In the Test match in Mumbai, there was a lot said about the fact we played four seamers and two spinners… [but] if we’d caught our catches, we wouldn’t have been talking about our combination; we’d have been talking about how we probably had a chance of winning a game of Test cricket. But consistently, we’ve missed chances – and you can’t afford to do that against the best teams in their home conditions.”
Paul Farbrace – Assistant Coach (speaking after 5th Test at Chennai)
The focus on England’s dropped catches in the series in India is understandable given that, in four of the five Tests, one or more of India’s first innings century makers was dropped early in their innings. Vijay, Kohli (twice), Jayant Yadav, Karun Nair accumulated a combined 649 runs from five innings after an initial escape. England committed seven drops in those five innings and a further eleven across the whole series. Understandable but, in the round, is it justified?
Using ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary, I have recorded each chance of a catch given during the series. I have included any chances that went to hand (or body) and those described as passing between two adjacent fielders. Excluded are balls that looped out of reach, or fell short of, fielders making reasonable attempts, as well as those that passed where one might have expected there to be a fielder, but there was not.
The raw results are shown in the table below. India committed 26 drops compared to England’s 18 and converted a lower proportion of chances into catches.
In October 2016, Charles Davis published in The Cricket Monthly a summary of the results of his analysis of almost 15 years of fielding errors in Tests – Tracking the Misses. Courtesy of Davis, it is possible to put into context the numbers from the India v England series (NB Davis included stumpings in his data, which I have not).
Davis found around 25% of opportunities were missed in the field – an average of seven per Test match. In this series, 31% were missed – 8.8 per Test. Both sides under-performed their recent record: England 24.8%; India 27.2%. This comparison does support the view that fielding errors were a feature of the series. But is it simply losers’ regret that has the England team pointing at missed opportunities? They did, after all out-perform India in terms of the proportion of catches taken.
England, as hinted at above with the roll call of India’s century makers who were dropped, bore a higher average cost for the chances they missed. The mean number of runs scored by an Indian batsman after a drop was 44 (median 22). The equivalent figure for England was 28 (median 21) [footnote 1].
The contrast is most acute when looking at the two captains. Cook was dropped six times (the most of any player) but only added 134 runs. Kohli made 282 runs after the three misses he benefited from.
The two captains were also the most frequent offenders. Cook shelled four of his seven chances; Kohli could not hang onto five of his ten catches.
This analysis supports the conclusion that England, had they taken their opportunities, would have shifted somewhat the balance of the series. However, I believe there are associated conclusions that are probably more profound about the cricket England and India played.
India’s ability to limit the damage of their fielding errors was a great strength: their bowlers were able to continue to create opportunities. England’s bowlers, on the other hand, lacked the penetration to keep their opponents under the kind of pressure that would, sooner rather than later, lead to another wicket-taking opportunity. Moreover, England were significantly more reliant on their fielders for taking wickets. 72% of the wickets taken by England in the series were catches. India’s equivalent figure was almost twenty percentage points lower (53%). Ashwin and Jadeja, in particular, threatened the England batsmen’s stumps to an extent unmatched by the England attack.
The argument that England’s fortunes were hampered by their inability to take the catching chances that came their way obscures the greater insight that England were over-reliant on snatching any opportunities falling to their fielders because they were unable to trouble India’s batsmen often enough and in a sufficient variety of ways.
Footnote 1 – in calculating the number of runs scored by a batsman after a drop, I have subtracted the score when dropped from either their innings end score, or in the case of batsmen dropped more than once in a single innings, from the their score when they were dropped again.
Police forces across the world have utilised the tactic of sending invitations to unapprehended criminals to collect prizes. It crossed my mind briefly that I may be being set-up, but I am law abiding, so the ECB invitation to Headingley was more likely to be a wind-up than a set-up. In turn, that anxiety slid into a more familiar one: imposter syndrome.
It’s a universal truth that there’s always someone better than you are at cricket. Only the Don is exempt, sitting at the top of that pyramid scheme. It’s almost as true about being a cricket obsessive. In the right environment you’re never more than an anorak away from someone with a finer appreciation of the skills of the game, its history, current players or ‘knowledge ‘ about why that journalist wrote a particular piece about that player. Perhaps it’s only in the security of a blog that one’s obsession reigns supreme.
And coaching, six years after qualifying, remains an area of shifting sands, few solid foundations and ever evolving puzzles. Why can that lad suddenly play that shot? How did that girl develop a throwing arm like that? Why’s that lad suddenly firing the ball down legside? The relationship of my methods and their outcomes are not just disjointed but appear to be on different planes. I am the arch-imposter when coaching.
Attending an event with, amongst others, a current minor counties player, someone who played club cricket with ‘Stokesie’, a county head of coaching and a university head coach reinforced the suspicion, as we gathered by the Sir Len Hutton Gates, that I was a little out of my league.
But inside the ground, sitting square of the wicket, trying to rationalise England’s loss of five top-order wickets to Sri Lanka’s seam attack; attempting to forecast the weather using a mixture of sky-gazing and smartphone apps, brought us all onto a level.
Maybe it was just a day of imposters – out in the middle, not just sat in the crowd. Were England’s top-order shut away in a windowless room in Leeds while a gang of look-a-likes started the English summer for them? Take Alex Hales: leave, leave, leave – no heave. Cook stretching forward, having a dart outside off-stump, when a milestone of run aggregation lay so close by. Root simply failing to be magnificent.
Yet Hales, having made the decision to forego IPL riches, has ample motivation for adopting a new degree of prudence. Earlier this month, against Yorkshire, he accumulated a mere 35 from only five fewer balls than are delivered in an entire T20 innings.
Cook had been characteristically Cooky off his pads. He attempted two off-drives, connected juicily with one, but his edge to the second may make it his last of the summer. And Root bounced to the wicket and played short balls high on the tips of his toes.
Most authentic of all were Stokes and Bairstow. The former banged a few boundaries in defiance of Sri Lanka’s rapid removal of the top order, before bunting a drive to mid-on. Bairstow banged a few balls, too, but it was his energy at the wicket that verified his identity. All but the tightest of singles saw him turning to set off for a second. He charged one 3, when most batsmen would have settled for 2, and had to be sent back from attempting an all-run 4.
Another England batsman made a fine impression. Mark Ramprakash was walked across the ground at lunch to greet the award-winning coaches, treating each, whether genuine or imposter, with quiet congratulations and wishes for a enjoyable day.
My cover wasn’t blown, or my company were too polite to out me. In truth, I had had a narrow escape – not at Headingley though, but at the conference I was to attend before I received the ECB’s generous invitation. I was to share my expertise on transforming contact centres. Imposter alert!
Six opening partners tried and rejected in three years – a turnover of one opening batsman per Test match season. The inability to find a player to rise to the challenge of opening the innings alongside Alastair Cook is the most prominent of the selection problems besetting England. This post does not venture a solution (although I have provided a mathematical response), it looks at the impact on those six selected, then rejected batsmen.
The impact of playing with Cook and then being dropped is assessed in a narrow, statistical fashion. The first graph shows the ten innings batting average in first class matches before and after each player’s brief career as a Test opener. (NB Adam Lyth’s post-Cook average is based on the six first-class innings he has played to date)
Across the group, there is a reduction in batting average of 40 runs per completed innings (56%). Joe Root has the sharpest reduction. He and Trott are the only members of the group who played Test cricket before opening with Cook; and Root is the only member of the group who played Test cricket after opening with Cook.
Three of the players (Compton, Root, Robson) may have harboured hopes that their Test opening careers would continue when they returned to first class cricket. Compton, for example, played four innings (including a century and a fifty) before his supplanting by Joe Root was made clear by the selection of an England side for a warm-up match. Selecting ten innings from his return to the Somerset side or from his official relegation from the England side makes little difference to this ten innings average (48.2 v 47.6).
We should not be surprised that players’ first class averages drop after a tough period as rookie Test match openers. They had been picked as form players – all six had short-term averages exceeding their career average when brought into the team – and their strong form had been interrupted by the stiffer challenge of Test cricket. In Trott’s case, his return to first-class cricket involved more than just re-finding form with the bat, but psychological health, too. The fall away in their performance, however, is noteworthy for its abruptness and consistency across the group.
To test whether it is a short-term effect, I have also compared their batting average for the last full season of first-class cricket before their selection as Cook’s partner and the first full season of first-class cricket following their demotion from the captain’s sidekick. In all cases except Root’s, the seasons assessed were England county seasons.
In this analysis the average fall in batting performance is less severe and is less consistent across the group. Root, the only player to remain in the Test team, maintained his pre-selection season average and Carberry’s varied downwards by fewer than five runs per completed innings.
All of the six players struggled for most of the innings they opened alongside their captain in Tests matches. Once out of the team (or in Root’s case, batting lower in the order), they were unable to regain their earlier productivity.
Alex Hales is strongly favoured to be Cook’s next opening partner. His current 10 innings first-class batting average is 36.0 – lower than all of his predecessors (although Hales may have further innings in the County Championship and in the UAE to improve on this before the Tests against Pakistan). Hales will, of course, be aiming to repel the curse of Cook that leaves batsmen under-performing when dropping back into county cricket. The surest way of doing this is by scoring so many runs for England that he stays in the team, opening alongside the captain.
“Well..” I start to answer.
No.2 son, who’s posed the question, has tracked me down to a quiet corner of the house. I’m hunched over my iPad, watching the early stages of a Test match. In my head, I’m turning over possible answers. Responses that convey complexity and unpredictability, that don’t rely on formulations like, “you can’t tell what a good score is until both sides have batted.”
“Oh, 180-5. That’s a good score, isn’t it?”
“Well..” This one’s easier, I could remind him that a batsman once scored 400 in a Test match. Yet, on a tricky wicket, it could still be a ‘good score’.
“Is that bowler good?”
“Well..” It’s clear he’s a marginal international cricketer, although I shouldn’t decry someone who’s succeeded at every other level and will have a far more fulfilling playing career than I could ever have dreamed of. But he has just wasted three overs with the new ball.
“Do you like Alastair Cook?”
“Well..” Should I respond about the batsman, the captain, the straightforward man, the guileless interviewee that I’ve mocked on this channel?
“Will you play football later?”
“Well..” and no.2 son has gone. His father’s inability to answer a string of straightforward questions left hanging in the air. I sink back into the game on the screen. A game that defies easy answers, that offers many suggestions of meaning, lots of false trails and rebuttals of hasty conclusions.
The ambiguity of a Test match in progress qualifies and limits its appeal to the young who are accustomed to contests being settled by celebrity judges, phone-in votes or penalty shoot-outs. If I am left feeling hesitant and inarticulate by my failure to give clear strong answers, I have evenings of cricket like today’s at Headingley as justification for equivocation.
England 215-1 New Zealand 350.
“Well.. Ballance hasn’t looked very secure recently.. Lyth may find it hard to keep his concentration all the way to the close of play after the elation of a maiden ton.. the weather could close in to help the bowlers.. Root is in good form, but nobody succeeds in every innings.. the new ball is due.. but England do look set for 600.”
England have tried: the leading scorer in county cricket, the fresh graduate of every ECB age group team, an Australian, a man who survived a medical emergency, England’s most prolific number 3 batsman in decades and a bald Yorkshireman. With so many options tried, but no solution found, they could do worse than look now to maths. There’s a formula that could help find Alastair Cook an opening partner.
It’s the solution to the Optimal Stopping Problem. Its role is to assist in situations that feature the following characteristics:
- An agent has many options to choose from but can test only one option at a time.
- Once an option has been tested and discarded it’s very difficult to go back to it later.
- If an early choice is selected for ‘keeps’ then the agent would remain ignorant of what all the other options could have offered and whether they would have been superior.
- But if the agent keeps testing more and more options in search of a better one, the best option may get discarded.
The method is also known as the ‘secretary problem’, recalling a time in the last century when recruiting the right personal assistant was the sort of issue that bedevilled business men. For not unconnected reasons, it is now talked about as an aid to singletons trying to find a life partner.
Alastair has Alice as his life partner, but Straussy has long gone (from whites and track suits, anyway) and the search is on to find an opening partner. The Optimal Stopping Problem solution says that the agent (A Cook) should estimate the total number of partners he would be likely to try out in his (post-Straussy) Test career. In 29 Tests since the former captain’s retirement, Cook had, on average a new partner every six Tests. If his career continues for another five years, he could appear in 60 more Tests. That would equate to 10 more opening partners at the current attrition rate – and 15 in total.
The next step of the solution is to identify the number of partners that should be tested in order to get a feel for the quality of the field. Research has shown that the square root of the total number of potential partners (3.87) gives a strong probability of getting that feel but, to be certain, the agent should divide the total number of potential partners by 1/e (ie 35% of 15 = 5.25). So, Cook should test five partners and, following the theorem, identify the best of those and then keep changing partners until another one matches that standard.
When Cook opened with Trott, he completed the testing phase. His task now is to identify the best of the five and find another partner to match that standard. Who of Compton, Root, Carberry, Robson and Trott was the best? None, of course, made a compelling case, but with two Test centuries and one 50 in nine matches and an average of 32, I think Nick Compton has the edge. The mathematical solution for Cook is that when he comes across another opening partner who can emulate Compton’s record, he should toss aside his promiscuity and settle into a long term opening partnership.
In (at least) one respect, selecting an opening partner differs from the classic Optimum Stopping Problems: it is of course possible to reselect a previously discarded partner. That provides a very neat solution to Cook and England’s dilemma: call up Nick Compton.
Addendum: I am grateful to Seamus Hogan for this contribution:
@seamus_hogan: @chrisps01 Drawing on a paper by Weitzman (1979), you could add that ECB should try high-variance openers first!
I interpret this to mean that Alex Hales should be given a run in the Test team.
For more on the Optimum Stopping Problem, listen to the interview with Matt Parker in this episode of the BBC’s ‘More or Less‘.
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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.
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.
On England’s last tour to India in 2008, Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss recorded a century opening partnership in their first innings of the first test in Chennai then came down to earth with a blob in their first innings of the next match at Mohali. In the game at Chennai, England were bowled out for 316. In the next game, without the leg-up of any sort of opening partnership, England totaled 302.
Observing these anomalies in the relationship of an opening partnership to the innings total had led me to research how influential the performance of the opening pair really is. By convention, the batsmen opening the innings represent one of the most crucial combinations in the sport. They face the opposition’s attack at its freshest and have the opportunity to set the tone for the innings and match.
This post is the second in a short series on opening partnerships and batsmen, which began with a review of the recent decline – since 2011 – in first wicket partnership scores.
I have selected as my sample for this exercise all Test matches since January 2003. I have considered only each team’s first innings – that is, the first and second innings of the match. In most cases, first innings have run their course, allowing a comparison to be made of the situation with one wicket lost and at the innings close. Innings three and four are much more likely to be curtailed by declaration, time or achievement of victory, making the required comparison misleading. 826 opening partnerships and innings totals have been analysed.*
The first chart shows the distribution of first wicket partnerships. The score with the highest frequency is 0 (7% of total). 29% of partnerships were broken by 10; 45% by 20. At the other end of the scale, 12% reached three figures. The mean score was 43 and the median was lower at 25.
The second chart shows the average innings total for every first wicket partnership score recorded from 0 to 415. The horizontal axis is not linear as it misses out scores for which no opening partnership was made (the lowest was 92). The darker, lower columns depict the opening partnership value.
To gain a perspective on how overall innings totals vary with opening partnerships scores, I split the data into three based on opening partnerships of 0-50, 51-100 and 100-250. In this last case, because of the lower frequency of scores, the analysis was based on ranges of 10 (e.g. 100-109, 110-119, etc). Lines of best fit have been added to the charts to show the relationship between the two figures.
Partnership 0-50: the average innings total where the first wicket was lost at 0 is close to 300. While many opening partnership scores have lower average innings totals than this, there is a clear association of increasing opening partnership and higher innings totals. The formula for the line of best-fit shows that for every run that the opening partnership increases, the innings total increases by more than two runs.
Partnership 51-100: across this range of scores there is also a positive association, although it is slightly less pronounced, with each additional run scored by the opening pair associated with an increase to the innings total of 1.8 runs.
Once the opening partnerships exceed 100, the addition of ten runs is associated with an increase to the innings total of nine runs. The association between opening pair and total score is weaker at this level of partnership.
It seems clear that the Cook and Strauss examples cited at the head of this post were exceptions from the general trend observed in the data. In its early stages, the opening partnership appears to have the potential to be a springboard for the innings as each run scored is associated with an increase to the innings total of over two runs. The association weakens as the partnership reaches three figures, so that from 100 upwards the additional runs scored by the opening pair see a lower number of runs ultimately added to the innings total.
I have tried to be cautious with my language in describing these data. But the title to the post does assume that there is a causal relationship between opening partnership and innings total. The logic to that argument is well understood; crudely: by blunting the opening attack the first wicket pair establish an ascendancy over the fielding side which the rest of the team can capitalise upon. However, as statistics textbooks insist, we need to recognise that:
evidence of correlation does not imply causation.
How could this be?
The size of the opening partnership and of the innings total may both be influenced by third factors, rather than themselves be causally linked. There may be more runs scored later in the innings, not because the openers got the innings off to a good start, but because the whole innings benefited from factors such as: a weak or out-of-form bowling attack; poor standard of fielding; favourable weather and pitch conditions. In this interpretation, the opening partnership is merely a platform on which the rest of the innings will be built, consistent with its context of opposition and environment. Whether this is the case, or whether the opening partnership directly influences the fortunes of the batsmen that follow is difficult to unpick in a statistical review.
However, what numerical analysis might not reveal, cricketing commonsense can discern. The opening partnership is acting as a springboard when, for example:
- the opening pair, perhaps on the first morning of the game, battle through to lunchtime against challenging new ball bowling on a lively pitch. By protecting the rest of the line-up from a potent bowling attack, the openers will have increased their teammates’ run-making potential.
- one or both openers takes the attack to a quick bowler who has the potential to be a threat. By forcing a bowler out of the attack, the openers have managed to disrupt the fielding captain’s plans, undermined that bowler’s confidence, with the potential to reduce his and his colleagues’ effectiveness.
Perhaps these are exceptions, which have the impact that all opening partnerships aim for, but in most innings must settle for providing a platform.
Are there examples you can identify where a test match opening pair have acted as a springboard for their team’s innings?
* The sample includes 125 innings concluded by declaration. The average opening partnership and innings total were higher for this sub-sample.
I excluded a small number of innings from the analysis where I decided the circumstances would not shed light on the relationship of opening partnership to innings total: one of the openers retired injured and so the opening partnership involved more than two batsmen (3); the innings was closed with the opening partnership unbroken (1); the innings was closed by the end of the game (8).
Acknowledgement: thanks to Michael Wagener, stats sage, for reading a draft of this article.