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
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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
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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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...

  • on January 4, 2014, 21:28 GMT

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

  • kalyankarunai 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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...

  • on January 4, 2014, 21:28 GMT

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

  • kalyankarunai 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.

  • Rahulbose on January 4, 2014, 9:34 GMT

    Your friend and the commentators are right. Cover drives are not executed correctly 90% of the time as you claim. A flick down leg side is one of the easiest shots to play and gets you maximum value, hence getting out playing that shot is considered unlucky. A cover drive is a very tough shot to get right and even when you do you have to beat the field for getting full value.

  • azzaman333 on January 4, 2014, 5:18 GMT

    I have to disagree. I think the luck factor in sport is severely underrated. No one can perfectly control their own body, there is always random fluctuation in movement. The best players have a greater consistency, but even they can't perform perfectly all the time. In the long run the luck evens out, but in the context of a single innings luck is a huge factor.

  • on January 4, 2014, 4:41 GMT

    Good point. I have also often felt that being caught behind off a faint leg glance is not very different than being caught being or at first-slip off a faint late cut.

  • on January 4, 2014, 1:54 GMT

    Only schoolboys get caught down on the legside.

  • on January 3, 2014, 22:01 GMT

    I agree with the main point that a particular dismissal can rarely if ever be termed 'unlucky' (with possibly exceptions such as the non-striker being run out by the bowler deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps, which he can hardly be expected to anticipate), but I think sometimes it's reasonable to say that a bowler has been unlucky. One bowler may bowl very well all day but have the batsmen judge every ball perfectly, while another may not ball quite so well but have one or more batsmen misjudge shots against him which they didn't misjudge against the first bowler. The bowler can take a certain amount of credit for inducing false strokes, but I think there is also a partial element of luck involved.

  • mallu96 on January 3, 2014, 21:36 GMT

    Dravid was "UNLUCKY" when the genius of McCullum and Ross Taylor combined to have him caught behind off a paddle sweep he played. Tendulkar was unlucky when the ball ricocheted off Slater for Ponting to take the catch. Getting out caught behind while playing flick just screams of a LAZY batsman.

  • McGorium on January 3, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    Is this tome really necessary and/or making a contribution to our understanding of the sport? To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the above writeup demonstrates the author's firm grasp of the obvious. Attributing a leg-side catch to "luck" is an emotional (i.e. not logical) reaction. A batsman backing up too far and getting run out on a ricochet off the bowler's finger or foot is considered similarly unlucky, and one could just as easily argue that he shouldn't have backed up so far to begin with. The above case is considered "unlucky" largely because of the absence of intent on the part of the bowler: the bowler bowled a rubbish ball, it _should_ have been hit for four, but the batsman got out instead. Don't overthink it.

  • Kula_Bowls_Inswing on January 3, 2014, 18:53 GMT

    I think the reason that being "strangled" down the leg side is so often "unlucky" is that, unless there is a leg gully and the bowler is directing short balls at the batsman's body, the bowler generally does not bowl for that dismissal.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that calling this dismissal "unlucky" isn't a statement of ignorance: it's just as "unlucky" as hitting a gentle half-volley straight to cover.

  • on January 3, 2014, 17:41 GMT

    Consider a scenario of a batsman executing a perfect cover drive, right under his eyes, bat in perfect position, placed well and then someone at short cover pulls off a blinder. Wasn't he unlucky? Note here, we'll never quote "Oh, the fielder was lucky that stuck in his hand"

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  • on January 3, 2014, 17:41 GMT

    Consider a scenario of a batsman executing a perfect cover drive, right under his eyes, bat in perfect position, placed well and then someone at short cover pulls off a blinder. Wasn't he unlucky? Note here, we'll never quote "Oh, the fielder was lucky that stuck in his hand"

  • Kula_Bowls_Inswing on January 3, 2014, 18:53 GMT

    I think the reason that being "strangled" down the leg side is so often "unlucky" is that, unless there is a leg gully and the bowler is directing short balls at the batsman's body, the bowler generally does not bowl for that dismissal.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that calling this dismissal "unlucky" isn't a statement of ignorance: it's just as "unlucky" as hitting a gentle half-volley straight to cover.

  • McGorium on January 3, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    Is this tome really necessary and/or making a contribution to our understanding of the sport? To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the above writeup demonstrates the author's firm grasp of the obvious. Attributing a leg-side catch to "luck" is an emotional (i.e. not logical) reaction. A batsman backing up too far and getting run out on a ricochet off the bowler's finger or foot is considered similarly unlucky, and one could just as easily argue that he shouldn't have backed up so far to begin with. The above case is considered "unlucky" largely because of the absence of intent on the part of the bowler: the bowler bowled a rubbish ball, it _should_ have been hit for four, but the batsman got out instead. Don't overthink it.

  • mallu96 on January 3, 2014, 21:36 GMT

    Dravid was "UNLUCKY" when the genius of McCullum and Ross Taylor combined to have him caught behind off a paddle sweep he played. Tendulkar was unlucky when the ball ricocheted off Slater for Ponting to take the catch. Getting out caught behind while playing flick just screams of a LAZY batsman.

  • on January 3, 2014, 22:01 GMT

    I agree with the main point that a particular dismissal can rarely if ever be termed 'unlucky' (with possibly exceptions such as the non-striker being run out by the bowler deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps, which he can hardly be expected to anticipate), but I think sometimes it's reasonable to say that a bowler has been unlucky. One bowler may bowl very well all day but have the batsmen judge every ball perfectly, while another may not ball quite so well but have one or more batsmen misjudge shots against him which they didn't misjudge against the first bowler. The bowler can take a certain amount of credit for inducing false strokes, but I think there is also a partial element of luck involved.

  • on January 4, 2014, 1:54 GMT

    Only schoolboys get caught down on the legside.

  • on January 4, 2014, 4:41 GMT

    Good point. I have also often felt that being caught behind off a faint leg glance is not very different than being caught being or at first-slip off a faint late cut.

  • azzaman333 on January 4, 2014, 5:18 GMT

    I have to disagree. I think the luck factor in sport is severely underrated. No one can perfectly control their own body, there is always random fluctuation in movement. The best players have a greater consistency, but even they can't perform perfectly all the time. In the long run the luck evens out, but in the context of a single innings luck is a huge factor.

  • Rahulbose on January 4, 2014, 9:34 GMT

    Your friend and the commentators are right. Cover drives are not executed correctly 90% of the time as you claim. A flick down leg side is one of the easiest shots to play and gets you maximum value, hence getting out playing that shot is considered unlucky. A cover drive is a very tough shot to get right and even when you do you have to beat the field for getting full value.

  • 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.