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.
One day wonder Down Under
The Test series, the Ashes no less, slid away like a fall down a mountainside in a dream. Moments of stability, then another slip, painful scrapes, bruising, but when the bottom came, we were on the whole intact.
When, a little dazed, English minds turned to the one day series, first thoughts were of Moeen even more exposed and Woakes, blinking, but never scowling or swearing, getting carted around the park. Those were the instant notions I had, anyway. But, then, quickly they were chased away by something more upbeat and exciting. Not foresight of Roy’s fast starts, Buttler’s sprint finishes, Wood’s slippery speed or even Rashid’s googly. But the anticipation of an event with associations of its own. Exotic and intense, cricket played on its margins of performance and under lights.
The source of this thrill felt for limited overs, day-night cricket in Australia, pre-dates Bayliss’s supercharging of the England team, survives the years of plodding competence overcome by Australian boldness, precedes even England’s best team in the world World Cup runners-up of the late 1980s. It springs from the last minute Larry (Kerry?), almost improvised tour of 1979/80.
Australia celebrated peace breaking out between Packer and its cricket board by inviting over their common enemy. England agreed to come and perform as the object of ritual sacrifice before Australia’s united and very strongest team, as long as the Ashes weren’t at stake. There was more wrangling over format with the hosts insisting on Packer’s innovations and the visitors trying to hang onto their dignity, just as they had not given up the urn.
The limited overs internationals fell between and after the Test series that Australia won (without regaining the Ashes). England picked teams for both formats from a single tour party. 38 year old Boycott, naturally, stood aside from the short form games. Until, that was, England found themselves lacking fit batsmen. Boycott, who had made 50 from around 30 overs in the World Cup Final at Lord’s the year before was brought in to open the batting. I suspect he took more pleasure in confounding expectations than he did in his attacking innings of 80-odd, lofting down the ground the bowlers he might preferred to have dead-batted.
It felt that England, despite their recent form as World Cup finalists, were entering a new arena. Floodlit cricket at home meant novelty bashes held on damp nights on a carpet pitch laid over the half-way line at Stamford Bridge. In Australia, light flooded its vast cricket grounds, under spectacular twilight skies. Tens of thousands of passionate, partying Australians, watched from the dark fringes of the ground. The cricket was physical, demanding and unsettling. England, under grey-haired Brearley could get swept away. Their insistence on wearing white marked their naivety and discomfort.
But a single incident showed that England could raise themselves to compete, could be inspired by the novel challenge, not implode sulkily. It was more stunning and memorable even than Boycott lashing Lillee back over his head.
The Australian batsman flashed hard, lifting the ball over the infield. The ball was over the infield, when one of those infielders arched up and backwards, taking the shape of a high-jumper stretching hand first, followed by arm, head and back over the bar. Derek Randall emulated Dick Fosbury’s technique, and surpassed him by catching the ball mid-leap.
That single reflex action showed that England had the vitality and panache to play a full part in the heightened atmosphere of day-night cricket. At home, Randall’s catch was talked about all day before the footage could finally be seen.. on the evening news.
I carry with me the thrill of seeing Randall hurling himself backwards to grasp the ball. It remains dormant until, every four years or so, I think about England taking on Australia in a one-day series, under lights. The whites have gone, as have (usually) the Ashes by then. One day cricket has been normalised. It has been tarted up with rule changes to save the format from itself. End of tour series are derided. Individual matches and performances blend into insignificance. Yet, when this team is playing in a particular country it creates in me an excitement that I can trace back to that one instant.
From the book
England played Australia and the West Indies in a twelve match, three-sided series running from late November until the end of January. Two of the three Test matches between England and Australia fell during the one-day series, the last after the one-day, best of three game finals. West Indies defeated England 2-0 in the finals.
The one-day series began at Sydney on 27 November 1979, where Australia and West Indies contested the first ever ‘official’ ODI under floodlights. The following night, England played the West Indies. Randall’s catch came late in the game. Andy Roberts (not an Australian!) chipped the ball into the leg-side, where Randall launched himself to the ball. England won by two runs, placing all ten fielders (including wicketkeeper Bairstow) on the boundary for the final ball defending three.
England played in their Test match whites. Australia and West Indies wore stylised white outfits, with coloured piping and shoulder panels as well as coloured pads.
Geoffrey Boycott (39) was not selected for England’s first match, but replaced Geoff Miller for the second game, with Brearley dropping to seven in the batting order. Boycott scored 68 (85 balls) in a successful chase of 208. Boycott finished second top scorer in the tournament despite only playing six of a possible nine games with 425 runs (avge: 85), with one century and four 50s. His strike rate (69/100 balls) was higher than that of Gordon Greenidge, Greg Chappell, Alvin Kallicharan and Graham Gooch, amongst others.
Quick single: 700 runs in the day
700 runs in the day
McCullum: coiled and ready to spring, but again not quite launching. Receiving more plaudits from a local crowd than anyone visiting here since a young Brian Lara. Admired for what he’s done for New Zealand and now drawing out of England.
Guptill: drumming everything over-pitched back past the bowler. The same clean, straight swing lifting the ball aimed at his pads high over the legside.
Williamson: Speed of hands and control of angle produce crisp, neat shots around the wicket. Working the scoreboard harder than he seems to work himself. No hint of a preference of where to score, until Stokes over-pitches and an off-drive of perfect shape and proportion, and just a little flourish, sends the ball skittering away. Three times.
Taylor: beginning, I sense, to revel in the shade of his teammates’ growing reputations. Feeding singles to keep Williamson stretching England all around the ground. The stoop and bottom hand controlled drive convinces me there’s a resemblance to a player I never saw bat: Cowdrey.
Elliott: out of touch, dot balls, a thrashed six and a few singles, putting first 400, then 350 out of reach. Transferring pressure to Williamson, who finally plays and pays for a couple of inelegant shots. Elliott stays put and at last applying muscle and a good eye kicks the innings back on track.
Santner: edging and bunting the ball as the innings comes towards its close would serve his team best back in the shed. Rashid returns and bowls a ball from the front of his hand to the left-handed Santner who detonates with the first of five middled shots in the over. Huge, flat-batted sixes over the long leg-side boundary, bring 350 back into view.
Roy: ten balls and still on nought. I can’t look to see what it’s doing to the required run rate. Roy decides it’s time to advance and crunches a four and lofts a six. The tailwind from Hales, pulls him smoothly through the powerplay. Roy’s tactic is to charge. Henry drops it short and Roy batters it through mid-wicket, like you know who, but without kicking up his right foot behind him. Another skip forward next ball and Roy buries it in Williamson, just 20 metres away. Fortunately, given the damage it would have caused, finding his hands.
Hales: unlike his partner, he hangs back in the crease, pulling and hooking over and past the fielders behind square. The culmination of his powerplay assault is ball lifted from his pads with a full swing from the shoulders that soars into the deep midwicket stand.
Root: just like Wiliamson earlier in the day, he takes runs with ease wherever they come, at a pace that suits him. Scorching straight drives and a cover drive, with right knee on the turf, adorn deflections to third man, and straighter balls punched out of reach of the legside fielders. There are cuts that send the ball screaming square and glances too fine for the boundary rider to reach. Not a single shot played that I’d caution a young cricketer not to imitate.
Morgan: still, even serene, at the crease. UnMorgan like as the bowler approaches and in his run-scoring too. Barely a paddle or reverse. Straight driving with high elbow and strong top hand. Backfoot defence equally orthodox. McCullum leaves long-off empty for almost the whole of Morgan’s innings. He saves a fielder neck ache as Morgan lofts sixes over that vacant channel. Before the half-way point, in partnership with Root, Morgan brings the required rate below one run per ball, and that’s the rate of progress for a few overs. But Morgan won’t win it the risk-free way and makes room to pan the ball off-side. When he returns to hitting high and straight, Henry claws at his own head after a full delivery is driven in a shallow parabola and into the long-off stands. A few balls later and a towering hit to our stand at mid-wicket takes Morgan beyond 100.
700 runs in the day
Age 11, at the 1979 Prudential World Cup Final
My Dad helped me find my seat in the Compton Upper, hung around until play was about to start, had a word with the steward and said, “See you at lunchtime”. I sat alone to watch the West Indies bat first against England. Through some circumstance, that neither of us can now remember, Dad had two tickets for the World Cup Final, in different parts of Lord’s.
Being alone didn’t particularly bother me, as I sat hunched watching the play in a bubble of concentration. I recorded each delivery on a lined A4 sheet, each over a new row. The innings progressing vertically down the sheet, with special notations for appeals, bouncers and extras. That summer, captivated by Bill Frindall’s published scorecards of the 1978/79 Ashes series, I had progressed from scorebook to scoring system.
“We want the West Indies to win the toss and bat,” Dad had explained on the drive into London. He had come to watch the world’s best cricket team and didn’t want to be shortchanged by England batting first and setting a low total. England had made only 165 and 221 batting first in their final group match and semi-final. I, despite the objectivity of my scoring obsession, wanted England to win, unlikely as I understood that to be. Dad had his way: Greenidge and Haynes opened the batting. But England, thrillingly, provided an early highlight as the West Indies openers, soon to become famous for their running between the wickets, took on England’s scruffy, slouching square leg, Randall, who threw down the stumps.
Of Richards’ century, I have no distinct memory, other than that his presence in the middle was double-edged. While he stayed, England’s victory chances diminished; if he were to fall, particularly on a morning when the rest of the West Indies top-order were dismissed cheaply, I wouldn’t see the game of cricket that my Dad said we had come to view. On that day, Richards was out-batted by Collis King. I do remember King swinging England’s fifth bowler (Boycott-Gooch-Larkins) high to the legside. Sixes, even in limited overs matches, were rare – a sudden instinctive reaction of the batsman, not the practiced tactical objective of the current game.
I know, at some point late in the innings, I blurted out, “Old can’t bowl. He’s finished his overs.” My neighbour pointed to the numbers at the foot of the Tavern scoreboard which demonstrated that Brearley’s management of his bowlers was more reliable than my scoring system.
As the West Indies accelerated at the end of their innings, a top edge headed high towards the Tavern. Brearley, with short, fast steps and grey-hair tipped backwards, pursued the ball down the slope like an uncle chasing a frisbee at a family picnic. He took the running catch giving me my first live example of a cricket incident that is so much more satisfying viewed from the stands than on TV. The eye can assimilate the trajectory of the ball and the fielder’s burst of motion much better than a single camera.
England’s openers, Boycott and Brearley started slowly, before continuing at the same pace. More amble than run chase. I learnt a new word during their partnership. Sitting on the row behind me was a local with an American acquaintance. Boycott and Bearley are now “expendable” the local explained, willing some aggression from England’s openers, bent on building a platform. I was uncomfortable that the American was getting his first taste of cricket at the World Cup Final. Shouldn’t he have to serve an apprenticeship: the fifth day of a drawn Test? Sunday afternoon viewing of a televised John Player League fixture, interrupted by athletics from Crystal Palace?
At some point during the afternoon, my Dad found a seat nearby. Several rows back, a group of West Indies supporters, confident at the match’s outcome, were laughing and trading quips. As England’s wickets started to fall, their target still distant, the exchanges behind us became more passionate. “One of them has put a bet on Holding taking five wickets,” my Dad whispered. But it was not Holding, but Joel Garner’s yorkers, released above the Pavilion sightscreen, that England’s middle order could not repel, let alone attack and lift the scoring rate. The long, steady opening partnership had come with the promise of a flourish from England’s long batting order, but only produced an anti-climax.
No one was more vocal in their disappointment at the outcome than the man who had backed Michael Holding. While we followed the celebrating West Indies fans out of the stand towards the outfield, he continued to chunter, more aggrieved than a fan of the reigning World Champions should be. And I, at 11 a witness to a World Cup Final, fully recorded in my scoring ledger, was the more content.
Ian Bell: Breaking records by stealth
When Ian Bell became England’s all time leading run scorer in ODIs, while scoring a century against Australia in Hobart, I imagined cricket followers performing a sport-wide double-take. “He’s what? Bell? Is that right?” before making a mental note to themselves to check on statsguru when they got home and found a quiet moment with a computer.
The only Bell innings in an ODI that I have any sort of memory of (barring those in the current series) was at Southampton and it involved lots of lofted drives. I don’t follow ODI cricket with the forensic attention I pay to Test matches, but I would expect England’s leading scorer in the format to have made a stronger imprint on my memory. How then did Bell come to break this record and, other than the quantum of runs, how does his ODI record compare?
Bell’s first ODI was played in Harare in November 2004 – three months after his Test debut. He opened the batting with Vikram Solanki and scored 75 (115 balls) in a successful chase of 196. His most recent match, at Perth, was his 155th. Amongst batsmen, Bell is the third most capped English player – behind Paul Collingwood (197) and Alec Stewart (170). Quantity of cricket is clearly a large part of the answer to the question ‘how did Bell break this record?’ But my instinct is that Bell has not been an ODI regular over the last ten years.
Since his debut, Bell has played fewer than two-thirds of the 234 ODIs played by England. He has had two lengthy periods out of the team – Feb-Dec 2005 (16 matches) and Nov 2008 – July 2010 (33 matches) – as well as numerous ins and outs typical of a fringe player or of a Test certainty being rested between five day series. His longest continuous run of appearances is 35, from July 2007 to Nov 2008.
Bell’s runs have come more prolifically at home, when opening, and in the match of his recall (or call up) to the team.
Bell’s first ODI century came in his 48th appearance. There have only been three more, but Bell has recorded the most scores of 50+ in ODIs for England: 36.
Two years ago I wrote about Bell, the Test batsman.
I have reconciled myself to Bell as a very good international batsman… he has reached the plateau of his level of accomplishment… I don’t expect him to dominate a major series or change the flow of too many contests… Bell is really very good and that is good enough.
Since then Bell distinguished himself as the outstanding batsman of the 2013 Ashes, recording three tons. It was a peak above the plateau, to which he seems to have returned. And as a Test batsman, Bell has always had one or other of Strauss, Cook or Pietersen as his senior. He is now the senior ODI batsman, yet I stand by my appreciation of his contribution from that earlier piece. He has rarely been dominant in ODIs. Of the top 30 ODI series run aggregates by England batsmen, Bell appears once, in eighth place – scoring 422 runs in a seven match series against India in 2007.
It might be helpful to place Bell amongst his peers. Of the 22 England batsmen with over 2000 ODI runs, Bell has the seventh highest batting average and eighth swiftest scoring rate. The players whose record Bell’s most closely resembles are Allan Lamb and Paul Collingwood, two of England’s most respected short-form batsmen.
In the ten year span of Bell’s international ODI career, 28 other players have scored 4,000 runs or more. Bell is in 15th place and has the third highest aggregate of those averaging under 40. Only two batsmen in this group have scored fewer hundreds than Bell.
The scatter diagram of batting averages and scoring rates shows Bell is in the lower half of the range for both measures. Graeme Smith and Mahela Jayawardene are the batsmen closest to Bell on the chart.
A number of factors have helped propel Bell to this record. He has stayed fit, physically and mentally, over ten grueling years of international cricket. He has maintained good relations with the England team management and, as pointed out to me by @ballsrightareas, avoided the sometimes career-shortening office of captain.
The gap at the top of the England batting order created by Marcus Trescothick’s exit from international cricket in 2006 has given Bell more opportunities than he would have had. Kevin Pietersen’s and Jonathon Trott’s absences have also created space for Bell. The curtailing of Trescothick’s and Pietersen’s careers prevented those two players, more suited than Bell to short-form cricket, setting a more stretching total runs record for England.
In this period, England’s selection policies have not been consistent. Bell may have suffered some omissions because of this lack of clarity about what the best team is. I suspect that is balanced by some of his recalls being down to the same inconstancy of selection.
On reflection, I don’t feel ignorant to have been taken by surprise by Bell’s recent achievement. He’s played a lot of matches, but many fewer than a leading exponent of this form of cricket would have done. He has a good ODI record, certainly by England standards, but not a great one. I will be surprised again if Bell’s future performances force me to alter that view.
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.
Cricket book choice
There’s bound to be a few folk who, receiving or giving a gift this Christmas, are surprised to discover that Lionel Shriver’s “We should talk about Kevin” has nothing to do with the ECB and KP. It’s a few years since I read the book, but it made a very strong impression on me and so I am sure there isn’t a single mention of cricket.
That’s not the case with another American novelist’s most recent publication: Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch. Cricket, the sport, not the insect, gets mentioned twice during the long section set in the Las Vegas suburbs. Theo’s Dad, a shiftless sports gambler, watches it on ESPN (p255). Boris, as evidence of his precocious worldliness, has played the game (p273). Impressed? Not by Ms Tartt’s cultural jackdawism, I mean – but by my ability to drill unerringly into an 800 page tome and extract two isolated mentions of cricket. You see, I’m using it to claim authority in the matter of spotting cricket in books. Pickwick Papers, Netherland, we all know about. But did you know about these?
The Long Tail
Chris Anderson, digital marketing guru and distant relative of the Burnley Lara, has written one of the most distinctive books about English Test cricket in the 1990s. You’ll read elsewhere about the struggles between captains and coaches, the years without a major series win. Anderson’s focus is on the selection and repercussions of fielding an 8, 9, 10, jack comprising solely rabbits. Tufnell, Malcolm, Fraser, Mullally, Ilott, Such are the hapless heroes. Layers of protective clothing, hours in the nets but Walsh, Ambrose, McDermott, McGrath, Cairns, Waqar and Wasim made made short order of England’s long tail.
One of the surprises of recent literary history has been the popular success of Peter Carey’s mixture of Australian villains and anti-heroes. In this less well-known piece, Carey turns on the captain who led England to a first Ashes victory downunder in 16 years, while also conceding a miserly 1.9 runs per over: Raymond Illingworth. It’s a revenge novel, whose heroes are the batsmen who did manage to give Illingworth a bit of long handle. It proceeds episodically, with scenes tending to be short, or very short, as Illy tended to take himself off whenever he took a bit of a whacking. One for fans of 1970s John Player Sunday League cricket.
25 June 1983, close to midnight in India, Mohinder Amanath traps Michael Holding LBW at Lord’s and India win their first World Cup. Rushdie uses this seminal moment in Indian modern history to weave a tale based upon the lives of children born at the precise moment of India’s victory. 25 years later, now adults, the fate of these special Indians draws them to Mumbai. Their paths cross at an event that is seen as the inevitable culmination of the national and cultural forces set loose by that evening in London. The cheerleader, the India Cements junior executive, the illegal bookie and the wristy middle-order batsman vie for prominence and the right to be the icon of 21st Century India at the first IPL final.
Bradbury’s fictionalised account of the Ashes series of 1934 is told from the perspective of scorer, Guy Montag. On the first day of the fifth Test, the dizzying speed of Bradman’s scoring and the heat of the day begin to effect Montag. He starts to hallucinate about a dystopian future for cricket: reduced to digital pulses and three hour matches. Montag works himself into such a frenzy that when Bradman is finally dismissed after adding 451 in just five hours with Ponsford, the scorebook erupts in flames.
For some critics, a clumsy device, for others an original narrative structure – David Nicholls tells the story of one day international cricket, year-by-year focusing on a single date: 5 January. On that date the first ever ODI took place in 1971 at the MCG. The book examines the shifting relationship of the brash youngster with its more mature counterpart – sometimes antagonists, other times partners – almost always involving India and Sri Lanka. It’s hard to conclude other than that it offers an exciting beginning and end, but falls flat in the middle.
Readers might want to identify other books where cricket has, unanticipated, made an appearance.
Catches rhymes with matches
The outfield at Folkestone was bone hard and sun seared. Hot and weary we made our way across it to the pavilion. Tea, the innings break and shade were all welcome. As our fielders funnelled together over the last 20 metres, a teammate spoke at me, over my shoulder: “Catches win matches.”
It was an accusation, not acclaim. Early on I had dropped the opener at second slip. But that had been a good effort. Four runs saved. An over or three later, the same batsman had got a leading edge, sending the ball spiralling up and in my general direction at point. I shuttled to my left, backwards, turned, stretched and got the barest scrape of the fingers of one hand on the ball. I thumped the ground, picked up the ball and flung it to the keeper. A teammate pointed at the sun and nodded. Yes, the sun had got in my eyes, as it inevitably would at some point when you do a pirouette with head tilted skywards on a clear day. The batsman went on to score 80, playing barely another false shot and providing the backbone of the Folkestone 2nd XI total.
The exertions of fielding and bowling had wilted us. We never challenged the total, but took the game deep before losing. I don’t remember my innings, but it must have been brief. Ready for an early night, I was tied to my lift and eventually made it back to London at 11pm.
Contributing little; taking no pleasure in the company of my team; and seeing a whole Saturday pass without reward; that day, 19 years ago, sealed my disenchantment with regular club cricket. I played the last couple of league matches of the season and didn’t return.
Even now, if I hear the phrase, ‘catches win matches’, it triggers uncomfortable associations with that Kent League fixture. Putting aside the discomfort, however, the phrase intrigues me. It sits at the centre of the great unresolved quandary of cricket selection: how does a player’s fielding ability balance against his or her batting and bowling contribution?
An answer (not necessarily ‘the’ answer) is provided in a piece of research, ‘Do catches win matches?’ (1) carried out by Seamus Hogan, economist at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Hogan’s work looks at one day internationals and analysed every opportunity for a fielder to make a dismissal in 122 matches, using Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentary. Fielders are scored for their performance. A strong fielder is defined as one with a score one standard deviation above the average. Their contribution is compared to that of the strong batsmen and bowlers – each defined as performing one standard deviation above their respective discipline’s average. The superior fielder is found to contribute less than two runs per innings, well below the equivalent bowler (six) and batsman (eight).
After identifying some caveats to the findings, Hogan concludes:
the “catches win matches” cliche should be put to bed.
Then in response to a comment to his piece, Hogan placed the cliche in its context:
it would also be true that “groundsmen win matches”, “tosses win matches”, “boundaries win matches”, “singles win matches”, etc. I do think there is something about a brilliant catch or a horrible drop that sticks in the mind more than any single cover drive or or even a seaming jaffa that earns an LBW, leading to the importance of catches being overstated in people’s intuition.
And catches happens to rhyme with matches.
Nearly two decades on and 300 miles north-west and I am back in club cricket. Drawn into the world of club administration, I find the work continues after the playing season has finished.
I attended a local club forum last week. The ECB’s club cricket survey results were the headline item. The presenter, from the county cricket board, noted that participation rates stayed constant for players at all ages between 26 and 56. It was in the ten years up to the mid-20s that saw a steady decline as youngsters left cricket. The presenter regretted that the full results of the survey were not yet available, but he was anxious to see the feedback from this crucial age group. Match duration, start time, travel distance, pitch quality, competitiveness of fixtures, umpire reliability and that malleable notion, the spirit of the game, were all independent variables that could be evaluated and changes made to accommodate the game’s younger players.
The discussion took me back to my withdrawal from the game, that hot day in Folkestone, the ball looping out of my reach, the teammate pointing the finger of blame at me and the late return home after a day wholly wasted.
Just as the result of a cricket match cannot be distilled into something as simple as which team takes its catches, the players’ survey results won’t be able to single out just one step that will keep more young men in the game. But there is a factor, in the hands of the players rather than the administrators, that my experience suggests does determine whether members return year after year. It’s not the format of the game, the competition, where or how it is played. The key ingredient is that teammates enjoy each others’ company.
Footnote 1: Do Catches win Matches (UPDATED) was published by Seamus Hogan on the Offsetting Behaviour website on January 31, 2013. http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.co.nz/2013/01/do-catches-win-matches.html
In at first drop: batting at 3 in ODIs
Batting order or batting situation? I believe cricket pays far too much attention to the former and too little to the latter in deciding whose turn it is to bat. I’ve described it before as a personal hobby-horse.
The number three slot in one day international cricket provides a useful testing ground. It’s the only batsman in the order who faces the uncertainty of starting against the second ball of the innings, or the 300th. And in England, there is a debate of passion and parody about Jonathon Trott’s value to the team at number 3.
With the Champions Trophy upon us, I start with a review of which batsmen have the best records at 3 in the last two years of ODI cricket – i.e. since the last World Cup. Three regulars at number three head the table. Sangakkara is the most prolific, with Kohli and Trott clear of a following pack.
The next chart adds the dimension of scoring rate, plotting it against the batting average for the top number three batsmen.
Kohli’s record is very impressive as only one of only three batsman with a strike rate over 80 and the highest batting average. Trott is one of the slower scorers, but not by a significant margin. If he quickened to the median rate (76 runs per 100 balls), in an innings of average duration (51 deliveries) Trott would only score an additional two runs. If he matched Kohli’s pace – the ICC’s ODI player of the year in 2012 – he would score an additional six runs in an average innings.
The charge against Trott is that his game isn’t versatile enough. We can get an insight into the situations a number three faces at the outset of an innings by looking at opening partnership totals and durations in matches since the last World Cup.
The average opening stand is 33, and median score at the fall of the first wicket 19. 31% of opening stands end before the total reaches double figures. Over three-fifths are finished before 30 is on the board. The number three has plenty of opportunity to build an innings and shape his team’s total.
The number three comes to the wicket in the first five overs in 55% of innings and has begun batting before the end of the initial ten over power-play in more than three-quarters of instances. In the majority of situations, therefore, there is an advantage in having the solidity of a conventional top-order player batting at number three.
Looking at average opening partnership duration by team in this period, there is a significant variance (50%) between England at one extreme (51 deliveries) and India (34 deliveries), the lowest of the major nations. Perhaps this is where some of the criticism of Trott gains a little traction: despite beginning his innings after his team has had relatively good starts, his run rate remains on the low side.
Is there any evidence that ODI sides are sticking inflexibly to their batting order – at least in terms of the number three? To test this notion, I’ve looked at the 21 instances of the first wicket falling after more than 120 deliveries have been bowled and compared who batted at three in that match with the order in the other matches in that series.
In 12 of the innings, the number three was unchanged compared to other games in series. Brendon McCullum, Sangakkara, DM Bravo, Shane Watson and Trott were amongst the batsmen retained at three even when the innings was well under way when the first wicket fell. Pakistan appeared to be the team most willing to shuffle their order according to circumstance, relegating Younis Khan and Azhar Ali behind the likes of Umar Akmal, Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi. New Zealand also used Jacob Oram to add some vim to a couple of solid starts. Of the five longest opening partnerships, three saw promoted number threes, with Trott once being supplanted by Eoin Morgan.
In conclusion, I recognise that my perception of inflexibly applied batting orders, in the case of number three, is not well supported by the evidence. Teams do shuffle the stodgier ‘threes’ when the opportunity arises. However, with opening partnerships rarely providing the innings with a solid base, the continued presence at number three of players such as Trott is justified.
Cricket, a great summer of sport and an unlikely saviour?
It has been a great summer of British sport. The lists of achievements and highlights being drawn up and circulated do not feature cricket. That’s not just because of the 140 character limit of twitter. It is a frank assessment of the contribution of Britain’s national summer sport to this ‘once in a lifetime’ season.
Cricket was always going to find 2012 a difficult summer to command attention. A home Olympics has pulling power like nothing else. Euro 2012, although lacking the breathless and reason-less fervour for the England team of most recent tournaments, was guaranteed dedicated and comprehensive coverage on terrestrial television. Less predictable, but always a possibility, was that tennis would have a British Wimbledon finalist and at the end of the summer a Grand Slam Champion. Many fewer people would have anticipated, than the number who enjoyed, a British winner of the Tour de France.
And then there was the weather. The Met Office provides a pithy review of the summer’s weather – the wettest since 1912 and second dullest on record. Players shuttled on and off the field regularly and had whole days confined to the dressing room: three days of the 3rd Test v West Indies at Edgbaston; three of 13 ODIs washed out – with two more decided on Duckworth-Lewis calculations.
External factors meant English cricket would struggle in its market this year. But what about its own contribution to its plight. Cricket, perhaps any sport, thrives as a spectacle in any of the following circumstances: when the host team is successful, the quality of play is high, there are charismatic participants, competition is tight, the contest has relevance.
The English international cricketing summer fell short of providing that mix, in avoidable ways:
- The timing of England’s early summer series meant their opponents could not field their strongest Test team because players had contracts to play elsewhere. Those stars arrived for the short-form series and England’s marquee player stepped aside.
- In the mid-summer, the traditional foe were flown in, out-of-season for a non-traditional contest clinging to the context of the 140 year rivalry.
- At the end of the summer, England’s most anticipated rivals came for a three test series before moving hastily into an ODI match-up, at a time when minds were already turning to the World T20. So they rested three of their stars, a move followed by England who had already contrived to play the third test without their biggest name.
Across 23 international fixtures, including 17 limited overs matches, there wasn’t a single tight finish.
The weakness of the on-field narratives from this summer is shown in the stories that cricket obsessed with: the dropping a top player from a test match to preserve his fitness for ODI cricket; the retention, or not, of the status as number 1 ranked team, based upon a statistical construct; whether a player who has created (or been the victim of) dressing room divisions would or should be allowed to play for England again.
Despite all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bean-counters announce that this was the most remunerative non-Ashes season. English international cricket seems to have a very solid customer-base. More days of Test, ODI and T20 cricket could have been scheduled and have had tickets in high demand. That customer-base may be solid, but it is narrow. I estimate that the 48 days of international cricket were attended by around the same number of people that turn up for two weeks-worth of premier league football.
I went to 2.5 days of Test cricket, none of which was particularly memorable. I will be back next year and so will most of those who bought tickets this year. But what about five years time? Not many kids will be nagging their parents to take them to watch cricket because of what they saw last summer, but I bet tickets for Wimbledon and top athletics meetings have become a good deal more difficult to obtain.
Cricket lost market share in 2012. There appears to be no will to address the international schedule – the avoidable part of this summer’s problems. But here’s a thought. The UK TV rights for the Indian Premier League are only under contract until 2014. What might happen if Sky Sports were to obtain those rights from 2015? Would it want to broadcast two events that overlapped and depleted each other? Would Sky persuade the ECB to delay the start of the international season until June to prevent a clash? Would that free the best players to participate in international cricket during the English summer and resolve current and looming disputes between the ECB and England’s most sought after players?