January 15, 2010

Cold calling leaves England in a puddle

Conventional cricketing wisdom, dating back to the days when Aristotle and Plato would play single-wicket games against each other on the back streets of Athens, has always advised the toss-winning captain either to bat, or to think about bowling and

Andrew Strauss trudges off for a golden duck. Now if only he'd opted to field instead ... © Getty Images

England will have to pull an elephant-sized rabbit out of their impressively rabbit-filled hat if they are to win the series in South Africa, especially if they want to clinch the rubber with another nerve-clanking draw, as would be appropriate.

Andrew Strauss evidently likes a challenge as captain. Bowling first would have given England a far greater chance of being able to cling on by their cricketing fingertips with one wicket remaining, the tactic which has served them so well in recent months. As it is, they are now relying on conceding a massive first-innings deficit, then launching the rearguard to end all rearguards, probably with a helping shunt in the back from the Johannesburg weather.

All at Confectionery Stall head-quarters (i.e. me, and my two small children (the wife’s away working)) were surprised not only that Strauss chose to bat, but that Graeme Smith claimed that he also would have elected to strap his massive pads onto his massive legs and clamp his massive bat in his massive forearms. (The voting on this issue was as follows: Surprised – 1; Not surprised – 0; Abstentions – 2.)

Conventional cricketing wisdom, dating back to the days when Aristotle and Plato would play single-wicket games against each other on the back streets of Athens, has always advised the toss-winning captain either to bat, or to think about bowling and then bat. Or, in exceptional circumstances, think about bowling, then think about batting, decide to bat, but be overcome by a childish desire to subvert convention and say that you’ll bowl, before returning to the pavilion to be greeted by some angry batsmen tweaking some extremely stony moustaches.

The licentious, free-spirited age in which we live has led to this supposedly sage advice being ignored with increasing frequency. In the years before 1980, only 14% of toss-winners chose to bowl and/or field. Usually both. (Although Pakistan have recently surgically separated the two apparently conjoined disciplines. Their bowling has survived and flourished, but their fielding, sadly, has passed away.) Since 1980, 36% of captains have responded to a favourable fall of the coin by saying, “We’ll have a bowl and/or field.”

The contrast is even more stark if November 2 1960 is used as a cut-off date. On that day, a “not guilty” verdict was reached in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, paving the way for DH Lawrence’s famous humpfest of a literary classic to be published freely. Until the behavioural straitjacket was thus ripped from the heaving torso of society, only 9% of captains inserted their opponents. Between them, Lawrence and the British parliament’s decision to pas the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 have truly revolutionised Test cricket.

I digress. I will now throw some more percentages down at you. If you do not fear them, they will not hurt you.

The statistics suggest that the post-1980 36% are onto something. For each of the last three decades, captains who have chosen to bat first have had a losing record – overall, they have won 31.8%, drawn (or tied) 33.8%, and lost 34.4% in the last three decades. Captains electing to bowl first, by contrast, have won 37.7% of their games, drawn 33.1%, and lost only 29.2%.

So, since 1980, choosing to bowl first gives the average Test captain a win-loss ratio of 1.29; whereas choosing to bat first clocks with a dismal 0.92 wins per loss. It would seem that conventional wisdom is an ass. In this matter at least. And an out-of-date ass (is there any other kind of ass these days?). Before 1980, the equivalent figures were as follows − choose to bowl: 0.83 win-to-loss ratio; choose to bat: 1.33 victories-per-defeat. So there was decent mathematicoscientific grounding for the wisdom.

However, just as it was eventually proved that the world is not flat (for now), that not all things are made of earth, air, fire and water (although what a perfectly balanced bowling attack that quartet would have made), that dogs don’t necessarily bark in Morse Code, and that Paul Harris is not the seventh best bowler in the world, so it has now been proved that winning the toss and batting first is, statistically, slightly silly.

Strauss, an old-fashioned operator who was clearly brought up right, has won 13 Test tosses, and batted 11 times. On the two occasions he elected to bowl (Centurion and Cape Town), England came within a wicket of defeat – you could argue that choosing to bowl first, and therefore bat last, gave England the escape route of being able to dig in for the draw, just as when he twice chose to bat first on shirtfront in the Caribbean last year, when England needed to win, he made it easier for West Indies to grind out their series win.

More pertinently, Strauss has four wins and four draws from the eight games in which he has lost the toss (admittedly including the default win at The Oval against Pakistan in 2006, and the ten-minute draw on the Antiguan sandpit last February), compared with four wins, six draws and two defeats when he has won the toss (which could easily have been three draws and five defeats without the batting expertise of Panesar, Onions and Onions).

All this suggests that the England captain, for all his undoubtedly virtues and successes as a leader, should start calling something other than ‘heads’ or ‘tails’, in an effort to leave the toss-winning ball in the opposing captain’s court. Perhaps ‘helicopters’, or ‘chainsaws’ (assuming a regulation coin is being used). After all, as all attentive schoolchildren will tell you, in 813 Tests since 1990, the toss-winning captain has guzzled the sweet champagne of victory 286 times, and glugged down the rancid rat juice of defeat on 288 occasions. And had a non-committal cup of tea after the other 239 matches.

Of course, not all of cricket’s accepted truths are as rubbish as Alan Mullally’s cover drive. “Don’t play no shot to balls that are heading for your middle stump” remains as true today as it was when I was bowled middle stump whilst confidently removing my bat from harm’s way for Penshurst against Tunbridge Wells back in 1993. And “Never try to take a catch with your forehead” applies now as much as it did when I inadvertently headed the ball towards extra cover whilst wicketkeeping in an under-10 match in 1984.

“Catches win matches” is still true more often than it is false, as Pakistan must now be prepared to testify under oath, and Hashim Amla’s first-ball-of-the-match short-leg miracle/masterpiece may prove to have been the decisive moment of the game. It was, by some distance, the best catch of the decade so far. Possibly of the millennium. Possibly of the post-Jurassic era.

South Africa should win this Test, and gain the drawn series that even the barmiest and most militaristic of England’s Barmy Army would concede that Smith and his men deserve on the evidence of the series so far. The excellent pitch has produced outstanding fast bowling, and England’s top-order fragility and carelessness, which seems to shift between their players like an unwanted and over-conversational market researcher at a funeral party, was exposed. They lost in the West Indies because of it, and won the Ashes despite it, so a draw in South Africa would be fair enough.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on June 17, 2011, 14:35 GMT

    _englands_nervewracking_draw_i.. Not so bad :)

  • testli5504537 on January 21, 2010, 3:33 GMT

    Sarcastic, oops statistical para murdered me. "If you do not fear them, they will not hurt you. " I fear them like hell. Makes me feel dizzy in head and aloof at heart. Cause every time I try to argue with my wife statistically, she just throw down 10 counter-ones statistically.

  • testli5504537 on January 20, 2010, 19:25 GMT

    great piece as usual.....i think its time something is done about this often ignored issue of toss....there are days when winning the toss means winning the match....i suggest the tosses should be divided equally throughout the series with the captain given the option of deciding on the day of the match about what to do...this will eliminate any unfair play on the part of the hosts to manipulate the pitch when its their opponent's turn to decide...or still better the visiting captain should decide all the tosses....in Melbourne and Hobart,Pakistan lost half the tests on toss...

  • testli5504537 on January 19, 2010, 1:23 GMT

    I have another theory for you Andy. Strauss did not make the decision with that test on his mind. Instead he was thinking towards Novemeber and the Ahses and simply wanted to send a message to Ricky Ponting something like "Hey Ricky, i can bat first on a green top and do it better than you". Also, being without the unmovable object of Onions he also thought that batting last would just be too risky as he didn't have him to babysit the top order batsmen.

  • testli5504537 on January 16, 2010, 18:07 GMT

    The support for our national team is at its lowest ebb ever in my lifetime, since the days when our sportsmaster would chalk up hourly Test updates on a blackboard in the playground. In those days, we lived and breathed the names of heroes like May, Cowdrey, Barrington, Dexter, Bailey and Evans. Trueman and Statham. Laker and Lock. Now we have a side packed with foreign merceneraries. Strauss, Trott, Pieterson and Prior ahead of Key, Denley, Crawley and Read. And next in waiting is Wieswetter or some such name who arrived recently to attend college in this country. That doesn't make him an Englishman or eligible to play for my country as far as I'm concerned. The only exception there has ever been was Basil D'Oliveira, whom we rescued from an oppressive regime and gave an opportunity to play.

    Personally I will support national sides which are run by their own management and recruit only their own players without poaching overseas players with dubious qualifications.

  • testli5504537 on January 16, 2010, 17:28 GMT

    really a good one........... about pakistan: one team for which toss doesnt matter, even their decision to bat means bowling after few hours. bowling n fielding are already seperated

  • testli5504537 on January 16, 2010, 11:03 GMT

    LOL-stuff, as usual. Someone once said about PG Wodehouse: "He comes up with 3 new similies on every page"... the same's true of you Andy. The statistical anaylsis is brilliant. I wonder if you come up with the stats then weave a story around it, or the other way round ;) "only 14% of toss-winners chose to bowl and/or field. Usually both." - In the intervening nano-second between reading this line and the eagerly-awaited next, I knew Pakistan was not far ahead. A good egg, as PG would say.

  • testli5504537 on January 15, 2010, 20:50 GMT

    Oye Andy!!

    "...England’s top-order fragility and carelessness, which seems to shift between their players like an unwanted and over-conversational market researcher at a funeral party..."

    Dude, you are the most gosh-awesome, tickle-bellied, chortle-throated, giggly-ass-exposing writer on Cricinfo, maybe even on the internet, maybe even on the planet, in English.

    You are the head-priest-god-honcho-rainmaker, the great new hope who makes blog-weary and lonesome English words get in bed with absolutely unrelated other english words to create highly reactive, almost radioactive, phrases that run though the flaccid minds of somnolent readers and shred them into shreds of shredded, giggly minds.

    Please forgive my punctuation. And do please carry on...

  • testli5504537 on January 15, 2010, 20:31 GMT

    I seriously enjoy this writer. Absolutely love it. I seldom leave positive comments on these sorts of things but Andy - I salute you. Big Fan.

  • testli5504537 on January 15, 2010, 20:14 GMT

    Another good one, Andy. Your observations are truly sidesplitting especially the one about you taking the bat out of harm's way.

    The confectionery stall is indeed satirical.

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