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?
Quick single: Head Coach – without preconditions
Those of us wearied and annoyed by the ECB’s management of its limited pool of international standard male cricketers, enjoyed a little spiteful satisfaction last week. It seemed that Andrew Strauss’s decision to exclude Kevin Pietersen from England selection for the foreseeable future – in all likelihood ending his Test career – may deter the better qualified candidates for the Head Coach role. Pre-conditions, constraining who could and couldn’t be selected, made the role unattractive.
Today, however, it seems that Yorkshire Coach, Jason Gillespie, may want the role after all. Does that make the Australian weak-willed or status-hungry?
I am pretty sure neither is the case. It may be that Gillespie prefers the job with the KP question resolved without his involvement and so no comeback on him. More likely, I would argue, coaches with international aspirations are pragmatic beasts.
The teams they coach are only intermittently at full strength. Injuries, squad rotation, the lure of the T20 tournaments that clash with international commitments, or even retirement to earn more playing in another country’s domestic competition all have to be worked around.
Gillespie will also be very aware of the circumstances his peers, should he be appointed, work under. Duncan Fletcher began his stint with India with four batting greats, three of whose careers were in clear decline, installed in the team, holding up the development of the next generation of batsmen. Fletcher managed that succession to their timescale, rather than his.
Fletcher made it into the post-Tendulkar era, surely expecting to hold greater authority, but soon found the voluble Ravi Shastri appointed Team Director for most of his last year in the job. Fletcher would not have lasted long insisting on coaching without preconditions.
In the West Indies, Phil Simmons inherits a ‘West Indies first’ policy. On the one hand, it’s the strong backing that an international coach would want; on the other it may restrict flexibility the coach could take advantage of when the players pursuing T20 contracts make themselves available.
Being told to manage without KP is a far simpler task than that facing the coaches of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, each of whom will confront preconditions set by politicians, not just cricket administrators. And it’s unlikely those preconditions will be as overt and as easy to abide by as ‘just don’t pick Kevin.’
Even Gillespie’s former teammate, Darren Lehmann, took on the Australia coaching role with limited room for manoeuvre. The Ashes squad had already been selected; the first-choice opener had been sent to the ‘A’ team as a disciplinary measure. Lehmann waited, worked with the players he was given and began to shape the team culture.
Strauss’s decision to exclude Pietersen will not have narrowed the field of potential head coaches. Whoever gets the role will understand that it’s not the sort of job that comes without preconditions.
Quick single: the KP recall board-game
There’s a board-game revival (1). A thriving sub-culture exists of folk sitting at a table, rolling dice, moving counters and turning over cards that might support or seal their fate.
I would like to pitch an idea to the manufacturers riding the crest of this unlikely trend: the KP recall board-game. The objective of the game is simple: to get KP to play at Lord’s, or failing that, Headingley. Between the start and the desired destination lie a series of favourable and adverse factors. Think of them as snakes and ladders, or ‘CHANCE’ cards that might send you to jail, or to collect £200 at the ‘Go’ square.
The snakes, or cards you want to avoid, would include: ‘accept multimillion contract to play in IPL’, ‘succumb to knee injury’, ‘old adversary appointed to senior ECB post’, or ‘journalist tricks you into talking candidly about your potential England teammates’.
But there are also ladders, or good cards. ‘Coach with whom you have clashed is sacked’, ‘new chief of English cricket appointed’, ‘play in county championship cricket’ all move you in the direction of Lord’s. ‘Bell shuts hand in car door’ and ‘Aussie appointed to coach England’ are like rabbits pulled out of hats.
You would have to negotiate match situations. There you would dread ‘face three slow left arm bowlers’, but feel pretty satisfied with ‘opposition attack spearheaded by one-cap wonder’. And you would want to tuck away the ‘dropped in slips’ and ‘dropped off skier’ for use at a crucial moment. The ‘score a triple-hundred (290 more than the second top score)’ card might be a bit far-fetched to make it into the version that goes into production.
With a mix of good fortune and sound judgement, you could navigate KP all the way to the home of cricket and a Test match recall. On the other hand, bad luck or carelessness could see KP become a T20 mercenary.
As with our great game, there’s another possible outcome, other than the win or loss. Because it’s a board-game, this outcome is the big boot that crushes our little playing pieces, scatters the dice, grinds the cards and ends the game for good.
KP is meeting Strauss, whose boots could end the game, this very evening.
Note 1: Evidence of the existence of a board-game revival can be heard here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2014/nov/26/board-game-tech-weekly-podcast
A ringer for Jesus
I have been a ringer for Jesus. Not in the sense of having a resemblance through beard and sandals; nor have I chimed the bells at my parish church. I was a ringer by playing cricket for a team when not qualified to do so – for Jesus College, which neighboured my college.
Jesus College had organised an end of term tour of Manchester, but found their cricket playing resources stretched. Four players from my college were drafted in: Captain Dunn, the Brummie Dreamboat, Sophisticated Simon and me. With the role of ringer comes an expectation – of competence and performance. How did we live up to expectation?
Captain Dunn opened the batting in the first match. It was an evening game, played in Mancunian drizzle on a pitch that a lanky left-armer made spicey. Dunn took a blow from a lifter on the end of the thumb of his bottom hand. He retired hurt from the match and competitive duties for the tour. The broken thumb meant he missed a university representative tour the following week and cancelled his bank cards when presuming them missing; they lay at the bottom of his cricket bag, which his injury made too painful to search thoroughly.
The Brummie Dreamboat was one of a number of promising young batsmen that our college turned into quick bowlers. His tour was distinguished only by antics in a Manchester club car-park that have been know to lose an England captain his job.
Sophisticated Simon bowled leg and off-cutters that were suited to the damp wickets, but excelled as always off the field with charm and a nicely turned anecdote.
On this occasion, I came closest to fulfilling the role of the ringer. A chancy 50 in that opening match seeing Jesus to victory in the loaming.
None of us came close to the ringer faux-pas of being just too good; being the bloke whom no-one knows, who dominates the match and destroys the contest. A team-mate, Mr October, played a match at a public school last season. His side was bolstered by a recent New Zealand Test batsman. The erstwhile Black Cap faced the first ball of the second innings, with 250 the distant target. He drove a length ball to the right of the cover point, who got a strong hand to the ball, from which it ricocheted to the backward point boundary. The fielder was still wringing that hand 20 overs later when the match was done. That fixture might not be renewed this year.
Cricket habits and traditions tend to trickle down from the first class game to the club and recreational sport. The ringer, in recent years, seems to be percolating upwards. As county cricket is increasingly run to the convenience of ‘Team England’, international players have started to be placed in teams that they are not ‘qualified’ to represent. Andrew Strauss, as England captain in 2011, played for Somerset against India to help prepare for the Test series. For other authority-approved ringers, the opportunity has been less propitious. Nick Compton top-scored for Worcestershire against the Australian tourists in 2013, but was dropped from the Test team. James Taylor made an unbeaten hundred in the colours of Sussex against the same team three weeks later, but has not been selected for an England match since.
International cricket also has the ‘ringer-esque’ movement of players between nations – a subject that gets ample exposure everywhere else. The 2014 Under 19 World Cup brings the story of Zimbabwe and its overage players. Administrative error, the ICC has clarified, when confirming that the five not under 19s can continue to play.
Returning to ringers in club cricket, their presence in touring teams and recreational sides has a strong tradition. Competitive, league cricket is altogether different. Players are registered to clubs and fielding unqualified cricketers is usually proscribed with matches or points forfeited.
I have come across one sanctioned use of ringers. Relatively recently, Lancashire would release players not in action for the county to play top level club cricket. Clubmates tell me of turning up at the Sale CC home ground for a match to find Ian Austin sitting on his cricket bag. “Who are you playing for?” he was asked. “Don’t know, just told to be here by midday.” He bowled for the visitors and predictably took wickets.
Other than that, the use of ringers in club cricket competitions is cheating. So, not only have I been a ringer for Jesus, but also a cheat. A couple of years after the Manchester tour, Captain Dunn and I headed to the north-west again, this time to help out our former Number 4, now skippering a club team, who found himself light of players for an end of season fixture. The opposition had won the league the week before, but a strong finish would allow our adopted team to claim second place. Batting first, the Captain clattered a half-century that had our team being very careful to be nonchalant and familiar in his presence at tea.
The champions lost wickets regularly in their reply. Our adopted club had the chance of a victory to cap their season. With nine down and an over to play, a ball was hit high to a ringer on the boundary. With hardly a step required, the ball fell to hand, but didn’t come to rest there. The catch was dropped and the match drawn.
It was my worst ever moment on a cricket field. If a team mate drops a catch, there’s an easy empathy. We all know if could have happened to us and it probably has during the course of that season or ones before. But if some bloke you don’t know, who was brought in because he’s ‘a useful cricketer’ drops the catch that denies your team the match and second place in the league, it’s different. That’s what I felt, not what my temporary teammates actually said or intimated to me.
I knew I had been one devil of a ringer.
Photo credit: George Franks, GGF Photography (george.franks@O2.co.uk)
What is an opening batsman?
Nick Compton (above right) became the 868th player and 218th English cricketer to open the batting in a Test match in the recent Ahmedabad Test. He scored 46 runs from 181 balls, batting in a conventional opener’s fashion – even though the experience was unconventional with a spinner opening the bowling in both innings. Compton continued to impress in his second Test match with his solid defence, patience and judgement of when to play or leave deliveries.
In this third article on openers in Test cricket, I will examine the view that to face the new ball successfully a batsmen must necessarily have a conventionally correct technique and be risk averse. What is clear from the first two articles in this series is the importance, right now, of opening batsmen: the last two years have seen a slump in opening partnership performance, yet a partnership at the top of the order is not just a platform, but a springboard for the innings.
At the end of the English summer, with discussion around who would take Andrew Strauss’ place at the top of the England order, I asked a friend to detail what makes a batsman peculiarly an opening batsman. His answer I will refer to as the orthodox view:
Solid defence… Good judge of the ball to leave… Strong concentration… Expert against the short ball.
However, the orthodox view is neither true only of openers, nor is it true of all successful openers.
Batsmen whose games are built around a strong defence and the careful accumulation of runs may gravitate to the top of the order, but many of the finest exponents bat lower down. In recent years, Kallis, Dravid, Trott and Chanderpaul have been prolific and in the most part, measured scorers – perhaps benefiting from the efforts of their opener colleagues. Having a secure defence and a mind attuned to making big scores helps wherever in the order a batsmen is placed. If wickets fall early (as they very often do in a form of the game where the median first wicket score is 24), middle order batsmen need to display the same adhesiveness as the openers. Old ball (aka reverse) swing and the availability of a second new ball can also demand of the middle order circumspection and committed defence.
Nick Compton spent his first day of Test cricket watching Virender Sehwag (top left) roaring to a run-a-ball century, driving, flaying and carving shots to balls that many openers would watch carefully as they pass unimpeded past the off-stump to the wicket-keeper.
Sehwag, as an opening batsman, is a unique talent (described so well on Different Shades of Green) and yet not alone as an unorthodox player at the top of the order. Jayasuryia, Gayle, Sehwag, Hayden, Dilshan, McCullum and Warner have recently all prospered at the top of the order with an aptitude for quick scoring. What each of these shares is the ability to take the attack to the bowling, rather than their defensive prowess.
I would argue that the orthodox definition of an opening batsman is one that preoccupies England more than any other major cricket nation. English cricket’s inability to embrace the unorthodox is exposed in a different context – the career of Maurice Holmes, mystery spinner, by The Spin in the Guardian.
The records of the most successful Test openers of the last ten years show that a high scoring rate is associated with strong performance, when measured by batting average. Each square in the chart below represents one batsmen with over 1,000 runs in the last ten years as an opener. England batsmen are indicated by the red squares, with Marcus Trescothick having the highest strike-rate of the four.
Batsmen with below sample average scoring rates are distributed across almost the full range of batting averages. Openers with above average scoring rates have middling and high batting averages, with Virender Sehwag recording the highest on both measures. Amongst opening batsmen with strike rates below the sample average only Neil McKenzie, Alastair Cook and Simon Katich have batting averages over 45.
This picture of success as an opener being associated with fast scoring is reinforced when the aggregate performance of opening batsmen for the eight major Test teams over the last ten years is graphed (NB this is based upon opening batsmen, not opening partnerships). Higher scoring rates are associated with higher averages. The line of best fit proposes that for every additional run per 100 balls, the batting average rises by 0.9 runs.
Moving to a comparison of strike rate by each position in the batting order for this period shows there is no common pattern across the Test teams. India and South Africa’s opening batsmen score faster than numbers 3-6. New Zealand’s innings pick up speed with the middle-order.
I posed myself the question, what is an opening batsman? The answer does not seem to lie in either orthodoxy of technique or attitude to risk. To try to pinpoint what is distinctive about opening batsmen, it’s important to consider exactly what they do that is different to others.
Opening batsmen begin each innings against the opposition’s bowling at its freshest. They face the new ball – firm and gleaming, which makes it bouncier and liable to movement off the seam and in the air. One in two Test matches they are the first to bat on the pitch prepared for the match. It can have moisture that makes the bowling lively, but it is unblemished and should offer predictable bounce. The start of an innings very nearly always brings tension: the first overs of a Test match, the start of a reply to a large total, the initial stages of a run chase or match-saving rearguard. Batsmen in other places in the order will have occasions when the match situation contributes little to the nerves they feel when starting an innings.
From these statements of fact, I propose the following as the elements that make a successful batsman an effective opener:
- Experience of the role – the player who is brought up opening the batting and continues that role in the first-class game is well-placed to handle the pressure that goes with the role, at a greater intensity, in Test cricket.
- Complement to their partner – left hand/right hand combinations are common because of the disruption it can cause to bowlers trying to establish the optimum line and length at the start of an innings. Another complementary pairing might be fast and slow scorer. Overall, I consider this to be the weakest factor of the four described here.
- Not the best batsman in the team – the state of the bowling attack, ball and pitch all make opening the batting risky. It is in the team’s interest that its best batsmen are, if possible, held back until the initial push from the bowling side has abated.
- Want the job – to rise to the challenge, the batsman should be willing. A reluctant opening batsman may cope less well with the pressure.
That is what I have concluded gets closest to defining an opening batsman. It is about having experience of the role, being a good fit to the other opener, being of the required standard but not the team’s star player and above all, an opening batsman needs to be a batter who wants to be an opener.
Opening: platform or spring-board?
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.
The timing of Andrew Strauss
Andrew Strauss alternates on the Declaration Game banner photo with an older, less able and mentally weaker left-hander. While his presence there was opportunistic – I was looking for an image of a captain declaring – it has always felt fitting. He’s an admirable cricketer, the leader of the England Test team whose fortunes so influence my moods.
I don’t, though, regret his decision to resign today. I am relieved. I am pleased for Strauss that he remained in control of the end of his cricket career. I am also excited by the opportunities it presents the England Test team – but that’s not for now.
So, that relief I feel: Strauss acknowledged that his lack of runs was a major factor in his decision to retire. I had feared we were on the cusp of a period of up to eighteen months where every match preview would warn of his need for a significant score; every dismissal open him up to questions about his form, not his team’s performance. In the UAE last winter, he had batted against Pakistan’s slow bowlers as if tightly tethered to his leg-stump. I didn’t want to see him plodding and poking in India.
I saw his penultimate Test innings. He fell to the final ball of the morning session of day two at Lord’s, bowled by a swift Morne Morkel off-cutter. I was relieved then, too: Strauss could tuck into some lunch and England’s innings in the afternoon would be free of their captain’s struggles. Strauss had succumbed to a very fine spell of fast bowling by Morkel. The bat was beaten on both edges and sharp lift troubled him. Australia may not have a bowler yet to match Morkel, but he had demonstrated a method to unsettle the England captain that Pattison, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Starc and the rest would aim to emulate.
If Strauss had made it past India, there was then the prospect of England having to replace their captain and introduce a new top-order batsman in the middle of the back-to-back Ashes series. I am relieved that the timing of Strauss’ decision to retire eliminates that otherwise predictable problem for the England team.
To many England cricket supporters, but not to Strauss himself, the quality of his leadership justified his place in the team. Right now, there seems to be a relationship between how strongly one holds this view and how ardently one objects to Kevin Pietersen. Strauss, the quiet, decent, committed England cricketer, victim of KP’s abuse, was a bulwark against Pietersen’s return.
Praise for Strauss’ leadership has been fulsome, both before and after his decision to retire. It coheres around four aspects of his time as Test captain:
the turnaround: rallying a team that had lost captain and coach, was dismissed for 51 in his first game in charge, to compete for and win the Ashes within six months.
the holy grail: winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years
the ascent: building an unbeaten record that culminated in the four-nil despatch of India and claiming the ICC’s Number 1 Test ranking
the ethos: Strauss followed Pietersen in front of the press at the end of the Headingley Test.
One thing I will say, and it is important to stress this, is that the Team unity that we have had over the last three years has been outstanding. It is something we all pride ourselves on, always have done and will continue to do so going forward.
Before taking each of these claims in turn, I need to stress that I am not, because I cannot, distinguish the achievement of Strauss from that of Andy Flower and the wider England team management.
Was there a great turnaround?
The case usually focuses on the upheaval in early 2009 that saw Strauss abruptly offered the England captaincy. But I think a longer time-frame is more useful. England had lost four of the six series before Strauss took over, only coming out on top against New Zealand – twice. After losing to West Indies in Strauss’ first series, England remained unbeaten in a Test series for three years. The victory over Australia in 2009, admittedly tight, was the best result for three years. Strauss had turned the corner.
How sacred was the Ashes victory down-under?
In two months, England won as many test matches in Australia – three – as they had done in the previous six visits combined. Its huge emotional significance for English cricket has, I would argue, obscured the challenge faced. There was an Australian confluence of: their weakest playing resources for a generation; an ineffectively directed team; and key players unfit and out of form. Strauss’ England capitalised on this rare opportunity, winning three games by large margins, playing uncompromising cricket against fragile, never divine, opponents.
Did England become the very best?
Eight series victories and one draw, culminating in the defeat of India in 2011 placed Strauss’ England top of the ICC’s Test rankings. Even this statistical construct suggested ambivalence. England were never more than a couple of ranking points clear of second and third place. Australia had clear blue water and outback between them and number two when in their pomp. And too many of England’s opponents had been on a downward curve, distracted by other cricket formats or prey to dressing room intrigue. The exception was South Africa in 2009/10 who held England to a tied series, but came within a delivery of winning the two drawn matches. Strauss did not captain a great team, but a fiercely competitive outfit in a time without a dominant force in Test cricket.
A sum greater than its parts?
Few proponents of Strauss’ leadership contend that he could shape games with instinctive or tactical decision-making. The key cricket decisions were taken off the field: who to bat at number three at the Oval in 2009; which bowlers to select for which Tests in Australia. Strauss, it is argued, created with the team a distinctive ethos. To what extent was Strauss’s team unusually and powerfully cohesive? There were plenty of visible signs – bum tapping for a fielder saving a run. And Strauss had friendly conditions. Central contracts meant players’ principal loyalty was to their country. Victories meant a settled squad, but so did the players’ youth as replacements for established stars weren’t required.
Then, this summer, we became aware of the Pietersen situation. The team wasn’t so unified after all. But enough of it was showing togetherness that the renegade was to be sacrificed in the name of unity. The favourable interpretation is that Strauss, when tested to the limit, stuck to the principles that had made his team successful. Two unflattering conclusions about Strauss’ leadership can be reached: 1) he hadn’t developed any enduring team ethos that could include the full range of talents and personalities; 2) the ethos had become an end in itself so that dissent could not be tolerated.
One day Strauss will probably fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of his captaincy of Kevin Pietersen that on-lookers are filling with speculation. I have a theory, that may well be disproved. My theory is that one of Strauss’ greatest achievements as England captain, alongside the turnaround in the team’s fortunes he oversaw in 2008, was his ability to manage Mr Kevin Pietersen, initially sore from his own loss of the captaincy, so that he contributed to the England test team for three successful years.
I trust that if Strauss does decide to tell his side of this story, his timing will be as good as that of his resignation announcement today, and does nothing to damage the England team.
Sri Lanka v England: an oxymoronic encounter
For 20 years I have spent August Bank Holiday on tour with my college old boys team. For the majority of that time, my wife has resented that annual occasion. In recent years, the resentment has found a semantic focus: it isn’t a TOUR! My team’s get-together doesn’t meet my wife’s criteria for a tour: we stay in one place and only play two matches (against the same team, too).
I imagine Andrew Strauss dealing with a similar domestic situation:
The England Captain: Right, I’m off to Sri Lanka for a Test series. I’ll call before bath time to speak to the kids. Love you.
The England Captain’s Wife: It’s not a series. You’re only playing two matches. You can’t call two matches a series. And don’t get sunburnt.
Two does not make a series. Mathematically, a series is many; colloquially, at least several. So what should we call these contests? A double-header? A two-leg tie – no, because the scores are not aggregated across the two matches. A pair – no, term already taken in cricket. A Test brace or couple? Outbound and return?
The two test contest has come in for some criticism as a format suitable for the highest form of the sport. Australia and South Africa exchanged blows in November 2011, ending up all-square with none to play. Almost everyone was left feeling they had been sold short. An opera without a fat lady, a thriller without the resolution. Only those Puritan souls able to take pleasure from leaving while wanting more seemed satisfied.
But, a contest over two tests dates from the very beginning of Test cricket. England’s visit to Australia in 1876/77 culminated with two matches between the countries. None of the players involved knew they were engaging in Test cricket. It’s only through hindsight that the matches were given authentic status. So, perhaps, we shouldn’t look upon it as precedent. Only once more were the Ashes scheduled as a two match affair: 1886/87. Twice more in the nineteenth century England contested over a two game affair – against South Africa.
For the next century, the standard set for a Test cricket contest was a three or a five match series, with occasional one-offs. The only regular exception was when New Zealand hosted England on their way back (although headed in the wrong direction) from an Ashes series.
This all changed in 2001. The expansion of Test cricket to ten nations, biannual ICC competitions and the introduction of a ranking system meant that some top-down order was needed in place of the informal, bilateral arrangements that had determined cricket’s international timetable. The Future Tours Programme Agreement (links to page with a link to the pdf of the FTP Agreement) defined a tour as comprising a minimum of two tests and three one day internationals. The rush to the bottom began. In the last decade, 46% of all tours and 33% of those involving only major nations (i.e. all bar Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) comprised two tests – see chart.
Does an increase in two test tours matter? It could do for any of the following reasons:
- Less Test cricket is being played
- Fewer matches means the better team doesn’t have time to emerge as the winner (i.e. more drawn series)
- Teams approach matches more negatively, for fear of falling behind and being unable to go on and win; or once ahead playing to conserve the advantage, not build on it (i.e. more drawn matches)
- The departure from the game of the extended narrative of the closely fought series, with fortunes oscillating between the teams.
The first reason does not stand up to scrutiny: the quantity of Test cricket played in this period is at an all time high. The fourth reason is difficult to evidence but feels a legitimate concern. Last year’s Australian tour of South Africa is an example of a contest that was cut short before it could mature. The second and third reasons are amenable to some analysis.
There were 121 series between major Test nations in the period March 2002-March 2012. The chart shows that the likelihood of a Test match in a two test tour being drawn was very similar to the likelihood of a draw occuring in a Test match in a three, four or five test tour. However, two-test tours were more than twice as likely to produce drawn series than longer tours. While, on the face of it, there is no evidence of more negative play, the truncated modern tour is leaving contests unresolved.
Should Sri Lanka and England’s oxymoronic encounter buck the trend, it could provide a near-oxymoronic outcome: best Test team loses again.
Note on ‘oxymoron‘: a precise definition of the term is that the two words of opposite meaning are used together intentionally for effect. ‘Two Test Series’ is more precisely a ‘contradiction in terms’.
Making the game safe
Not a post about the advisability of batsmen wearing helmets, teenage quicks bowling eight over spells or crowds being prevented from ambling across the ground at the end of match. No, safe here means cannot be beaten, having an unassailable lead. I am returning to my theme of Test match declarations.
The story so far: in the history of Test cricket 37% of third innings declarations end up in victories and only 2% as defeats. Looking at the last three calendar years, successful declarations are associated with major nations playing minor nations, many overs remaining for the fourth innings, higher targets and lower target run-rates. This post looks at the drawn matches in the sample period to query whether the declaring captains were over-cautious.
I am going to draw on, and so want to prominently acknowledge, the fascinating work of Dr Philip Scarf and Sohail Akhtar of the University of Salford. I came across Dr Scarf’s work while researching this piece and am very grateful that he has allowed me to draw on some of it. In brief, Dr Scarf is an academic statistician who has analysed ten years of Test matches to model their results. The statistical proofs used are beyond me, but the conclusions illuminating. A full reference to the paper I borrow from is at the end of this post. I am making use of a table on p8 of his paper which calculates the probability of the three outcomes of a third innings declaration. For example:
Scenario – Target: 300. Overs remaining: 100.
Result probability – Win: 0.465 Draw: 0.274 Defeat: 0.261
What follows is a distillation of a review of the 18 drawn tests following third innings declarations in the sample period. Distilled out are: three declarations made to end the match early without a fourth innings getting under way; four declarations which were made for the purpose of nuisance – i.e. to discomfort the opposition late in the game, rather than as a serious attempt at winning the game (England at Brisbane in November 2010 is the archetype.)
The review comprises three perspectives:
- hindsight – how close to victory (or defeat) did the declaring captain get and so would an earlier declaration have made the crucial difference? I calculate and depict closeness to victory as a percentage – for the bowling team, not of the 10 wickets required, but using the average duration (in balls) of each completed wicket partnership (1st to 10th) in the sample period. This gives a more meaningful weighting of the significance of top order wickets and the proximity to victory when amongst the tail – on average!
- anecdotal – did the captain appear to delay the declaration? What was in it for the captain to make a bold declaration (e.g. Series situation, relative strength of the two teams)
- Scarf predictive analysis – according to Dr Scarf and Sohail Akhtar’s model, how much could the skipper have altered the balance of odds in favour of a victory (or defeat) with an earlier declaration?
And then I judge: Captain Cautious, Skipper Intrepid or just Captain Sensible. Five captains were the decision-makers and each is dealt with in turn.
Eng v WI in Antigua (February 2009)
Strauss declared mid-way through the second session of the fourth day, over 500 ahead. Just one West Indian wicket remained between England and victory (96% of the target requirement) the following evening. Hindsight says that any additional time could have secured a win for England, who had the incentive of being behind in the series (although two more matches were to be played).
Dr Scarf’s analysis doesn’t consider targets above 450. However, the likelihood of winning has peaked for fourth innings with 140 overs remaining with a target of 400. The model suggests that batting on for 20 overs cost England a 90%+ probability of winning, reducing the probability to below 80%. Captain Cautious
Eng v WI in Port-of-Spain (March 2009)
Two matches later and Strauss was able to set a total of 237 at lunch on the final day of the series. England had the West Indies eight wickets down (91% of target requirement) at the close of play. Just a few more overs and Strauss may have had the satisfaction of levelling the series.
Dr Scarf’s table shows that Test matches are rarely won by sides setting totals below 250. With as few as 66 overs remaining, a draw was the most probable result, but a successful chase more likely than the side being bowled out. The model indicates there was little to be gained from an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible
Eng v SL at Lord’s (June 2011)
Strauss made this declaration during the final afternoon of the match. England’s three wickets and Sri Lanka’s total of 127 both represent 37% of their respective targets. While this suggests Strauss required a lot more time, his attack had skittled Sri Lanka on the final day at Cardiff the previous week. One-nil up with two to play, Strauss had no incentive to gamble.
The model would have given England a one-in-eight chance of victory. Declaring 20 overs sooner would have more than doubled the probability of an England success, but given Sri Lanka a 15% chance of squaring the series. Captain Sensible
Ind v NZ in Wellington (April 2009)
Dhoni set New Zealand 617 in 160 0vers. They survived due to the loss of 70 overs to the Wellington weather when eight wickets down before play was ended ahead of lunch on day five. India were defending a one-nil lead in the final game of the series, which influenced their decision to carry on batting, setting a target over 30% higher than the record fourth innings chase.
Dr Scarf’s model doesn’t cater for targets so large, but he does conclude: “if a very large target is set, the team batting last will not attempt to play for a win and a draw becomes more likely.” Captain Sensible
Ind v WI in Bridgetown (June 2011)
Dhoni’s declaration set the West Indies 283 in 83 overs. With 15 overs lost to rain, India still managed 85% (7 wickets) of their target. Dhoni was praised for his boldness, which gave a filip to a rain-affected match with a tense final day. What’s more, India led the series one-nil with the third Test still to play. On the debit side for the Indian captain, he was fined for a slow over rate, which may have reduced his team’s chances of winning.
The probability table suggests a pretty even chance of each of the results and nothing to be gained from an earlier declaration. Skipper Intrepid
Pak v SL at Colombo (July 2009)
Pakistan declared three overs into the afternoon of the fourth day, with their tenth wicket pair at the crease. A day later and 15 overs before the scheduled close, Sri Lanka were closer to victory – 79% of the way towards their target of 490 – although both teams attracted criticism for not pursuing victory more urgently. The game was a ‘dead rubber’.
Extrapolating from the probability table, Pakistan were very heavy favourites (c.90%), giving themselves 160 overs to bowl Sri Lanka out. Captain Sensible
SA v Eng at Centurion (December 2009)
Smith set England 364 in 96 overs and came within 4% (or one wicket) of the victory on a fifth day of swinging fortunes. It was the first match of the series and Smith was without Steyn, the spearhead to the attack. The England tenth wicket pair survived three overs, with number 11, Graham Onions, facing 12 balls (shown at the head of this post).
The probability tables suggest a victory as the most likely outcome, and defeat at under 10%. Chances of victory grow steadily however, with the more overs available with targets between 300-400. Captain Cautious
SA v Eng at Cape Town (January 2010)
Three weeks later, now one-nil down in the series and Smith again declares to set England a target: 466 in 141 overs. 47 more overs than South Africa had available at Centurion. The result, in graph form, is identical, but England’s dogged defence more consistent than in the earlier Test.
Scarf’s table put the chance of a South African victory at over 80%. The same probability as if Smith had declared 20 overs earlier and set a target 100 runs fewer (as would have been the case). The probability of an England victory would have been much higher, however, with the earlier declaration. Captain Sensible
SA v Pak at Dubai (November 2010)
Smith set Pakistan 451 in 131 overs in the first of this two match series. While the declaration was seen at the time as ‘on the conservative side’, Smith’s side were the clear favourites. As the graph shows, however, Pakistan were closer to their target than South Africa with the largest percentage point advantage to the batting side in these drawn matches (76% v 37%).
The probability table suggests a c.70% chance of victory and only 1% chance of defeat. A declaration at lunch on day four would have lifted that probability to 80% but increased the chance of defeat to 16%. Captain Cautious
SA v Pak at Abu Dhabi (November 2010)
One week later, Smith again set Pakistan a total, but from a less commanding position: early on the fifth day with a lead of 353. The value of batting for five overs on day five was questionable, but seems unlikely to have tipped the balance as Pakistan lost only three wickets before the match was brought to a close. The series ended in a ni-nil draw.
Scarf’s table suggests a two-thirds chance of a draw, with only marginal improvements to South Africa’s odds (and larger increases to Pakistan’s chances) with an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible
SL v Pak at Sharjah (November 2011)
Rain delayed the start of day five, with Sri Lanka 237 ahead with 67 overs remaining. The slow scoring rate in the match would mitigate the risk to Dilshan, whose outfit were one-nil down in the last of three tests. But Dilshan batted on for four overs, increasing the target by 18.
The probability tables show the draw was the favourite (50-60%), with a successful chase more likely. With lower targets rarely producing victories, Sri Lanka’s chances would not improve with an earlier declaration. Captain Sensible
Acting as judge of the positive intent of these Test captains, I’ve concluded that on three occasions (out of eleven) the timing of the declaration was over-concerned with making the game safe, reducing the chance of victory. There were two other tests where declarations came later than appeared to be necessary, but I judge the delay as having little impact on the result.
There exists some evidence, from a minority of declarations, to support my original contention that ‘losing feels worse than winning feels good’. None of the delays to declarations was flagrant, but each were in series still ‘live’ and so could have made a difference beyond the match itself.
In this review, I have isolated the timing of the declaration decision, but do acknowledge that what followed in the fourth innings, e.g. quality of bowling, fielding, determination of the batting, umpiring decisions, pitch and weather conditions, all played a part alongside the declaration in bringing about result.
Acknowledgement: An analysis of strategy in the first three innings in test cricket: declaration and the follow-on. Philip Scarf and Sohail Akhtar. Salford Business School Working Paper Series. Paper no. 337/10.
Personalised medicine for England
A dozen-or-so times a game, a man wearing a helmet and shoulder pads comes onto the American football pitch. He stands poised for the play to start, catches the ball and punts it as far and high as he can. Then he goes back to the sidelines. He’s accompanied on and off the field by ten teammates, only one of whom is likely to touch the ball. The rest act as human barricades.
American sport has taken Taylorian division of labour onto the playing field. The ‘special team’ (named surely to compensate them for having such a limited role in the match) of punter and blockers in American football is one example. In baseball there are pitchers who are brought into the game at crucial points to throw maybe as few as three pitches and are then withdrawn. Ice Hockey, I recall, has ‘goons’. A friend in the US told me about his college mate who was selected for one of the pro hockey franchises’ development squads. In his first match he got caught up in some argy-bargy. Off the ice, his coach went wild. “Those two goons over there are in the team for fighting. I picked you to play hockey.”
Sport in the US has given specialisation a bad name: sportsmen who play ball games, but almost never touch the ball; skaters whose role is to hit the talented opponent, not the puck.
A detail in Pakistan’s spin-driven series victory over England may be a far more interesting sporting specialisation. Mohammed Hafeez, under the astute captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq, has a precise and well-defined role: to bowl at top-order left-handed batsmen. The third choice spinner in the Pakistan team, it is to Hafeez, that Misbah has thrown the ball when replacing one of his opening bowlers in the first and second test matches against England. Hafeez actually bowled the first over of England’s dreadful second knock at Abu Dhabi. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are left-handed batsmen, who have prospered in Test cricket in all countries. But facing Hafeez with a new ball has been a novel and baffling challenge. He has dismissed Strauss once and Cook twice in two tests.
Hafeez is preying upon the English openers’ technical shortcomings and discomfort at not facing fast and medium quick bowlers at the start of an innings. However, there is more to his success than a couple of confused Englishmen abroad. His test bowling record against left-handers features a bowling average four times better than his average against right-handers. In one respect, Hafeez is a part-timer, not getting a bowl in every match he has played and averaging fewer than 10 overs per Test appearance. But part-timer doesn’t do justice to the niche he has found. In the last 20 innings in which he has had a bowl, he has opened the bowling or been first change 11 times. Of his 26 Test wickets, 20 are left-handers. 14 of these are top-order batsmen, including Graeme Smith, Brian Lara and Darren Bravo.
In Abu Dhabi, Hafeez opened the bowling, tied down the openers, accounted for Cook and was then removed from the attack. He has a pronounced facility, recognised and exploited, to trouble left-handed batsmen.
Cricket teams are a fusion of specialists: opening batsmen, wicketkeeper, quick bowlers, spin bowlers, slip fielders, etc. Hafeez’s specialism isn’t one of these conventional roles. It’s a super-specialism. It’s certainly not unique. It can be argued that Jimmy Anderson is a ‘super specialist’ slip fielder to England’s slow bowlers. Stuart Broad thought he had a ‘super specialism’ as the England quick who could rough up batsmen with short-pitched bowling. England, in the field, have prospered, once he shed this pretension.
Hafeez, I assume, made it into the Pakistan team because of his batting. He averages over 40 and with Taufeeq Umar has established a successful opening partnership that itself averages over 40. When Duncan Fletcher coached England, he insisted that the cricketers he picked should excel in two of the three cricket disciplines. It was clear thinking that finally took England away from trying to find all-rounders to succeed Botham, but uncovered players who could bat and bowl at county level and hold their own as neither in Test cricket. I can’t be sure that Fletcher would have selected Hafeez had he been available to him, but he does seem to be an evolution to the Fletcher approach to team construction.
To prosper, international cricketers must be able to adapt: to different pitches, opponents, weather conditions, match situations and variants of the sport. Hafeez isn’t succeeding because of a narrow, focused skill. He’s an all-round cricketer, who through Misbah’s understanding of his particular strengths and the opponents’ weak-spots is having one of his attributes deployed to telling effect. I have made the argument before that batsmen should bat in the order that suits the game situation not in an inflexible scorecard order. Similarly, cricket teams seeking the advantage in closely fought series should know which of their team is best suited to the challenge of the moment. That understanding may come from statistical analysis of past performance or from a nuanced appreciation of technical ability. By following predictable patterns of play – thirty overs of seam, followed by some spin, back to seam after intervals and again immediately when the new ball is available – teams won’t eke out those advantages.
The ultra-specialisation of American sport doesn’t turn out to be a good analogy for Hafeez’s role. Those sports have squads of players available for use during each match, encouraging specialisation of function. Cricket teams need to (in a final borrowing from the States) cover all their bases with the 11 selected on the morning of the match. I think a better model comes from a completely different domain – medicine. Moving into the future, treatments for ill health won’t be determined merely by the diagnosis and the symptoms, but by an understanding of the genetic characteristics of the patient and so which pharmaceutical interventions are suited to the individual. Blockbuster drugs are being replaced by personalised medicine and we are watching Pakistan mete out some very personal medicine to the England team.