As Shannon Gabriel struggled with his run up in the 2nd Test in Grenada, a commentator noted that he was starting his run-up from a different spot each delivery. On twitter, I saw an exchange that concluded that Gabriel’s imprecision wouldn’t be tolerated in US sport.
I thought I had come across the archetypal example of American sport’s attention to detail in Ed Palubinskas, who featured in Planet Money’s episode The Free Throw Experiment – about the introduction of skill-based games to US casinos. Palubinskas claimed a free throw (1) conversion percentage of 99.3%. More credibly, and validated elsewhere, Palubinskas coached Shaquille O’Neal at the LA Lakers and in the course of one season helped lift ‘Shaq’s’ free throw percentage from 39% to 68%. Despite being “an absolute ringer” – a term I didn’t know Americans used – Palubinskas didn’t win the casino free-throw contest.
A few minutes of research revealed something notable and unexpected about free throw percentages. For the last 50 years, the conversion rate in professional basketball has remained close to 75%. In that same period, the conversion rate of shots in open play (field goals) has increased from 34% to 46%. For some reason, one that doesn’t relate to any notion of balance between teams as the shot is uncontested, professional basketball players are not getting any better at this simplest endeavour.
Free throws should mean free points. But, perhaps seduced by more complex tactics and skills of other areas of the game, US basketball coaches seem to have settled for a three-quarters return from the free throw.
Shannon Gabriel bowled 29 overs in the 2nd Test. Six no balls gave him a 96.66% front foot precision rate. It’s not Palubinskasian, but neither is it a departure from the disciplines of modern society. Avoiding no balls, shooting free throws – are they the uninteresting details of sport that if given too much focus by coaches would leave too little time for the skills and tactics that win matches?
Note 1: A free throw is an unopposed shot, like a penalty in football, awarded against a team responsible for a foul. The throw is taken from a line just under 5m from the basket.
Struggling to understand the European economic crisis and where it may lead, I have found my most trusted source is in America: the NPR programme, Planet Money. Recently, the show sought an explanation for the slow-down in the US housing market in psychology. The first link to cricket is that the psychological insight comes from a coin toss. But instead of batting first or bowling being at stake, it was $6 win for heads and $1 lose for tails. All comers took that deal. But, apparently, when the stake was changed to $6 win for heads and $4 lose for tails, lots of people turned down the bet.
At this point, you can put the finding down to the parlous state of numeracy in the US population or persevere with the promise of a deep psychological truth being revealed.
Sticking with it, the following insight was offered: “our brains feel losses and gains unevenly: Losing feels worse than winning feels good.” Cricket made its second entry – in my mind, not the broadcast.
One of the fixtures of Test cricket media coverage is that the commentators, writers and analysts want to see, argue for and even defy a captain to make a declaration 30 minutes, or an hour before he does call his batsmen in. The people most vocal in calling for an enterprising
declaration are very often those who, one cricketing generation previously, were carefully accumulating runs to put the game beyond the opposition before calling time on their own innings.
Empirical psychology gets criticised for carrying out artificial experiments, often with university students, and developing theories of underlying human behaviour based upon the results. So, I don’t want to fall into the same trap. A stranger asking you to have a bet on a coin toss where you don’t stand to win enough to buy a round of drinks is in no way equivalent to being required to set the terms for the denoument of an international sporting event, followed by millions of devoted fans and whose outcome could determine your fate at the highest level of the game. Except that phrase, losing feels worse than winning feels good seems to ring true for both.
At its simplest the decision to declare an innings (and I’m really thinking of the third innings of a match) in a Test is a balance between time needed to take the ten wickets for the victory and runs the opposition need to score to inflict a defeat. But it’s rarely a simple calculation. The other factors that will usually influence a captain are: the state of the series – are they level, ahead, behind, playing the first test, last test; fitness and freshness of his bowling attack; pitch condition and prognosis; weather forecast. There are well known occasions when the closeness of one of the not out batsmen to a milestone plays a part in the captain’s thinking. And everyone likes to have modern sports’ most ubiquitous virtue on their side: momentum – so much better to end with a flurry of boundaries than a middle-order collapse.
I have set myself the task of reviewing a sample of declaration decisions in Test matches to see if there is support for the idea that the brain feels losses and gains unevenly. In scientific tradition, I will begin with a hypothesis: captains are five times as likely to delay a declaration and end up with a draw than have any target they set chased down by the opposition. I’ll come up with a framework so there is some consistency in how a declaration is assessed based on the game position and balance of bat and ball at the time it was made and I’ll also record the other factors likely to have influenced the captain and any evidence of media comment on the timing of the declaration. I’ll report back in a few weeks. In the meantime, let me know of any matches you think I should review and look out for tweets as I conduct the research. Look out also for a change in my twitter name to Declaration Game – time for some brand reinforcement.