Category Archives: England

Leave Alastair Cook Alone, You Hear?

Fortunes in cricket change quickly, but veteran fans will recognize an ancient and predictable rhythm in the recent backlash against Alistair Cook. Every young captain–no, actually, every captain–will enjoy a honeymoon phase before inevitably descending into this “private hell” in which he does not score runs and/or starts losing games.

I don’t know what it is about the burden of captaincy that it should consistently impact an individual’s form. But no matter, it does–few human minds are capable of both marshaling strategies and fielding places and performing par excellence.

So, with that in mind, I want everyone to lay off Alistair Cook, you hear? This fine young man has done enough already to merit a place in the list of “great English batsmen” . Don’t you dare pay any heed to the nattering nabobs who can’t say enough about his head falling over or his trigger back-and-across-and-then-front movement–this man has scored centuries (big daddy ones, even) in every part of the cricketing world.

Moreover, he is captaining a team that is newly terrible–it has lost some of its best players ever (Pietersen, Trott, Swann); it has also lost a famously intelligent coach. So why not wait for a little bit longer before you discard this man back to county cricket (or whatever lower-order reality you English reserve for your unwanted athletes)? Is this really the worst it’s ever been for English cricket? Isn’t it possible that the English now have a terrible bout of rising expectations, and that your anxiety to avoid a return to the dark days of the 1970s…1980s…1990s…basically, every year other than parts of 2005-2013 — has led you to demand bigger and better things too soon?

My advice is to remember the natural order. The Australians, particularly Shane Warne, will always–always–think your captaincy is terrible, and that you’re not attacking enough. The captain will always–always–fail for an extended bout. But almost every captain, given enough time and support, will reward you in the end — if not with outright domination, then a close victory or a crucial innings here and there.

Why, just look at our very own M.S. Dhoni. It only took him three years.

*A previous version of this post, rather embarrassingly, misspelled Cook’s first name. But whatever you call him, just leave him alone. Got it?

Diagnosing Australia

Jarrod Kimber has a fine essay on Cricinfo about all that ails Australia. It’s a beautiful piece, and I recommend it in full. That said, while I’m not nearly as smart or observant as Kimber (the little I know about cricket, I learned from commentary), I want to add a note of caution to the recent diagnoses of Australia.

Please keep in mind, all ye critics, that Australia just lost a great number of players in the past five years. Not just any set of players — but some of the greatest to have ever played the game. In my mind, it is still an open question as to whether Australia will face a terminal decline (a la The West Indies), or merely slide to something more mediocre and less dominating (but still very, very good). I’d like to think that a nation with as much cricketing history, talent and infrastructure as Australia will not allow Michael Clarke to suffer as much as Brian Lara did in the early 2000s. We shall see.

At any rate, think about how different this team would be if they still had, say, Michael Hussey. I’m not saying that they would be winning now, but perhaps they’d be more like Sri Lanka’s Jayawardene-Sangakarra — a combination that can still occasionally stop the opposition in its tracks, and provide succor and stability to the rest of the (largely middling) batsmen. Hussey’s retirement (as I understand it) caught Clarke by surprise, and I think it’s fair to say this Australian team would have had a less embarrassing transition had Hussey stuck around for another year or two.

Because let’s keep in mind as well that Australia are also playing against England in England. We’re dismissive of Watson and Hughes and Cowan (and Warner), but both Cowan and Warner performed admirably against India when India played in Australia in 2011-12. Of course, England is not India — Jimmy Anderson and Swann are much better than latter-day Zaheer Khan and Ashwin. But playing in England against a great swing attack is no easy task; even the mighty Australians of yore (e.g., the 2005 squad) failed that test. (Please also note: When Anderson played in Australia in 2006-2007, he was a shambolic travesty: five wickets in three Tests and 93 overs. He got better, sure, but it took a long time.)

So what are we comparing this Australia to? Are we comparing it to the Australians who didn’t relinquish the Ashes urn for nearly two decades? If that’s the case, we’ve got a problem — we are refusing to recognize the greatness that has passed. No, compare Australia to a team that’s in the middle of a generational change — didn’t England suffer in 2006-2007? Didn’t India suffer in 2011 (against both Australia and England)? Every cricket fan from every country has been humiliated in the past; now it’s your turn, Aussies. Stop being so dramatic about it.

The Surprising Dhoni Referendum

I don’t know how this happened so fast, but professional cricket writers have given us a strange storyline: If India doesn’t do well against England — that is, really well, as close to whitewash well — then M.S. Dhoni’s captaincy will be imperiled. This is strange because a) when Dhoni lost seven overseas Tests in a row, we all shrugged our shoulders (well, most of us did) and b) when India failed to progress in the T20 World Cup, we all quickly cited complicated NRR arithmetic and counterfactuals to forgive him. So why are suddenly giving him an ultimatum?

I imagine this is how the Indian fan’s mind works: We know that the national side is so terrible overseas that any victory is a gift from God; an overseas loss is merely confirmation of reality and the cruel fates, which we cannot change. But India at home is something else; it’s all we have in cricket — it functions the way the “Indians invented zero” line does in arguments about the relative worth of civilizations (“Sure, we are surrounded everyday by horrifying poverty, but we did think up 0, you know”). If India fails at home, then we are, really, nothing.*

Well, I think it’s all silly. If there was a time to seriously reevaluate Dhoni, it came last year, when he failed to achieve the holiest chalice of them all — a victory in Australia. At this point, he is merely a caretaker captain — someone to warm the seat until we can figure out how to replace him (and Laxman and Dravid). Everything that we need to know about Dhoni as a captain, we know. He can do nothing now until 2014, when the next overseas Test takes place, to change his legacy. I have a lot of respect for Dhoni — double CSK champion, T20 champion, ODI winner, No. 1 Test team, and all that — but he is now what Clinton was post-1998 impeachment: a placeholder until the next big election.

Unresolved Kevin Pietersen Questions

1. If you have a player who is a jerk but also extremely capable, which quality wins out in your estimation? Recall that Rahul Dravid said earlier that we often mis-judge talent in cricket. We look at the timing, the flair and the beautiful stuff — but not the patience, character and temperament that is needed at the international level. Can we forgive an asshole in our midst if he turns the dressing room into a political minefield? Why shouldn’t we account for personality in our calculation of talent?

2. If we performed the “blind test,” would KP’s argument still hold? Let’s say that we were not discussing Pietersen but Andrew Symonds, Munaf Patel or Jesse Ryder. In all three cases, the talent is evident, but there are major issues — the first has a drinking problem and a major (very deserved) chip on the shoulder; the second simply does not want to train as hard as need be, and the third also can’t stay away from the drink. You got a problem with dropping them? No doubt, KP does not have this level of problem; on the other hand, he has signaled he is not committed to the international team and would like to pick and choose each Test he plays and he thinks his captain is worthy of ridicule. Unless you’re Tendulkar, that’s not an option, surely.

3. Piers Morgan said something like this: “The ECB are hypocrites because they want KP to be brash and bold on the field, but shy and demur off.” Assume that this point of view is correct and, in fact, no one pays to see dullards like Jonathan Trott or A. Cook. Why do we want our players to be saints off the field? There used to be a time when we saw the sportsman as an ideal to emulate, but that was before modern rigors of practice, training and ultra-sequestration reduced many athletes to very capable Frankensteins. (I mean, did you see what those Olympic swimmers’ bodies looked like?) We can’t look anymore to these men for life advice. We can admire their commitment and their skills and feats, but increasingly, that should be the end of the matter.

Now, Morgan’s argument fails because in this case, KP wasn’t cheating on his wife, or punching fans at bars, or driving drunk. No, he was doing something that impacted the “on the field” — the unity of the team. I’ve heard it said that valuing the “unity of the team” to this extent is a misguided, management-speak approach to running a game. Perhaps. On the other hand, again, we have seen many teams underachieve because of internal rifts — need I mention Pakistan? Recall, also, the familiar complaint that India’s cricket team is merely a collection of superstars, not a team of equal individuals. Why not care about your team like it’s your family?

So far, you must have the impression that I’m with the ECB on this one. And I am! I like KP, but I’m not a fan of superstar economics. The eternal rule still applies: never bite the hand that feeds you. I guess this isn’t so unresolved after all.

I Still Like England

My Spidey-senses may be off, but I detected a notable whiff of Anglophobia on Twitter as the South Africans were finishing them off at the Oval. I think I know why: a) England humiliated India, so a bunch of unhinged fans are panting for revenge; b) the English press, buoyed by an impressive at-home record, have lost any sense of humility, and c) some folk genuinely like South Africa and want to see them do well. (Why aren’t there more rabid South Africa fans, by the way?)

But I think a lot of people dislike England because they suspect it’s the new Australia. That is, they may be the latest team that will dominate cricket in a ruthless fashion and with meticulous detail. I think we’re all worried because, as I wrote, we now live in a polarized cricket world, wherein S.A., England and Australia (and, on a good day, India)  can all claim the No. 1 spot. And by and large, I’m OK with that, because each team on that list has suffered embarrassing humiliation in the last few years (think whitewash for England and India; think Ashes losses for Australia, and think “choker” for South Africa).

These teams aren’t Australia, 1990s edition — they are more human and flawed and occasionally brilliant. And that’s why England don’t bother me all that much. Even after that 4-0 India drubbing, I could cling to at least one thing — in 2007, I watched this team succumb 5-0. I saw them at their worst. That’s something I couldn’t think of Steve Waugh’s lot.

Explain Kevin Pietersen To Me

Specifically, this: why couldn’t Pietersen have waited to retire until after the T20 World Cup? Did he really think his 31-year-old body wouldn’t be able to handle the load between now and then?

I’m also not sure I understand the English selection criteria: you can retire from Tests only, or ODIs and T20s only, but not ODIs or T20s alone? But why? Surely there will be enough players for each format?

 

The Big If For The West Indies

From Andrew McGlashan, reporting on a strong day for the Windies against the Lions:

If Kemar Roach, Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul can be given decent totals to bowl at West Indies could provide stern opposition…

Much of the series, then, will depend on Darren Bravo and Shiv Chanderpaul. Two good reasons to watch.

Relive The 2005 Ashes

I saw this documentary on television once and then spent years on the Internet trying to find a copy (mostly for the Stephen Fry commentary). There are great cameos from Mike Atherton (who explains why Shane Warne was so difficult to face), as well as Simon Hughes, whom I adore. There’s also a great dissection of the Warne-Ponting relationship. If you feel any need to indulge Flintoff/Simon Jones nostalgia, or “the swing works the oracle again,” spend the hour-plus watching this:

P.S.: Now that I think about it, the 2005 Ashes aren’t as significant as they were at the time, mainly because of the 5-0 drubbing that followed, but also because England went on to win in 2009 and 2010. Winning against Australia in Australia was monumental, and the hectic, manic Tests of 2005 seem almost amateurish compared to the clinical nature of their expedition down under. Still, watching these Tests is watching something real — the closeness of the games overshadows the guile, strategy and effort; only sheer desperation and human emotion are left.

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!

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.

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