January 3, 2014

What's luck got to do with being caught down leg?

To ascribe a dismissal resulting from a catch down leg side to bad luck is to confuse the workings of fortune with a poorly executed shot

When the flick doesn't come off, we know enough about how the shot is played to know what went wrong. Luck isn't one of the plausible explanations © Getty Images

During the first South Africa-India Test, shortly after M Vijay was dismissed - caught down the leg side off Jacques Kallis - a familiar refrain was soon making the rounds on television and on Twitter: Vijay had been "unlucky", he had been "strangled down the leg side", his dismissal was "unfortunate". I call this refrain "familiar" because it appears so often for this particular kind of dismissal. Something, it seems, makes this method of getting out more susceptible to reckonings of misplaced fortune, of unfortunate placement in cricketing sweepstakes.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why. Vijay had simply played a "poorly executed shot". He had attempted a flick off his pads, his timing had been off, perhaps the ball was not in the right place for that shot to be essayed, the ball made contact with the bat at an unintended spot, thus imparting to it insufficient and poorly directed momentum. The result had been an easy catch to the wicketkeeper.

If there was any "luck" - a term, it seems to me, that is assigned as a cover-up for our ignorance of all the factors that may impinge on our fortunes - then that kind of luck was present in any other kind of dismissal. My friend and Cordon colleague Subash Jayaraman suggested it was because "nine times out of ten that shot comes off and when it doesn't, you simply miss the ball". It's unlucky therefore, to only make partial contact. This sounds right, but it can't be.

Consider, for instance, that that sort of analysis could be made for almost any shot: "Nine times out of ten a cover drive comes off. When it doesn't, you simply miss the ball. You have to be unlucky to simply edge it to slip."

The only thing distinguishing the two cases - and it isn't much - is that in the case of the catch down the leg side, the batsman gets merely a fine tickle, one that makes the catch possible. (Edges off the bat that fly to slip are normally a bit thicker; the finer ones go through to the keeper.) Any more contact with the bat and it would require either a superhuman effort from the wicketkeeper - thus generating those spectacular leg-side catches we all love so much - or render the ball well and truly out of reach and on its way to the boundary.

Only in a universe where batsmen were expected to be perfect would we suggest that a mere random confluence of physical factors had conspired to dismiss him

An analysis of a batsman's dismissal that factors in luck is flawed in relying too much on factors being unknown that simply aren't. Every dismissal requires collaboration by the bowler and batsman; sometimes the bowler's line and length forces the mistake from the batsman; sometimes the batsman obligingly hands over his wicket to the bowler by attempting a poorly thought out and planned shot; sometimes an intended shot is appropriately planned but executed imperfectly. In every dismissal, whenever a batsman plays a shot, there is a failure of execution: the batsman's judgement of the ball to essay the shot has been incorrect, or the shot itself is not executed with the correct physical set-up - feet not in position, for instance - and follow-through.

What has luck got to do with it? Cricketers are humans and they cannot be infallible, so an ascription of error to them does not diminish them in the slightest. Why would it? Only in a universe where batsmen were expected to be perfect would we suggest that a mere random confluence of physical factors had conspired to dismiss him.

As I noted above, an ascription of luck is a statement of ignorance. Many, many events conspire to bring about the ten dismissals in every cricketing innings: the smoothness of the pitch's surface, the wear and tear of the ball, the length of the pitch's grass blades, the moisture in the air; these aid or obstruct the efforts of the batsman and the bowler. We often cover up our ignorance of their contributions: "He hasn't had luck go his way today while bowling" is simple shorthand for "We don't know why he didn't get wickets today." We'll continue to rely on that term so long as it carries the mileage it does in enabling a pithy description of the limits of our knowledge.

But in many cases, like the flick that didn't come off, we know enough about how that shot is played, how it comes off and how it doesn't, to be able to say: "The batsman simply didn't play that shot well enough." It might be that some moisture in the air made the ball swing just a tad more and thus messed up Vijay's calculations about whether the shot would come off or not. But such uncertainty is present in all dismissals, whether catches or leg-befores or run-outs. We do not rely on luck then as an explanation when so many other plausible explanations are present.

We should do the same for the catch down the leg side. There's nothing unlucky about such a dismissal.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 16:06 GMT

    A poor shot is a poor shot. The only time a batsman is unlucky is if the pitch contributes greatly to a dismissal in an unforseen or unpreventable manner. Kalyankarunai, how far back in history are you talking?! If you even see photographs or sketches of the 1870, 1880 matches you will see many a fielder on the leg side. The rules weren't even codified to the extent they were now. Dave Gregory even had a fielder move into a catching position whilst the bowler was in his run up to set up Grace in the 1878 Australia v MCC. At deep backward square. Also you can set up for the leg side deliberate strangle. Johnson to Carberry, Sydney, 2014. Lyon to Prior, Adelaide 2013. Swann to Clarke, Lords 2013, Johnson to Trott, Brisbane 2013. All were caught at wicket, leg slip or gully. There were several other similar dismissals throughout the ten match Ashes series. Alderman also deliberately had David Gower caught in the same manner at leg slip in 1989. Don't tell me it's all bad deliveries/luck.

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 10:22 GMT

    I disagree with samir on this. When a ball is delivered on/outside the legstump the chances of getting out is very rare but if the connection to ball is made at the sweetspot on the bat it would add four easy runs to the total and more than 90% of the batsmen would play this shot especially when they are forced to leave so many deliveries outside the offstump in test matches. This is basically not a strategy for the bowler or captain to take a wicket. There is some luck involved in this. Even faintest of edges would fly away from the wicket keeper but sometimes they would not. This is something that cannot be judged by the batsmen accurately.

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 8:29 GMT

    Excellent post. I've been thinking on similar lines about legside play, which is rarely perfected the way offside batting is, even by some greats. And I don't mean only on-drives, pulls and hooks which are not mastered by many.

  • RB007 on January 5, 2014, 8:16 GMT

    Nice try Samir, but it doesn't work. Just like hit wicket, cap falling on wicket, run out while backing up, etc are legitimate ways of getting out so is "strangled down the legside". However, these dismissals are freakish in nature and can be coroborrated by their (relative lesser number of) frequency in the history of the game. Add to that the lack of intent from the bowler and you can understand why the term unlucky is acceptable to most of us. No fielding team can plan for such dismissals. If you were to quibble that the bowler was lucky, I would grant that is a more accurate statement than the batsman being unlucky! Besides that really no point to this article. Regards

  • philvic on January 5, 2014, 7:52 GMT

    I dont know about the specifics of the Vijay case but most dismissals down the legside are off poor misdirected deliveries. the shot may be less than perfect, but the bowler is then lucky to get the wicket, more than the batsmen unlucky. In certain instances a bowler may target this area, usually with short hostile bowling to an appropriately placed field and then there is no luck involved on either side.

    Most of the luck in cricket comes down to umpiring decisions which is where the DRS has revolutionized the game apart from the Luddites of India.

  • geevee on January 5, 2014, 6:01 GMT

    There is no luck in all this. A poor shot or a mistimed shot is just that -"a poor shot". If you get caught, you deserve to get out. If you don't you are "lucky". Otherwise there is no role for luck in a skills game.However, there are extraneous factors that can create situations which can be termed lucky or unlucky - such as an sudden overcast sky, dew, uneven pitch, cracks on the pitch, movement of spectators over the bowler's arm.

  • ms_cool on January 5, 2014, 4:59 GMT

    i totally disagree with the author.. because first the bowler doesn't deserve a wicket with that delivery, he is lucky to have that.. secondly i don't think any batsman in the world can perfectly play that delivery, there is no text book stuff for that, its always a matter of luck... thirdly i wonder whether the author would have gone with this if it was tendulkar?? he is unlucky because he been out there for hours played against best bowling attack and got out on a poor delivery on legside with one shot to his maiden away hundred but the author doesn't want to give him unlucky tag great...

  • dummy4fb on January 4, 2014, 21:28 GMT

    @ kalyankarunai... we are not talking about antiquity of cricket here , are we?

  • cricfan29980384 on January 4, 2014, 17:43 GMT

    @Samir Chopra you can find the answer for your question, if you go through the cricket history and get answers for the below questions. Do you know why Cricket is called as Gentlemen Game? Do you know a fact that in olden days, there will not be any fielders on the leg side and it was a disgrace to score in that area. When scoring on the leg side was a disgrace, taking a wicket in that side, just behind you is considered unlucky.

  • CricketChat on January 4, 2014, 17:34 GMT

    Agree with author completely. It's just a misconception that most fans, those who haven't played the game with any significant skill level, think that leg side play is easy hence getting out to leg glace or flick is rather unfortunate. One can get out to any stroke if not executed properly and a decent fielder is in line to intercept that poor shot. In most cases, the trap would have already been set and the batsmen foolishly falls right into it.

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