Quick single: He came like a king
Hammond’s walk was the most handsome in all cricket, smooth in the evenness of stride, precise in balance. It was a flow of movement linking stillness to stillness. It was, as much as any feature of athletics, the poetry of motion.
JM Kilburn’s effusive description of Wally Hammond, walking to the crease at Lord’s in 1938, continued: “He came like a king and he looked like a king in his coming.” Kilburn acknowledges that Hammond essentially did not look any different that day than he normally did walking to the crease, although there was “an added quality”. It’s not that real or imagined otherness of the day Hammond went on to score 240 that interests me, but that he could be recognised by his walk.
The cricketers, if in silhouette and without context of match or location, that could be identified from their walk to the crease, is not, I think, great in number. Two immediately come to my mind. There’s Viv Richards, hips swaying, shoulders rolling. And I think I could pick out Alan Border: short steps and head tilted upwards to the sky and turning, like a meerkat looking out for airborne predators.
I am sure that if you watched a team all summer, you could come to recognise each player from his or her non-batting or bowling movements. For those of us following the game at a distance, or seeing a little of a lot of cricketers, there needs to be something very distinctive for the silhouette test to work.
With Jonny Bairstow’s recall to the England Test team, we have two players to view in the Ashes contest with very individual ways of running. Bairstow, in the field, works his limbs like someone unfamiliar with cross-country skis, trying to escape a polar bear over snow. Steve Smith, running between the wickets is a flurry of arms, legs and bat.
In the six months that I have had the picture at the head of this piece on my wall, I have come to enjoy it for an associated reason. In this case, though, it’s not movement that identifies the player, but fixed posture. Each of England’s three slip fielders (and to a lesser extent, the gulley) has a characteristic stance: feet position, bracing of the knees, prominence of backside, tension in the arms and shoulders. I am convinced I could recognise them separately from the context of the opening delivery of the 2005 Ashes. Are there other slip-fielders you find similarly recognisable?
Graeme Smith declares
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?
All the time in the world
Graeme Smith called in his batsmen 40 minutes into the afternoon session of the fourth day. Smith’s declaration left England 141 overs to survive, and a target of 466 to chase. Three weeks earlier, Smith’s South African team had been defied by England’s tenth wicket partnership, which had batted out the last four of 96 overs. Smith wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, one down in the series and only one further match to play.
Roll forward 28 hours and improbably England had once again clung on to draw, nine wickets down.
Ask Graeme Smith if there is a formula to a successful declaration and I suspect he’d answer with a withering look. The pitch condition, weather, fitness of bowlers, state of the series and tenacity of the opposition are all complicating factors. This post continues a series that began with the psychological insight that captains may be hindered in their search for victory as ‘losing feels worse than winning feels good‘; and continued with a high level survey of third innings declarations in test cricket that showed a victory conversion rate of only 34%.
In this post, I start to assess, through a series of charts and brief comments, whether there are features of declarations that are associated with success. I use a non-random sample, but one that is most relevant to Test captains of today. It takes in the 38 third innings declarations made in the last three completed calendar years of Test cricket.
53% (20) of the declarations in this period led to victories – a higher proportion than in the history of Test cricket. Three of the declarations leading to draws are excluded from the analysis as they were made to end the game early, with no fourth innings occurring, leaving a sample of 35. There were no defeats for the captain who made the declaration in this sample.
Chart 1 shows how results relate to match-level factors: venue, state of the series and strength of the two teams (minor = Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; Major = the rest).
There’s a lot of inter-relationship between these factors, but they point to stronger teams and home teams being more likely to turn the advantage of being in a situation to set a total into victory. I’ll move on quickly as I sense Graeme Smith’s attention wandering at the predictability of those results.
The remainder of the analyses look at the match situation at the point of the declaration being made.
Chart 2 shows the size of the target set in each declaration, team by team. The black diamonds represent the targets, with the highest ever fourth innings total conceded by each team in defeat shown as a blue square.
Captains are, as predicted, risk averse. 57% of targets set required Test record breaking chases of the side batting last (i.e. above the 418 hit by an inspired West Indies in Antigua against Australia in 2003). 80% of the targets, had they been achieved, would have set new national records for totals conceded in the fourth innings of a match in defeat.
Chart 3 sets the result of the game against the target total and required run rate.
The higher the target set in this sample of matches, the greater the chance of victory. None of the ten lowest targets produced a victory (or a loss). The lowest target to result in a victory was 366 set by New Zealand for Zimbabwe to chase in Bulawayo last November. In a tight finish, Zimbabwe fell 35 runs short. There was also a strong relationship to run rate required. Only one total with a required run rate above 4 runs per over had a winning outcome for the declaring captain: Jayawardene had set Bangladesh a target of 624 at 4.22 runs per over in Chittagong in January 2009. The remaining victories came in chases where required run rates varied from 2.33 to 3.91.
Chart 4 refines this analysis, by providing a context in which the target is set. The horizontal axis shows the ‘relative target’ – i.e. difference between the target and the highest innings of the three earlier in the game. The vertical axis plots the ‘relative run-rate’ – i.e. difference between the required run rate and the run-rate achieved across the first three innings of the match.
Victories were more likely to occur if the ‘relative target’ was high (i.e. above or not much less than the highest score in the match at that point). An exception (the red diamond furthest to the left) was New Zealand’s victory over Bangladesh in Hamilton in in February 2010 having set a target of 404, some 149 below the hosts’ total of 553.
Victories are associated, however, with lower ‘relative run-rates’. Over half required a lower run rate of the team batting last than had been achieved in the match to that point. This was true of only two of the draws.
Chart 5 depicts the overs available for the fourth innings.
There is a very clear association of victories with having more time to dismiss the opposition. The drawn match furthest to the left (India v New Zealand at Wellington in April 2009) is misleading as 70 of the fourth innings overs available, were lost to poor weather. Sri Lanka were the team that survived the longest fourth innings without defeat, lasting 150 overs (the match was declared a draw after 134 overs) at Colombo in 2009 against Pakistan. Not a single Test was won in this period with a team declaring on the final day.
In summary, this analysis of results following declarations shows that:
- captains are conservative, generally only being prepared to set targets that would establish new national records for sides batting fourth were they to lose
- higher totals, lower run rates and more overs are all positively associated with victories.
Does this mean that, as I hypothesised, captains are too cautious and are missing out on victories, fearing defeat? In the next article in the series, I’ll look in detail at the drawn matches in this sample to ask whether their caution is costing their team success.