April 8, 2014

Malinga's secret ingredient, the meaning of life, and why the rain stopped

All the burning questions from the World T20, accorded the respect they deserve

Insert "hair apparent" joke here © Getty Images

Thank you to those who sent Twitter questions for this week's ZaltZone video. I did not use them in the ZaltZone video due to a combination of time constraints, an already overlong script, and the pure, unanswerable brilliance of your queries. I have, however, answered as many as possible in this blog instead. If you want to know what my video responses would have been, imagine my face and voice reading out the text below whilst looking at a video camera and sitting still.

@just1fan: Did the final prove India have just been riding on Kohli?
No, it did not. In fact, in India's first three games, Kohli rode on India's bowlers - it was an impressive display of batting dressage, admittedly, but the credit went largely to the horses. Kohli scored heavily, and consolidated his side's dominance, but in fairly simple sub-140 chases, and with significant support from Rohit Sharma.

Only in the semi-final was Kohli's batting the dominant factor in an Indian win. In the final, the Delhi Dominator's 77 at a strike rate of 132 was the kind of innings that generally helps win a T20 match for a team batting first (around two-thirds of such innings have resulted in wins), but he received what might be termed as "negative support" from his team-mates - innings that were not just insignificant, or passively unhelpful, but actively damaging - Rahane, Yuvraj and Dhoni between them scored just 18 runs but used up 36 balls, or 30% of India's available deliveries.

What India's innings in the final did prove was: (a) that in any given T20 innings, even a good team might play badly; (b) that it is a risk keeping an out-of-form player in the team; and (c) that even a side with a wealth of experience can suddenly start making schoolboy errors under pressure. Just as Sri Lanka's successful chase proved: (a) that in any given T20 innings, a good team will probably find a way to achieve its objective; (b) that you need to stick by out-of-form players because they will eventually come good at the key moments; and (c) that there is no substitute for experience under pressure.

@welshjon58: How many players have ruined their averages by being out slogging?
Plenty. But averages in T20 are as close to completely meaningless as statistics can get. Averages in all forms of the game require considerable cross-examination in a darkened room before they can be trusted, and in T20 they should be fully embargoed. Multiplying average by strike rate to get a T20 equivalent of baseball's "slugging percentage" would be of more use, but this would still not take into account the efficiency with which batsmen use the resources available to them. I am sure there is some way of calculating it with ruthless mathematical objectivity, but I have neither the ruthlessness nor the mathematics to do so.

@jaCattell: What is the meaning of life, please? Does it have something to do with cricket?
Life is a journey towards ultimate understanding of the nature of existence and reality. And, since we now have illuminating stumps, that journey is now complete.

@IamDaniel24: What has Malinga got as a captain to be so successful? His hair, his slinger, or the other captains?
The hair definitely helps. In the closing overs of India's innings, it appeared to function very much like the snake-based coiffeuring of Medusa, the celebrity Greek mythical figure who would turn people to stone if they looked at her face. Malinga's hair clearly had the same effect on India's batsmen. A captain with that capability under his hat demands full and instant respect.

His bowling action must also prompt an awed admiration for the skipper's ability and willingness to seemingly defy the laws of cricketing convention and human biomechanics.

It clearly also helped Malinga to have such a wealth of captaincy experience alongside him to give him sage advice and encouragement, and/or tell him exactly what to do, precisely how and specifically when.

Captaincy in T20 is a high-pressure role, but the Confectionery Stall fervently hopes that the day will one day arrive when T20 teams are captained by their supporters. Modern technology already has the witch-like ability to facilitate instant votes. The stadium crowd, or even online fans, could decide bowling changes, field positioning and even the intensity and vocabulary of sledging on a ball-by-ball basis.

@PeeJay____: Do you think Sri Lanka should have had one more captain, for the post-match presentations?
The idea of tag-team captaincy is rapidly gaining ground. The captaincy should be transferable, according to the match situation. You might have one captain who is really astute in Powerplays, another who can only skipper left-arm medium-pacers between the ages of 23 and 28, another who is a brilliant leader if and only if there is a south-westerly breeze and two atheist umpires. Cricket should have a football-style captain's armband that could be passed from player to player according to the match situation. Scratch that, let's go big - the captain should wear a massive golden crown like the all-powerful emperor that he is, and should ceremonially coronate a team-mate whenever a change of leader is required.

In not just losing to Netherlands, but being hammered by them like a drunken nail in a 1970s DIY-themed horror movie, England selflessly did more for Associate cricket than a thousand ICC initiatives could ever manage.

@RahulBose1: Who won, Andy? Do tell! Was it England, then?
(This was in response to my suggestion that, as the vanquishers of Sri Lanka, England were, to all intents and purposes, the true champions.)

In real terms, in terms of actual trophies collected, clearly England did not win. But in terms of being the team that proved themselves better than the eventual champions, by being the only team to beat them, thus scientifically proving they had the ability to be best team in the tournament, despite deliberately jettisoning their best player before the tournament just to make things more competitive, then yes, England were the moral, spiritual and objective winners. They did not need the ephemeral, firework-blasting glory of actually winning the tournament to prove it. So instead they set about spreading the joy of cricket far and wide. By letting everyone else beat them. And in not just losing to Netherlands, but being hammered by them like a drunken nail in a 1970s DIY-themed horror movie, they selflessly did more for Associate cricket than a thousand ICC initiatives could ever manage. If T20 is going to help the world game grow beyond its traditional borders, then it will need teams like England to take a humiliating thwack to the cricketing nether regions, in the interests of the broader good of the sport.

@PeacockAngry: Why did the rain stop?
It was the will of Chaac, the ancient Mayan god of rain. Chaac is of course now retired from top-level rain administration, but he can still pull in a favour or two from whichever deity runs the precipitation gig now, especially when there is a cricket match on that he wants to watch. Chaac is famously a huge T20 fan. Tlaloc, his Aztec equivalent, by contrast, is much more of a Test-match-favouring rain god. He prefers the more varied narrative and greater range of skills and expression in the longer game. Even Test fans would admit that Tlaloc was not without his flaws. He demanded child sacrifices, for example, which is about the only thing of which today's cricket administrators have not been accused over recent years. Yet.

TahaAbrarSays: Why did Kohli barely face a ball in the last four overs?
Two main reasons: 1. Bad batting. 2. Good bowling. The only other explanation is that, due to a logistical glitch, Yuvraj had been told that he was being sent in as a nightwatchman, to protect Kohli for the next morning. Explanations 1 and 2 seem more likely.

@UmmairSpeaks: Should India have started with spin in their attack?
When you are defending a total of 130, you are probably going to lose. In fact, the stats over the course of T20 history suggest you have a better than 70% chance of losing. So who opens the bowling for you is not necessarily of great importance. India might have won had they opened with spin, but they would probably still have lost. What they should have done, with hindsight, was take four or five wickets in the first over. Whoever bowled it. That would have helped. As would scoring more than 130 runs in the first place have done.

Dhoni said at the end that "T20 cricket is always about that extra 15 runs". India managed just 19 in the final four overs in Sunday's final, despite having eight wickets in hand. This was their second-lowest score in the final four overs of a completed T20I first innings in 25 attempts - they managed only 18 against Pakistan in Bangalore in December 2012, but that was influenced by a clatter of wickets; their next lowest such total is 29. On average, when batting first in T20Is, India have scored at 10.9 per over in the final four overs - effectively, 44 runs. (All teams collectively in T20s score at 9.5 in overs 17 to 20 of a first innings, an average of 38 runs.)

According to the results of all previous T20 matches, if India had scored those extra 15 runs that Dhoni mentioned, and had been defending 145 instead of 130, their likelihood of victory would have risen from around 27% to around 44%; if they had scored 25 more runs, as they might have expected to based on their average performance in the final four overs of previous T20Is in which they have batted first, they would have had almost doubled their probability of victory to around 53%. (I have done my work on these sums. Honest. The relevant numbers have now been filed in a secure vault somewhere underneath Switzerland.)

Of course, conditions, pitch, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams involved, and the quirky interventions of cricketing fate all have a major role to play, but these figures give a rough indication of how important those 15 extra runs are, and how decisive Sri Lanka's bowling was in those match-shaping final overs, shifting their status in the match from approximate parity to significant dominance.

(For anyone interested in the "15 Runs Make All The Difference" theory, the historic likelihood of victory in T20 matches for teams batting first is as follows:

Defending under 100: 3.7%
Defending 100-114: 15.1%
Defending 115-129: 22.3%
Defending 130-144: 35.8%
Defending 145-159: 51.6%
Defending 160-174: 64.1%
Defending 175-189: 73.3%
Defending 190-204: 84.7%
Defending 205-219: 90.9%
Defending 220 or more: 98.4%

Counting only matches in which the team batting first has faced at least 90 balls; and counting ties as half a win.)

No further questions. Apologies if your question was not answered. Please ask it instead to a passer-by, doctor, priest, or Ravi Shastri impersonator, whichever is most convenient.

And finally some Sangakkara and Jayawardene stats:

Their partnership in the final was their 268th for Sri Lanka (a record by any international pair), during which they have faced 18,096 balls, or 3016 overs. This equates, assuming over rates of 14 per hour, to nine days of solid batting, 24 hours a day, or 36 complete six-hour days of cricket. They have shared 89 stands of more than 50 in international cricket (a record), including 32 century stands (second, behind Tendulkar and Ganguly). They need to add 135 more runs together to overtake the two Indians' record total of 12,400.

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