“Come into the ring,” I shouted to the fielder at deep cover.
“Come into the ring.”
“What ring? Where? There isn’t a ring.” Irritation overcoming his initial confusion.
I looked around the in-field, peopled by colleagues in a variety of sporting gear and realised: i) he was right, there wasn’t a one-saving ring recongisable to a cricketer; and ii) even if there had been, he, playing his first ever game of cricket, wouldn’t necessarily have perceived it as ‘a ring’.
“Come closer, closer. That’s it. Stand there.” The annual company cricket match re-started, with my team’s fielders more-or-less occupying the stations to which I had directed them.
I was reminded of this incident reading Matt Becker’s recent post on ‘Limited Overs’ about favourite cricket terms. Matt enthuses about the language of cricket and has enjoyed deciphering it since he started following it from America’s midwest a decade or so ago. For those without an upbringing steeped in the sport, or Matt’s curiosity, the language can be a barrier to engaging with cricket. Fielding positions are particularly arcane.
Not only are the positions colourfully or obscurely named, but their relationship to a spot on the field is imprecise. There is of course a structure to the arrangement of fielders in cricket, but it is looser than, say, in baseball. There are perhaps 20 different fielding position names to describe the placement of fielders spread across up to, in the case of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 20,000m2. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
At the highest level of the game, you will see a fielder receive an instruction from the captain, run to take up a new position, be waved at by the skipper to shift to where the fielder was intended to be stationed and then have their position adjusted again by the bowler. There is a dynamic negotiation over their meaning, ball-by-ball, according to the bowler’s type and intent; the batsman’s orientation, strengths, weaknesses; state of the match and game-specific restrictions.
We also need to take into account differences in grounds, which vary in dimension and may have slopes and hollows, all of which contribute to positions being contingent rather than fixed. It comes, then, with the territory – literally and figuratively. Fielding positions have names, but at least as many understandings of what they mean as there are players on the field.
Here are some of the fielding directions or misdirections that have caught my eye and ear – starting with the misdirections.
Lost in action
At the end of an over, the bowler will, as often as not, head back past the start of their run-up, all the way to the boundary. Their destination, in the game I grew up playing, was long-leg. If the bowler at the other end was particularly swift, or the keeper’s glove-work unreliable, they might be moved closer to the line of the pitch, still on the boundary, to fine leg. Or, if it were a slow-bowler they may be moved in the other direction, to deep backward square (leg).
Somehow, the days of long leg are long gone. The position still exists, but it’s now part of the sweep of boundary occupied by an often not particularly fine fine leg. Cricket seems to have smudged a distinction – between fine and long leg – opting for the former name. No damage done; one fewer comical name for a fielding position.
A significant absence
Third man is probably Test cricket’s most contested over position, despite like Graham Greene’s character of the same name, being largely absent. With fast and medium pace bowlers focusing on the off-stump and outside, it’s a very fruitful scoring zone. Deliveries cut, guided, sliced or edged past slips and gulley fielders will usually run away to the boundary, unless there is a third man in place. For long periods of most innings, there isn’t a third man and runs accumulate and onlookers get bothered. ‘Giving away boundaries,’ is the charge.
Deliberately leaving a gap in the field to tempt a shot is an established tactic. Away-swing bowlers often leave a large gap in the covers to encourage a drive that might end with an edge to slip. Leg-break bowlers may leave mid-wicket unattended to prompt the batter to push in that direction, playing against the spin. I don’t sense this is happening with the absent third man.
It appears to be a signal from the fielding captain of the state of the game. No third-man: we’re OK, don’t mind you having a few boundaries. Third-man in place: time to re-trench. This is logical – the fielder to stand at third-man has to come from somewhere and the move is likely to be defensive.
Depends who’s batting
Deep mid-wicket is a position of distinction. Off-spinners plunder wickets there, defeating quality batters with dip and spin as balls are lofted to the outfield.
Cow corner – although usually just called ‘Cow’ on the field fo play – is where the slogger hits. Captains send a fielder to cow, with resignation, maybe reluctance. The opposition is uncultured, relying on strength not skill.
The role and position are the same. The difference that justifies the alternative names is the perceived technical ability of the batter.
Recreational v professional
By tradition and necessity, the most athletic fielders will tend to field in the covers. It’s a compliment to be asked to field in the covers and a privilege as the ball travels towards you across the square, where the field is most even and reliable.
One of England’s finest cover fielders was Derek Randall, who pursued the ball in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the abandon of a dog chasing a stick in the park . It wasn’t until I went to a Test match and saw that Randall, with Willis or Botham bowling with a new ball, didn’t occupy the covers – that area in front of square on the off-side. He lurked at point, or even backward point, where the hard new ball would more likely be guided. He was always referred to as a cover fielder, even though for that to always be true, it would mean stretching it off the square.
If you position yourself square of the wicket in the opening overs of a professional or good level club game, and focus your eye on the close catchers, first slip will be crouched furthest from the wicket, second slip and keeper will probably be in line with each other. Taking the same position as a spectator at a recreational match, the keeper and the slips will stand in line on a shallow arc. It’s about the speed the ball passes the bat and often the role of the first slip: in recreational cricket an avuncular presence to chivvy and encourage a young ‘keeper, at their shoulder, not from two yards behind them.
Cricket has coped with the imprecision of fielding positions, the need for ball-by-ball negotiation, by developing a language of adjustment. Waving arms and shouts of ‘left, right, back, foward’ could do the job, but there’s a more elegant solution. It is one of my favourite aspects of the language of cricket. It has rules of usage that make it particularly satisfying to employ.
The easiest aspect, although not without its oddity, is the description of how to move a fielder closer or further away from the pitch. ‘Deeper’ contrasts not with ‘shallower’, but with the opposite of longer: ‘shorter’.
Moving fielders laterally (left to right, and vice versa) is really specialised, depending on the fielding position relative to the batter. The principle is of a dial, or clock, and movement around that circle using fixed lines as reference points.
Fielders behind the stumps (e.g. fine leg, third-man) are oriented relative to the line of the pitch, with ‘finer’ used to move them closer to the line of the pitch and ‘wider’ to move in the other direction.
At the opposite end of the field (e.g. mid-on, long-off), the line of the pitch again provides the reference point. In these cases, though, ‘straighter’ denotes a move closer to the line of the pitch, with ‘wider’ again meaning the opposite.
Fielding positions to the side of the pitch use the batting crease as the reference point. To move closer to the imaginary line continuing from the crease, the fielder is instructed to be ‘squarer’. Movement in the other direction depends on the starting point of the fielder. If behind square, ‘finer’; if in front, ‘straighter’.
None of this is essential and much as I savour the particularity of the language, I fully understand that captains are as likely to use cues from the environment to communicate with their fielders: ‘in front of the beer advertisement’; ‘second flag from the scorer’; ‘next to the patch of clover’. Or simply relative to their team-mates: ‘half-way between Ed and Ned’. Finally, there’s always the invitation to the fielder near the bat: ‘as close as you dare.’
The day after the first game of my season, a season that is to be my first fully committed to weekend cricket in over 25 years, I hobbled around the field at junior training, seeking sympathy. “I felt every one of my 51 years, yesterday,” I lamented. Indeed, I had looked and performed like a decrepit cricketer: a duck, two dropped catches and two chases of the ball that ended with me kicking it over the rope.
The Minstrel, friend, team-mate and fellow junior coach, did not indulge me. “My 74 year old uncle plays every week and I never hear him complain,” he replied, with some acute advice about doing the things you enjoy.
That hit home. I also reasoned that in time, sooner rather than later, I hope, I will achieve match fitness as my body adjusts to the rigours of an afternoon of cricket.
Now, three games in and I have generalised aches and stiffness, the length and breadth of my body, late in the game, after the game and for a day or two afterwards. Added to that, I’ve collected a succession of very minor injuries: scratches to the wrist from retrieving the ball from brambles; a bruised heel of my right hand from fielding a ball that leapt erratically; bruising of two toes from a gentle yorker that I missed; a shallow cut above my right knee from a sprawling effort to catch a ball. Most evocatively of all, my left elbow is skinned and raw providing a sensation that connects me to my early twenty-something self when, from May to September, my elbows would bleed.. scab.. bleed on a weekly cycle arising from dives to stop balls on the hard wicket-ends of Oxford and Kent.
That was then, how am I skinning my elbows now? Walking through narrow changing-room doorways? Slipping when pushing the covers on and off the pitch? It seems not. While I’m not actually diving in the field, I’m going to ground, elbow first, when the ball is hit either side of me. To set an example to the youngsters, I could argue. To avoid bending down, might be more honest. Whatever the technical failings, it gives me the sensation of being a cricketer, active in support of the bowlers, while also adding to the aches as my joints shudder from the impact.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Minstrel this evening at junior training. I am reconciled to my sore body, dosed over-night with analgesic. I’ll enquire how he feels after a challenging afternoon in the field. Sent to the longest boundary, then back into the ring as the batsmen rotated strike; at the other end, gulley for the new batsmen, mid-wicket for the established player. Barely two deliveries in the same position. Two-and-a-half hours of continuous motion, always in the line of fire. In the changing-room, post-match, capable of nothing more eloquent than groans as the team reflected on the afternoon’s action. Has the Minstrel any other advice for his captain, I’ll ask, or is it time for a quiet word with his 74 year-old uncle?
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.
Cricketers in my adopted home in the north-west are no more at ease with the challenges of the English summer weather than anywhere else I have played. Up here, though, there’s a willingness, an imperative even, to get out on the ground, at any opportunity.
On Sunday, our team was thwarted. A wet, stormy night was followed, in the hours leading up to the match, by bright sun and brisk wind. The outfield was playable, but when the covers were rolled away, great damp stains revealed that the rain had blown through and under the covers. Match cancelled.
This evening a gale blew as eleven youngsters, including no.2 son making his hard ball debut, attempted a practice match. The wind caught a sightscreen and tugged it off the cricket field, up against the tennis court fence, behind which tennis players cowered, refusing to continue their match. Quick thinking by the junior coaches nullified the threat: by removing the slats that make up the screen and catch the wind. Both cricket and tennis matches continued.
There’s an advanced art of playing the weather in this region. I once turned up at a ground where the rain had been falling all morning. We waited in the car park for an easing of the downpour before dashing to the pavilion. There were puddles on the outfield and on the sheeting that covered, but probably wasn’t protecting the square. It was the clearest case of a cancellation to my eyes.
But our skipper had spotted something: the opposition were represented only by their captain. The rest were in the pub down the road, he claimed. We waited for two hours. Our captain realised that we just needed enough of a break in the weather for the toss to be held and the home team, numbering one, would have to concede. The stalemate was broken when the home captain started phoning his teammates (or, possibly, anyone he knew locally) to get them to turn up at the ground and force our captain into accepting a cancellation. As they arrived, we left, a glimpse of maximum points washed away.
Alastair Cook’s hold on the England captaincy ought to be precarious. He acknowledged after the defeat to India at Lord’s that he could be unseated by the end of the summer. His current security, assisted by the victory in the third Test, has a lot to do with the high politics of English cricket in the first half of 2014: when you’ve hailed a new era, you don’t want to be announcing a new, new era within months.
There’s another factor, too, I suspect. Not as compelling as the forthright decision at the end of the winter to reconfirm Cook as the centre-piece of England’s Test team, but it’s there, hanging around, a problem that can be overlooked if only Cook scratches out a hundred and stumbles to a Test series victory. It strengthens Cook’s tenure, while allowing him to dig an even deeper pit while in office. It’s the question, ‘if not Cook, then who?’
England captains are found fulfilling one of two roles prior to their appointment. They are either established members of the team (most usually batsmen) or they are able cricketers who have shown leadership prowess in county cricket. The establishment preference, if not explicitly stated, then empirically shown, is for the former: someone already in the team.
The current England team has three established players: Bell, Broad and Anderson. Of the newer team members, Joe Root is mentioned as a potential future captain. Without assessing each individual, I don’t think it’s controversial to state that none makes an outstanding case. With each of them having spent the majority of their professional careers as part of the England squad, none has experience of leading a county for more than a few matches.
There is another source to which the selectors could turn: the proven leaders in county cricket. Of the 18 appointed county captains for the 2014 season, five are not qualified to play for England, six are former Test cricketers (although not much more could be asked of both James Foster and Chris Read to earn a recall) and two of the others are 35 or older. Of the remaining five – Wayne Madsen, Jimmy Adams, Alex Wakely, Daryl Mitchell and Andrew Gale – I can only remember Adams and Gale ever being mentioned as possible international cricketers. The former is aged 33 and Gale has been overtaken by teammates Bairstow and Root, and probably has Lyth and Lees ahead in the Yorkshire queue for an England batting spot.
Go back 30 years to 1984, and there were ten England Test cricketers captaining counties, seven of whom were still playing (or in contention) for their country, including Botham, Gower, Gatting, Willis and Tavare. Botham led Somerset in around one-half of their Championship matches that season.
I have written before about the impact on Test selection of the separation of the England team from the county game. I concluded that there still remains a route into the England team for those performing very well in the domestic game, despite the ‘hunch’ selections (not justified by weight of runs) and fast-tracking of youngsters before they establish county reputations. The conundrum created by the, ‘if not Cook, then who?’ question suggests another ramification of centrally contracted England players: scant opportunities to develop captaincy experience and aptitude.
But which is the anomaly – 1984 or 2014? I have looked at three dates, one from each of the last three decades (1) when the England captaincy was taken or passed from one player and given to another, to see if the field from which the new captain was selected was as thin as it appears in 2014, or lush with talent as it now seems to have been thirty years ago.
1980 – Brearley’s successor
Mike Brearley, Test batting average in the 20s, stepped aside with ten Tests against the West Indies in 12 months looming. Established players in the Test team from that winter that had lost in Australia, but defeated India in a one-off match, were: Willis, Boycott and Botham. From the counties, Keith Fletcher, Brian Rose, David Lloyd, Roger Knight and Jack Hampshire offered a mix of leadership and Test match experience.
Botham, of course, received the nod. Willis was to become captain, as was Fletcher (and indeed Brearley, again), as England sought to replace Brearley’s leadership skills over the next few series. Brian Rose was also a viable, if outside, contender, having made it into the Test team and become the first Somerset captain to hold silverware – and with that the experience of captaining the likes of Botham, Richards and Garner.
1999 – Stewart is stood down
England failed to qualify for the super six stage of the World Cup they hosted and Stewart was stood down as captain. Nasser Hussain, vice captain, was appointed as successor. Beyond Stewart and his predecessor, Atherton, the team, habitually unsuccessful, lacked established players. But the counties provided captaincy experience to a number of those in and around the squad: Hussain, Cork, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Jason Gallian, Adam Hollioake and Chris Adams.
When Hussain’s “poppadum fingers” took him out of his second Test in charge, he passed control to Thorpe, a novice captain. Unavailable for the next Test, Hussain’s role was taken by Mark Butcher, who had skippered Surrey for only a few weeks earlier in the season.
2008 – Vaughan’s gone
Michael Vaughan’s exit was unplanned: three Tests into a four match rubber with South Africa. Despite his own injury problems and unavailability to captain for much of the preceding three years, Vaughan left an exceptionally settled team that included three England captains: Flintoff, Strauss and Collingwood (ODI only). But appearances deceive: Flintoff (like his predecessor as iconic all-rounder, Botham) wasn’t to be trusted with leadership again; Collingwood was one batting failure from being dropped; and Strauss waited, although not for very long. Pietersen, of course, was invited to succeed not just Vaughan, but also Collingwood as ODI captain.
Central contracts had been instrumental to England’s success that began under Hussain and peaked under Vaughan in 2005. Team England were highly unlikely to look beyond their own group for a captain and the county game that year offered two proven ex-Test cricketers (Mark Butcher and Darren Gough), six Test discards, four one-day internationals, three overseas players and a handful of ‘county pros’.
These three examples, along with the situations in 1984 and 2014, suggest a thinning of the field of England captaincy contenders – related clearly to the introduction of central contracts and the withdrawal of Test players from championship cricket. It can be argued that the absence of many candidates does not really matter: England only needs one Test captain at a time. The injuries to captains Hussain and Vaughan illustrate that a viable alternative is necessary; something that Hussain, in particular, lacked in his first season in charge.
But just as substantial runs or wickets in county cricket are not guarantees, or even a prerequisite, of a successful Test career, how important is having experience of leading a county side? Michael Vaughan thrived without it. Nasser Hussain was made Essex captain only weeks before the England appointment. Michael Atherton leap-frogged the Lancashire job when made England captain age 25.
Perhaps the question is moot: England will continue to select captains from within the centrally contracted, county-deprived squad.
I have heard little of Andy Flower’s new role since his appointment in March 2014 as Technical Director of Elite Coaching, with a remit including the creation of “a leadership programme for young England cricketers,” which he clarified “is not simply about captaincy.” But he would explode the scepticism of many England followers if the graduates of his programme enabled England to appoint future captains with the confidence they could cope with the role like Vaughan and not look as ill-suited to it as Cook often has.
Footnote 1: These three dates (1980, 1999, 2008) provided useful examples to examine as well as being seasons for which I had Wisden easily to hand. Other dates and captaincy changes could be equally, or more illuminating.
I have heard it said that the turning point for George Bush (the father) as US President was marked by the New York Times publishing his quotations verbatim: every stumble, stutter and malapropism .
George Bush Senior is the United States’ most recent single term president. A politician who failed to capitalise on the advantage of incumbency. Nine of the other 44 US Presidents served a term (or less in Gerald Ford’s case) but were defeated when running to retain office.
The significance of the New York Times’ treatment of Bush lies in its unusual failure to extend to Bush the exaggerated respect mainstream American media affords to its heads of state – past and present. The leader’s flawed diction, his struggles to articulate his position on matters of state were laid bare. Nobody speaks in the pristine sentences of newspaper reports, but journalists polish up what they hear: removing redundancies and false starts, adding punctuation and ignoring fillers and non-lexical vocables (uhhh, um, etc).
Alastair Cook is another leader who, in public, is not a fluent speaker. He doesn’t trip over his words in the manner of Bush. Cook’s shortcomings as interviewee are mundanity, cliche and evasion. ‘Obviously’ is the verbal equivalent of his clip off his pads, sprinkled through his pronouncements in the way that legside stroke is found with high frequency in his innings. Cook doesn’t think what he is saying is self-evident; uttering ‘obviously’ just gives him a moment to think, a ‘noisy pause’ and a way of acknowledging the sense of the question he answers.
Just how much polishing do the media give the England captain when reporting on his interviews? On 1 May, Cook was interviewed on Sky Sports News about the decision to remove his mentor, Graham Gooch, from the post of England batting coach. Cook says:
Y’know, it’s obviously been a very tough decision for eh me, personally ehh when you’re discussing such a great man, and a guy who’s given obviously me so much in terms of my career. We started working together at at 17, ehhm all the way through Essex and obviously in the last 4 or 5, 4 and a half years is it for England. So it’s been an incredibly tough decision to be ehh to be to ehh make, to be part of that decision process ehmm but we just felt it was time that we just needed a bit of freshening up ehm yes it’s certainly it’s happened on the playing staff playing side of it and obviously the coaches as well. Y’know I think we’ve got to remember the good stuff with Goochy and thank him for all his hard work. I’ve never been, I’ve never been part of ehh anyone, sorry any coach who’s worked as hard as him, y’know, not only with the England players but also when he went back to Essex as well.
The Sky Sports News website carried a piece that reported Cook saying to their reporter the following:
Firstly, we need to thank Goochie. Obviously he’s been an absolute legend, not only for my game but for all of our games over the last five years.
“We all hold him in such high regard, have a huge amount of respect for him and what he’s done for English cricket over a huge amount of time not only as a player but as a coach. We just felt it’s time to freshen things up and move on.
It reads like an extract of an interview, but it’s quite different to the words Cook used in the Sky video. That’s probably because Cook read or issued a press release separate to the interview. Just possibly, it’s journalistic license, condensing and smoothing out Cook’s comments.
An England cricket captain is unlike a US President on so many counts. He doesn’t get the exaggerated respect of his domestic media, for a start. Nor is there the expectation of longevity or advantage of incumbency, particularly when judged by England cricket’s highest honour: being selected as the Ashes tour captain. A cricketer is appointed to that role once every four years (with some exceptions) – the same frequency as US presidential elections. 43 full tours of Australia have been undertaken by England. Only four captains have served a second term: Arthur Shrewsbury (1884/85 and 1886/87), AE Stoddart (1894/95 and 1897/98), JWHT Douglas (1911/12 and 1920/21) and Mike Brearley (1978/79 and 1979/80); Douglas being the only captain to do so with four or more years separating his assignments – nine years in his case! So Cook leading a second Ashes touring team in 2017/18 would be a rare achievement.
At the moment, it appears that Cook, despite the heavy defeat in Australia, the post-tour shedding of coaches and star players, and his own rigid approach to captaincy, is accepted as skipper by the England cricket media. Should England struggle to defeat Sri Lanka and India this summer and Cook not score heavily, it might be worth checking how literally the press is covering his quotes as an early indicator that faith in his leadership is ebbing away.
Bush lost the 1992 election to the silver tongued Bill Clinton. It wasn’t, however, the President’s opponent’s greater facility for public speaking that won him the election. Clinton’s winning strategy was summed up in the phrase, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ He based his campaign on telling people relentlessly what his research told him was important to them. Here, perhaps there is a lesson for Cook. Team ethics and new eras mean little unless the team’s ‘economy’ is functioning – taking wickets and scoring runs. The leader who focuses on the changing room ambiance, and appears to be making decisions that compromise the performance on the field, has the hallmark of a single-term President.
Footnote 1: I cannot evidence the New York Times’ treatment of Bush. I was a graduate in communication studies in the US at the time and I remember my classmates discussing the significance of the newspaper’s move. It was the sort of ‘communication’ story we would have picked over with delight.
Graeme Smith’s Test career ended in defeat and South Africa’s first series loss in five years and 15 series. He must have drawn satisfaction from his final, albeit unsuccessful, day of Test cricket as his middle and lower order battled and came so close to eking a draw from a game in which they were profoundly outplayed.
Smith’s records as captain – most matches, most victories – have been celebrated. There’s another record he holds, less well known, but which makes the denouement of his final Test ironic. Australia won at Cape Town with time almost, but not quite, up after declaring in the third innings. Smith is the most prolific declarer in Test history, having called time on South Africa batting in the third innings of a match 25 times. Yet, only eight of those declarations were converted into victories – producing a success ratio of 32%, below the average for the game and a long way short of the proportion achieved in recent years of Test cricket.
South Africa have become known for being a team hard to beat and one that finds it hard to speculate to accumulate if the victory isn’t coming comfortably their way. Smith’s statistic of only converting 32% of declarations – made when ahead in the game – into victories gives fuel to this notion of a risk averse South African side. The purpose of this post is to assess whether, from the perspective of the target-setting declarations, this is a fair assessment of Smith’s career, which in so many respects deserves to be remembered for the effectiveness of his leadership.
Smith’s third innings declarations spanned from his third Test as captain (v England at Edgbaston in July 2003) to his 107th and penultimate Test (v Australia at Port Elizabeth). In total, these declarations yielded eight victories, 16 draws and a single defeat. How many of the draws were likely victories spurned through over-caution?
Three of the draws can be discounted immediately. These weren’t ‘target-setting’ declarations, but decisions to close the innings to end a match that hadn’t progressed beyond the third innings. Adjusting for these, Smith’s win rate increases to 36%. A further adjustment, to take out two games where the fourth innings was prevented by rain from running its course, lifts the success rate to 40%.
The chart below shows the target set and estimated number of overs remaining in the match for each of the 22 ‘live’ declarations (including the two rain-affected games). Matches that were won by South Africa are green, defeats in red and draws in blue. The dotted turquoise line indicates the current record fourth innings chase in Test cricket (418). On ten occasions, Smith has challenged opponents to set a new Test fourth innings record.
Smith’s teams have won each of the matches where they have given themselves over 150 overs (five sessions) to bowl out the opposition. They have won only one-third of the nine games when they had 100-150 overs. Not a single game has been won with the declaration leaving a day’s play (90 overs) or less.
To test for examples of over-cautious captaincy, it makes sense to start with the four matches where Smith set a target of over 400 and gave his team over 100 overs to secure the victory (a fifth, when the final day was rain affected is excluded). Should he have declared earlier?
In only one of the matches (v England, Cape Town – Jan 2010) does it appear, with the benefit of hindsight, that more overs could have delivered a victory. England were nine wickets down and 170 short of the target after the 141 overs were delivered. In the other matches, the opposition were three, four and five wickets down at the close of play. In each case, bringing forward the declaration by an hour would not have substantially increased the chance of a South African defeat, but may have helped a victory push, although that seems unlikely given the position of the game at the end of day five.
Teams batting third create time to bowl the opposition out by batting, if not aggressively, then enterprisingly. The chart below shows the run rate per over achieved by South Africa for each of the 22 ‘live’ declarations. The colour of the bar indicates the match result: green – win; blue – draw; red – defeat.
The picture is mixed. Three of the four third innings with run rates below 3 per over presaged draws. But three of the five third innings with the highest run rates were also in matches that concluded in draws.
Smith has earned praise for several of his declarations. The defeat against Australia at Sydney in 2006, when South Africa were 1-0 down in the final Test of the series, came about following a “sporting declaration” by Smith – and tremendous attacking innings by Ponting. His next declaration, against India at Durban in December 2006, showed no signs of being scarred by defeat. Smith set the visitors 354 at a rate of almost one run per over slower than his team had amassed their third innings total. He was rewarded with a comfortable victory and a squared series. At Headingley six years later, Smith was credited with “happy daring” when 1-0 up in the series with two to play, he set England 253 in 39 overs.
Taken together, these observations point to criticism of Smith’s negative approach as a captain when setting the opposition a target being overstated. There are examples where he could have ventured more in pursuit of victory. But there are also examples of bold declarations, just as there are of frustration in the face of stubborn, unanticipated fourth innings salvage jobs.
Where Smith’s team appears to vary from the norm in Test cricket declarations is the failure to convert the majority of situations where 100-150 overs remain in the game into victories. In an earlier analysis of target-setting declarations in Tests between 2009-11, All the time in the world, I found that only four of 17 (24%) declarations made with 100-150 overs left in the game resulted in draws. Smith’s career record is 67% (six of nine).
The key to Smith’s apparently low conversion of declarations into victories has not been the timing of his declarations, nor has it been the urgency with which his side has batted in the third innings of the match. If there is a deficiency it lies with the concoction of factors that have made South Africa relatively ineffective at dismissing sides in the fourth innings. In that mix may be: the lack of top quality spin bowling, unhelpful wickets, unadventurous captaincy in the field and, of course, ill-fortune. What do you think accounts for Smith’s mediocre record of driving home match advantage into victory?
An England team has been humbled in Australia, losing five consecutive Test matches. The clean-sweep is a fair reflection of the home side’s dominance. The visiting team can look back at unfortunate incidents, missed opportunities and questionable selections, but a gulf in quality has been exposed.
That’s the predicament English cricket finds itself in at the start of January 2014. 93 years ago, its touring predecessors suffered the same series result. How do the two series and their consequences compare?
England travelled to Australia in late 1920 as holders of the Ashes, seeking a third consecutive series victory. But that provided little evidence of form as the previous encounter had been eight years and one World War ago. The tourists’ batting was thought to be their strong suit. Cardus, reflecting on the ‘wonderful’ summer of 1920 just past, observed (with an analogy that intrigues):
Look at the men who will bat for England in a few weeks in Australia – Hobbs, Hearne, Hendren, Woolley, Fender, Russell. Individualists all – some of them very Lenins of cricket!
The team was led by JWHT Douglas, who had a proven record as a captain overseas with victories in Australia and South Africa, albeit achieved before the Great War. He had not been first choice for the role, though. Reggie Spooner of Lancashire was offered the captaincy, but declined it because of business commitments (1).
Hopes were, of course, even higher for Cook’s team of 2013. Setting out to secure a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, with the first Test at Brisbane starting fewer than three months after the close to final Test of the 3-0 series win on home soil. Cook, himself had never lost a series as captain and had lead England to its first victory in India in 26 years.
Douglas’ squad numbered 16, half of who suffered illness or injury in Australia. The most severe loss was Jack Hearne, who became ill at the start of the second Test and played no further part in the series. Harry Makepeace incurred an injury ‘of its time’ – damaging a thumb when starting a car.
This winter’s tourists also lost a pivotal member of their batting order early in the series, with Jonathon Trott’s departure owing to a stress condition. Graeme Swann’s exit – retiring mid-series – might also be seen as ‘of its time’.
But all touring teams, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, can expect casualties and to need to select teams from a reduced squad. These matters provide background to stories of thumping defeats, but don’t afford explanations. A fast bowler – the quickest of his day – was where Australia’s superiority on the field was most pronounced. Mitchell Johnson, like Jack Gregory nearly a hundred years earlier, was too hostile for England’s Lenins. Gregory’s pace – “for which nothing in English cricket was adequate preparation” – found its greatest support not from another fast bowler, but Arthur Mailey, whose wrist-spin took 36 wickets in the series.
England’s much touted batting order faltered, yet found some consolation in the performance of the greatest star of all. Kevin Pietersen was England’s leading run-scorer but could derive but a fraction of the satisfaction that Jack Hobbs could from his performance. 505 runs, with two centuries, despite some injury problems. Pietersen has faced heavy criticism for the manner of some of his dismissals – from press, followers and possibly, coach. I suspect he would need to score more than 500 runs, or travel back 90 years, or find a correspondent as romantic as Cardus to receive this indulgence of a dismissal:
Hobbs, in the moment of crisis, so fascinated by his own art that he heeds not the dangers lurking about him! On this occasion, indeed, he was out ‘leg before wicket’, no doubt attempting to ‘damn the consequences’, with his own hazardous but ravishing glance to leg from a ball on the middle stump, the riskiest stroke, but as sweet as stolen fruit.
The heat of the Ashes contest infected the crowd, who jeered an antagonist in the opposition, then cheered loud and long when he was dismissed. Stuart Broad’s predecessor was ER Wilson, who earnt this reception by cabling complaints about the Australian crowd’s behaviour back to England, from where they bounced back to an Aussie audience.
The local crowd also jeered when they saw an England cricketer labouring in the field, failing to keep the batsmen to a single. The fielder was Hobbs, who was carrying a leg muscle injury. But according to Hobbs, the crowd made amends in “one of the most peculiar incidents in my life.”
The moment I appeared at the door of the pavilion, the spectators rose from their seats and cheered like mad, shouting, “Good old Hobbs!” They even sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” This was undoubtedly intended to make it clear to me that any chaff directed at my fielding had been due to ignorance of my injured leg
Could the team’s leaders remain in positions of authority after such a humiliating defeat? That’s the question preoccupying England cricket followers in 2014. Flower appears to have the backing of the ECB and he, in turn, supports Cook continuing as captain. In 1921, Douglas continued as captain. “Much has been taken from English cricket this winter, but much abides,” concluded Cardus. Yet, two Tests and two defeats later, Douglas was replaced.
Everything about Andy Flower’s role is twenty-first century. The tourists’ manager in 1920/21 was Frederick Toone. His sphere of influence was off the field. So highly respected were his organisational and diplomatic skills and so untarnished was he by the performance and scoreline, that he managed the next two MCC/England tours of Australia.
For precedents to apply to Flower, there’s a need to look to the more recent past. In 2007, Duncan Fletcher remained in charge for the World Cup campaign that followed the Ashes whitewash. Failure there led to his resignation, with a sense that he had contributed greatly to the development of English international cricket but that the team needed new leadership.
Mickey Arthur remained coach to the Australian team deep into 2013, several months after the 4-0 clean sweep to India. Failing to win a game in the Champions Trophy and with off-field controversy buffeting the team he was denied the chance to coach in the Ashes. Both Fletcher and Arthur exited having failed to conjure a recovery in their next assignment after being whitewashed. Maybe Flower is also being given an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the team quickly.
His situation, however, differs from that of Fletcher and Arthur, both of whom had successors ready to take over, men who also represented changes of direction from the previous regime. Peter Moores was thought to be more consensual than the man blamed for the stubborn selections in the 2006/07 Ashes, as well as having strong connections back into the county game from which Fletcher had distanced his England set up. Darren Lehmann, in England in 2013 with the Australia A team, enabled Australia to end their association with their first foreign coach and replace him with a leader whose style was player-friendly, not technocratic; warm, not aloof. Flower, perhaps as a result of his authority, has no obvious successor who would bring a fresh approach to the running of team.
Finally, returning to the longer view theme of this piece:
The England team fails to rally late in the series. As the fifth consecutive defeat is recorded, the players look drained and trapped in a pattern of repeated mistakes. Time away from cricket, or at least away from Australian opponents, would seem the best best remedy.
It seems cruel on the England of 2014 that many of the key figures in the Test series defeat – Cook, Broad, Bell, Bresnan, Root, Carberry – must stay on for a further four weeks, meeting their vanquishers in eight limited overs fixtures.
Douglas’ England team did get to sail home at the end of the Test series. But any hopes they may have had of putting distance between themselves and their opponents were not to be realised. Amongst the passengers sharing the voyage were the Australian squad on its way to England for the return series in the northern summer of 1921.
(1) I have also read that CB Fry was offered the captaincy, but turned it down because of injury.
Sources: A Cardus for All Seasons (Neville Cardus); My Life Story (Sir Jack Hobbs); A History of Cricket (HS Altham & EW Swanton); Wisden
Back in the hotel bar, sometime around midnight, Dave (the quiz master) muttered, “That’s Mike Hendrick.”
The Turl CC reunion, replacing the annual tour, had started with a washout at Lord’s; progressed to pub (accompanied by Backwatersman), curry house and now we were sharing a bar with an England cricketer of our school-boy days. For some reason (seven pints worth of unreason) I wasn’t satisfied merely to share the bar so walked across, asked if he really was Mike Hendrick. He was. For the next, maybe, hour, he chatted to us. Every question, comment and reminiscence we offered conjured a story from the man. It was a deep, rather drunken, delight.
I had travelled down to London for the reunion that afternoon by train. A day-or-so before I had listened to Couch Talk’s interview with the Indian national team’s performance analyst. Disillusioned by the potential impact of analytics in cricket, I spent a lot of the journey drafting Neutering the intelligent cricketer.
The morning of the second day of the reunion began slowly. The ground at Lord’s needed time to dry out so we didn’t need a rushed cure to our hangovers before gathering there again, this time to see some play. As we watched we pieced together the night before. Not the elemental night out material of who went there and ended up where, but what were the stories Hendrick had told us.
He had been keen to talk about Brearley – the best captain he had played under – how he had asked to go drinking with Hendrick and Old to get to know them better and then his captaincy on the field. This is how I remember the story being told.
I was bowling to Kim Hughes in a Test. I was at the top of my run-up when Brearley runs up from his place in the slips. What’s he want, I think.
“Where are you going out tonight?” he asked me.
“Where are you going?”
“Why are you asking me that now?”
Brearley had his back to the batsman. “Look over my shoulder. Tell me what Hughes is doing.”
“He’s scratching around in the crease.”
Brearley kept talking. He asked me to look over his shoulder at the batsman again. “What’s he doing now?”
“He’s still scratching about in the crease.”
“Good. This ball, I want you to bowl the same length as that last delivery, but about three inches further outside his off-stump. Right?”
I bowled the next ball, just as he told me and I got it pretty much exactly where he wanted it and you know what? Hughes chased it and was caught by Gower in the covers. What a captain!
It’s a lovely story: self-deprecating – he admits confusion at Brearley’s gamesmanship and then being a bit pleased with himself that he can land the ball where he’s been instructed to – and his veneration for Brearley was touching.
Travelling to London earlier that day, I had been pessimistic about the ‘intelligent cricketer’ preserving his or her advantage in a time of granular analysis of opponents. This story restores my faith.
If that match (Adelaide, 1979?*) was played today, Hendrick and his team-mates would have been briefed on the young batsman’s weaknesses – prone to chasing full balls outside off-stump – and shown video from his previous appearances of his dismissals. Brearley’s brilliant insight would be common knowledge; part of a plan.
But Brearley didn’t just have the insight, he sensed how best to take advantage of the situation: to slow the game down; to make the young batsman impatient; to time the moment when his bowler with great control of line and length should offer up the bait. Brearley’s intelligence encompassed not just his opponent’s vulnerability, but how to prey on that weakness to gain maximum effect.
Alastair Cook was leading England for the 12th time in Tests at Nottingham in July 2013. On day 2 he was confronted by a debutant, Ashton Agar, whose fearless, euphoric batting turned an Australian collapse into a sizeable first innings lead. Cook and his England attack struggled with this unexpected assault.
These are just moments from the careers of two England captains and while I’m wary of cherry-picking to suit my argument, they do seem indicative. One, the more experienced leader, out-thinking the opponent; the other, out of ideas, facing a tenth wicket insurrection that didn’t appear in any of his coaching staff’s plans.
* I don’t recall Hendrick stating which match it was, but at The Adelaide Oval, January 1979, Wisden records, “Gower, at square cover, made a brilliant diving catch to dismiss Hughes” from Hendrick’s bowling.
Michael Clarke, in his first full year of captaincy, has the honour of ‘declaration of the year’. At Bridgetown in April, Clarke declared Australia’s first innings 43 runs behind West Indies, curtailing a 77 run tenth wicket partnership. The following day, in their second innings, Australia chased a target of 192, making Clarke only the second captain in test history to win a match after declaring behind.
Other significant declarations in 2012 will follow after an overview of target-setting, third innings declarations (which Clarke’s was not).
In an earlier review of target-setting declarations, I have shown that they occur in approximately one-quarter of all Test matches. 2012 fell into line with this long-term average, with 11 of the 42 matches in the year featuring this kind of declaration. The proportion of victories arising from these declarations (30% – excluding one declaration made to bring a game to an end) was considerably lower than the typical figure achieved in recent decades: 40-50%.
This brings us to an apparent paradox. Declarations tend to occur when one team is on top in the game. Yet 80% of the drawn matches in 2012 involved a target-setting declaration, while only 9% of the victories did so. The longer-term picture is more balanced, with target-setting declarations featuring in 21% of victories and in 27% of draws.
It revives the question posed in my post, Making the Game Safe, over whether the captains of sides batting third take too long over bringing their innings to an end. Mike Brearley, in The Art of Captaincy, concedes:
most of us already err on the side of caution; fielding is hard work (so postponements are tempting); and we enjoy watching our batsmen demolish the bowling.
Eliminating two games ushered to draws by fifth day rain and a third where the match’s third innings began 40 overs into the final day, four merit review.
SA v NZ at Wellington (Mar 2012)
SA skipper, Graeme Smith, declared 15 overs into the final day, setting a target of 389. Overnight, the lead had been 280, but had built rapidly in the opening hour of the day five. Smith’s declaration did not maximise the time available for pursuing the victory in the fourth innings, where Kane Williamson’s obdurate century and some sloppy SA fielding contributed to the result.
Pak v SL at Pallekele (July 2012)
Misbah-ul-Haq set SL 270 in 71 overs. This was a well-balanced target, although Pakistan may have wanted to risk more given they were one-nil down in the final match of the series.
SA v Eng at Leeds (Aug 2012)
Leading the series and having experienced Kevin Pietersen at his destructive best in the first innings, Smith’s declaration was justifiably cautious but managed to create an exciting final afternoon.
Aus v SA at Adelaide (Nov 2012)
Clarke declared with a lead of 430 and almost 150 overs left in the game. That the game was drawn had very little to do with his declaration judgement and a lot to do with the determination of debutant Faf du Plessis, a flat track and the Australian attack being a man down.
So, in only one instance – Smith’s declaration at Wellington – was the judgement awry and culpable in the match being lost. It is also worth noting that rain had taken time out of this match, as it had in the Headingley and Pallekele examples.
The other noteworthy target-setting declaration was made by Mahela Jayawardene at Galle against Pakistan in June 2012. Sri Lanka’s second innings happened as Jayawardene opted not to enforce the follow-on when 370 ahead after dismissing Pakistan in 54 overs. By batting again, a lead of 500 was established and a declaration made. Jayawardene was criticised for opting to bat again. The decision whether to enforce the follow-on has been analysed by academic statistician Philip Scarf, whose work informed my earlier pieces on declarations. Scarf’s conclusion is that the decision makes no significant difference to the outcome of the match.
I end this round-up where it began: with a record-holder. Graeme Smith set a record in 2012 when he became the captain who has made the most target-setting declarations in test history. With 23 he is two clear of Ricky Ponting, the previous record holder. Their fortunes are quite different as Smith has only converted 26% into victories, compared to Ponting’s 81%. Smith hasn’t always been over-cautious, but as at Wellington in April, his reluctance to get out in the field has on occasions cost the South Africans a win.