There is a feature of my first ever cricket match and my most recent that has barely occurred in the thirty-odd years in between. This element of the game has always been there, it’s just not something that I have experienced, been tested by, or suffered with any regularity. Yet now, as plans are being laid for the 2019 English season, it looms large. It defines and frames most thoughts I have about this summer – family, work, other past-times, my older son’s A levels, my parents being in their late 80s, holidays, meeting up with friends, not forgetting the Men’s World Cup, the Ashes, my own batting, junior coaching and even Declaration Game.
When my season starts in mid-May, I will be 51, with batting prowess and fielding mobility on the wane and, most significantly, a novice captain.
That first cricket match took place thirty-nine years ago. I was in my last year at primary school and our new head-teacher had made an early impression by insisting that the school would have a cricket team. The teacher who ran the football team and the running club, and so identified as the lead on school sports, was tasked with finding fixtures and organising a team. He didn’t know a lot about cricket, but must have picked up that I had pretensions to know a great deal, and so appointed me as captain.
My first duty in the role, carried out one afternoon in place of lessons, was to mark a pitch on the school playing-field for a practice match. My knowledge didn’t extend to an understanding of crease dimensions. After school, the boys (yes, just boys) wanting to try out for the team gathered. I had my own kit and so padded up to face the first ball. Cautiously, I moved onto the back-foot and in my back-swing, knocked a bail off the stumps, that I had pitched too close behind me.
Despite the first ball dismissal in the practice match, I was retained as captain for the season (and career) opener. The evening before we played, I sat with my Dad who had captained his club team in South London for a decade in the 1950s and ’60s. We talked about how to use five bowlers (one to switch ends) and place a field. Of course, I knew all the fielding positions, but had never had to exercise judgement over fielders’ locations. My Dad sketched a field on a scrap of paper, which I kept in the pocket of my whites for the whole of that first season.
Our first game was won comfortably. I think I stuck rigidly to my Dad’s plans – probably for the other handful of matches around the county primary schools of South Buckinghamshire as well. The only captaincy-related memory I have is of a team-mate’s Mum lobbying me to get her son more involved. I tried to explain that by placing him in the covers he had the plum fielding spot.
The following summer I was at secondary school and as Easter approached and cricket began to be considered, I faced the disadvantage of not being a footballer known to the PE staff. It can only have been precocious use of my growing cricket knowledge that got me noticed by the sports teacher running the first year cricket side. I was appointed captain. Then virtually run-less and probably not compensating with much in the way of leadership, I was dropped after a few matches in that administratively efficient fashion: name not on the list pinned to the PE noticeboard. Like a blow to the un-protected part of the thigh, it hurt, and while I might try not to show it, tears pricked my eyes. For the rest of that season and the one that followed, I was in and out of the school side, sometimes as captain, other times not.
Meanwhile, at my village club, I was part of a colts team captained by the England school-boy rugby skipper and soon was the youngest member of the Sunday friendly XI. Captaincy was in more capable hands. It stayed that way through seasons of occasional matches, interspersed in my twenties and forties with more committed attention to playing the game. I had half-an-eye on the office in my second-year at college, but my friend and opening partner, Ged, stitched the job up for himself by taking the man in post, who had the honour of appointing his successor, out for a night of drinking and in the argot of the time, ‘hackery’. Both the college team and I benefited from the decision, even if it was made under the influence.
On the occasions that captaincy did fall to me, the experience was not a happy one. One summer as an undergraduate, I had a holiday job in a factory in Liverpool. The stores officer invited me to play for his club’s Sunday friendly team, led by a sociology lecturer of unconventional cricketing tastes. He liked to have two and if possible three wrist-spinners in his side. He would take up fixtures at places that interested him and so, from our north Liverpool base, we travelled to matches in Mold and Leek. It was a curious, but enjoyable summer where I was treasured as the team’s southern posh boy (known as ‘Smythe’) and, living in an unfamiliar town, I was grateful for the team’s friendship. Before returning south, in my farewell appearance, I was given the honour of skippering the team. I lasted maybe ten overs in the field, until confused and with no sense of control of the game, I handed the reins back to the regular captain.
Half-a-dozen years later, at another farewell occasion, I was delegated on-the-field control by the appointed captain in a match organised to mark a friend’s departure for Italy. He had been teaching at a public school in East Anglia and was granted use of the ground and facilities for the day. This time, I negotiated the role in the field satisfactorily. But waiting to bat, wearing first a jumper and then a coat, I noticed that I was the only player feeling cold. I drove back to London in the grip of a fever. I thought of stopping to find a bed for the night, but pushed on and crawled up the stairs to my flat, which I didn’t leave until the flu subsided.
More recently, I have captained teams at the annual cricket matches organised by my company. Opposing me has been the (now retired) Chief Executive, whose ruthlessness at work carries across to the cricket field, but not his workplace sense of fairness. My team-talk one year concluded with the injunction that the ideal result for us all would be a one run defeat. Several hours later that was the exact result. But I gained no satisfaction from such precise game management. That single run (and a couple more as well) were wides called by the opposing skipper off my bowling, when balls had hit the batters’ pads.
And so to the last game of last season. The 4th XI skipper was injured and I agreed – willingly – to step up. Our side was heavy with juniors – nine – all of whom I have coached or run matches for. Perhaps I imagined it, but I felt a couple of my interventions – field placements, bowling changes – paid off, or drew in players otherwise on the margins. The weather was warm, the hospitality of the home team warmer, the ground a picture, the team cheerful, the beer in the pub afterwards so tasty. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
I didn’t get dropped afterwards (last game of season), feel overwhelmed, catch influenza, or get into a public dispute with the head of my company. As long as I use these as the success criteria for my season as a novice at the helm of the 4th team, the summer of 2019 should go well.
My target audience is my club’s under 16 and under 14 cricketers. They have all played four seasons or more of cricket. Some have county or other representative experience.
My aim, in this case with batting, is to encourage them to be self-aware and to practice on the edge of their comfort zones.
I think most recreational cricketers will recognise that as a season progresses, nets can easily become where you practice what you are already ok at and repeat mistakes that you already had well-honed.
To help shape purposeful practice (in the nets or outside), I have drafted a survey which asks the player to assess their ability at a range of strokes and against different types of bowling. The survey also asks them to reflect on where they score runs and how they are dismissed. I want to use the results to shape the practice we design with the players, for the whole group and individuals. I may repeat the survey at the end of the season as a measure of progress.
You can view and are welcome to complete the batting survey here.
I would be interested in any feedback on:
- general approach.
Jonathan Trott’s short and uncomfortable innings on the final day of the 2nd Test led to a discussion on Test Match Special about the difference between opening and batting in the middle order. Michael Vaughan took the declarative approach initially: “It’s just different”. But pressed by Ed Smith, Vaughan revealed how he didn’t like having to wait to bat when first playing for England as a middle order batsman, with a background for Yorkshire as an opener (my recollection is that he didn’t have to wait long to bat on his debut against South Africa). Then, thinking of Trott’s move in the other direction, Vaughan suggested that he might not like sharing the walk out to the middle, as an opener does, as distinct from the lone walk of any other batsman.
It all sounded pretty trite.
Ed Smith ventured an explanation based on technique. He likes, he said, to see openers keeping their heads still when on strike. Trott at the start of his innings in this series had not just engaged a trigger move but his head was in motion as the ball was delivered, Smith observed.
Smith sounded insightful.
I have previous in this area. I wrote a piece over two years ago, What is an opening batsman? I looked at the conventional definition (orthodox technique, etc) and the performance of openers in recent years. There appeared to be no correlation between effectiveness and a match to the conventional definition. I concluded that four things made a batsman suitable for opening in Test matches:
- Experience of the role
- Complement to the opening partner (the weakest factor)
- Not the best batsman in the team
- Wants the job.
Smith was making a useful technical observation, but one no less relevant to a middle order batsman than to an opener. Vaughan, struggling to articulate a reason and sounding trite, was I believe closer to the truth and an understanding of Trott’s lack of success specifically in the role as opener: he doesn’t have experience opening and would probably prefer to bat somewhere else.
The realisation comes fairly quickly to the blogger, that you either have to enjoy blogging for its own sake or you’re not going to be a blogger for long. Self-published web articles won’t make you a professional writer. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame was a very analogue theory. In our digital age, most pages of carefully composed arguments are scanned and clicked away from in less than a minute.
Most days, I allow a little time to the thought that all the energy and emotion I invest in these pieces is futile. But my philosophical approach holds sway: I will stop writing when I don’t want to write any more. In the meantime, I have more ideas than time to write.
So this blogging enterprise is driven from the inside, but it helps along the way to get some reinforcement. A kindly comment. A challenge from someone who has taken the time to read the work closely enough to see its flaws, but found it interesting enough to engage with. The pulse of the visitor stats when someone higher up the social media food chain (but, in the case of Piers Morgan, lower down all other food chains) tweets a plug.
But these welcome intrusions, if not exactly dealt randomly, aren’t earnt in proportion to effort or excellence. So if the blogger starts to count on them, disappointment and bruised self-esteem will follow. Best to enjoy the writing and self-publishing process for its own sake.
This week, though, I have been reminded that there is a reward. Something that makes the late night hours of research and keyboard tapping have an extrinsic value. For the fourth time in 12 months I have met people who know me through the blog. A beery evening of the widest ranging, always entertaining, cricket talk: from making balls out of bicycle tyres, to grieving at Tendulkar’s retirement, to the dress code for women in The Lord’s pavilion. Then today, in the rain, a net at my club accompanied by my kids and wife, with the writer who cannot remember not knowing cricket and his partner, learning the technique of a foreign game.
You really should know already, but if you don’t, Subash and Kathleen are on a world cricket tour. Look out for them at a cricket ground near you. If you have a love of cricket, you may be in for a treat. I certainly was – ample reward for Declaration Game.
Cricket is the most wordy of sports. I managed without Sky until recently. Nevertheless, I could feel drenched in cricket, even in winter when I had neither seen a match in person, nor watched a live broadcast since the late summer. Cricket came to me in match reports, blog articles, pod casts, books, phone calls and tweets. Deprived of the image, the precision and familiarity of the language of cricket continued to keep me close to the game.
The etymology of a lot of cricket’s verbiage is murky. But some influences are clear. Metaphor plays a part: sweep, hook, cutter, feathered, long hop, swing. Provenenance is acknowledged: Bosie, Dilshan, Duckworth-Lewis. Marketing has one triumphant creation: Twenty20. The really sticky terms have probably emerged, once as contenders, but through adoption and usage have become universal: duck, Ashes, pair, follow-on, maiden.
However, familiarity with the language of cricket does disguise some imprecision. As examples: reverse swing, stepping inside the line, strangled down the leg-side. All are terms that I decode and visualise without difficulty. Yet none is an expression that withstands scrutiny as they are either inconsistent with other cricket expressions in use or suggest something that they are not.
Another category of cricket terms jars like the ball struck with the toe of the bat: nicked off, power-play, Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Brash or clunky, they are at odds with sounds around them.
Several years ago, on the annual Old Boys’ tour, I experienced sharp professional envy. Our bilingual opening bowler related that he had been made Chair of the Nomenclature Committee at his Swiss employer (cricket analogy: Zimbabwean coach to the England Test team). I understood this to be a periodic inter-departmental gathering to debate and settle on the use and meaning of words. The sophistication of his workplace stung me. The contrast to my employer at that time was acute. Where I worked, the room next to the conference room was known, without irony, as the anti-room. My jokes about things disappearing there fell flat.
Cricket terms gain acceptance over time, with some ebb and flow in usage. Terms such as: sitting on the splice and telegraph (bellowed by umpire to scorer to prompt the scoreboard to be brought up to date) have had their day. Some authorities can impose changes to the language of the game: the Laws. Outside of those forces, the language of the game develops organically.
Just imagine, though, if there was a Nomenclature Committee for Cricket. As a committee member, what would be the words, terms and usages that you would enforce? And which terms would you outlaw?
For an international game, played on six continents, its canonical terminology is overwhelmingly English. What are the words from other languages that should have official recognition?
I list below the terms that I think serve the game poorly. What could they be replaced by? Which words and phrases would you like to see chewed over by the Nomenclature Committee?
ICC Champions Trophy
– not a contest of champions
Two Test Series
– implies it works the other way to new ball swing, when in fact it is swing achieved by a different method
Strangled down the leg-side
– can make sense when a batsman is cramped playing down the legside, but is used now for any dismissal to a catch taken by the keeper down the legside
– imported from baseball where it means a batter introduced at a key moment during a match, but has come to mean an attacking batsman opening the innings
– imported from ice-hockey where it means the period when one side is playing a man down, but is used in limited overs cricket for the overs when the fielding restrictions are particularly restrictive.
– great players, memorable contests but instead of hearing a pure ring of a silver trophy, I hear ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’.
– description of the finger spinner’s delivery that doesn’t turn and possibly moves off the seam in the opposite direction. I don’t feel it explains what the bowler applied to the ball and often suspect is was simply a stock delivery that didn’t turn.
Physical strength masters nothing in cricket. It is a delightfully unmacho sport. Big hitters may scatter the field, but controlled, dextrous batting wins many more games. A charging bull of a fast bowler may make some batsmen hop about, but the ability to coax a ball to move from the straight is needed to dismiss the best batsmen.
There is an exception where power trumps in cricket: throwing. Bowling slow and manoeuvring the ball between fielders are essential skills within a team. An inability to project the ball the short distance to the keeper from in front of the square leg umpire is a failure, not part of cricket’s diverse talent pool. When the ball has to be returned from the outfield only velocity and accuracy will do. The metaphors reinforce this macho side of the game. Good throws are ‘bullets’, ‘shells’ and the fielder ‘guns it’. The simile for the player without ammunition is that they throw like a.. well, you know, you’ve heard it said and it’s probably disrespectful to the women’s game.
I was reminded of the manly virtues of throwing, and their dreaded opposite, on a family walk along the Dee. We came to a stony beach by the river and no. 1 son and I picked stones and tossed them across the river. His throws carried further than mine. I turned and received from my wife a look of sympathy, even pity, completely out of character, such is her indifference to my cricket. She had seen me upstaged by my ten year old son.
Throwing, as with other aspects of fielding has only had the full attention of cricket coaches in recent decades. Drawing on baseball, some good practices have been established. One, that the elbow should be above the shoulder was flouted by one of the best fielders I saw as a child. Hallam Moseley, West Indies bowler, threw side-arm, with his release at about waist level. I remember seeing him on television, playing in one day matches for Somerset, swooping on a ball and fizzing it into the keeper from the Taunton boundary.
Wisden records that, “the definitive record [for throwing] is still awaited.” It lists a handful of long throws that it considers authentic, topped by Robert Percival on the Durham Sands Racecourse (c1882), with 140 yards, 2 feet. Of more modern players, Colin Bland and Ian Pont, the Essex all-rounder, are mentioned. The latter’s throwing prowess saw him all the way to the USA, where he had some limited success in Major League Baseball.
More recently, the throwing skills most celebrated are the abilities of in-fielders to throw down the stumps, even with ‘only one stump to aim at’, off-balance, on the run and even on the ground having sprawled to make a stop. Relay throws have had a fashion, where the ball is returned hard and low to an infielder to then distribute. The aim is to optimise the throwing strength of two fielders to save milliseconds, not to compensate for a deep square leg with a dodgy shoulder. The most refined throwing art is to flight a throw so that it bounces the ball on one of its sides in front of the keeper, once the new ball has lost its juice and swing. The bounce of the ball roughens up the allotted hemisphere to speed up the process that can bring about reverse swing.
I bear, courtesy of an accident ten years ago that left my shoulder dislocated for 16 hours, a feeble throw, and a deficit of manliness. It grates at me. When preparing to field with new teammates, I’ll introduce the subject of my injury so they know that I know I can’t throw before they get to see the sorry evidence. Daily dynamic stretches and press-ups have made no difference. Andrew Leipus’ cricinfo article, Shouldering the pain of throwing, where I understood it, gave me some succour, not that I could improve, but that I probably have something wrong in my shoulder. Just as David Gower had. In his last few playing years his nonchalantly athletic fielding was compromised by a shot shoulder. He would run in with the ball from the outfield, or underarm it to a teammate.
Last month at Lord’s, I caught an early season session of macho cricket. The Middlesex seamers were giving the Surrey batsmen a working over. A succession of quicks was getting seam movement and lift, striking the batsmen and beating the edge. It felt more like a combat sport than a ball-sport as the batsmen sustained blows, dodged other strikes and ventured occasional counter-punches. Truly a different sport to the one I play and I realised, for all my passion for the game, not one I would ever have wanted to play.
In this atmosphere of balls thudding into protective gear and the fielders’ menacing gasps, there was a incongruous moment: I spotted a fellow sufferer. Corey Colleymore, as sharp and thrusting as any of the Middlesex bowlers, was fielding in front of where I sat in the Grandstand. A ball was clipped out to him on the boundary from the pitch set on the Grandstand side of the square. Colleymore collected the ball, skipped and sent a looping return back. It died well before completing the flight from the short boundary, making the keeper scuttle forward to take it on the second bounce. As I began to think how brave it was of the West Indian seamer to endure this deficiency I replayed the throw in my mind and realised he had thrown it left-handed.
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.