Inhabiting the Eoincene Era
Our day’s first sight of Morgan is well-received. On the big screen in the car-park, he is shown winning the toss – about which we are neutral – and, crucially, opting to bat. He has given his vaunted batsmen an opportunity to pile up runs against the weakest opponents in the tournament. We approve. We have, not a promise, but a probability of a full day of entertainment.
On our second sight, Morgan is less well-received. It’s him tripping down the stairs from the changing room, not England’s greatest limited overs batsman. The innings is in the 30th over. Buttler-time. But Jos is batting in scorecard order, not in situation-specific sequence. ‘Spare your back, skip,’ we mutter. England’s innings, without a Roy-based supercharge, has for 29 overs felt like an preamble, foundations built by a fastidious builder on ground that is already solid and ready for England to erect great towers and arches. Still scoring at 5 runs per over, with wickets in hand – it feels quaint, not bold new England.
Morgan does nothing to alter the tenor – a single off seven deliveries – and we enjoy the replays of Gulbadin’s return catch, taken at shin height, that stopped Bairstow’s progress towards a century and his, as the set batsman, anticipated assault on the bowling. Morgan, like a coach demonstrating the shot to junior cricketers, plays back and forwards with exaggerated care. His bat canted downwards as though surrounded by crouching Afghan fielders. In reality, five are arrayed at the edge of the 30 yard circle and, blue and red kit merging with the World Cup signage, four more are stationed camouflaged on the boundary.
It’s heralded by a no-ball. Morgan pivots on the free-hit and the ball clears the boundary in front of square. Before we know it, the game spirals. Like a boxer, Morgan deals in one-two combinations. Pitch it up and a clean sweep of the bat, sometimes vertical, but always angled optimally for the width of the delivery, sends the ball in gorgeous high arcs beyond the fielders and the straight boundary. Drop it short and Morgan swoops with sudden energy to put the ball beyond the leg side fence.
Morgan’s crouch and his bottom-hand dominant swing enable him to administer lofted drives to half-volleys, good length deliveries and near yorkers.
And there’s variation: the ball angled at his pads is slog swept to the distance; the quicker bowlers driven straight, with the trajectory of powerful artillery. A straighter pull-shot lands in our stand. It feels like a blessing, or coin tossed by the lord of the manor to his underlings.
Morgan may as well levitate, so intense and unreal in its assurance is his shot-making; he sees, he hits. I recall two mishits: the drop on the leg-side boundary and a single air-shot. He also defends, bat straight, with unerring certainty about which is the right ball to attack.
The spell he has fallen under captures us and who knows, maybe the Afghanis, too? For a little over an hour we have eyes, ears and thoughts for nothing else. Time and space are melded: we exist in the Eoincene era, Morganistan. Morgan provides a release, abstracting us from the cares and concerns of our lives, temporarily wiping clear troubled minds. The elation survives his dismissal but is soon gnawed at by guilt, at surrendering to this pleasure in a wider context of angst and discomfort.
One man present remains outside that spell. Root, arriving at the crease twenty overs earlier than his captain, reaches ten after around ten deliveries. He has reached the forties, scored off 40-ish balls when Morgan arrives. A run-a-ball, or thereabouts, through the careful building of foundations, the sudden acceleration of the innings and the sustained hitting. While Morgan has stretched the elasticity of time in a cricket innings, Root was metronomic, rhythmic, maybe detached.
I wasn’t detached. Morgan transported me and, no fault of his own, left me hungover as the real world and its agonies re-established their dominion. I feel sheepish at how readily seduced I was, but in the same measure grateful to have had – and shared – that experience. My memory of it will join other, largely more personal recollections, that I withdraw to, to find respite. Writing this, the day after, provides the same welcome relief.
Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game
…Allan Donald standing, turning, dropping his bat, then running, but too, too late, as the celebrating Australians converge (Edgbaston, 1999)…
…Ajmal Shehzad clubs a first ball six as England’s 8th wicket pair gather 13 runs from the final over to tie the game on the final ball (Bengalaru, 2011)…
…Grant Elliot launches Dale Steyn over long-on, over the boundary from the penultimate ball of the 2015 semi-final… (Auckland, 2015)
These are the dramatic conclusions to One Day Internationals (ODIs) that come to my mind when I think of what makes the 50 over format so exciting. Matches that have run for hours but are decided by a pressure-forced error or a single audacious act. Games when all 22 players look back and can each reflect on just one thing had they done differently – pushed to turn a long single into a two; not bowled that wide; collected the ball cleanly on the boundary – that may have made all the difference.
Major tournaments are felt to be smouldering, not truly catching alight, until they feature at least one of these thrilling finishes. TV stations shelving the next scheduled programme so they can stay with the action until the very end. Pictures of fans chewing fingernails, or covering their eyes from the spectacle that both holds them rapt and that they cannot bear to watch.
Thrilling finishes seem to be the essence of one day, limited overs cricket. Yet how representative are they of the format? How often is the team batting second still chasing in the final over, or with their lower order batsmen stretching for the target? To approach an answer to these questions, I have analysed results and victory margins for ODIs since the last World Cup (March 2015 – January 2018). To provide some context for that analysis I have completed similar reviews of national, list A competitions and two non-full member 50 over tournaments from this year.
To be engaging, ODI cricket doesn’t have to culminate in a final over where all three results are possible. 100 overs gives plenty of opportunity for fortune to swing back and forth, with the final decisive swing happening deep into the second innings and producing a convincing margin of victory, rather than a nail-biting conclusion. An individual innings or bowling spell may blow away the opposition, yet provide adequate reward for the spectator or viewer. But still the sport yearns for the crazed uncertainty of a match that hinges on cricket’s high pressure equivalent of the duel.
The ODI sample I have assessed comprises 312 completed matches: 157 won by the side batting first; 153 by the side chasing; and two ties. The tied matches (0.6% of the total) qualify automatically as thrilling finishes.
Looking at the matches won by the side batting first, 13 (8.2%) were won by single figure margins (fewer than 10 runs) and so were likely to be in the balance going into the final over. Another 12 had victory margins of between 10 and 19 runs and so delivered some degree of jeopardy for players and fans deep into the game.
The chart below shows the distribution of victory margins for sides batting first (one decile is 10% of the matches in this sample). Not only are tight finishes relatively rare, but substantial wins are the norm: the median victory is by 70 runs and almost 30% of matches are won by 100 runs.
ODIs won by the team chasing were unresolved until the final over on 10 occasions (6.7% – excluding five matches decided by Duckworth Lewis when the side batting second was already ahead of the par figure when weather intervened). 27 (18.2%) reached the target in the penultimate over. Over half (14) of these had five wickets or more in hand, suggesting a well-calibrated chase rather than genuine uncertainty over the result.
The tactic of chasing teams to set a pace to their innings based on the target set, rather than the optimum score they might achieve, can make victory margins based on ball remaining in the innings misleading. Nonetheless, the chart below, showing the distribution of balls remaining in matches won by chasing teams, again shows that convincing victories are far more common that thrilling conclusions. The median margin is almost five overs and more than 30% of these games are won with 10 or more overs to spare.
A chasing side, of course, risks losing a game by being bowled out. There were eight (5.4%) instances where the game was won by one or two wickets. Five of these are already recognised as tight finishes as they finished in the last or penultimate over. At the other extreme, 35 games were won with the loss of three or fewer wickets.
Of the 312 completed matches in the sample, 28 (9.0%) appear to have delivered a truly tight game to the end, giving about a one in eleven chance of seeing a thrilling finish. Those do not seem unreasonable odds of a game staying alive until its very last passage of play.
More concerning is that 30% of the sample produced games that were not just comfortable victories but, achieved by margins of over 100 runs or with more than 10 overs to spare, were veritable blow-outs. Excluding matches involving non-Test playing nations made little difference to the incidence of crushing defeats/victories.
International sport has in-built inequalities with the population size and wealth of countries acting as constraints on their performance. The same is less true (although it remains a feature) of domestic sport where counties, states, provinces and clubs are able to recruit to strengthen sides and players migrate to where there are better opportunities to play. List A (i.e. top level domestic 50 over competitions) matches, therefore, provide something of a control sample to test whether the frequency of one-sided ODIs is a function of the match format or of international competition.
I drew my sample of domestic 50 over matches from the most recently completed List A competitions in Australia, South Africa, Pakistan (2017/18), England (2017), India, New Zealand and West Indies (2016/17). The results of 315 completed matches were analysed.
Using the same criteria for a thrilling finish (victory margin: batting first < 10 runs; chasing in last over or by 1 or 2 wickets; or a tie), there were 51 (16.2%) games that stayed alive until the very end. With odds of a little over one in six, List A matches produced tight finishes nearly twice as frequently as ODIs.
At the other extreme, trouncings were also rarer – but only slightly. 28.6% of the matches were won by 100 runs or more or with 10 or more overs to spare.
There were significant variations between the national competitions. England and New Zealand produced closer matches – shown below with the median margin of victory for each competition. The incidence of games curtailed by bad weather and decided on the Duckworth Lewis system may have played a part in creating closer finishes in those two countries.
Returning to international competition, two recent tournaments provided contrasting records for tightness of matches. At the 2018 under 19 World Cup, the median margins of victory were:
– batting first: 101 runs (ODI median: 70 runs)
– batting second: 63 balls, 7 wickets (ODI median: 29.5 balls, 6 wickets)
Only two of the 48 matches in the tournament (4%) met my criteria for a very close finish: batting first – victory by less than 10 runs; batting second – victory in final over or by two wickets or less.
Fans of thrilling finishes should pay attention to World Cricket League, Division 2. Six of the eighteen matches in the recent tournament qualified as very close finishes, with one team featuring in four of those games. On that basis, Nepal deserves to be the favourite team of every cricket fan who cherishes the tension of a 50 over game fulfilling its potential of going down to the wire.
England one-night stand record broken
Eoin Morgan’s achievement at setting a new England one-night stand blackmail record of £35,000 almost went unnoticed this week. It took eagle-eyed statisticians in the Tasmanian police force to draw the cricket public’s attention to this feat.
Retired cricketers were quick to downplay the significance of this new high score. “These days, the lads jet all around the world, rarely spending more than one night in the same city. It’s very different from the game we played. Month after month, we were at home with the wife and kids. It’s just not fair to compare performances between the two eras.”
It doesn’t just come down to opportunity according to one England great of the recent past. “The equipment had transformed things. Take the size of beds. Swinging in one of these whoppers, well you’re bound to get lucky.”
Mike Gatting, whose record Morgan superseded, was keen to praise his Middlesex colleague. “Eoin is second to none in the pyjamas. He has that X-rated factor.” Gatting found one aspect of Morgan’s new mark unexpected. “Knowing what an unorthodox player Eoin is, I was a little surprised that it was a straight single that brought him the record.” Gatting couldn’t help musing on the changes three decades had brought. “I mean, how much would a roll with a barmaid in Brum be worth these days, what with the Internet and all?”
Head Coach, Peter Moores, saw it as a warning for the so-called experts who have been taking every opportunity to find fault with the England team. “They keep saying we’re not fancied. The skipper has shown that the people of Australia, the hosts of this World Cup, look upon our guys very favourably.”
In other news, England’s new record ODI run scorer, Ian Bell, was reticent about discussing his own achievement, apologising for distracting the team and its supporters from England’s upcoming elimination from the World Cup by scoring a run-a-ball hundred in a warm up match. He reasoned, “Obviously, it’s embarrassing. But at the end of the day, the lads failed to defend 300, so it shouldn’t have done too much damage to the unit.”
In a pointed remark about the recent impotence at the top of the England order, Bell added: “Obviously, for an opener having two balls at the start of the innings can help.” This begs the question of the particular handicaps that England’s previous opener was playing under.
The final delivery of the 2015 World Cup
The 2015 World Cup was being hailed as the saviour of one day international cricket by the time the quarter-final places were settled. That first month of the tournament had seen regular close finishes, control of other games swinging dramatically from one team to the other (and occasionally back again). The associates had shown themselves to be competitive, with Afghanistan snatching a victory against Sri Lanka, who bizarrely opted to rest Jayawardene on a day his calm batting could have made the difference.
There were stories of renewal: the West Indies, four months after leaving India mid-series, their players and Board in dispute, dealt their erstwhile hosts a further snubbing with one of the most comfortable victories of the group stage. For India, this was a solitary defeat of a strong opening phase.
Alastair Cook also found vindication leading England to a record five World Cup victories on the trot, as well as being leading run scorer for his country. Defeat to India in the quarter-finals left England’s performance indeterminate – not poor enough to require a clear out, nor strong enough to dispel doubts.
Amidst the drama and excitement, Australia exuded a sense of calm and purpose. Wickets taken, their batsmen reaching milestones, even victories were greeted with handshakes, slaps on the back and simple acknowledgements to the crowd. There were no extravagant celebrations or reveling in the misfortune of opponents. They approached the tournament as a campaign, conserving energy, pacing themselves and, of course, bearing the burden of the loss of Philip Hughes.
India, who had already shown unexpected toughness in the Test series in Australia that preceded the World Cup, looked Australia’s most likely adversaries. Their semi-final opponents, Pakistan, had played scrappy, wasteful cricket. Somehow they wrought disorder on India’s smooth progression and in a tight game of mini-collapses and lower order rallies, Pakistan were in their element and squeezed into the final.
The following day, in the other semi-final, Australia neutered South Africa. Michael Clarke played that match – the first time in the tournament he had appeared in consecutive Australian fixtures. His back, his hamstring and his energy levels needed to be managed. By playing alternate matches in the group stage, Clarke was kept in one piece for the knockouts.
Australia faced Pakistan in the 49th match on the 43rd day of the tournament. Pakistan batted first. A steady start was on the verge of spectacular acceleration as Misbah launched an assault reminiscent of his innings in the 2nd Test against Australia in November. Only five months ago, but feeling to Australians to belong to a different era. But it wasn’t to be a throwback as Misbah slipped, aiming for a fifth six, and buckled the stumps with his back leg to be out for a rapid 46. The innings closed on 282 – a total that Australia had exceeded four times already in the tournament, although never needing that many when chasing.
Warner and Finch opened with a partnership of intense, high-energy cricket. Seeking to score off every ball, but not with their characteristic boundary-clearing shots, they upset Pakistan’s calculations. By the 15th over, the score was 90 when Finch, finally challenging the boundary fielder, was caught off a lofted pull.
The bowler was Saeed Ajmal. The off-spinner was a major focus of pre-tournament conjecture. His new action had been cleared by the ICC in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His team’s own misgivings about the impact of that change were apparent when he didn’t make the eleven for Pakistan’s first two matches. But thereafter, he settled into a groove that made him the most economical bowler at the tournament. Ajmal limited himself to off-breaks and arm-balls, but batsmen, if no longer mystified by his variations, couldn’t find a method to collar him.
Finch’s dismissal derailed the innings. Over the next twenty overs, Australia lost another six wickets while runs were extracted painfully. Misbah made manifold bowling changes, seeming to disorientate the Australian batsmen. The most dizzy and out of sorts of all, was the skipper Clarke. Yet, he had enough tenacity to hold onto his wicket. If he was hoping for calmer times, harmony wasn’t to be his saviour. Instead it came in the form of a James Faulkner hurricane.
Hitherto in the tournament, Australia’s serene progress had meant Faulkner’s muscular batting was always kept in reserve. But at the Final, with his team finally knocked off its axis, he had license to let rip. Faulkner hit more boundaries in three overs than his side had in the previous 35. Ajmal was mauled with three successive slog-swept sixes. Faulkner found the freedom, which had eluded all batsmen in the tournament so far, to clobber the Pakistani spinner.
With only three wickets in hand and fifty still needed off seven overs, Clarke called for steadiness from Faulkner and took the lead role as they stepped down from the latter’s assault to a more measured and calculated approach.
Into the final over and Australia required eight runs to win. Misbah brought back Saeed Ajmal. Faulkner erupted onto the second delivery. Flat batted and batted flat it hurtled between two legside boundary fielders for a four. One of the required four runs came the next ball with an under-edge sweep to short fine leg. Michael Clarke was now on strike.
Ball four, Clarke shimmied outside leg and met the ball on the half-volley. He drilled the drive straight in the direction of the long-off boundary, but with one obstacle in its way. Ajmal’s left wrist took the blow and intercepted the ball, knocking it to the ground, where the bowler pounced and stayed down until the physio appeared next to him to apply analgesic spray.
Ball five was the inside edge mishit that wins so many matches, but not this one as Clarke’s left ankle deflected the ball bobbling past his leg stump and through to Sarfraz Ahmed.
Clarke and Faulkner met mid-pitch, perhaps hoping to drift inconspicuously to each other’s station. Pakistani players, led by Misbah converged on Ajmal, who turned his back and waved away his teammates. Misbah, arms outstretched, face contorted, begged his bowler’s attention. Ajmal was full of quiet rebellion.
Clarke returned to the crease. He marked his guard, then stepped away, looked up into the ring of night sky framed by the MCG stands, inhaled and readied himself.
Ajmal stood thirty yards away, flexing his left wrist, bruised or worse by Clarke’s drive and flicking the ball with his bowling hand. The Pakistani fielders had retreated to their positions, shifted this way and that by their captain, but ignored, thought irrelevant by Ajmal.
Umpire Llong looked over his shoulder and mouthed ‘play’ to the bowler. Ajmal shuffled to the wicket. As he entered his delivery stride, Clarke stepped lightly across his stumps and his left foot began to stretch forward. Ajmal pitched his torso back, appearing to hesitate for a moment with his right hand lost to the batsmen’s view at the base of his spine. Lithe and loose his arm rotated upward, propelling the ball towards Clarke, who had lowered his body behind his front pad. The Australian’s bat swung from the off-side to fetch the ball heading for his off-stump. As the bat swept through its arc, the ball dipped. It pitched in line with Clarke’s intended point of contact. The bat’s true swing intercepted the trajectory of the ball’s travel, but the ball deviated left from the pitch, passing through to Sarfraz who parried the ball to the ground with his right glove.
Clarke, choosing to play a shot on one knee was left bowed at the moment of defeat. Ajmal raised his arms above his head, taking his turn to gaze at the Melbourne night sky. Sarfraz stood looking at the ball on the ground, two foot outside off-stump. Faulkner gesticulated, flexing his arm at Umpire Llong, who looked across at his colleague Dharmasena, seeking an answer. Llong moved his hand to his earpiece, where off-field assistance could be found, then lowered it again and carefully lifted the bails from the stumps. Clarke and Faulkner slumped. Misbah, in an echo of his bowler’s action seconds before, hesitated as he began to run to Ajmal, then pitched forwards to acclaim his bowler and banish doubt in Pakistan’s triumph.
Champions Trophy for a global game
The 2013 Champions Trophy has been a success. High quality cricket played by the world’s best players in front of fans of all eight of the participating nations. Even the soggy day of the final was redeemed by a dramatic match won by the more courageous team. This, we have read and heard – and you and I may have thought or said – is what the World Cup should be like.
And the whispers (actually, tweets) from those in the know is that the ICC may not liquidate the Champions Trophy after all. Something to be pleased about? A common-sense decision? Maybe, but maybe not.
The most appealing feature of this tournament was that it was played by eight well-matched sides, where the result of very nearly every match mattered. A four-yearly, or even biannual, repeat would be very welcome. But how likely is it that cricket will continue to have eight international teams so closely clustered in ability? History suggests not. For much of the last generation, there have been half-a-dozen or so teams of a fairly even standard and one other – Australia – way out ahead. Eight happened to be the perfect number for a short, sharp tournament in 2013, but I suspect, with the diverging (financial) fortunes of the cricketing nations, a competition of the same size in the future will have a few makeweights and so a loss in intensity.
The tournament was played in cricket grounds that hummed with spectators, rather than echoing to the shouts of the players, as has happened at other ICC events when the home nation is not in action. This is another aspect of the 2013 Champions Trophy that it would be highly desirable to replicate. But it is a product of Britain’s multi-cultural and densely located population, which other cricketing nations don’t offer. A top level sports tournament for international teams needs to be rotated around the major nations so home advantage isn’t monopolised, the teams are tested in differing environments and the opportunities to earn revenues for national associations are shared.
So, in terms of two of its most attractive features, the 2013 Champions Trophy may be better appreciated as a one-off, rather than the formula for a sure-fire, repeatable winner.
Other than the misplaced optimism that the Champions Trophy could provide the model for ICC tournaments, the other aspect of this discussion that struck me was the inconsistency with other, earlier comment on international cricket competitions.
Two years ago we heard and read – and you and I probably thought or said – that the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of associate members playing in the World Cup was unfair to those emerging cricket nations and would hinder their development into full members of the international cricket circuit. The critics’ consensus was that the ICC should keep its competitions open, not allow them to be closed-shops for the established nations.
And amongst the very many of us taking the side of Ireland, Afghanistan and other aspiring cricket nations, I’m sure some of us were complaining just a few weeks earlier that too many games in the group stages of the World Cup were one-sided. We want tight competition and we want encouragement to the weaker nations who cannot yet sustain that competition and so we want to keep international tournaments the preserve of the strongest. There are some critics and commentators who have stayed consistently on one side of this argument, but many have flip-flopped between the two positions. I know I have drifted.
For sensible cricket folk to take a series of such logically inconsistent positions suggests there is something else going on; a deeper uncertainty that we cannot resolve but allows us to advocate strongly heading north and then a short while later insist on having east to our left-hand side.
I speculate that the issue that pulls us strongly in varying directions is the game’s global ambition. Should cricket try, or is it even sensible to attempt, to expand its international playing base?
The ICC’s statement of strategic direction suggests an expansionist agenda, but with a clear acknowledgement of standards:
A bigger, better, global game targeting more players, more fans, more competitive teams.
Our long-term success will be judged on growth in participation and public interest and the competitiveness of teams participating in men’s and women’s international cricket.
Motivating that strategy may simply be the business commonplace that an enterprise not expanding is managing decline. Is there perhaps a moral dimension – a cricket crusade? In the ICC’s vision for success, it is aiming for a situation where, “cricket will captivate and inspire people of every age, gender, background and ability while building bridges between continents, countries and communities.”
It seems right to want to share our great sport with others, but let’s go no further than this expression of altruism. Because the next stop on this line is that cricket is a civilizing force for good. That’s the cricket of the racist British Empire, apartheid South Africa, caste-ridden India, aboriginal-oppressing Australia, civil war infested Asian Sub-Continent, etc.
Part of me thinks that cricket has enough to do tending its roots in its traditional soils, whether that’s fighting for its place in the leisure saturated industrialised countries or ensuring its popularity translates into more players and more consumers in the developing countries of cricket-playing Asia.
And then I spend my time consuming cricket works by writers and broadcasters in the USA and Czech Republic; I am moved by the story of the Afghan national team and I want Irish players to have the pride of playing for Ireland, not hopping across to England. These fans and players deserve top level cricket where they are, not merely rendered on their screens digitally.
Then back I swing again. New Zealand cricket cannot afford its players to have first class games acclimatizing ahead of a Test series in India. The West Indies and Sri Lanka shelve tests to accommodate ODIs which will earn more revenue. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have set up shop in a de facto second division. What sort of elite world of international cricket would we be welcoming Ireland, Afghanistan and the USA into?
I cannot decide what shape I want future international cricket tournaments to take. I do recognise, however, that the format selected needs to be consistent with the game’s global ambition.