Wednesday 30 November 2011

David Warner, and Virender Sehwag's vision of the future

Imagine for a moment that you are opening the batting in a one-day international. You step out onto the field, assailed suddenly by the reality of what you are about to do: the heat, the light, the noise, the scale of the field and of the crowd. Your partner takes strike, and gets a single away immediately. Not much chance for you to have a look. What's this wicket like, then, low? Slow? How long is it since you've faced this guy with a white ball - two years? Three? But hang on - the umpire's signalling a no-ball. Your first delivery will be a free hit. All of a sudden, you loosen up, feel a little better. You set yourself deep in the crease, get outside leg stump and free your arms and the ball sails up and over third man. Four. Easy. Thanks. Out with the bad thoughts. In with the good...

Now consider the difference between yourself and Virender Sehwag, to whom this happened the other day in the first ODI against West Indies. Viru stepped back and carved it over third man too - the difference being that he would have done it anyway, regardless of the no-ball and the free hit, and regardless of the fact it was an ODI and not a Test match or any other type of fixture. Because that is Sehwag, the man who gave the world the irreducible 'see ball, hit ball'.

This blog has long seen Sehwag as an avatar, a vision of the future, an outlier. But perhaps he is something else too; mentor, leader, philosopher king. In the modern age, there have always been attacking opening batsman. Gordon Greenidge, no slouch himself, recalled his partnership with Barry Richards at Hampshire: 'it was not unusual for applause to be ringing round the ground for his fifty while I still had single figures'. Richards once made 325 in a day at Perth against Dennis Lillee amongst others. Then came Jayasuriya, Slater, Hayden, Gayle, McCullum.

Yet none are Sehwag. Jayasuriya, Hayden and Gayle have Test match triple hundreds but Sehwag has two, and came within seven runs of a third. They are power players, yet Sehwag strikes at 20 runs per hundred balls better than any of them. Only Hayden can really claim to be in his class - the others all average about 10 less - and yet Hayden cannot be called a genius; the adjective effortless does not attach itself easily to his game.

Viru doesn't have Gayle's shoulders or Jayasuriya's forearms or Haydos' pecs. He has none of the nervous intensity of Slater or the cross-eyed desire of Hayden. He doesn't really have the insouciance of Gayle or Barry Richards. He is instead an almost implacable little Buddha, soft-edged, calmly accepting of the fates, whether they swing for him or against.

If there is one player he is most like, it is Lara, in that he can hit unstoppably not just for hours but for days. It is they who have built monolithic scores most regularly. Yet Lara didn't open, and he often gave the first hour or so of his innings to the bowler. That has not been Sehwag's way.

His technique is not revolutionary, just thrillingly heightened. What is different about Sehwag is his mind, the way he sees the game. Essentially, he is free. Where tradition insists that the new ball and fresh bowlers and aggressive fields are threats, he sees wide open spaces, a hard ball that will fly off the bat.

Sehwag said as much to David Warner a couple of years ago, when the notion of Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance. 'He said to me, 'you'll be a better Test cricketer than you are a twenty20 player',' Warner recalled a few days ago. 'I looked at him and basically said, 'mate I've not even played a first-class game yet'. But he said, 'all the fielders are around the bat. If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish'.'

This week, David Warner made his Test debut. Sehwag was more right than most of Australia. Warner does not have Sehwag's talent, but he shares his worldview. There will be many more who do in the years to come, and then it will become the new orthodoxy. That is Sehwag's true legacy. He has shared an era with Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, Kallis, yet he is not one of them. As great as they are and have been, they are the old order, more connected to the past than to the future.

And there is something more important here than just a mindshift, than changes in tactics or techniques. The game must always move forwards and renew itself. Essentially it must accelerate to match the speed of the culture in which it exists. Test cricket of the 1950s is as distant now as the rest of that decade, with its housewives and its radio plays and its music hall conservatism. David Warner may or may not succeed as a Test match opener - do you want to bet against Viru? - but plenty like him will. At some point or other they will be the norm, and they will be standing on Sehwag's shoulders, the shoulders of a giant. If he is not the best batsman of his time (and he might be), he is the most significant; a genius and a visionary with it.

Friday 25 November 2011

What happened when a team of men with one leg played a team of men with one arm

There are several candidates for the match of the year 2011 - mad collapses, last-ball draws, you know, the usual - but there can be only one winner of the award for the year of 1848, when, at the Priory Ground in Lewisham, a team of men with one leg played a team of men with one arm.

It is a long reach back in time. 1848 was the summer that Grace was born. Brahms was 15. Tolstoy was 20. Dickens had just written A Christmas Carol. The Crimean war was five years away. America had 30 states. A man called Innocenzo Manzetti had hit on the idea for something that, three decades later, would become the telephone. 1848 is a distant place.

Cricket, though, was in rude health in its first great age, a sport of the people and a gambler's paradise. Two thousand four hundred people went to the Priory Ground to watch Eleven One Armed Men v Eleven With One Leg. The game lives on through a glorious match report in an Australian paper published six months later. ''Novelty was the ruling passion," it runs, "nine tenths went merely for the say of the thing".

The principal of the fixture was well-established; a similar game had been played for a thousand guineas in 1796, and this was a rematch of sorts of a fixture played in 1841, although, "during this long recess, the great leveller had bowled a large proportion of those who figured on that occasion out." The betting, "what little there was," went in favour of the men with "two living legs".

The players from both teams were Greenwich Pensioners, navy men who had been injured in service and now lived at the Royal Hospital. What a sight it was: "The singularity of the Greenwich dress combined with the ludicrous positions of the fielders, their antique physiognomies and the general clumsiness of both parties at the game produced a match that was grotesque in the extreme".

Lest anyone think political correctness was being invented at the boundary edge that day, a riotous time was had by all. A clue as to why the players were keen enough came from the description of their "substantial luncheon before each day's play" and "for their dinner there was a profusion of roast and boiled beef, and lamb, accompanied by plenty of heavy".

Thus, in their veteran's uniforms, full of grub and with a night's-worth of ale in them, did the One Arm XI make 50 in their first innings, which featured a top score of 8 not out. The One Legged XI replied with 32, The One Arm XI extended their lead with 41, leaving the One Legged XI 60 to win. They were dismissed for 44, a gallant effort that included the highest score of the match, 15, from their number five, Sears. The greatest contributor to both totals was extras. The One Legged XI conceded 30, the One Arm XI 43, all of which were wides. Across the match, 21 players were dismissed without scoring in one innings or the other, and the One Legged XI featured five batsmen who made pairs, including the unfortunate number eleven Baldrick, who was run out twice.

"The bowling on both sides was generally very wide," wrote our man [Mitch wasn't playing was he...?] "and the One Legs, in endeavouring to take advantage of it but in the majority of cases missing the object, span round like the final revolutions of an expiring teetotum, and frequently got out".

Then, in strange triumph, both teams "marched to the Bull Inn, headed by an excellent band who had been engaged throughout the match. Each man had free passage to and from the Royal Hospital, a glass of grog to drink to Her Majesty's health and ten shillings for his two days' exertions".

It was a distant match from a distant time, played in a world that is unknowable now. The lives of the players had not been easy, and yet their oddly uplifting spirit endures and flourishes. Any cricketer can relate to how they felt - especially that Baldrick. Here are the names of the men that played. Gentlemen, we salute you:

One Arm XI: Guay, Wiley, Morley, Johnson*, Burns, Sissoms, Broom, Newsom, Seale, Jeffreys, Sowden.

One Legged XI: Wetherhead, Ryan, Scot, Brown, Sears, Albar, Polston, West, Drew, Browne, Baldrick.

* Not that one.

NB: Thanks to the great Jonathon Green for passing along the report.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Jacques Kallis: the love that dare not speak its name

Last January, when Jacques Kallis was averaging 166 in a series against India, Kevin Pietersen tweeted that Kallis 'must be the best player ever'. You wot KP? The tweet drew some obvious jibes, but it didn't generate much consideration as to its truth. Because, you know, Jacques Kallis just isn't, is he?

It's facile - not to mention impossible - to offer an answer to that, about Kallis or anyone else. But it is worth thinking about why the question seems so unlikely, because it sort of strikes at the heart of what we think greatness in cricket looks like. Billy Beane - him again - called it 'the tyranny of what you see'.

Kallis has gone past 12,000 Test runs, just the fourth man to do so. He has more than Lara now, is 500-odd behind Ponting, and he is scoring at least as heavily as Dravid and Tendulkar, so who knows where he'll end up. That series against India was his sixth in which he'd averaged more than 100; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe couldn't get him out, so in two more he finished averageless, or rather, beyond average.

In the era of batting giants, Kallis has been the most consistent. For his first 22 Tests he barely averaged 30. In the years since he has topped 60. He is the most successful Test batsman this century. He is also the best second innings player around - he averages five runs more than anyone else, and of players who have made more than 2,500 second innings runs, he has the best average not just of his era, but ever.

That last stat may raise a smirk; Jacques loves a red inker, the world knows that. The suspicion that he bats for himself might never be extinguished, yet that is what the best do. They need the icy chip of ego in their hearts that tells them they are no use in the pavilion. But Kallis cannot be bracketed with Boycott or other ruthless accumulators; his technique has the depth to make him an essential Twenty20 cricketer, too, and even in that form, he seems to have an innate inner pace that attunes itself to the rhythms of the game he's playing.

When Bob Woolmer needed a batsman to pose for the photographs in his matchless book on playing the game, The Art And Science Of Cricket, he chose Kallis. His technique is utterly orthodox, and more than that, it makes the argument for orthodoxy. He can do pretty much anything, and he can bat in all circumstances. His first innings 50 against Australia in the Test just concluded came off 36 balls, a knock that ran against type, but the ball was swinging, the field was up, the outfield slicker than an ice-rink. Kallis barely took a backlift and he creamed it through the covers again and again, the ball ringing from his bat. With Amla doing the same at the other end, it was almost symphonic.

But forget his batting: Kallis the bowler has 270 Test wickets, more than Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Dale Steyn, Bishen Bedi, Andy Roberts and Jeff Thomson. If he was English, he would have more wickets than anyone currently playing, and would be fifth on the all-time list behind Underwood, Trueman, Willis and Botham.

As an all-rounder, he has a batting average that dwarfs Flintoff's, along with 46 more wickets at the same price. Hadlee, Botham, Imran and Kapil have outbowled him, but Kallis has 10 more hundreds than all of them put together. And Sobers? Well Sobers can match that average, but nothing else. Kallis has sustained it for another 4,000 runs, has scored 14 more centuries and has 35 more wickets at cheaper cost.

So what is it about Jacques that leaves him so ill-considered by the wider world? Botham, Imran and Kapil lifted their countries, raised them up. They have been loved. Hadlee may not have been, but he was deeply admired, and feared too. Flintoff inspired an uncomplicated affection. Kallis has been less overtly heroic. The South African methods of winning have been to grind relentlessly from a position of advantage. Kallis is not a victory from the jaws of defeat merchant; the greatest deeds of Botham, Imran and Kapil had a context that Kallis's often don't.

Then there is his sheer consistency. Failure has never dogged him, no-one's asked him to captain a rag-bag outfit. He doesn't bear Sachin's burden of expectation, he wasn't asked to manage his country's decline like Ponting. His life lacks the epic curve of Boycott's. Instead he has his machine-like grace. There is an impression that his relentless excellence allows him to dictate to South Africa how he plays, and he is, of course, undroppable, so his story lacks jeopardy.

Most of all, as Billy Beane observed, aesthetics hold sway. He has the physique of a mobile fridge. Aside from when he's bowling or in his pads, it's impossible to imagine him running. His hair transplant has been comically successful - its current style is the most Botham-esque thing about him. His physicality just adds to the air of superiority his technique gives him. He's never an underdog in the way that the smaller Tendulkar or Lara were against some bowlers, and for all the classical brilliance of his batting, it doesn't quite have the sudden, illogical and otherworldly lurches into genius that Lara or Sehwag or even Pietersen can provide.

Yet this is the tyranny that clouds judgement. Kallis's genius is empirical, provable. He may be hard to love, but he's pretty easy to pick. KP may not be right, but he had a point.

Monday 14 November 2011

Mr Roebuck's books

In front of me is It Never Rains, Peter Roebuck's diary of his 1983 season with Somerset. It's waterstained and foxed, the page edges an uneasy shade of yellow on account of it spending a couple of years in the bottom of my cricket bag. It was there because he wrote it around the time I was playing semi-seriously. A while later, another of Roebuck's books, Tangled Up In White, was in there too, and I used to take plenty of stick for reading them in the dressing room.

Tangled Up In White contained an epic piece about Dean Jones' 210 in Madras, an innings that Roebuck sketched, unforgettably, through the conditions [a nuclear sun, its microwave heat], fragments of dialogue [Border: 'quit if you want, we'll get a Queenslander out here'] and harrowing notes on Jones' physical and mental deterioration [dry heaves, urinating at the crease, hallucinating in the shower, on a drip at the hospital]. It was impossible to read without being stirred for your inconsequential club game, your appointment with the local quicks...

It Never Rains played a wholly different role. It was the first book I'd read that was equivocal about the game, that made it okay to feel ambiguous about something that dominated your life. It was self-aware, knowing, courageous in its way. Roebuck found cricket and his efforts at playing it funny, ridiculous, poignant, hubristic, bathetic in the sense that it switched from the everyday to the unrepeatable, and slightly, darkly heroic, too.

The start of the season is beset by rain, endless and total, that sends him indoors for hours and hours on the bowling machine. Roebuck's confidence grows and grows until he strides out for his first innings of the year and lasts one ball. As the summer reaches its height, he's in the grip of a six-week depression that concludes on the first day of August with the simple words, 'no entry'. It's a book full of such cadences, the rhythms of real life. There are the identikit ring-roads and fuming pub grub of the touring pro, the grinding tyranny of the fixture list, the recognition of unfathomable talent far out of reach [Botham, Richards and Garner are perched in their corners of the Somerset dressing room], and the comforting quirkiness of any team, anywhere [Colin Dredge, the Demon of Frome, Dasher Denning, the manic opener]. Any cricketer will read it and just know.

What I remember most though is the passage where Roebuck hears that he might be considered for England, and realises, down in his heart, that he doesn't really want to be, or at least that he is profoundly uncertain about it. That admission, and his honesty in revealing it, rounded the game out for me, completed it in my head. This was why it was great - because it was not easy. Somehow, the joy of it was increased by this. Whether you played cricket, wrote about it, thought about it, lived it or watched the odd highlights programme when there was nothing else on, you could never exhaust it. It was, and always would be, too rich, too human and complex, for that.

Roebuck knew it, too. As obituaries often do, his have turned up some tremendous stories. When he went for his interview for Millfield school his parents went as well, and were both offered jobs. According to Wisden, he was just four feet two inches tall when he debuted for Somerset seconds as a thirteen year old. He once wrote a newspaper piece about the decline of Richard Hadlee and then had to bat against him at Trent Bridge - he made a double hundred, that was, the Notts spinner Andy Afford tweeted, 'scored entirely off his gloves'. Mark Nicholas once sidled up to Roebuck and said that the pair of them were the two best cricket writers around. 'Who told you that,' snorted Roebuck, 'your mother?'

He was an anachronistic man, which probably cost him. He should have lived in the 1950s, not now. Off the field, he had a rock-solid intellectual confidence that enabled him to lead the sacking of Richards and Garner in favour of Martin Crowe - Botham pasted the famous 'Judas' sign over his dressing room peg. On it, the same intellect smothered his instinct. Someone described his stooped stance as being 'like a question mark'. How perfectly appropriate that was.

Roebuck's 'conversion' to being Australian was always amusing; he was the least Australian man on earth, and yet he found acceptance there after his conviction for assault. The great conflicts in his personality, expressed so well in It Never Rains, leaves an ambiguity over his death too. There is a [mostly] unwritten fear over what its circumstances will expose. Yet his books remain fundamentally true - and they remain in my bag, too.

Thursday 10 November 2011

The death of momentum

As Ian Dury once said, there ain't half been some clever bastards, and one of them is Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, even though he's not an economist, he's a psychologist.

Kahneman is the star of Michael Lewis's piece in the new issue of Vanity Fair, a story that fills in a little hole drilled by Lewis's book Moneyball. Kahneman, as you might expect of a man who knocked off a Nobel in his spare time, had the answer to a question that Moneyball left hanging, namely, why, if baseball coaches had spent their entire lives watching baseball, had they got player selection wrong so often, and by so much?

The solution lay in cognitive psychology and something Kahneman called 'the availability heuristic', which was the notion that human judgement is often based on the most easily recalled information. He explained this by means of one of his experiments: a roulette wheel was rigged to stop on one of two numbers, 10 or 65. Kahneman asked the groups he assembled in front of the wheel to write down the number they saw. He then asked them an unrelated question: 'What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?'

The average answer of the groups whose wheel landed on 10 was 25 per cent, and of the groups who landed on 65 was 45 per cent. In other words, the unrelated number affected their guess.

Kahneman called this 'the anchoring effect'. He conducted lots of other strange experiments too, like creating a character called Linda, who 'was bright, majored in philosophy and who was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice'. He asked his subjects which statement was more true: i] Linda is a bank teller ii] Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. Eighty-five per cent of people opted for number ii even though it is logically impossible [if number ii is true, then number i must be equally true].

Daniel Kahneman developed all of this stuff into 'prospect theory' which was about economics and ultimately, many years later, won him the big one. A Harvard undergraduate called Paul DePodesta, who had been hired by Billy Beane at the Oakland As, became interested in it. Along with Bill James, their maverick statistician, they exploited the 'willful ignorance' of the baseball player market, and revolutionised the way the game was measured.

Michael Lewis thought of all of this when he stumbled on a letter written to him in 1985 by Bill James. 'Baseball men have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings,' James wrote. 'It includes momentum, confidence, seeing the ball well, slumps, guts, clutch ability, being hot and my all-time favourite, intangibles'.

Kahneman's work seemed to answer Bill James's question. Baseball coaches often based their judgement on nebulous concepts and 'instincts' rather than empirical evidence of the kind rooted out by Bill James.

Cricket does it too. Australia dropped Simon Katich for being too old in the face of all available evidence: in the previous three years, he was the only Australian batsman to average over 50, had scored more runs, home and away, than anyone else, and two payers who kept their places, Ponting and Hussey, were older than Katich. There are plenty of other examples: how long did Steve Harmison's 7-12 affect opinion of his game?

During an insane day at Newlands yesterday, when Australia were bowled out for 284 and then South Africa were bowled out for 96 and Australia's second innings score stood at 21-9, Robin Jackman asserted on commentary that 'South Africa have the momentum here'.

How did Jackman make that judgement? Probably because, in his mind, South Africa taking 9-21 was further forward than the knowledge that Australia were 209 runs ahead on a day when 20 wickets had fallen for 128 runs.

Momentum is king of those nebulous concepts affected by the availability heuristic. In truth, not even Daniel Kahneman could tell you what's going to happen at Newlands today, other than that someone's going to win, because there's almost nothing to compare it with. Try one for yourself: Next time Australia bat, which will be in Johannesburg, how many do you reckon they'll score? Not that easy is it, when your availability heuristic is all over the place.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Could pattern recognition be a key to the fix?

Monumental wides, balls sprayed illogically either side of the wicket, unfathomable passages of play, experts shaking their heads... but enough about Mitchell Johnson, what about that spot-fixing, eh?

Okay, that's a cheap shot at Mitch, but in sentencing Butt, Asif and Amir [three names that will now forever be bracketed together, no pun intended] Mr Justice Cooke pointed to the 'insidious nature' of what they had done. He was right, because what they have done is cast doubt, suspicion and fear where there was none: Edgbaston '05, Australia's second innings, Shane Warne steps too far back in his crease and knocks off a bail with his heel; Trent Bridge 2010, County Championship final day, Notts win the title on countback after taking the three Lancashire wickets they needed for a bonus point in 4.4 overs of the final session; Edgbaston 2011, spinner Amit Mishra bowls nine no-balls in England's only innings; Cardiff 2011, Sri Lanka lose eight wickets for 49 runs in the last session of the match; Sabina Park 2009, England second innings, 51 all out in 33.2 overs...

All of these events were straight up. They were unusual, but in the way that we want sport to be unusual, and they happened within the broad paradigm of credibility, they weren't without precedent. But as Cooke noted, insidious cheating turns the eye inwards. Ultimately, how do you tell?

The ineptitude of Butt's fixing ring does not help any, either. The loud-mouthed, loose-lipped, vainglorious Mazhar Majeed was an accident waiting to happen. In turn, Butt and Mazhar were so unsure of Asif's loyalty they were paying way over the odds for his over-stepping, and Amir provided joke no-balls that couldn't do anything but arouse suspicion. No international cricketer is that bad [and yes, you can insert your own Mitch or Harmi joke here]. We can probably assume that there are or have been more sophisticated, less porous, more professional operations going down.

It still took a sting as well-financed and sharply executed as the News Of The World's to produce a strong enough case to convict. It's notable that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to focus their case on the no-balls rather than other evidence offered by the ICC's Anti- Corruption Unit in the wake of the story's publication, because it was really only the no-balls that proferred a provable moment.

The News Of The World has gone, and the likelihood of another sting is remote. The Anti-Corruption Unit certainly could not undertake one. The game will continue to throw up its occasional collapses and catastrophes, its offbeat outcomes. Well-meaning commentators and ex-pros may speculate about them. but there's little more they can do. So the question grows: how does cricket protect itself?

Perhaps one key lies in the desire of the best teams to improve. Andy Flower's stats department at Loughborough has watched and logged every ball bowled in international cricket in the last five years. Other sides are doing the same. From that information, they're looking to extract patterns, to identify and recognise both the obvious and the unique about teams and individuals. That data offers some kind of baseline of performance that might be adapted when looking for the kind of events used by spot-fixers and gamblers. An obvious example would be scoring patterns produced in 'brackets', which, by the nature of them being set out before the game starts, might lie at odds with the rest of the play around them. Statistical analysis is, in a way, the ultimate in vigilance.

Most fixing demands the involvement of the captain, and there are a finite number of those. If they can be made part of the process - an ICC quorum that brings them together and offers them the chance to meet and talk and establish common cultures within their teams - might offer a stronger grasp on control of the game.

These are small things. The best protection is for the broad internal culture of international cricket to provide its own defence. Mohammad Amir, 18 years old, from a background beyond the experience of most English or Australian players, walked into a nightmare. His captain was corrupt, so were his team-mates, and his family were being threatened by bookmakers' heavies. It's asking a lot of a kid to make a stand against all of that, even if knew how to do so.

It has been a personal tragedy for him, and the laws of natural justice need to apply. Prison is probably not the place for Amir, at least not for long. In mainstream society, once a man has served his punishment he's free to resume his life, his debt paid. Amir must be allowed to do the same within cricket once his ban is served. Rehabilitating him into a game that has found new ways to police itself would be the ultimate victory over what has happened.