Friday, 27 March 2015

Column 7, 2015 – Bowling in a rigged game

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 110, Friday March 27, 2015.
[Full text below]

One of the game’s favourite clichés has recently been pulled from the dusty recesses of the pavilion to have the cobwebs brushed off it once again. It remains as true today as it ever was: the balance between bat and ball.

The recurring critique this month has been that the ODI playing conditions have tipped too far in favour of the bat. The three usual suspects hauled up to face the punditry committee are: “bats these days”; the rule change allowing only four fielders outside the circle; and a new ball from both ends.

The ongoing “bats these days” brouhaha deserves a column of its own, so let’s come back to that later. The other two are hard to argue with.

The four-men-out experiment has made the whole concept of defence, especially at the death, almost redundant. So much so, that even the ICC may have noticed, and there’s a reasonable chance we’ll see it revert back to five after the World Cup.

I’d love to see a return to the solitary ball, and with it the potential for fun stuff like sharp spin and reverse swing, but as it’s apparently beyond the wit of man to make a white ball that stays white for 50 overs, we’re probably stuck with two.

So as it stands the balance does seem skewed. All the more remarkable then, that despite the game being rigged against them, the cream of the world’s fast bowlers have put on quite a show.

Two thirds of Australia’s Mitchell triumvirate, Marsh and Johnson, have been quiet, but Starc has been excellent, as fine an exponent as you’ll see of the blisteringly fast late swinging yorker. New Zealand’s new ball (each) pair of Southee and Boult have also been exceptional. But for me it was two subcontinental quicks who have so far provided the best edge-of-the-seat moments.

The top “Hello, here comes the upset!” contender came courtesy of the tournament’s surprise package, the 90 mph Bangladeshi quick with cheekbones you could open letters with, Rubel Hossain. Fresh from gleefully sealing England’s early fate, when he tempted Kholi into a waft outside off-stump in the quarter-final against India, those Douglas Fairbanks matinee idol features were transformed by a primal war cry and, just for a moment, it all looked possible.

There was one spell though, that will outlive the tournament, just as the Donald vs Atherton encounter at Lord’s lives on in the memory, long after the series it was part of has faded. The brutal six over assault from Wahib Riaz in Pakistan’s quarter-final against Australia rendered such trifles as two new balls and four-men-out utterly irrelevant. The working-over he gave Watson was so comprehensive, so masterful, delivered with such tightly reined ferocity, that for those 20 minutes, the balance did indeed look skewed – the other way.

But then Rahat Ali shelled the hard-won top edge, the moment passed, the spell was broken, and the bat was back on top.

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Friday, 20 March 2015

Column 6, 2015 – The Triangle of Adequacy™

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 109, Friday March 20, 2015.
[Full text below]

After nets last week, over the couple of post-exercise pints we consider to be integral to ‘winter training’, Clive and I alighted on a surprisingly robust theory.

There is something about sitting in a fire-warmed winter pub in a slightly sweaty tracksuit that is conducive to such philosophical breakthroughs. Or maybe it’s just us.

It stemmed from how tricky it is to get people to come to winter nets. Whatever you organise – midweek, weekend, early, late, bowling machines or regular queue-up-and-bowl – the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that fewer people will turn up than you’d hoped.

This led us to lament gloomily how generally unfair it is that some people don’t even need to bother practicing to be any good.

Now, this is a well worn path. Commonwealth table tennis champion turned sportswriter Matthew Syed wrote a fascinating book about it called ‘Bounce’.

There’s a popular theory called the 10,000 hours rule, which – and I’m heavily paraphrasing here – says that 10,000 hours of practice makes you a master. At batting, chess, piano, painting, maths, tiddlywinks. Anything.

Two other books that touch on it are Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, and David Epstein’s ‘The Sports Gene’ which expound the theory first put forward by a guy called Anders Ericsson in 1993.

They all pretty much disagree on the baseline though. Epstein, as his title suggests, thinks natural talent is an essential ingredient, Ericsson more or less rejects the concept of talent, and Gladwell is somewhere inbetween.

The lightbulb Clive and I had was not about 10,000 hours (which we’re a bit long in the tooth for) but a unified theory of the nature/nurture argument, and the balancing mechanism for what we concluded must be the three key ingredients.

These ingredients are: talent (ability, gift, aptitude), skill (acquired proficiency, experience, learned techniques), and work (practice, application, effort, hard yards).

Over the second pint, we christened this mighty triumvirate “the Triangle of Adequacy”.

Everyone’s triangle is a different size and shape. The baseline – talent – doesn’t move. You’re born with it. Work can increase your skill levels, but the more talent you had to begin with, the less work is needed to up those skill levels: those with limited ability must work much harder than the talented to achieve similar results. The harsh reality is, the gifted grafter is uncatchable.

Now, the cynical might argue that the triangle doesn’t make nebulous quantities like talent and skill any more knowable, and can only ever be hypothetical. But I think the combination of fairy tale anyone-can-do-anything optimism and Dirty Harry ‘A man’s got to know his limitations’ realism is potentially quite useful.

Basically, once you’re familiar with it, your own Triangle of Adequacy™ can tell you whether it’s worth putting in a few extra hours with the bowling machine, or whether you might as well skip it this week, save it for the season, and go straight to the pub.

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Friday, 13 March 2015

Column 5, 2015 – stats and creativity

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 108, Friday March 13, 2015.
[Full text below]

99.94. If you’re interested in cricket, you’ll know that figure, and the extraordinary achievement it represents. The batting average of Sir Donald Bradman is statistical royalty, up there in gold lettering on the metaphorical all-time honours board with Sachin Tendulkar’s hundred international hundreds.

Cricket loves stats. Tournament sixes, batting average, bowling average, economy rate, strike rate, run rate, highest this, fastest that. We love it all.

Barely a week passes without more statty fun. Last weekend Glenn Maxwell missed Kevin O’Brien’s fastest World Cup 100 by two balls, and Kumar Sangakara became only the second man in history to pass 14,000 ODI runs.

Cricket is just so measurable, it’s always been stat obsessed. The stats tell us what’s normal, what’s exceptional, what to aspire to.

Recently, much has been made of England’s turn towards data’s dark side. Under Moores and Flower, England put 100% of their eggs in the algorithmic basket.

When he was his boss the first time around, Moores gave Flower a copy of the 2003 book ‘Moneyball’, the story of Oakland Athletics baseball team and its manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in the Hollywood version) who used rigorous statistical examination of in-game plays and situations in order to base decisions on predictive data extrapolated from the computer analysis of historical likelihoods.

Did you enjoy that last paragraph? Welcome to the England dressing room.

After initial success, the long-term problem with this approach is that it stifles creativity. Modern cricket is increasingly creative and inventive. International batsmen must score quickly and powerfully all round the ground, bowlers need an armoury of unpredictable variations. The gameplans of De Villiers, Maxwell, Faulkner and Boult are not based on statistical analyses of the past – they’re inventing the new paradigm.

Try for a moment, just for fun, to imagine it’s your job to convince McCullum not to be aggressive between overs 10 and 35, because that’s when the MOST important thing is not losing wickets. Well, that’s what the stats say, Brendon.

In advertising, creativity is often steamrollered by research. If you let it, inoffensive banality will always trump inventiveness in the quest for the sale. It’s all about sales, that’s the measure. Be safe, do what works, trust the numbers. Apply that to cricket: do what works, what you must to win. Trust the numbers. Forget everything else. Winning is how we’re measured. Nothing else matters.

In both instances, the thinking is poisonous. If you look beyond the numbers at how the best really succeed, the answers are there. Flair, style, chutzpah, flexibility, the courage of your convictions – simple bottle. Get that happening, and the results will come.

Fun is a prerequisite for creativity. An ad-land pioneer once famously said that advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I would happily apply that adage to cricket. But England this winter didn’t look like they were having much fun. And, let’s be honest, 99.94% of the time, watching them hasn’t been either.

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Column 4, 2015 – Unearthly ability

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 107, Friday March 6, 2015.
[Full text below]

Some years ago we played a Saturday league game on scruffy council pitch in the middle of a housing estate somewhere north of Salisbury. They were a side formed from several merging entities, so we knew a few faces, but hadn’t met them as a team before, and had no warning their number four would be anything special.

It was probably around three quarters of the way through his double century that we began to suspect.

We later discovered that he was a mate of a mate, roped in at the last minute. It was his first game for them – his first for anyone in a year. Since his Hampshire trials, in fact, with his flatmate, James Vince. By the time we got to the pub that evening to report back, he WAS James Vince.

That same year we played a big club who had a 19-yr-old with a chip on his shoulder. He’d been dropped from the firsts to open for the thirds. It was unclear whether he’d been dropped because he had a chip on his shoulder, or he had a chip on his shoulder because he’d been dropped. Anyway, he was cross. Cross enough, and good enough, to race to a ton, including a venomous flat six straight back over the bowler’s head and through the pub window 100 yards away like an anti-tank missile.

These instances felt iniquitous at the time, but they are part of cricket’s fabric. It is, as the cliché goes, a team game played by 11 individuals, and the colossus among the pigmies is the norm. Most teams have one guy who could easily play at a higher level, and, if he comes off, can win it on his own.

It just feels a bit unfair when they’ve literally dropped down from a higher level.

In top flight cricket, by definition, there isn’t a higher level to drop down from. And yet the casual observer of this World Cup would be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what’s happened.

Chris Gayle’s double ton against Zimbabwe was arguably an actual different league: a second XI attack with no answers to the finest cow-corner slogger on the planet. But two others defy such convenient explanation.

Last weekend Brendon McCullum dismantled arguably the best pace attack in the world like he was the local pro bringing upstart kids down a peg or two, charging 90mph quicks from ball one and slapping them into the stands with open contempt.

And the way AB DeVilliers eviscerated the West Indies looked not so much a different level as a different game. A game where one routinely sweeps fast bowlers for six from a yard outside off. On one knee. With one hand. Without so much as a by-your-leave.

With apparent precognition and inhuman reflexes, it’s as if DeVilliers and McCullum have dropped down from The Gods XI, to show the mortals how it’s done.

And yea, they did smite them.

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