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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.

What happens when a partnership ends

Jaya & Mahana4 August 1997: Roshan Mahanama walked out to the middle with Sanath Jayasuriya at the start of the third day of the Test.  It was the beginning of the second wicket partnership – the first wicket of the innings had fallen to the last ball of the second day.

5 August 1997: The pair walked out together again on day four, having batted throughout the third day – a very rare occurrence.

6 August 1997: An unprecedented feat – batting unbeaten through two full days of Test cricket – the pair started day five still in partnership. At this point they had amassed 548 runs together, surpassing the previous record for a partnership for any wicket in Test cricket by a clear margin.

Sri Lanka batted through day five to reach 952-6, setting the record for the highest total in Test cricket. Opposing captain, Sachin Tendulkar, was full of praise for the Sri Lankan batsmen, but branded the pitch unfit for Test cricket.

Jayasuriya and Mahanama had taken their partnership to 576 on the fifth morning when the latter was dismissed lbw by Anil Kumble. Two balls later Jayasuriya was out caught at silly-point. After twelve and a half wicket-less hours, India had prised out both batsmen in a matter of minutes.

It is a commonly made observation in cricket that after a long partnership, the two batsmen fall in quick succession. Jayasuriya and Mahanama are the archetypes of this phenomenon.

I find the idea that two well-set batsmen will lose their wickets suddenly, one after the other, intriguing. There are conventional cricket explanations – wickets falling to the new ball; an old ball beginning to reverse; or some other change in conditions. But what interests me is that the idea is suggestive of a range of psychological explanations.

There is the simple notion that the disruption in concentration caused by the first wicket makes the remaining batsman vulnerable. More complex is the possibility that the two batsmen during a long partnership have developed an equilibrium, where each has an understood role and has become secure in their relationship. The loss of one wicket and replacement of the established partner with a new batsmen, upsets that equilibrium, making the surviving partner struggle to adapt to a new role and so prone to dismissal. An even more extreme psychological explanation could be that the surviving batsman is grieving for the loss of the established partner and subconsciously wants to re-join them – analogous to the elderly couples whose deaths follow fast upon the other.

But before I indulge in any more psychology, there’s a more basic question to be asked: is there any truth in this cricketing received wisdom that the end of a lengthy partnership often results in both batsmen falling quickly?

To test the theory, I have taken as a sample all Test partnerships of 200 or more since July 2007. I have recorded whether the surviving batsman was the next, the second, third, etc wicket to fall after the partnership ended; how many runs were scored and overs elapsed between the dismissal of the two partners.

I have also taken a control sample of other partnerships (96) to compare the aftermath of a large partnership with randomly selected partnerships (footnote 1).

There were 98 double-century partnerships in this period, 8 of which were unbeaten and so excluded. The fate of the surviving batsman after a 200+ run partnership ended is shown below. 24% (control: 21%) remained not out. 44% (control: 41%) were the next batsman to be dismissed, which is less than the one in two chance of a random result and lower still than the received wisdom of partners falling in quick succession after a lengthy alliance. The results of the control sample are similar, suggesting that the surviving batsman is not much more likely to be the next wicket to fall after a large partnership than any other partnership.

partnerships1-page-001

How long was the portion of the surviving batsman’s innings that remained? 85% (control: 82%) were still batting four overs after the partnership ended; 62% (control: 62%) when ten overs had elapsed. In terms of runs, 84% (control: 86%) added at least 10 runs; 62% (control: 65%) were still batting with the score 30 runs on. The majority of surviving batsmen are not falling hard on the heels of their erstwhile partner. The length of their stay after a major partnership does not differ significantly from the control sample of partnerships

partnerships2-page-001

These figures point to the received wisdom about partners falling one after the other not being supported by the evidence.

I had sought a psychological explanation for a batsman falling soon after his long-standing partner was dismissed, when I should have been looking for a psychological explanation for cricket viewers believing this to be a commonplace. That phenomenon is known as ‘confirmation bias’ and it comes about because our memory is biased to remember the ‘hits’ (Jayasuriya and Mahanama) but not the ‘misses’.

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Footnote 1: the control sample was drawn from some of the same matches as those involving the double-century partnerships. If the large partnership was for the first wicket, the control figures were those of the other first wicket partnerships in the match.

Acknowledgement: Gabriel Smith (no.1 son) assisted in the collection of data for this post.

Pre-match nerves

groundsmen

It was April. I walked out of the conference hall into the bright spring light. No sooner had my mood been lifted by the warm sun on my skin and the beginnings of thoughts about the summer to come, than my stomach churned. The drone of a lawnmower and the scent of the grass it cut triggered associations that caused an anxious response.

I was on a work trip, attending an event designed to enthuse me about an IT system. The conference had broken for lunch and I had headed outside for fresh air, rather than into the dining room. I wasn’t, you see, about to play cricket.

But those indicators of late spring/early summer connected me to the many days over the last 35 years when I have been going, later that day, to play cricket. The game that obsesses me, that has from time to time been so rewarding, that I very rarely ever regret having spent any time playing, makes me uneasy in anticipation.

School matches used to eat into the afternoon lessons: a release from desk, blackboard and text books. From mid-morning on the day of a match I would be distracted. Lunch would be uncomfortable. The looming match drew from me nervous energy, preventing me concentrating on schoolwork, playing at break-time or simply relaxing.

At college and then as a club cricketer in my 20s, I would wake early, missing out on the recuperative sleep student life or weekends could have given me. My mornings were unproductive as I would try to get studies or chores done but be forever calculating and recalculating how much time there was until I needed to leave to catch the bus or walk to the ground.

Playing evening matches in my most recent cricket-playing phase, I learnt to schedule busy days at work, to crowd out the anxiety of a match and an innings at the end of the day.

Interspersing my nervous preparation for each match, was one clear and ever-present thought: I hope the match is called off. A rainstorm, illness in the other side’s ranks, an unfit ground, a mix-up in preparations, a coup d’etat were all summoned as interventions. Some of these, at least, would occur with some regularity and I would feel relieved – even when a full afternoon of lessons was the consequence.

I can’t quite define where the source of this game-day reluctance to play lies. It must have something to do with the fear of failure. Cricket is a very exposing sport with the individual’s performance stripped bare. There’s probably an element of imposter syndrome in there – I’ve have not always felt comfortable that what I bring to the team merits my selection. I also detect a tinge of idleness – not wanting the exertion of a whole match.

Over the years, I have gradually learned that these pre-match nerves have no relationship at all to the enjoyment I get when I am playing. However sincerely I hoped for a crater in the centre of the ground to prevent the game happening, I have been pleased to be playing once the game is under way. I am, on the whole, a happy cricketer, maybe quiet and preoccupied, but generally content to be playing and sometimes, especially when batting, exhilarated. I have learnt to disregard my negative thoughts ahead of a match and find distractions.

Last August Bank Holiday, I was on tour for the 21st and final year with my college old boys team. Sitting around our tour base on the morning before our last ever match, a teammate looked out of the window and said, “Why can’t it rain?” For years, as fewer and fewer of the team played regular (or indeed any non-tour) cricket, there had seemed to me, while I struggled with my own game-day reluctance, a delighted determination amongst the team to get on the field to play. But last August, there were murmurs of assent for the wish for rain. Then more amazing still, my teammates began confessing that for years they had come on tour and in the build up to each game hoped the weather or some other factor would intervene. It’s not just me, I realised.

Earlier this summer, several weeks after the IT Conference, I drove no.1 son to our club’s second ground, where he was making his debut as a paid scorer. I was to stay with him for an hour or so, making sure he could identify our players, interpret umpiring signals and keep the book and scoreboard up to date. On arriving, I found our team was one short. I got back into the car, drove home, changed, loaded my cricket bag and was back in time for the fifth over. I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon’s cricket, my day completely unimpaired by pre-match nerves. Finally, I had found the solution.

Not long after my surprise appearance, I was helping out at an under 9 fixture, where no.2 son was making his competitive cricket debut. I was running warm-up drills to keep the boys occupied while everyone gathered and final ground preparations were made. A late-comer charged across the grass, clasping a bat. He ran up to me and bouncing up and down in front of my face, shouted: “Hello, my name’s Sam. This is my first game of cricket and I’m SO EXCITED.” I may not be alone in experiencing pre-match nerves, but it was a good way to be reminded there are others with no such inhibitions.

What is an opening batsman?

Nick Compton (above right) became the 868th player and 218th English cricketer to open the batting in a Test match in the recent Ahmedabad Test. He scored 46 runs from 181 balls, batting in a conventional opener’s fashion – even though the experience was unconventional with a spinner opening the bowling in both innings. Compton continued to impress in his second Test match with his solid defence, patience and judgement of when to play or leave deliveries.

In this third article on openers in Test cricket, I will examine the view that to face the new ball successfully a batsmen must necessarily have a conventionally correct technique and be risk averse. What is clear from the first two articles in this series is the importance, right now, of opening batsmen: the last two years have seen a slump in opening partnership performance, yet a partnership at the top of the order is not just a platform, but a springboard for the innings.

At the end of the English summer, with discussion around who would take Andrew Strauss’ place at the top of the England order, I asked a friend to detail what makes a batsman peculiarly an opening batsman. His answer I will refer to as the orthodox view:

Solid defence… Good judge of the ball to leave… Strong concentration… Expert against the short ball.

However, the orthodox view is neither true only of openers, nor is it true of all successful openers.

Batsmen whose games are built around a strong defence and the careful accumulation of runs may gravitate to the top of the order, but many of the finest exponents bat lower down. In recent years, Kallis, Dravid, Trott and Chanderpaul have been prolific and in the most part, measured scorers – perhaps benefiting from the efforts of their opener colleagues. Having a secure defence and a mind attuned to making big scores helps wherever in the order a batsmen is placed. If wickets fall early (as they very often do in a form of the game where the median first wicket score is 24), middle order batsmen need to display the same adhesiveness as the openers. Old ball (aka reverse) swing and the availability of a second new ball can also demand of the middle order circumspection and committed defence.

Nick Compton spent his first day of Test cricket watching Virender Sehwag (top left) roaring to a run-a-ball century, driving, flaying and carving shots to balls that many openers would watch carefully as they pass unimpeded past the off-stump to the wicket-keeper.

Sehwag, as an opening  batsman, is a unique talent (described so well on Different Shades of Green) and yet not alone as an unorthodox player at the top of the order. Jayasuryia, Gayle, Sehwag, Hayden, Dilshan, McCullum and Warner have recently all prospered at the top of the order with an aptitude for quick scoring. What each of these shares is the ability to take the attack to the bowling, rather than their defensive prowess.

I would argue that the orthodox definition of an opening batsman is one that preoccupies England more than any other major cricket nation. English cricket’s inability to embrace the unorthodox is exposed in a different context – the career of Maurice Holmes, mystery spinner, by The Spin in the Guardian.

The records of the most successful Test openers of the last ten years show that a high scoring rate is associated with strong performance, when measured by batting average. Each square in the chart below represents one batsmen with over 1,000 runs in the last ten years as an opener. England batsmen are indicated by the red squares, with Marcus Trescothick having the highest strike-rate of the four.

Batsmen with below sample average scoring rates are distributed across almost the full range of batting averages. Openers with above average scoring rates have middling and high batting averages, with Virender Sehwag recording the highest on both measures. Amongst opening batsmen with strike rates below the sample average only Neil McKenzie, Alastair Cook and Simon Katich have batting averages over 45.

This picture of success as an opener being associated with fast scoring is reinforced when the aggregate performance of opening batsmen for the eight major Test teams over the last ten years is graphed (NB this is based upon opening batsmen, not opening partnerships). Higher scoring rates are associated with higher averages. The line of best fit proposes that for every additional run per 100 balls, the batting average rises by 0.9 runs.

Moving to a comparison of strike rate by each position in the batting order for this period shows there is no common pattern across the Test teams. India and South Africa’s opening batsmen score faster than numbers 3-6. New Zealand’s innings pick up speed with the middle-order.

I posed myself the question, what is an opening batsman? The answer does not seem to lie in either orthodoxy of technique or attitude to risk. To try to pinpoint what is distinctive about opening batsmen, it’s important to consider exactly what they do that is different to others.

Opening batsmen begin each innings against the opposition’s bowling at its freshest. They face the new ball – firm and gleaming, which makes it bouncier and liable to movement off the seam and in the air. One in two Test matches they are the first to bat on the pitch prepared for the match. It can have moisture that makes the bowling lively, but it is unblemished and should offer predictable bounce. The start of an innings very nearly always brings tension: the first overs of a Test match, the start of a reply to a large total, the initial stages of a run chase or match-saving rearguard. Batsmen in other places in the order will have occasions when the match situation contributes little to the nerves they feel when starting an innings.

From these statements of fact, I propose the following as the elements that make a successful batsman an effective opener:

  • Experience of the role – the player who is brought up opening the batting and continues that role in the first-class game is well-placed to handle the pressure that goes with the role, at a greater intensity, in Test cricket.
  • Complement to their partner – left hand/right hand combinations are common because of the disruption it can cause to bowlers trying to establish the optimum line and length at the start of an innings. Another complementary pairing might be fast and slow scorer. Overall, I consider this to be the weakest factor of the four described here.
  • Not the best batsman in the team – the state of the bowling attack, ball and pitch all make opening the batting risky. It is in the team’s interest that its best batsmen are, if possible, held back until the initial push from the bowling side has abated.
  • Want the job – to rise to the challenge, the batsman should be willing. A reluctant opening batsman may cope less well with the pressure.

That is what I have concluded gets closest to defining an opening batsman. It is about having experience of the role, being a good fit to the other opener, being of the required standard but not the team’s star player and above all, an opening batsman needs to be a batter who wants to be an opener.

Not in the zone with Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt’s victory in the Olympic 100m final was deeply satisfying. It accorded with the greatness insisted upon by his performances to date. It came in a competition where it appeared a genuine challenger had emerged. It lifted the performance of all the other sprinters fast and powerful enough to make the final.

I have another reason for admiring Bolt. It’s not about his running, his victories or his records. My affection stems from his overturning of orthodoxy. The accepted, the expected behaviour of an athlete about to perform is that which demonstrates focus, a channeling of mental and physical efforts to the challenge ahead. By contrast, Usain Bolt, while waiting to be called to his mark, just horses around.

Before Bolt’s emergence, the build-up to the 100m final involved eight serious, tense men pacing, stretching, puffing out chests, pulling faces, staring into the middle distance. As their name was announced over the stadium PA, each sprinter would acknowledge the crowd. Apart from that, they were focusing, centring, getting into the zone. Take a look at the last Bolt-less Olympic 100m final in Athens.

Bolt shattered this orthodoxy. He runs faster than the rest without, to the viewer, the pained mental preparation. There’s something of the Laurence Olivier dropping straight into character, while the method actors struggle to conjure the right emotion.

Cricketers, particularly batsmen, are concerned with mental preparation. Concentration is key – a view endorsed by the Laws of the game, as many of us  learned this week, when Umpire Davis called a dead ball when Steven Finn broke the non-striker’s wicket in his delivery stride. Davis deemed that action distracted Graeme Smith, the batsman, who had edged to slip.

Batting is a test of concentration. Players adopt different approaches, from the evidently physical – Trott’s obsessive scraping at his guard – to the internal – Brearley’s humming of Beethoven. Mike Atherton, writing about his eleven hour defiance of South Africa at Johannesburg in 1995 makes this observation:

The key to concentration, and therefore to playing long innings, is the ability to focus intensely for short periods of time and then switch off completely.

And by short period of time, Atherton means each individual delivery from bowler’s run up until the ball is dead, which he estimates at seven seconds. (Coincidentally, the point in most 100m races when Bolt, far ahead of the field, loses focus and waves, skips or jogs.) Atherton doesn’t say what switching off means other than conserving energy, but it was of course nowhere near the spectacle of joy and play that Bolt provides minutes before his contests.

Surprisingly though, despite being such different personalities, engaged in very different sports, Atherton and Bolt may have hit on the same solution. And it’s one that requires the ability to switch into game mode instantly. None of which would mean very much, in Bolt’s case, were he then not able to run faster than any other man. But I enjoy his achievement all the more for the joy he shows right up until summoned to his marks.

Winter nets

Exactly three years ago, I drove across South Manchester in the dark one evening to find a sports hall. I would have been relieved to have got lost, or to have been unable to find the hall. That way I could have satisfied myself that I was at least making the effort.

Displays of courage have been neither frequent nor prominent in my life. It’s not with any great pride that I reckon one of the bravest things I have done as an adult is to have gone into the sports hall, said a few ‘hi’s’ and put myself forward as a cricketer.

I know I nearly turned back to the car as I approached the net, which was busy with the sounds of 20 unknown cricketers practising hard. When I pulled back the heavy green curtain to enter the practice area and walked forwards it was just to see through what I had set running, not that I was doing something I would enjoy. The cricketers I joined were young, nonchalant with their strength and so much taller than I.

This, aged 40, was the beginning of my comeback. I had last played regular cricket 14 years before in London. A diet of one or two matches each season had kept my cricket metabolism ticking over. The year I turned 40, I had a personal incantation: Jack Hobbs had scored 100 hundreds after his 40th birthday. And I scored a few runs on my annual college old boys tour. I stayed long enough at the crease (with bowling friendly enough) to feel I had an ‘innings’, where choices could be made over shots, some momentum built, not just reflexive responses to a blurred ball.

At the net, I stood against the green curtain for three-quarters of an hour. I didn’t have a ball and wanted even less to have to bowl. I would rather be seen as a little odd, than humiliate myself, send my confidence plunging before doing what I had really come to do.

Eventually, I was invited to pad-up. I borrowed a bat and made my way down to the end of one tunnel. The first ball was bowled by one of the very tallest of the cricketers, a medium pacer. I lunged forward, ball taking the inside half of my bat. A start. In the next 10 minutes, I played enough shots to send my spirits rising. I was also tied in knots by a young and very talented leg-spinner (the U18 wicket-keeper). The Saturday XI captains quickly saw that I would not be skewing the average age of their teams, but a playing role would be found for me in a large club.

I was back at the sports centre every week. The 10 minutes of batting were a highly distilled physical challenge that inhabited my mind through the following days. I was exhilarated. By week three I was trying to bowl.

Pre-season practice for the fourth season of the second half of my career is about to start. Winter nets still excite and make me nervous. I adore the intensity of the experience they provide, but more broadly wonder about their value. Just as taking exams is perfect preparation for.. taking exams, so indoor netting is its own activity with questionable transferrable value. Here’s my stock-take of the good and the bad:

All the time in the world

Graeme Smith called in his batsmen 40 minutes into the afternoon session of the fourth day. Smith’s declaration left England 141 overs to survive, and a target of 466 to chase. Three weeks earlier, Smith’s South African team had been defied by England’s tenth wicket partnership, which had batted out the last four of 96 overs. Smith wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, one down in the series and only one further match to play.

Roll forward 28 hours and improbably England had once again clung on to draw, nine wickets down.

Ask Graeme Smith if there is a formula to a successful declaration and I suspect he’d answer with a withering look. The pitch condition, weather, fitness of bowlers, state of the series and tenacity of the opposition are all complicating factors. This post continues a series that began with the psychological insight that captains may be hindered in their search for victory as ‘losing feels worse than winning feels good‘; and continued with a high level survey of third innings declarations in test cricket that showed a victory conversion rate of only 34%.

In this post, I start to assess, through a series of charts and brief comments, whether there are features of declarations that are associated with success. I use a non-random sample, but one that is most relevant to Test captains of today. It takes in the 38 third innings declarations made in the last three completed calendar years of Test cricket.

53% (20) of the declarations in this period led to victories – a higher proportion than in the history of Test cricket. Three of the declarations leading to draws are excluded from the analysis as they were made to end the game early, with no fourth innings occurring, leaving a sample of 35. There were no defeats for the captain who made the declaration in this sample.

Chart 1 shows how results relate to match-level factors: venue, state of the series and strength of the two teams (minor = Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; Major = the rest).

There’s a lot of inter-relationship between these factors, but they point to stronger teams and home teams being more likely to turn the advantage of being in a situation to set a total into victory. I’ll move on quickly as I sense Graeme Smith’s attention wandering at the predictability of those results.

The remainder of the analyses look at the match situation at the point of the declaration being made.

Chart 2 shows the size of the target set in each declaration, team by team. The black diamonds represent the targets, with the highest ever fourth innings total conceded by each team in defeat shown as a blue square.

Captains are, as predicted, risk averse. 57% of targets set required Test record breaking chases of the side batting last (i.e. above the 418 hit by an inspired West Indies in Antigua against Australia in 2003). 80% of the targets, had they been achieved, would have set new national records for totals conceded in the fourth innings of a match in defeat.

Chart 3 sets the result of the game against the target total and required run rate.

The higher the target set in this sample of matches, the greater the chance of victory. None of the ten lowest targets produced a victory (or a loss). The lowest target to result in a victory was 366 set by New Zealand for Zimbabwe to chase in Bulawayo last November. In a tight finish, Zimbabwe fell 35 runs short. There was also a strong relationship to run rate required. Only one total with a required run rate above 4 runs per over had a winning outcome for the declaring captain: Jayawardene had set Bangladesh a target of 624 at 4.22 runs per over in Chittagong in January 2009. The remaining victories came in chases where required run rates varied from 2.33 to 3.91.

Chart 4 refines this analysis, by providing a context in which the target is set. The horizontal axis shows the ‘relative target’ – i.e. difference between the target and the highest innings of the three earlier in the game. The vertical axis plots the ‘relative run-rate’ – i.e. difference between the required run rate and the run-rate achieved across the first three innings of the match.

Victories were more likely to occur if the ‘relative target’ was high (i.e. above or not much less than the highest score in the match at that point). An exception (the red diamond furthest to the left) was New Zealand’s victory over Bangladesh in Hamilton in in February 2010 having set a target of 404, some 149 below the hosts’ total of 553.

Victories are associated, however, with lower ‘relative run-rates’. Over half required a lower run rate of the team batting last than had been achieved in the match to that point. This was true of only two of the draws.

Chart 5 depicts the overs available for the fourth innings.

There is a very clear association of victories with having more time to dismiss the opposition. The drawn match furthest to the left (India v New Zealand at Wellington in April 2009) is misleading as 70 of the fourth innings overs available, were lost to poor weather. Sri Lanka were the team that survived the longest fourth innings without defeat, lasting 150 overs (the match was declared a draw after 134 overs) at Colombo in 2009 against Pakistan. Not a single Test was won in this period with a team declaring on the final day.

In summary, this analysis of results following declarations shows that:

  • captains are conservative, generally only being prepared to set targets that would establish new national records for sides batting fourth were they to lose
  • higher totals, lower run rates and more overs are all positively associated with victories.

Does this mean that, as I hypothesised, captains are too cautious and are missing out on victories, fearing defeat? In the next article in the series, I’ll look in detail at the drawn matches in this sample to ask whether their caution is costing their team success.

Setting a target

What was AE Stoddart the first to do, Michael Clarke (above) the most recent, and Ricky Ponting the most frequent? The answer is that they are three of the 148 captains in Test cricket who have declared a third innings to set a target for the opposition.

In a recent post, Does losing feel worse than winning feels good?, I committed to researching Test match declarations. My aim was to find out whether captains are too cautious in the timing of their declarations, drawing matches that they should have won. This post, the first in a short series, begins to explore the question by taking an overview of the third innings declaration in Test history.

Those 148 captains have declared 483 times in Test cricket. It’s a frequent occurrence, happening in 24% of matches played. The next statistic, depicted below, throws some early light on the object of my quest.

The left-hand bar shows the spread of results of all Test matches for the team batting first. The right-hand bar shows the results of all matches that involved a third innings declaration – a sample that is a subset of the matches comprising the bar to the left (NB ties are excluded from both). The most evident variation is the great reduction (16-fold) in the incidence of defeat. That is consistent with the observation that declarations are usually made when a team has the upper-hand in a match. The incidence of draws almost doubles, while the proportion of victories rises by one-tenth.

Based on my theory of over-cautious captaincy, I suggest this points to skippers, their teams having built up a strong position in the match, batting on until their lead and the target set for the opposition, makes losing such a remote possibility that drawing has become more likely than winning. I have often heard commentators express the view that the best thing for a team beginning its second innings with a healthy lead on first innings is to be bowled out. With control of the progress of the match removed from the captain’s hands, his team are more likely to capitalise on their advantage than if it is left to the skipper to decide when to bring his batsmen in.

It is easy to develop theories behind two more charts of declaration outcomes. The first shows the spread of results for each of the top eight Test playing nations in games where they have made a third innings declaration.

Only Australia and Sri Lanka have converted one-half or more of the games where they have declared into victories. Bold captaincy or potent fourth innings bowling attacks could be part of the answer. India, England and New Zealand languish at the bottom.

The second charts match outcomes following declarations decade-by-decade through Test history.

The highest proportion of victories for the team declaring have occurred since 1990. This tallies with a sense that Test cricket is played more positively – e.g. higher scoring rates. I also suspect the higher proportion of all Tests played by the ‘minnows’ – Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – is playing a part in the higher victory conversion rate.

The final set of ‘global’ analyses look for evidence to support or refute my general theory of over-cautious captaincy from the state of the third innings when the declaration came – specifically, how many wickets were down. This provides a very limited view of that innings and its progress, which would ideally include run-rate, lead, overs/time remaining, etc. However, it is the only one that I am able to obtain at the ‘global’ level.

The more wickets that have fallen, the more limited the remaining run scoring potential. Therefore, it could be argued, the captain who declares with, say, eight wickets down is not taking much a risk in terms of his team’s match position by bringing his innings to a close. 29% of third innings declarations came with eight or nine wickets lost. However, 42% came with five or fewer wickets down, and so considerable run scoring potential un-tapped. The picture is ambiguous.

A more telling analysis may come from relating result to the number of wickets lost at declaration. Does a prolonged innings (using wickets lost as the proxy) reduce the chances of having a positive outcome?

In fact, there is no clear association of wickets lost at a declaration and the result. Declarations with five wickets down have produced the highest proportion of victories; those with three wickets lost, the highest proportion of draws.

In summary, this overview of the third innings declaration in Test match history has shown:

  • a team that declares and sets a target very rarely loses, but doesn’t greatly increase its likelihood of winning compared to the results spread of all teams batting first
  • there is a large variance in the rate at which different Test match countries convert declarations into victories
  • victories following declarations have become more frequent in recent decades
  • there’s no association between the match result and how far the captain has allowed the third innings to run – in terms of wickets lost – before declaring.

The next article in the series will move down a level of detail to a sample of third innings declarations. It will consider the impact of the size and required run rates of targets set, as well as how they relate to other scores and scoring rates achieved in each match.

This series owes everything to the mathematical and programming genius of the people behind Cricinfo’s Statsguru. Any errors are mine, not theirs.