season and reduce the County Championship to 12 games per team. The motivation is to make the most of the commercial potential of T20 and also to bolster the 50 over one day game ahead of England hosting that World Cup in 2019.

The County Championship, for much of its existence, was a 32 game tournament, with a potential 96 days of action for each team. A year (or two?) from now, it could comprise at most just half that number of days’ cricket: 48. It’s almost as strong an assault on the traditional county game as the removal of counties from the T20 tournament, in favour of city franchises. And perhaps, the ECB is holding back from that second reform as a means to achieve the former and creating the space for an expanded season of limited overs competitions.

The arguments against this change from those heavily invested in the County Championship will brand it a trivialisation of a grand tradition of the English game, with complaints about the damage that could be done to county clubs that have served communities for generations and the short-changing of many county members by cutting the number of days of first class cricket they could watch. These all seem legitimate concerns.

It will also be contended that it marks a retreat from the primacy of first class cricket, with consequences for England’s Test cricket. That, indeed, would seem to be the case looking at how a new balance is being struck. But I am less convinced by this aspect of the opposition to the reforms. I accept they may be anti-county, but I don’t equate that with them being anti-Test team. I don’t see why twelve games of quality first class cricket isn’t adequate exposure to the longer form of the game. I don’t have any scientific proof, merely the observation that other nations, whose Test teams either outperform England, or share with England a pattern of periodic up and down swings, play even fewer first class matches in their domestic seasons.

domestic 1st class matches-page-001

I concluded, in a recent piece about the prevalence of first class cricket, that my assumption that the longer form of the game was being played less and less was wrong – with the exception of in England. What we are seeing is a convergence of England with much of the rest of the Test-playing world. I don’t pretend, however, that the strongest devotees of the County Championship will find any solace in that.

Short pitch: Girl bowls out boy

15 year old Katie Jordan took four wickets for her village, Mersham, in the Kent Regional League last weekend. A week earlier, England international Kate Cross took eight wickets in the Central Lancashire League for Heywood. Cross, on her debut in April, had been the first woman to play in the history of the league.

Both stories are very pleasing, reflecting particularly well, not just on the two players, but also their clubs who made the bold step to select them. But are Jordan and Cross’s experiences to remain anomalous or are they trailblazers?

Amongst the ECB’s current woes is their calculation that participation in recreational cricket declined by 7% in 2014. An expansion in the number of women playing cricket must play a part in their response. The base – the numbers currently playing – is low. Looking locally, my club has about six years commitment to junior girls cricket. Yet, this season, boys outnumber girls on our membership roll by 8:1. Our ‘boys’ teams will play twenty times more matches in the season than our girls team.

I placed apostrophes around ‘boys’ teams because that’s not really what they are. Over the last two or three years, a handful of girls have regularly appeared in various age level teams. At the junior league meeting last winter, the clubs voted unanimously to repeal a regulation that limited the number of girls in a team to three. Nobody could or would justify the rule. It had just sat in the rulebook as a piece of casual day-before-yesterday sexism and we all felt a little more virtuous for voting it out.

There are practical challenges to achieving the potential for expansion in cricket for girls and women. Access to playing and changing facilities is something each club will need to look at. Female coaches for female players, as required by the ECB, may be more difficult. My club is very fortunate, for the time being, to have links with our local university women’s cricket club. But above all, it’s opportunity and example, that will determine the growth in the women’s game.

A fellow blogger, the Third Man, argued this week that England’s future prospects are a numbers game: the pertinent metric being the quantity of seven and eight year-olds introduced to the game. With cricket coaching in primary schools, where it exists, gender neutral, it should be drawing more girls to the game at an early age. I wonder whether secondary school offers even greater advantages. Female sports teachers, sports halls and equipment (soft, if not hard-ball) are already in place.

Cricket for girls, whether in girls-only competitions or mixed matches, can preserve or even enhance the sport’s, ‘national summer game’ status. The strategies needed to achieve it go well beyond the scope of a single Short Pitch post, but those with the authority and resources ought to be working away at it.

At the start of this piece, I described the stories of women excelling in ‘men’s’ league cricket as pleasing. It would be immensely satisfying if those incidents became so routine that ‘girl bowls out boy’ has none of the media appeal of ‘man bites dog’.