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Thinking cricket, fast and slow (and sadistically)

Source: YouTube still

Would you prefer a batsman who scores 50 every innings, or one who scores 100 half the time and 0 the rest? The ‘expected value’ (batting average) each player offers their team is the same. The decision appears to rest on whether consistency or the potential for a match-defining innings contributes more to your team.

Jarrod Kimber and Andy Zaltzman discussed this conundrum on a recent episode of the ‘Cricket Sadist Hour,’ acknowledging @analytics_jonas as the source of the riddle. The discussion suggests that there is an answer to the question, if sufficient mathematical heft is applied to it. Indeed there may be, but how often in the real world of cricket, or any other occupation, is a difficult decision subject to rational analysis and resolution?

Suprisingly rarely, according to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner in Economics and author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. Kahneman challenged the orthodoxy in the social sciences that, “people are generally rational and their thinking is normally sound.” Kahneman and others put judgement to the test by running experiments. What they consistently found were “heuristics and biases.. the simplifying shortcuts of intuitive thinking.”

Following Kahneman’s lead, I won’t try the tricky statistical enterprise of devising an answer to the question. Instead, I will draw on his book to understand why and in which conditions team-mates, fans or even selectors may choose one of these theoretical batsmen over the other.

Question substitution

The numbers (50, 50, 50, 50… and 0, 100, 0, 0, 100, 100…etc) will play a part in these answers, but to begin with, let’s acknowledge that for most of us, much of the time, decisions are not based on numerical analysis, which Kahneman has shown is too effortful and our brains tend to shun.

This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Kahneman, p12

Instead of attempting the difficult question (which player, based on their pattern of scoring, and the complex structure of a cricket match, will over time contribute more to the team?), we substitute an easier one. In this case, it might be: “Who scored more runs when I last saw them on TV? or, which player has the purer cover-drive? or, which player is being lauded by the ex-player whose opinion I respect?” Kahneman gives examples of how choices are made over political candidates, investment opportunities and charitable donations, but could easily have added cricket team selection to his list.

I will now engage more directly with @analytics_jonas’s original question but introduce some small aspects of context in order to understand how each of the batsmen might, in different circumstances be our preference.

Experience and memory

Our experience of the two batsmen, aggregated over time, will be very similar (if not identical) in terms of the number of runs we see them score. If decision-making were based on lived experience, we may struggle choosing between the consistent batsman and the success/fail player.

However, studies carried out by Kahneman and other psychologists have shown that decisions are not driven by the lived experience, but by the retained memory of the experience.

The memory that the remembering self keeps.. is a representative moment strongly influenced by the peak and the end. (Kahneman, p383)

Taking the ‘peak’ effect first, the success/fail player will clearly have provided greater peaks to plant in the memory than the steady accumulator of half-centuries. The second aspect, the recency effect works equally well for each as around half the time each of the batsmen will have recorded the higher score in their last innings. Combining the ‘peak effect’ and the ‘end effect’, the success/fail player will have created the more favourable impression.

Prospect theory

Put now in the position of selector opting for one of our two players for the next match, rationally there is nothing to choose between them, as over two innings they are, on average, expected to contribute the same number of runs.

Daniel Bernoulli, Swiss scientist of the eighteenth century, refined this understanding by observing that most people dislike risk. So while the expected value of the two batsmen is the same, there is a premium on the player guaranteed to score 50 each innings (or a discount on his alter ego). For the selector this may make sense. There may be only one innings in the match, so better bank 50 runs than risk 0. Even with two innings, we cannot be certain that our success/fail player won’t make two ducks, before bouncing back to form in a later game.

Kahneman added further nuance to Bernoulli’s theory from the empirically observed standpoint that people’s decisions are context dependent. The pattern found, and stated in Prospect theory, is that the decision-maker whose prospects are poor is more likely to gamble. On the other hand, when faced with a situation that offers only an upside, decision-makers tend to be averse to risk and seize the sure thing.

One-nil down in the series with one match to play, the opportunity of having the century-maker is more appealing. One-up, at the same stage of the series, and the cautious choice is preferred. As explored in a previous post on declaration decisions, when a skipper is on top in a Test match, losing feels worse than winning feels good.

It is important to emphasise that Kahneman’s work is descriptive of the decisions people (Test selectors?) make and not prescriptive of the decisions they should make. Indeed, Kahneman emphasises that these systematic biases, based in this case on decision makers’ reference points (i.e. their context), can create unfavourable outcomes, with good opportunities passed over and poor choices pursued.

Thinking slow

While we wait for advanced cricket analytics to tell us whether absolute consistency trumps its opposite, selectors will have to pick players, pundits will continue to push the interests of their proteges and we followers of the game will invest great hopes in our favourites. By making some effort to examine our preferences we might reveal biases and so move towards more informed selections of, lobbying for and championing of players.


Running catch


Credit: Lord’s TV


Three sudden jarring cries carry the 75 yards from the middle. A pause and then a broader chorus cheers, still high-pitched, but with less urgency. The batsman walks away from the wicket. The chorus members converge from their fielding positions. A wicket has fallen.


Evidence of the eyes: the stumps stand upright, location of bails unclear; the ball has now been returned to the umpire.

Rewind a few seconds. Grab a memory of this, the sixth, sixtieth, perhaps, 360th delivery watched today. Scan for clues: the batsman’s movement, the ball’s destination, keeper’s line, close fielders’ inclined heads.

Apply heuristics of many years of watching, layer with knowledge of the competitors, inject with understanding of the conditions of the pitch and the ball.

Settle on a theory: a thin edge, to a good-length, seaming delivery, gathered to the keeper’s left.

Away to your right, the scoreboard flatly conveys the truth: LAST MAN lbw b 9.

Watching cricket live is a challenge of concentration and observation. The difference between an edge behind, a drive to the boundary or a cautious leave, is found in a fraction of the seconds the ball is live. An experienced eye can make a lot of those fleeting images. But much of the appreciation when watching play at the ground is in the aftermath of the delivery and interpreting the movement of batsmen, fielders and bowler.

There are exceptions, where the key moments of action play out at the same pace as an alert spectator’s attention. My favourite, an incident that can crown any day at the cricket, is the running catch. The usual pulse of action is extended, introducing jeopardy, with just enough time for speculation and ‘will he, won’t he’ thoughts.

The flash of activity that ushers the chance is articulated: an advance down the wicket perhaps, invariably a full swing of the bat that grabs the eye. Following the ball’s course, the brain calibrates trajectory with boundary and deep fielder. Swapping focus, before settling on the fielder, carrying out her own speedy calculations.

While writing, I’m thinking of Damien Martyn ending Kevin Pietersen’s daring first Test innings, Alex Hales (and Moeen Ali) sucker-punching Misbah at Lord’s, a full-length dive at long-on by Cameron Bancroft at a T20 at Cheltenham. None was the most significant moment of that day’s cricket, but each imprinted deeply because I watched them unfold.

The fielder’s athleticism plays a part in the appeal: foot speed to gain ground towards the ball, agility to stretch or even dive to reach it on the full and dexterity to clasp and cling onto the ball while moving at pace. Yet, the running catch that resounds the strongest featured a greying cricketer, most comfortable scheming at slip. But it was from mid-on, in the closing overs of a one-day game, that he pitter-pattered with flat feet down the slope towards the Tavern, like an uncle chasing a paper plate blown away at a family picnic. Mike Brearley, at the 1979 World Cup Final, ran and ran before taking Andy Roberts’ skied pull over his left shoulder.

Imposters at the Sir Leonard Hutton Gates?

gatesPolice forces across the world have utilised the tactic of sending invitations to unapprehended criminals to collect prizes. It crossed my mind briefly that I may be being set-up, but I am law abiding, so the ECB invitation to Headingley was more likely to be a wind-up than a set-up. In turn, that anxiety slid into a more familiar one: imposter syndrome.

It’s a universal truth that there’s always someone better than you are at cricket. Only the Don is exempt, sitting at the top of that pyramid scheme. It’s almost as true about being a cricket obsessive. In the right environment you’re never more than an anorak away from someone with a finer appreciation of the skills of the game, its history, current players or ‘knowledge ‘ about why that journalist wrote a particular piece about that player. Perhaps it’s only in the security of a blog that one’s obsession reigns supreme.

And coaching, six years after qualifying, remains an area of shifting sands, few solid foundations and ever evolving puzzles. Why can that lad suddenly play that shot? How did that girl develop a throwing arm like that? Why’s that lad suddenly firing the ball down legside? The relationship of my methods and their outcomes are not just disjointed but appear to be on different planes. I am the arch-imposter when coaching.

Attending an event with, amongst others, a current minor counties player, someone who played club cricket with ‘Stokesie’, a county head of coaching and a university head coach reinforced the suspicion, as we gathered by the Sir Len Hutton Gates, that I was a little out of my league.

But inside the ground, sitting square of the wicket, trying to rationalise England’s loss of five top-order wickets to Sri Lanka’s seam attack; attempting to forecast the weather using a mixture of sky-gazing and smartphone apps, brought us all onto a level.

Maybe it was just a day of imposters – out in the middle, not just sat in the crowd. Were England’s top-order shut away in a windowless room in Leeds while a gang of look-a-likes started the English summer for them? Take Alex Hales: leave, leave, leave – no heave. Cook stretching forward, having a dart outside off-stump, when a milestone of run aggregation lay so close by. Root simply failing to be magnificent.

Yet Hales, having made the decision to forego IPL riches, has ample motivation for adopting a new degree of prudence. Earlier this month, against Yorkshire, he accumulated a mere 35 from only five fewer balls than are delivered in an entire T20 innings.

Cook had been characteristically Cooky off his pads. He attempted two off-drives, connected juicily with one, but his edge to the second may make it his last of the summer. And Root bounced to the wicket and played short balls high on the tips of his toes.

Most authentic of all were Stokes and Bairstow. The former banged a few boundaries in defiance of Sri Lanka’s rapid removal of the top order, before bunting a drive to mid-on. Bairstow banged a few balls, too, but it was his energy at the wicket that verified his identity. All but the tightest of singles saw him turning to set off for a second. He charged one 3, when most batsmen would have settled for 2, and had to be sent back from attempting an all-run 4.

Another England batsman made a fine impression. Mark Ramprakash was walked across the ground at lunch to greet the award-winning coaches, treating each, whether genuine or imposter, with quiet congratulations and wishes for a enjoyable day.

My cover wasn’t blown, or my company were too polite to out me. In truth, I had had a narrow escape – not at Headingley though, but at the conference I was to attend before I received the ECB’s generous invitation. I was to share my expertise on transforming contact centres. Imposter alert!

Do breaks in play take wickets?

Lunch break at Lord's

Lunch break at Lord’s

It seems uncontroversial to state that batsmen are more likely to be dismissed immediately after an interval, than when they have settled back into the new session. But similarly well-worn aphorisms – the nervous nineties and batsmen tending to fall quickly after sharing a sizeable partnership – have shown not to stand up to statistical scrutiny. This post, therefore, attempts to apply numerical analysis to the received wisdom that in Test matches batsmen are more vulnerable immediately after resuming play.

Before introducing the numbers, it’s worth reflecting why this common understanding is so readily accepted by cricket followers. I think there are two mutually reinforcing factors at play, each of which could be supported by associated statistical evidence.

The first factor is that batsmen are at their most vulnerable early in an innings. Owen Benton, in his post ‘When is a batsman ‘in’?‘ demonstrated that the likelihood of a Test opening or middle order batsman falling before scoring another five runs is at its highest when on a score below five. It can be argued that this early-innings fallibility revisits the batsman in the analogical position of re-starting an innings after a break in play.

The second factor is that it is accepted good tactical practice for the fielding side to start the session with its most potent bowlers. While there are no statistics to hand to demonstrate that this tactic is actually applied regularly, nor that those bowlers are more threatening immediately after a break, it would be straightforward to compare the career strike rates of the bowlers opening after the resumption against other bowlers used in that innings.

To test the proposition that wickets fall more frequently after a break in play, I selected a random sample of Test matches played since May 2006 (the date from which scorecards recorded the score at every break in play). Details on the sampling method are provided at the foot of this post.

From the sample of 20 Tests, I noted the incidence of wickets falling in the three overs following (and prior to) 436 breaks in innings, including lunch, tea, drinks breaks, close of play and weather interruptions. Excluded from this figure are any breaks which coincided with the start of a team’s innings.

All results are strike rates expressed as wickets per over. In the period 2006-2015, wickets fell on average in Test cricket at 0.08 per over. As the chart below depicts, there was a 50% increase in the strike rate in the first over after a break in play (0.125). This effect wore off rapidly, so that the second over after the resumption saw a strike rate (0.090) that was barely above the period average and equivalent to the sample average (0.091).

wkts per over-page-001

The result for the 1st over after a break in play is statistically significant. The sample size doesn’t enable the analysis by type of break in play to be anything other than indicative, but is presented below for interest – based upon the first three overs of the restart.

interval types-page-001

Weather breaks appear to be the most damaging to a batsman’s prospects, but the 20 Test sample only featured 11 weather breaks. There does not appear to be any relationship to the duration of the break. For example, the overnight break was associated with a lower strike rate than the brief evening drinks break.

The sample results do seem to bear out the received wisdom that batsmen are vulnerable immediately following a break in play. However, the brevity of the impact – a single over – doesn’t strongly support the two explanations offered above.

If batsmen find a new session is like starting a new innings, then the effect would be visible in the second over, as six deliveries is unlikely to be sufficient for both batsmen to pass this phase.

If the phenomenon is caused by the more potent (and refreshed) bowlers, it too would be discernible in the second over (bowled by the other fresh strike bowler) and third overs of the new session.

There remains an explanation and it’s a prosaic one, which will often be used by commentators seeing a batsman fall soon after a break. It may simply be that the batsman’s concentration has been interrupted and not sufficiently refocused for that first over of the restart. There’s a message here for players – prepare psychologically for the new session – and spectators – don’t dither, get back to your seat for the restart.


Sampling method:

383 Test matches were played in the period from May 2006. Based on an estimated 9,000 breaks in play with an expected strike rate per 18 deliveries of 0.3, 478 breaks in play were needed to give a result with confidence interval of 0.04 at a 95% confidence level. Excel’s random integer function was used to pick numbers between the Test match references of the first (1802) and last (2181) in the sample period. It is worth noting that the random sample was based on Test matches, not breaks in play.

Using the number of relevant breaks in play from the 20 Test sample, a lower total number of breaks of play in the population was calculated for the population of Tests: 8,600. The adjusted sample size was 417, which is lower than the sample on which data was collected.


The psychology of pundits’ predictions

BeefyAs the South Africa v England series approaches, the pundits and correspondents will roll out their predictions. The most predictable thing of all will be the shape of those predictions. Beefy, Nass, Boycs, Corky and co will fancy England’s chances to steal a rare away win. Polly, Kepler, Fanie, etc will be confident that the home team will bounce back from its defeat in India and prevail over England.

I have always assumed that this partisan predicting of the outcome of a close contest is somehow an artifice of being a media voice: it would be disloyal to downplay your country’s team; or poor form to admit on your host broadcaster that ‘our team’ won’t win and so the game might not be attractive to watch. It could be an extension of the “conviction, clarity of thought, even blind faith” that Ed Smith has identified as necessary in the elite sportsman, but trips up those same individuals when they climb the steps to the commentary box.

It turns out, however, that there may be something a little more subtle at work (footnote 1). Psychologists have found that however rationally we may believe we are behaving, we have difficulty separating what we want to happen from what we predict will happen. It’s not hard to see how those two concepts get confused when an individual is emotionally involved in the outcome – as a cricket follower is in the fortune of her team. But experiments show that it’s a stickier phenomenon than that.

In tests (the pseudo-laboratory kind found in experimental psychology, not that kind of test that stands at the pinnacle of cricket) participants have been given a role to play and then predict the outcome of a related event. Their predictions have been influenced by the role they were asked to assume; and that influence is in the direction of being more favourable to their temporarily adopted identity. Even when a financial reward was made available for the accuracy of the prediction, participants were inclined to over-egg the likelihood of the outcome that aligned with the role they played.

I imagine it is in these margins that bookies make a lot of their money. The odds on a Lancashire victory in a Roses match can be shorter in Manchester than Leeds as there are more punters on the west of the Pennines prepared lay money on a red rose victory, even though the returns are lower than those available elsewhere. Perhaps the internet makes this kind of arbitrage more difficult for the traditional bookmakers, but it must be part of the skill of peer-to-peer betting.

The consequences of this phenomenon can be far more serious than losing your shirt to the bookmaker or predictably skewed predictions from sports pundits. It provides the fuel that feeds disputes: each party believing that they can, and indeed should, get more out of a situation than is objectively likely. Lengthy legal cases and protracted industrial disputes can result, costing participants time and money that a compromise could avert.

So Botham, Pollock, et al are not simply being obtuse or stubborn in fancying their team. They are conforming to a very human trait that makes it difficult to distinguish what we want to happen in the future from what we predict will happen. If you want a pundit’s view of the South Africa v England series that is unsullied by wishful thinking, find someone with nothing invested in the result. Jeremy Coney would be my go-to man.


Footnote: see more detailed explanation in Tim Harford’s FT article ‘Wishful Thinking‘.

Short pitch: an over

Just 1.1% of a full day of Test cricket; only 5% of a T20 innings. An over is the second smallest unit in cricket, but for a non-bowling cricketer, obliged by the format of a competition to bowl, it has the potential to be the period of time covering the transition from active playing to determined retirement. It lasts long enough for repeated humiliation that then echoes onwards for years ahead.

“You now,” shouts the skipper. The innings is short; the call inevitable. I trot towards the umpire, hand him my cap, and mark a short run-up, wondering if performing these conventional actions can somehow create an aura of bowling competence that will sustain me through the next six deliveries. That number, six, I put out of my mind. I know it’s a best case scenario. It could, with a mechanical merciless umpire, be infinite if I cannot control how I propel the ball. But even six deliveries, with these batsmen, could yield runs so richly that the game could be put beyond us.

Before any more thoughts can overwhelm me, as if approaching a cold pool for a dip, I step forward and send the first ball on its slow flight towards a violent fate. It’s straight and full. The batsman meets it on the half-volley and drives it swiftly to the left of our fielder (one of only four) at wide long-on. The batsmen run one, and there’s a call for a second. A powerful throw reaches the keeper on one hop, the stumps are broken, we shout, the umpire raises a finger. We cheer and congratulate. A new batsman comes to the wicket, takes guard.

So much has happened. The over should be finished soon, I feel. But, no, it has barely begun – five more balls required.

So, back up to the crease, getting this unpleasant duty done. Another drive sends the ball skimming straight past me to the boundary. The ball is returned to me and I wave the four fielders straighter. I should have done it at the start of the over, but the notion of setting a field for bowling that I feel I can barely control, seemed like tempting fate.

Here we go again, before my hand starts to tremble, a couple of steps and over comes my arm. I’ve managed to keep it full again, but this one is heading for the batsman’s legs. Down comes his bat, but somehow, probably through lack of pace, the ball evades it, hits his pads and bounces a yard or two into the legside. The batsmen run a leg-bye. My team-mates shout encouragement to me. I’ve made it to the half-way mark. It might be comical, these slow looping lobs, but I’ve not yet felt humiliated or put the game beyond us.

The tall opener is now facing me. Forward I go and launch another benign missile, which he steps out towards and drills past my left hand, ball bounding to the straight long-off boundary.

Not far to go now. I let a thought of technique into my mind as I move into my next ball: to pivot on my front foot so my chest rotates from facing leg to off-side. The tall opener clatters my next ball to my right. A full-length dive on the boundary cuts off the ball and keeps the runs down to two. I stop and applaud, relieved to be spared a boundary; embarrassed by the gap in quality separating my bowling and the fielding.

My finishing line, my summit is approaching. I don’t want to ruin things now. That sense of protecting something carries through into my action and, hardly possible one would think, I put even less on this ball, which floats along the 20 yards, descending towards the batsman’s thigh, in front of which he waves his bat and spanks it past the square-leg boundary.

“Over,” calls the umpire and I am released.

Short pitch: the immanent game

For twenty minutes, cricket dominated, absolutely. Second by second, it controlled everything and its imprint was everywhere. Every muscle contraction was dedicated to the game. Each thought a construction of this match and its near conclusion. My psychology awash only with hopes and dreads of what my contribution might be. Relationships with teammates defined solely by our combined need to squeeze a result. Of the opposition, depersonalised antagnoists, on whom failure was all I wished.

The firm turf, felt only for what it meant for a cricket ball: swift passage to the boundary if hit a degree or two away from me. And the light, closing in on the game. The rotation of the planet obscuring the sun, progressively denying us sight of the struck ball until it was upon us or past us in the field. From there, back into my mind and the urgent hopes for victory and fears of shame should I be culpable in our defeat.

Immanence, the property of being everywhere, suffusing all experience, associated with ideas of deity, was the state of this cricket game.

For two hours, the match had hinted at, and never excluded the possibility of a tight finish. Our total strong; but their reply measured, then accelerating, until wickets fell, a batsman was required to retire and the run in, those swamping, absorbing twenty minutes.

Despite the intensity of those last minutes, I can’t recall ball-by-ball how the final over progressed. But with five needed from two balls, nine of us were stationed on the boundary, calculating if a stride either way could be definitive and eyes straining for the ball.

Neither of those deliveries turned out to be the examination of my moral courage and fitness for this sport that my mind had convinced me they would be. A single and a dot finished the game. We shook hands, we celebrated, we joked about heart conditions and eye strain. Cricket receded a little, allowing in physical sensations unfiltered by the game – thirst, muscle ache – and emotions – pleasure for a successful teammate, enjoyment and relief.

Quick single: Trott’s trot – shuffle, exit

One of the features of Jonathan Trott’s admirable England career has been his mobility at the crease. Nine times out of ten, that has been a couple of short, quick steps in front of his stumps against seam bowlers, welcoming the ball towards his pads or thigh, from where a confident punch, push or glance sends the ball into the legside for safe, reassuring runs.

Trott used his confidence moving along the crease against slow bowlers. On turning pitches, some of his England colleagues have looked stranded on leg-stump, pushing forward and back, as if the game was played in two dimensions. Trott’s lateral movement brought in new angles and ways to divert the turning ball into gaps in the field.

Trott has been enterprising, creating scoring opportunities from good deliveries, unsettling bowlers’ lines of attack. I was very fortunate to see in the flesh an innings when Trott went beyond enterprise, firmly into courage, in how he adjusted his stance. At Lord’s in 2010, Mohammed Amir was delivering a thrilling spell of quick swing bowling. Three of Trott’s batting partners fell. His response, to negate the swing, was to take guard at least five feet out of his crease. Against a bowler sustaining speeds of 90mph, it was brave and tremendously effective.

Nearly five years and a couple of comebacks later, that shuffle across the crease is likely to be associated with Trott’s exit from the international game. It’s brought not calm, reassurring leg-side runs, but cramped, aerial shovel shots, diagonal-bat defensive prods and pads caught in front of stumps.

The issue may be one of technique. From a distance, though, it does feel, by bringing Trott back into the team as an opener, the England management does not know its man. If that is the case, both player and management bear responsibility.

Elite coaching and KP’s Donnie Darko moment

Donnie Darko-page-001

Donnie: Well, life isn’t that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.

Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

Donnie: Okay. But you’re not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.

(Donnie Darko, 2001)

Lancashire Head Coach, Peter Moores, was the keynote speaker at a business event I attended recently. He spoke for 45 minutes, fluently and engagingly, before taking questions from the audience.

I found Moores particularly interesting on the subject of strengths and weaknesses. He recalled how when he first asked a group of players to identify three strengths and three weaknesses, on average, the players came back with two strengths and four weaknesses. Moores’ approach is to develop strengths, rather than correct weaknesses. He gave the example of Alastair Cook’s preference to score on the leg-side. Moores argued that too many coaches have tried to get Cook to develop his off-side strokes, which don’t come as naturally. Cook, he believes, should invest that time in refining even further his leg-side shots.

Moores’ topic was elite coaching and perhaps at that level, a batsman’s weakness, if not causing regular early dismissals, can be parked to concentrate on what the player is really, really good at. I have read since that Graeme Smith came to the same conclusion about his own reliance on leg-side scoring shots – capitalise on it, don’t qualify it.

Moores’ precepts were generally positive and humanistic. I didn’t detect the micro-management of his players that some observers report as the stifling influence of the Flower years on English international cricket. He expressed his conception of the coaching process as being ‘inside out’, not ‘outside in’. Players learn and develop because they have the will to do so – to which the coach contributes through enthusiasm. But learning doesn’t happen because the coach decides to apply it (from outside) to the players.

“I love words,” the former England Coach explained. I am pretty fond of them, too, but it was from that point that I started to wonder, to question what it would be like in that changing room. Maybe I just want a cricket coach to declare his adoration for on-drives, or flighted off-breaks. Or, maybe, it all just started sounding a little bit psycho-religio-motivational.

Moores had made an off-hand comment about England’s Ashes defeat, while acknowledging his lack of privileged insight, being because they “knew the rewards of victory, but had forgotten the consequences of defeat”.  Complacency, which I take this formula to mean, could well have played a part, but it’s the sort of unproveable theory that can be applied to any side that loses unexpectedly. Perhaps, I am being harsh and he was just being tactful in avoiding more specific criticisms given the possibility that he may be asked to re-join Team England?

The Lancashire Head Coach hadn’t mentioned the cricketer whose resistance had ended his period as England Coach. But questions from the audience meant that that day wouldn’t be one when Moores could avoid talking about Kevin Pietersen. KP, Moores suggested, had crossed a line that breached the team’s culture  in Australia, just as he had five years earlier.

I inferred, from the strength of Moores’ attachment to a particular usage of the words he loved, where that line may have been. Moores provided a series of ‘opposites’ that he argued elite coaching had to navigate. The ‘opposition’ that seemed most critical to his way of working was between ‘belief’ and ‘doubt’. “Belief is the enemy of Doubt.”

I am not an elite performer. I readily accept that those that operate at the very top of their professions tend to have great confidence. Simplification and clarification may be crucial to keeping their minds sharply focused on the task at hand. But with the luxury of my mediocrity comes a distaste and distrust of interpreting experience through adages. Moreover, doubt can be a good thing: it leads us to challenge accepted truths, driving us into new and interesting ventures. Belief, on the other hand, so easily closes the mind to learning.

Moores’ formula might work for the majority of elite performers in his teams, but it’s too rigid to take account of everyone’s needs. There’s even psychological research into sports performers that finds some self-doubt is associated with success – more than confidence is.

You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and deny everything else.

In the eponymous movie, Donnie Darko, sensitive, troubled teenager, was reacting against the spread within his school of a simplistic, self-help liturgy, peddled by a televangelist-like salesman.

Imagine now, a singularly talented cricketer, edgy and awkward, prone to expressing himself insensitively, questions a tactic used by the team. He’s told that “doubt is the enemy of belief” – or whatever team maxim Andy Flower insisted upon. Does the cricketer keep with the programme, being told what to believe and what not to doubt, when he knows that if he scores a three hour hundred he can turn around his team’s fortunes?  Donnie Darko, when told to place everything on the line between fear and love, told his teacher to shove it up their ass. Perhaps that’s where the Ashes tour menu book ended up as well. Donnie had his contract terminated, too.

Neutering the intelligent cricketer

morkelIn cricket, the physically strong can be undone by the weak who are technically gifted; and the clever can prevail over the skilled. It does now, however, appear that the advantage of the intelligent cricketer is being eroded.

That was my reflection on listening to the recent Couch Talk interview with CKM Dhananjai, Performance Analyst with the Indian national team. The interview began like a bad day at work with the interviewee talking about ‘performance enhancement’, ‘SWOT analyses’ and data ‘delivery models’. Subash Jayaraman probed in his courteous way and out came the evidence for there being an active programme to neuter the intelligent cricketer.

Before I substantiate that charge, I will clarify my position on cricket and analytics. Readers of Declaration Game will know that I like to play with numbers, test hypotheses, find associations and contrasts. I do it because I find mainstream coverage of cricket lacking in insight and reliant upon assumptions, cliché and inherited beliefs. I don’t think there’s a secret formula to winning cricket games that can be found if only we conduct enough regression analyses. But I do sense that a sport with so many numbers has done little to understand the probabilities of outcomes for players and teams, and the actions and conditions that affect those probabilities. It’s also harmless fun.

Back on ‘The Couch’, CKN Dhananjai started to give examples of the information he would make available to Indian players.

to play a Morne Morkel, a batsman is already given information about what he does, his instances of bowling a bouncer every three or four balls, and if he is hit for a boundary in a particular ball, what is his follow-up ball, and all that stuff.

This is granular, highly specific information. The technically skilled batsman, capable of absorbing and applying that information, is now on a par when facing Morkel, with the intelligent player, who through his own observation has discerned the pattern in Morkel’s bowling, or perhaps can detect from the South African’s run-up and delivery stride when the bouncer is coming.

Dhananjai’s second example is for the fielding team.

There are many cricketers in the world today who like to hit and run, and we have analytics on that, so you know that if they hit and run, there is an opportunity for a run-out.

The cover point who studies the new batsman’s body language to detect the nervousness that will lead to a poorly judged run has no advantage over the fielder who has listened to the analyst’s briefing and has the ‘hit and run’ batsman pointed out when he arrives at the crease. It’s hard to imagine the creative and cunning tactic of the young Jack Hobbs being tolerated – Hobbs would gift new batsmen a run or two to him in the covers before swooping and running out the complacent batsman.

It’s not just a player’s intelligence that is being neutered in this data-led approach to coaching and match preparation, but individual responsibility; the desire for self-determination that would have a batsman either study a bowler from the pavilion or quiz him over drinks after the game to identify and absorb his opponent’s variations. Those lessons are received passively now in video presentations about the opposition.

It was CKM Dhananjai’s response to the final question of the Couch Talk interview that made me want to distance myself from this analytical approach to the game. He was asked: ‘do you actually get to enjoy a particular game of cricket?’

That’s an interesting question, and a tough one, actually. As a fan… I don’t think I can ever watch a cricket game as a fan, to be honest. There lies the answer. Even if I am watching something on TV sitting at home, it is very difficult to watch it as a normal fan because of the fact that you have been immersed in this day in and day out for more than ten years now.

His dedication to stripping the game down to probabilities and predictive analysis, have left this former cricketer unable to watch the game purely for fun.