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Sri Lanka v England: an oxymoronic encounter

For 20 years I have spent August Bank Holiday on tour with my college old boys team. For the majority of that time, my wife has resented that annual occasion. In recent years, the resentment has found a semantic focus: it isn’t a TOUR! My team’s get-together doesn’t meet my wife’s criteria for a tour: we stay in one place and only play two matches (against the same team, too).

I imagine Andrew Strauss dealing with a similar domestic situation:

The England Captain: Right, I’m off to Sri Lanka for a Test series. I’ll call before bath time to speak to the kids. Love you.

The England Captain’s Wife: It’s not a series. You’re only playing two matches. You can’t call two matches a series. And don’t get sunburnt.

Two does not make a series. Mathematically, a series is many; colloquially, at least several. So what should we call these contests? A double-header? A two-leg tie – no, because the scores are not aggregated across the two matches. A pair – no, term already taken in cricket. A Test brace or couple? Outbound and return?

The two test contest has come in for some criticism as a format suitable for the highest form of the sport. Australia and South Africa exchanged blows in November 2011, ending up all-square with none to play. Almost everyone was left feeling they had been sold short. An opera without a fat lady, a thriller without the resolution. Only those Puritan souls able to take pleasure from leaving while wanting more seemed satisfied.

But, a contest over two tests dates from the very beginning of Test cricket. England’s visit to Australia in 1876/77 culminated with two matches between the countries. None of the players involved knew they were engaging in Test cricket. It’s only through hindsight that the matches were given authentic status. So, perhaps, we shouldn’t look upon it as precedent. Only once more were the Ashes scheduled as a two match affair: 1886/87. Twice more in the nineteenth century England contested over a two game affair – against South Africa.

For the next century, the standard set for a Test cricket contest was a three or a five match series, with occasional one-offs. The only regular exception was when New Zealand hosted England on their way back (although headed in the wrong direction) from an Ashes series.

This all changed in 2001. The expansion of Test cricket to ten nations, biannual ICC competitions and the introduction of a ranking system meant that some top-down order was needed in place of the informal, bilateral arrangements that had determined cricket’s international timetable. The Future Tours Programme Agreement (links to page with a link to the pdf of the FTP Agreement) defined a tour as comprising a minimum of two tests and three one day internationals. The rush to the bottom began. In the last decade, 46% of all tours and 33% of those involving only major nations (i.e. all bar Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) comprised two tests – see chart.

Does an increase in two test tours matter? It could do for any of the following reasons:

  • Less Test cricket is being played
  • Fewer matches means the better team doesn’t have time to emerge as the winner (i.e. more drawn series)
  • Teams approach matches more negatively, for fear of falling behind and being unable to go on and win; or once ahead playing to conserve the advantage, not build on it (i.e. more drawn matches)
  • The departure from the game of the extended narrative of the closely fought series, with fortunes oscillating between the teams.

The first reason does not stand up to scrutiny: the quantity of Test cricket played in this period is at an all time high. The fourth reason is difficult to evidence but feels a legitimate concern. Last year’s Australian tour of South Africa is an example of a contest that was cut short before it could mature. The second and third reasons are amenable to some analysis.

There were 121 series between major Test nations in the period March 2002-March 2012. The chart shows that the likelihood of a Test match in a two test tour being drawn was very similar to the likelihood of a draw occuring in a Test match in a three, four or five test tour. However, two-test tours were more than twice as likely to produce drawn series than longer tours. While, on the face of it, there is no evidence of more negative play, the truncated modern tour is leaving contests unresolved.

Should Sri Lanka and England’s oxymoronic encounter buck the trend, it could provide a near-oxymoronic outcome: best Test team loses again.

Note on ‘oxymoron‘: a precise definition of the term is that the two words of opposite meaning are used together intentionally for effect. ‘Two Test Series’ is more precisely a ‘contradiction in terms’.

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Does English cricket need its own Boxing Day Test?

70,000 cricket fans went to the first day of last week’s Melbourne Test. Another 120,000 attended the next three days. 2.6 million viewers caught the first day’s play on television, accounting for two-thirds of the television viewing audience in Australia’s metropolitan areas on Boxing Day. The post-Christmas match-up, held in the country’s largest cricket venue, is established as the pillar of the Australian cricket season.

The English domestic season has the shape of a cushion that has been sat on by many different backsides.

There is no equivalent to the Boxing Day Test. The Lord’s test sounds so definitive, and has the sense of a homecoming. But for the last 20 years the ground has hosted two test matches and they have shuttled across May, June, July and August. The county one-day knock-out final comes late in the season, but doesn’t have a place in the neutrals’ heart and calendar. Twenty20 finals day has tried out a few locations and dates and perhaps will settle to become a focus of of the domestic season.

The nostalgia paragraph. Growing up, the overall season had a shape, as well as a weekly pattern. One-day international series at the start of the summer, alongside B&H zonal county competition… Tests underway midsummer, with England traditionally losing the series by July, around the time of the B&H final… Gillette/Natwest final following the Oval test, with the touring team announced on its back… Tests began on Thursday, finishing on Tuesday… County knockout matches on Wednesday. County championship matches beginning on Saturdays and Wednesdays… The Sunday league being faithful to its name.

For the cricket follower, the price of knowing where you were in the week and the season, appears to have been mediocrity at Test and first-class level, studded with the odd outstanding performer: Botham, Gower, Gooch in the former; Richards (x2), Zaheer, Proctor, etc in the latter.

Maybe having our own Boxing Day test would give some definition to the season: a fixed point around which to rally public interest. Test match ticket sales remain robust so it wouldn’t have to be a Test match. The late May and August Bank Holidays could be anchor points. In May, three ODIs held across the Thursday, Saturday and Monday of the long weekend. In August, the Oval Test running from the Friday or Saturday of the Bank Holiday; or the twenty20 finals day and the one day final played on the Saturday and Monday. Events like the big screen in the park parties run alongside the last Ashes series could share the experience wider than the match-day ticket-holders.

The English domestic cricket season, unsure how much to trust and invest in twenty20, feels like a work in progress. I usually run a mile from manufactured traditions. However, the Boxing Day Test, highly popular and part of the infrastructure of Australian cricket, only became an annual fixture in the 1990s. So maybe a conscious effort to big-up a weekend of cricket and stick with it, could help the process of a rational timetable cohering around it, as well as giving the sport a weekend of  prominence.

Perhaps the most critical step would be for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to place this fixture in the list of Group A sporting events that have to be made availabe to channels that broadcast for free and have coverage of 95% of the population. Then we may be getting somewhere. To return to my earlier, soft-furnishing metaphor for the season, we could find ourselves with a jewel fit to sit atop a velvet cushion.

Sizing up the opposition

The net facilities were good in Bridgetown. A lot of local bowlers came along, all of them pretty quick, and the temptation from our point of view was to look at them and think, ‘Bloody hell, they’re only club bowlers, but they look better than we do.’

Angus Fraser, My Tour Diaries – 1989-90.

A precious insight into the mentality of England Test cricket in the 1980s/90s – even in the run up to one of the team’s most famous victories – and one that grants me a connection to one of our most admirable cricketers of that time. In the opening overs of most matches, certainly at the start of the season, I find myself drawn into these thoughts about the opposition:

  • When I’m in the field: “their batsmen hit the ball a lot harder than we do; how are we ever going to get past a bat that straight and broad?”
  • And when at the non-striker’s end or umpiring: “they have expert bowlers who make the ball hum as it’s delivered, or swing away late. What do we have?”

I big, not just size, the opposition up. However, those thoughts are easily exposed as fallacies. It’s all about perception. I don’t field to our batsmen, so don’t have my hands stung by their drives. I don’t face our bowling – not that I would notice late swing if I did – and couldn’t hear a humming ball delivered by a teammate from wherever I am in the field.

Fraser, too, regained his confidence.

You soon realise, however, that they’re not [better than us]. It was just this image we had that if they were big, black fast bowlers, they were automatically as good as Sylvester Clarke or Wayne Daniel. The thing is, bowling quickly is not enough at professional level and we were soon reassured that these guys were not actually superior to the England cricket team, when they joined in a couple of practice games and didn’t have either the control or the ability to do as much with the ball as we did.

Sizing up the opposition at the level Fraser played is delegated now to analysts and coaches, who feed the players with the information they need. In the debate over the merits of the England Test team that won the Ashes this year, there is consensus on one thing: they were the best prepared of any team visiting from this country.

Four years earlier, the Ashes already lost in record time, the selection strategy in a mess, details of England’s counter intelligence found their way into the hands of the media. For a couple of days, England’s colour coded bowling plans were debated: who had leaked them? why weren’t they being executed? what could be meant on Hayden’s analysis by ‘dot balls (Ego)’? Matthew Hoggard took one for the team, dismissing the sheet during a press conference grilling with the comment, accompanied by groans across the nation from ECB qualified coaches:

I just close my eyes and whang it down anyway, so there’s not much planning there.

Fail to plan; plan to fail

Back down to earth with amateur cricketers: what to do if you are prone to big up the opposition and so enter a game with a negative mindset? If Moneyball was the empirically researched strategy for the poor baseball franchise, then I have a fact-based solution for the penniless cricket team.

My college cricket team passed a body of cricket lore down from year to year. Just as clubs have a kit bag, used season after season, dipped into by new players or those looking for a crucial piece of equipment ahead of a knock, so we had our lore. And those kit bags tend to have just one set of pads with fastenings intact, or a single bat with middle, edges, toe and shoulders undamaged. So the body of cricket lore had one guide used again and again. It didn’t have a name, but in shorthand was the opposition score estimator.

In longhand, it comprised the following algorithm to be operated in the period from the arrival of the opposition team to their spilling out onto the ground for pre-match practice or general larks. (NB the values and criteria 2-4 are particular to declaration games played on the green wickets of Oxford in the months of April-June in the 1980s)

1. Base score: 10 for each player. Note this requires calculation and cannot be assumed to be 110. Most captains could not be sure of fielding a full side, for a mixture of reasons, including exam pressure, indifference to the game and hangovers. Some teams couldn’t be sure of fielding their captain for two, but predominantly one of those reasons.

2. Cricket bag adjustment: +10 for each player seen carrying a proper cricket bag into the changing room, subject to an additional 5 for each ‘coffin’ used to transport kit.

3. Footwear adjustment: -5 for each player wearing trainers, with a further 10 subtracted for players wearing black trainers.

4. Tracksuit adjustment: -10 for each player wearing tracksuit bottoms.

5. Club colours adjustment: +10 for each player wearing a sweater with club crest or colours. +20 for each player wearing a traditional cricket cap sporting a club crest. Note that care must be taken distinguishing sweaters with crests for hockey, tennis, etc from genuine cricket club sweaters.

If the total exceeded 135, par for all matches until the end of a dry June, the team readied itself for balls hit harder and propelled with more spin or speed.

Trott not spot

Salman Butt, Mohammed Amir and Mohammed Asif were found guilty this week on the counts of conspiracy to accept payments for identifying in advance when three no balls would be bowled in the Test match at Lord’s on 26 and 27 August last year and conspiracy to do the same acts in order to enable others to cheat at gambling. Those dates and that match are seared with the notions of cheating, fixing, conspiracy and crime.

I left Lord’s in the late afternoon of 27 August 2010 exhilarated. My departure before the close of play was for one of the few things that could ever draw me from watching a live match at Lord’s: my college old boys’ annual cricket tour. Fortunes had swung dramatically on a thrilling day, with three cricketers to the fore. But the performance of one player had topped the lot. Jonathon Trott played an innings of tactical brilliance and technical excellence. It met the force of the Pakistani opening bowlers head on, slowed and then halted their momentum, before swinging it back and trampling over their push for ascendancy, victory and a series draw.

At the start of the day, Trott had barely faced a ball by the time three partners had been dismissed. Amir was swinging the ball at pace away from and into the batsmen. He took a fourth wicket of the session, without conceding a run, leaving England five down without 50 on the board.

Trott had a plan. He batted well out of his crease to meet the ball before Amir’s late swing could bring about too much deviation. He rode the moving ball, refusing to prod at or follow it. He stood well down the wicket, towards a bowler reaching 90mph, defying the instinct to move back and give himself time. I don’t remember Trott being hit, or even troubled, by the occasional short ball that Amir could deliver.

As the conditions eased, he collected runs around the wicket, driving repeatedly through his supposedly weaker off-side. Amir took his fifth and sixth wickets of the day and Broad joined Trott. There was still a lot of bailing out to be done, but their partnership grew and grew taking England to a respectable total, then a strong one and always further from the batting travails of the start of the day. I was gone by the time the pair were lording it over the Pakistani bowlers. They were unbeaten, both with hundreds, over night. I had seen (part of) a very special day’s cricket and was so glad of the reunion that evening with cricket friends to turn it over and savour its significance.

At some point the next morning, talk of spot-fixing superseded that of Trott and Broad. It hasn’t surrendered its primacy ever since. For a short while, I questioned whether the whole England fightback was an artifice. But I had seen Trott face up to Amir and survive against his very best and then thrive as the conditions became less friendly to the bowlers.

Trott’s courage, adaptability and skill displayed at Lord’s on 27 August 2010 have not received the acclaim deserved. It was overshadowed – even questioned – by the spot-fixing allegations. Now this week’s court activity has hardened those allegations into proven criminal endeavour, it’s time to recognise Trott’s awesome innings.

Batting to order

Drafted in for the Final, I was to open the batting. We bowled first and as we left the field, having conceded the highest score of the five innings played that day, the Skip said, “I want Dav to open, you’ll be three.” Dav’s opening partner, our Mr October, set off at a gallop, putting us ahead of the asking rate. As he neared his retirement – on scoring 30 – the Skip turned to me: “I want to keep this momentum up. Briggsy’s in next.” Briggsy delivered and the Skip tapped our opening bowler, cricketer of pedigree, on the shoulder and said, “Get your skins on GB.” Out GB strode when Briggsy topped 30. Dav fell with the target in sight. The Skip stood up. This was a chance to wipe out the memory of his final over in last year’s semi-final – 13 runs conceded and a final ball defeat. “You’re next whatever happens,” he said before marching onto the field.

What did happen was two very fine cricketers eased us home with two overs to spare, the Skip making the winning run. He apologised to me – I hadn’t had a knock that day.

After two league title winning seasons, juggling a team of very uneven talents, the Skip had seen a chance to win something meaningful. Five batsmen, all my superiors, were our best chance of chasing down the total and were sent in ahead of me, with several cannier operators following. I backed the Skip’s decision not only because it brought us the trophy – the only cricket trophy some of us have had a sniff at – but because it showed the agile thinking that eludes cricket teams. That day I raced in earnest the hobby horse that I so often ride for leisure. Where Benaud had his front-foot no-ball law, Boycs has covered pitches, the subject I bang on about is: why are teams so inflexible with their batting order, in innnings, matches and even whole series?

Above all, it’s the England cricket team who have seemed afraid of upsetting the scorecard printers by sending in their batsmen out of order. There is an exception, itself controversial, the nightwatchman. But even that tactic appears to be employed inflexibly.

For long periods of the last thirty years, England have found the number three spot problematic. Pundits have explained the difficulty of finding a player who is equally able to take strike to the second ball of the game or after a double century opening stand. The real problem lies not in finding a player to fit this bill, but in making this the person specification.  The England of 2011, best Test side in the world, have Trott at three, with Pieterson and Bell to follow. Trott, recently named ICC player of the year, is the ideal candidate for the early loss of an opener. In his current form, he thrives whenever he comes to the wicket, but is it in the team’s best interests for him to bat if the openers have lasted a session and the opponents are deploying their third and fourth change bowlers? Another player is more likely to capitalise on the situation and turn an advantage into control of the game.

A defence of the inflexible batting order is that batsmen need to know their role. Ok: “Trotters, overs 1-25, you’re in three. KP, you’re the man if Chef and Levi are still there at over 26 onwards.” In fact, the inflexible batting order can lead to batsmen being less able to play a role suited to their strengths. I suspect, this whole argument is fallacious. What we are really dealing with is individual pride and prestige. Why else was Collingwood persisted with at five in the Ashes, when Bell’s fluent innings kept getting cut short batting with the tail at six?

How far could this approach of a flexible batting order be taken? I had my first taste of club cricket, playing for a hard-drinking village Sunday XI under the captaincy of Gill, a Popeye-shaped builder, and unorthodox leader. One month he got into his head that we should capitalise on having two left-handed batsmen, one of who was me, in the top-order. Gill sent a lefty and righty out to open and said to a right-handed colleague and me that the former was to go in at three if the righty was out and me if the lefty fell first. What happens, I asked, if my fellow southpaw bats through? Am I at number eleven? Gill said he’d get back to me on that.

There are limits to how flexible the batting order should be. The potential is found in scenarios that are forseeable, of which I list a few below. First though, a danger. In baseball, when I last followed the sport closely in the early 1990s, the following often happened. In the late innings, a right-handed starting pitcher, beginning to tire and due to be facing one of the opponent’s most effective right-handed batters would be replaced by a left-handed relief pitcher. Once this pitcher had warmed up, the batting side would counter by pulling their batter from the game and sending in a left-handed pinch hitter. What seemed to drive this series of moves was ‘the numbers’: lefty batters have better stats against lefty pitchers, similarly righty batters prosper against righty pitchers. Probability, dressed up as flexibility, isn’t the answer (however, I have enjoyed international teams bringing on their slow left-arm bowlers the minute Pieterson appears at the wicket.)

Taking the current England team as the example, here are three Test match scenarios, to add to the first wicket down situation, where some flexible thinking could make (even) better use of the available talents.

  1. England lose their sixth wicket to a swinging delivery in the third over of the second new ball. Instead of bringing in Broad or Bresnan to partner the last front-line batsman, send out Anderson, England’s nightwatchman, to see the shine off the new ball and holding back the more attacking lower order batsmen until the bowling is less of a threat.
  2. A slow left-armer or leg-spinner has cut through the England middle-order, turning the ball away from the bat. Instead of exposing Prior and Bresnan, who would be vulnerable to the same kind of dismissal as their teammates, send out the left-handed Broad to disturb the bowler’s rhythm and attempt to shift the momentum of the innings.
  3. A long partnership, in place since the start of play, is progressing deep into its fourth hour. The next batsman in will have been sat, padded up, concentrating and burning nervous energy. Why not stand him down for half an hour to freshen up, with the next but one batsman moved up one place until the scorecard order can be reinstated?

Cricket is a unique blend of individual endeavour in a team environment. Loosening the grip of the scorecard batting order may strike at the pride of some batsmen in the interests of the team, yet also allow more individuals to play the game in situations to which their strengths are best fitted.

Lucky so and so

I’m lucky. So lucky. Black cats and pairs of magpies cross my path as I make my way to the wicket across swards of four-leaved clover. I’m a very lucky batsman.

Rarely have I taken an innings beyond 20 without being dropped. More spills than BP, as many shells as a beach. A few facts: my three major innings this season:

  • 66*: dropped at slip; dropped at extra-cover; dropped at deep mid-wicket in a fielding calamity that saw my lofted on-drive swatted over the boundary to bring up my 50
  • 26: dropped at extra-cover; dropped at cover point
  • 55: dropped at deep mid-on.

Outside of these innings, I was also dropped by a fielder in the deep, who contrived to shovel the ball into the sight-screen to gift me a six.

In total, eight catches off my bat went to hand and then to ground. Four times I was dismissed to a catch, giving me a two to one chance of surviving a lofted shot hit to a fielder. There were many other occasions when I sent the ball in a tight arc over a fielder, who flapped or swore, but didn’t intercept it.

Some context: the standard of fielding isn’t high in the cricket I play; and I do hit the ball in the air a lot. Nevertheless, I benefit more than most from butter-fingers in the field. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the most recent season. It’s been a truth that nagged at me in each of my phases of cricket-playing: teens to 21; 25-28 and over 40.

Is it possible to be a lucky batsman for a career? One of my team-mates has that reputation earned over a career of 40 odd years. Merlin played a very decent level of club cricket and spent some years pro-ing in the north-west. So he’s well known in the county for his magic. Merlin waves his bat, mesmirises the fielders and the ball sails up and drops safely. To date, with Merlin on the team, I’ve kept below the radar.

Al and Chrisps at work

Sorcerer and apprentice

Most would argue that any cricket career, if long enough, will have its share of good and bad luck. Things even themselves out, in other words. My experience, and the reputation of Merlin, makes me look at this random distribution of luck theory in a different way. There are so many of us batting ten, twenty times a season, that a small number will have a disproportionate share of good fortune over a career. We are the random samples of batting fortune which are placed well to the right of the Gaussian bell-curve. We may start each match as likely as any player to have catches dropped, but in the retrospect, our skiers have tended to be the ones that pop out, slide through or jar the ends of the fingers of fielders’ hands.

Of course, luck for a batsman takes more forms than whether catches are held or dropped. Other common external factors are: umpires’ decision-making, the (mis)behaviour of an occasional delivery, form of the bowlers and state of the game when batting. Of these, catching is the most visible display of good or ill fortune, followed perhaps by the decisions of the umpire.

How then, in the upper echelons of the game, should evidence that a player attracts good luck affect selection, role and career? Should a test batsman who has made runs, but always benefiting from misses in the field, be shunned as his scores overstate his ability? This appeals to our rational, analytical selves. Or should he be cultivated – at the risk of operating at the level of David Brent, whose approach to recruitment short-listing involved throwing the pile of CVs in the air and interviewing those that landed face-up. Who wouldn’t want someone lucky working for you, he reasoned.

I suspect selectors of professional cricketers pay less attention to the luck that made possible a score or a bowling analysis. It’s the end product that counts. Dropped on one, and 31, went on to score 91, is interpreted as: has made a score so has the confidence to make another next time. The other interpretations – the rational: took three innings to make 91, not good enough; or Brentian: let’s back this guy, he’s lucky – don’t feature. Despite the luck that fuels my batting, I would give full support to a selection committee that judged the process as well as the outcome; that dropped the batsman who only scores runs because he gets dropped.

Neil Harvey Fairbrother

Fairbrother was named after Neil Harvey, Australian batsman of the 1950s. He was one of the first international one-day specialists and, in his post-playing career, agent to the Flintoff empire.

I saw Fairbrother score his only international century and put on over 200 with Graeme Hick at Lord’s in 1990 to take England to a seven wicket victory against the West Indies. Their partnership, facing Patterson, Ambrose, Marshall and Walsh, set a new record for any wicket in an ODI in England. I remember the excitement of the run chase, never believing we were safe. In my mind, the setting was dark and indeed it turns out that Fairbrother and Hick turned down an offer to leave the field for bad light. That simple decision, facing a West Indies attack of such pedigree, is as notable as the runs they scored.

I was at Lord’s that day during a vacation from my MA studies at the University of Pennsylvania. My Californian girlfriend, Maki, was with me for a week, but not that day, which I spent with my Dad and she with my Mum. She hadn’t complained. I had justified that it was a ritual for my Dad and me to spend a day together at Lord’s. And afterwards I emphasised to her what a special occasion it was to see England beating the West Indies – one that I hadn’t enjoyed in my cricket conscious life. She seemed to be pleased for me. It crossed my mind that the highlight of a visit home with my american girlfriend shouldn’t be, but really was, a day watching England play cricket. Guilt, not for the first or last time, prodded the comfort of enjoying cricket.

So, leaving Neston Cricket Club last Bank Holiday Monday, my teammates still celebrating our victory as Cheshire Over 40 champions, my friend and I soberly discussed our disappointment at not getting to play against Fairbrother. His team had lost in the other semi-final. As the two semis took place simultaneously on Neston’s two pitches we hadn’t even seen him play. I had him pointed out to me in the clubhouse before play. My friend and I reasoned that it would have been a bigger story to have played and lost to a former test batsman than to win this particular trophy. Anecdotage versus achievement. We left our preference unstated, but later, back at our home clubhouse celebrating with teammates, our speculation felt like sedition. The shared pleasure of a victorious campaign wasn’t for trading.