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