April 11, 2012

When is poor form just randomness?

How can we tell coincidence from errors of approach and application? It's a question of judgement

There is a nasty moment in the career of every coach or captain when he looks around the dressing room during one of his own team talks and asks himself the startling but pertinent question, "Who am I talking to? These words, these exhortation, these commands - who are they aimed at? Who do I want to be listening? Is anyone? And should anyone be listening, even to me?"

And yet all captains were once themselves in the ranks, so they must still remember the days when they were among the non-listeners rather than the un-listened to. One colleague of mine kept a newspaper crossword (unobtrusively placed next to his left thigh) to look at during every team talk. As the coach yelled and blamed players, my team-mate would nod sagely, as if in agreement. But he wasn't nodding about the team talk at all; he was nodding in satisfaction at having cracked nine across.

And I don't blame him. In fact, the ability to tune out of team talks is a vital preliminary for preserving your sanity as a player. Why? Because cricket is a very difficult game to generalise about and because it is very rare that all the components of a team underperform simultaneously. Far more often - after any day's play - the dressing room contains a wide variety of individual performances. So why should a player who has prepared optimally and performed admirably allow his mood to be ruined by a team talk that is aimed entirely at someone else? Cricket is famously a team game played by individuals - a fact it is all too easy to forget when you are speaking to the whole team.

Look at England's performances in Test matches this winter and ask yourself what changed between the abject failures of Pakistan and the superb victory of the second Test in Colombo?

The bowling? No change - it was excellent throughout. The wicketkeeping? No change. The fielding? No change. The body language? A symptom rather than a cause. The team mentality? No change that I could discern. The effort and discipline? No change that I could pick up.

The difference was very simple: England succeeded in getting runs in Colombo where they failed to get runs in the UAE and in Galle. Only one element of their game had been problematic. And once England's batting was fixed - or fixed itself - the team returned to winning ways and preserved their status as the No. 1-ranked Test team in the world.

It is alarmingly simple. All that disappointment and suffering - the defeats, the soul searching, the media criticism, the frankly baffling idea that Andrew Strauss ought to be sacked as captain, and the barking mad suggestion that Kevin Pietersen was no longer good enough - it was all caused by something utterly straightforward: England's six frontline batsmen simply weren't scoring enough runs.

How can we explain the fact that so many good players were out of form simultaneously? The coach, Andy Flower, was typically self-critical in blaming the team's preparation for the batting failures earlier this winter. I have a different theory. England's collective batting woes did not necessarily have a direct "cause" of the sort that journalists and fans like to believe must always exist. It may not have been a question of effort or preparation or even collective mood.

Team batting failures are sometimes caused by the simple fact of randomness. What do I mean by randomness? Imagine the career scores of each batsman in the team printed in sequence on a piece on paper. It would look like a cardiogram - the upward spikes are the hundreds, the lowest points are the zeroes. Now imagine six of these cardiograms - one for each of the team's batsmen - laid one above the other on the same page.

England's collective batting woes did not necessarily have a direct "cause" of the sort that journalists and fans like to believe must always exist. It may not have been a question of effort or preparation or even collective mood

If the same batting team stays together for a long enough period of time - and England's selection policy is very stable - there will inevitably be a time at which all six of the cardiograms are at a low point. Obviously this is a catastrophe for the team: no one is getting any runs! But it does not follow that the batsmen are slacking or the coaches are useless or the tactics are flawed. It really is just one of those things.

The question, and it is a hugely problematic one, is: how can we know if it really was random rather than "caused" by errors of approach and application? There is no complete answer to that. It is a question of judgement; and good judgement is what singles out the top coaches and captains.

The best coach I've ever worked with constantly used to ask if what everyone else was calling "form" was in fact randomness. When my team was bowled out for a low score, he'd say, "Did you actually bat badly? Or did you just nick everything?" He meant that sometimes the ratio of edges to plays-and-misses is unusually high. The underlying logic is important: it is a sign of wisdom not to draw too many conclusions from a small sample of outcomes.

If this coach sounds like a soft touch, don't be fooled. He sometimes asked the same question in reverse form when we won. He would shock me by saying, "You won, but for much of the game you were outplayed. I think you need to consider changes." The point - a point that most students of sport entirely miss - is that the foundations of lasting success are built on the correct assessment of a team's fundamentals: its ability, its cohesion, its discipline and preparation. Those fundamentals change slowly, and it is easy to misinterpret a random fluctuation as a fundamental crisis.

Look at other sports. Last autumn, after a string of defeats, Arsenal languished at the bottom of the Premier League. There was a clamour for Arsene Wenger, their superb manager, to be sacked - despite his stellar record of producing successful teams while also balancing the budget. Does anyone now believe that Arsenal would have recovered so brilliantly (they are third in the table and set for yet another year of qualification for Europe) under a different manager? No, what was required was for Arsenal's board and fans to hold their nerve instead of over-react to a small sample of poor results.

The same applies to this England team. They had a shock this winter. They are right to ask themselves tough questions about how such a good team lost four consecutive Test matches. But they would be wrong to think it is because they are picking the wrong players or have the wrong captain.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here