Category Archives: England

Lay Off Saeed Ajmal

Here we go again: another South Asian off-spinner takes a few wickets (at the hands of some clueless white men), and the commentators start yapping about his action. Saeed Ajmal gave the performance of his career after a week of breathing fire to anyone who would listen. Matt Prior had the decency to say he couldn’t care less about his action, but here’s Bob Willis:

“The delivery that I have a problem with is the doosra,” Willis said. “The ICC have accommodated this delivery; they changed the rules to allow these bowlers to bend their elbow 15 degrees, which is what makes it so difficult for the batsmen.

“The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox offspinners to bend their elbow to a degree. If they are going to be allowed to do that then England have to address this and decide whether we should be teaching our young spinners to bowl like that as well.”

Let me say this once more: the rules were not changed to accommodate any specific type of player. They were changed because the science showed that it was impossible for the human eye to see any inflexion below 15 degrees. I know that Willis — and many, many others — refuse to accept this tale, but to indulge in silly conspiracy theories makes them sound, well, positively South Asian. If you believe the ICC committee that decided this rule based its decision on something other than science, then show me the evidence.

And here’s some pseudo-science from the Daily Mail, which purports to do what an independent ICC panel didn’t and make the case against Ajmal’s arm. I’m not sure taking a crappy picture and putting an angle on Ajmal’s arm is going to beat the 3D modeling the ICC panel used, but at this point, I’d rather stick with the authorities than a tabloid. The real danger is that these people will do to Ajmal what they did to Murali; that is, it’ll come to the point that even when commentators finally agree about the validity of his action, they’ll still bring it up to say it’s cleared, only serving to reinforce the ambiguity behind the whole affair.

Let’s nip this in the bud, people, and enjoy the prospect of an overseas defeat for England. Let the revenge begin!

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Moneyball and Cricket: Picking the Right Players

Do you have Moneyball fever? Non-American readers, let me explain: Once, there was a baseball team. It had little money. (Unlike in the IPL, where salary caps limit what teams can spend on talent, the MLB lets rich teams outbid for prize athletes.) So, the team’s manager uses statistical analysis and finds a new way to predict a player’s value. In doing so, he finds all sorts of hidden gems that carry the team to the top.

Why do I, a non-baseball fan, care? Two questions: 1) Are conventional ways of evaluating cricketers all wrong? 2) Is cricket ready for a similar statistics revolution?

1) I have long argued, for example, that good fielding is overrated. Once you cover the basic stuff — catch well, throw well, run well — I don’t think a good fielder adds that much. I’d rather have a good batsman with Munaf Patel energy than an average batsman with excellent fielding skills. But there’s a broader question at stake: do we know how to predict a good cricketer? For example, is a batsman who rotates strike often better than one who drops anchor and tires the bowlers out with a solid defense?  Is an economical bowler better than a strike one? Or take T20: would you rather have Jacques Kallis, or, say, 4 players who can hit 30 runs off 15 balls?

2) Can statistics really work in cricket? Baseball seems more one-dimensional; in a cricket line-up, you need a variety of characters. The openers have to be solid in defense; the lower-middle needs to be able to ramp up the pace, etc. Then again, I once had a math-minded professor who liked to try and predict what a batsman would do with each successive ball, and more often than not, he’d get it right. I’m sure the betting types are basing their values on some sort of modeling, yes? But has anyone read of a team that uses statistical analysis to try and a) value particular athletes; b) predict particular outcomes; and c) base strategy around the numbers?

UPDATE: Of course, the English are on it. Via The Old Batsman:

Ever since Lewis’s book, every sport has tried to find its version of Moneyball. Andy Flower found Nathan Leamon, a mathematician from Cambridge University who was also a qualified coach, and provided a well-funded black-ops stats department at the ECB for him to use [it’s easy to imagine A-Flo wrapping an arm around Nathan’s shoulders and telling him to ‘think the unthinkable…’]…

[Leamon’s] gone to town and then some. England’s enthusiasm for Hawkeye extends way beyond the DRS – they’ve used to it log and analyse every ball delivered in Test match cricket around the world in the last five years.

With access to such vast data they now run simulations of every Test match they play, taking into account venue, conditions, selection and pitch. Leamon reckons that such ‘games’, when he checks them against the actual matches, ‘are accurate to within four or five percent’.

Other work has been in breaking down pitches in areas for bowlers to aim at: Leamon claims England’s palpable success against Sachin Tendulkar was due in part to statistical analysis that showed Sachin made the bulk of his runs on the leg side until he reached fifty.

How An Indian Cricket Fan Can Get Through The Day

There’s one comfort in losing to England: you know they have been here before. Not too long ago, the Australians handed a 5-0 whitewash to the English in a much more important series (in terms of cultural and historical significance) than this one.

Why does this matter? When teams lost to the Australians, there was only bitterness left to be had. For boys of my generation, the Australian hegemony was complete, seemingly permanent and the only constant in the game. Losing to them was a rite of passage. They alone knew the rules of alchemy, and you could either resent or appreciate the way they conjured their spells. Losing to the English, however, is different. We know they are mortal. We know that in the space of a few years, they went from receiving that whitewash to handing out this one.

And so, a new logic of equality works in cricket now. It goes like this: “If they can do it, so can we…” It’s a line the Australians would never let you utter; so comprehensive the gap between you and them. The English should enjoy their current triumph, but they have yet to climb to Australian heights. There’s a line from Ecclesiastes they’d do well to remember: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Are All Cricket Boards Awful?

1. Devanshu Mehta excerpts Peter Della Penna’s profile of the United States’ cricket association. It doesn’t look pretty.

2. Somehow, Sri Lanka’s cricket board managed to end up $60 million in debt after the 2011 World Cup. That’s right: they organized the premier event of international cricket and somehow didn’t make any money off it. That takes true skill. The solution:

Austerity measures in the wake of Sri Lanka Cricket’s (SLC’s) royal bungling of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, which saw the island’s cricket board in more than $60 million in debt due to budget overruns, now includes junior level district coaches being used to man ticket counters during the ongoing ODI series against Australia.

3. The BCCI, ready to appear as if it has received the message from the current series against England, is now trying to schedule an additional warm-up game on the Australia tour. Why is this a problem? Well:

India have a full series – three Tests and five ODIs – against the visiting West Indies pencilled in between October 29, when they end a home series against England, and that match in Canberra [in December].

Just brilliant. Sandwich a pointless series against a third-rate team we just played against right before a Test series that may be the last one for some of your greatest — the greatest — batsmen ever. Three freaking Tests?

The Odd Sensation Of A Series Loss

Has it really been since August 2009 since India lost a Test series? Have I forgotten what an Indian loss even feels like?

Faced with a possible 4-0 whitewash, Indian fans have to contemplate two separate problems: 1) Was the last year or so a dream? Was it a mirage? When India’s detractors said the team wasn’t all that; the bowling attack was weak; the performance in South Africa and Australia so-so — were they right? 2) What does the future hold? This brings up two sub-questions. One, when the Fab Three retire, is the Indian backbench thin? Two, will we see not just the end of India’s greatest batting generation, but the end of a worldwide batting trend? Imagine a cricketing world without Ricky Ponting, J. Kallis and Chanderpaul. Will bowlers finally return to the scene?

Here are my (very tentative) answers: 1) India never truly performed to its potential. Over the past year or so, I have tried to overcome my Nervous 1990s Attitude and adopt a default position of believing in the Indian team’s abilities. There have been many moments that justified this shift (Napier is a good example), but the evidence wasn’t overwhelming. The truth is that India never played to win series; they played to win (or draw) Tests. I tried to deal with this issue by saying that the Indians played “meh” cricket — a style that implied superiority but never rubbed the opposing team’s nose in it. This may have been naive on my part.

2) Looking at the Emerging Players Tournament, I see more than a few acceptable replacements. Pujara, Badrinath, Vijay, the Tiwarys, Pandey — these guys could be part of a solid batting line-up. The same with the bowling department: Vinay Kumar, L. Balaji, R.P. Singh, Irfan Pathan (oh, Irfan!). But all these players need to be given time and guidance to prove themselves. Look at England’s approach: not too long ago, Alistair Cook was widely considered to be a failure and worked out. Ian Bell was considered beautiful fluff. J. Anderson was thought to be a one-swing wonder. Stuart Broad was fighting for his place in the side before this series. Kevin Pietersen had been out of form for a while (and the same with Andrew Strauss). But each was given some time and string to work things out. Some were sent back to county cricket, others were dropped. (Strauss even played a warm-up game before the India series.)

My point? Once promising players have been identified, India’s think-tank needs to look after them. That means asking some of them to give up an IPL season and spending time in England or Australia. That means keeping tabs on everyone’s injuries and fitness needs. That means giving each player specific guidelines and telling them how to improve. (I thank Samir Chopra for discussing some of these issues with me.)

Watching A One-Sided Test

By this point, my worst prediction is coming true. India are well on their way to a comprehensive defeat. That much is known. But a much tougher assignment looms: how should cricket fans approach a one-sided Test? The greatest thing about the Test format — the amount of time allocated to a game — can also be its biggest liability. We know how this Test will end, but I suspect most die-hard Indian cricket fans will still gear up the illegal cricket stream and watch the game secretly at work (if I’m a representative sample, anyway).

Well, there are some possible delights: a) Sachin Tendulkar could finally come to the, er, party, as Ravi Shastri would say. b) Actually, any number of batsmen — Sehwag, Gambhir, Laxman, Raina — could come to the party. Some fine knocks are due, and they might as well involve taking the shine off Stuart Broad. c) The last man standing figure, aka The Chanderpaul. One man holds fort while everyone around him loses his head. This man alone — who will it be? — makes the losing battle worth watching. d) A few tailenders — Sreesanth? Kumar? — decide to bosh the English bowlers around for a bit. The fun lasts for only 15 minutes, but for that brief period, India relish their final moments as the No. 1 Test cricket team in the world. There’s fun and innocence on display. Not a care in the world.

And then, it’s over. India’s dominance comes to an end, and the knives come out.

India’s Lost Dominance

I can see clearly now. Yes, under blue skies and yellow sun, the English batsmen will have their way with the Indian bowlers. Maybe a wicket or two will fall — Careless error? Sheer arrogance? — but the Indian bowlers will tire yet again as Prior/Broad/Bresnan launch the inevitable counterattack. India then bats and plays catch-up, but they can’t force a miracle. They either set a paltry target or lose by an innings. 3-0.

Oh, I know, I’m a pessimist. Any number of things — including the sudden outbreak of ‘riot-ia’ — could bend the arc of this Test match. (Secretly, I hope that Amit Mishra — long a cricket crush of mine — will upend this game and finally put Harbhajan to bed as India’s No. 1 spin bowler.) But no matter what happens, it’s clear that this English team has knocked the shine off India. To be sure, India’s dominance was never as clear-cut as the great Australian and West Indian teams; as its many detractors will say, India never won a series in South Africa or Australia. And even at home, it has been oddly complacent, drawing with South Africa and — were it not for a ninth-wicket partnership — nearly losing to Australia.

I suspect part of the reason behind India’s surprising lethargy lies with its players’ utter exhaustion. Did anyone else hear about that Praveen Kumar incident? Where he had to be restrained from walloping an annoying Indian fan with his cricket bat? For my part, I think failure might be a good thing for this team. A loss might come as a relief for Dhoni, who — incredibly — has yet to lose a Test series as captain. Once he has come to grips with a failure — especially one as glaring as this series — perhaps he won’t be as cautious anymore.

And maybe a whitewash will persuade the Indian selectors and fans that the time has come to say goodbye to the Fab Three. I don’t mean “right now”; there’s obviously that all-important tour against Australia. But it’s time for the youngsters to carry the weight and for Duncan Fletcher to launch his own regime. In time, the World Cup victory will be seen for what it was: the high-water mark for some of the greatest batsmen ever to play in the game. That they did not peak with an equally inspiring set of bowlers is lamentable, but there’s no need to whine about wasted resources. We enjoyed the run, and now…it’s back to the 1990s?

The Batsman As A Bureaucrat

My girlfriend, currently in the midst of a frenzied review of every piece of Victorian literature ever written (don’t ask), just found this cricket gem from Charles Dickens. (She also found a wonderful excerpt from Virginia Woolf.) The passage, from Little Doritt, is part of a larger discussion between two characters on the virtues and vices of English bureaucracy:

“Look at it from the right point of view, and there you have us — official and effectual. It’s like a limited game of cricket. A field of outsiders are always going in to bowl at the Public Service, and we block the balls.”

Clennam asked what became of the bowlers? The airy Young Barnacle replied that they grew tired, got dead beat, got lamed, got their backs broken, died off, gave it up, went in for other games.

The batsman as a bureaucrat, always stifling initiative and reform — not a bad metaphor, huh? While I certainly think both Alistair Cook and Jonathan Trott are exceedingly talented men, watching them strangle the opposition with their solid defense can be, er, very, very difficult. What you don’t see in the balls left and defended is the energy and verve slowly oozing out of bowlers, who grow more “tired” and “dead beat” as the day rolls on. It’s effective, but it’s not pretty.

Test cricket fans are like wine; they get better as they mature. When I was younger, I would not bother with boring Tests, which seemed lacking in action when compared to the shorter format. Now, I’m getting more of a hang of the rhythms — the crucial first hour; the nervous part just before any break; the many characters who act on the stage (nightwatchmen; openers; tail-enders; strike bowlers; support bowlers). And even though I appreciate that a batsman in cricket earns extra points for the length of his innings (a statistic unlikely to win plaudits in any other modern-day sport), it’ll be a while before I’ll get myself to watch a Cook/Trott/Chanderpaul innings from start to finish. Bureaucrats aren’t pleasant to watch.

When Cricket Meets Philosophy

Over at his new Cricinfo blog, The Pitch, Samir Chopra cites Aristotle to make his case that M.S. Dhoni is a sucker for withdrawing the infamous appeal:

For Aristotle, generosity, like all the moral virtues, is a mean between two vices, one of deficiency and one of excess. The modern parlance for the vice of excessive generosity is being a sucker. A sucker is not being truly generous, because he gives where there is neither need nor desert.

I don’t know much about Aristotle; I never cared much for the Ancients. But it turns out the Indian dressing room didn’t use the golden mean rule, but rather the Golden Rule, spelled out by various philosophers through the ages. Let’s cite Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments as an example:

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.

Smith famously goes on to say humans try to behave as if an imaginary “impartial spectator” would approve. Now, even though I don’t know as much about Aristotle as I should, I still like the sound of Smith’s model better. The Golden Mean sounds almost crude in its “split-down-the-middle” approach. On the other hand, Smith asks people to put themselves in their friend/foe’s shoes and try to relate. And that’s exactly what the Indians did, according to Rahul Dravid:

“If it was Laxman there or Sachin [Tendulkar] there, I don’t think our guys would have felt nice about it. And that was one of the things discussed when we first came in, what if it was one of our guys? Would we have liked it? And the general feeling was no.”

One final point about Chopra’s post. Near the end, Chopra asks if England will now reciprocate and behave in the true spirit of the game by, say, ending all the sledging and letting English bowlers have a go at Tendulkar in the nets. There is a prominent strain in philosophy that argues that morality should not be transactional; i.e., people should not do good with the expectation of getting something in return. (I think Kant was big on this line of thought, but I could be wrong.) I don’t know how realistic this is, but I like the idea that Dhoni could have said, “I want to deal with this issue on its own merits — not whether or not batsmen should walk, or sledging is stopped, or catches are challenged, or that Stuart Broad is an absolute filthy bastard for implying Laxman is a cheat  — but only this issue, right here, and right now.”

And now I’m sounding like a pragmatist

The Best Case Against Ian Bell

From A Cricketing View:

1. Praveen Kumar’s reaction suggested that he didn’t wasn’t sure about the 4.
2. Eoin Morgan’s reaction suggests that it was clear to him that the ball was still very much in play.
3. The Umpire did not hand Ishant his sweater until after the stumps were broken. They did not call Tea either.
4. The Umpire did not declare a boundary (this is the clincher in my view)

So nobody other than Bell thought the ball was dead. As such, it was the correct decision to rule him Out. As per the rules the ball is judged to be dead only when both sides appear to accept that it is dead. In this case, Eoin Morgan thought it was still in play – this is the one thing that multiple reports agree on.