Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

When is poor form just randomness?

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

Ed Smith

April 11, 2012

Comments: 36 | Text size: A | A

Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen observe England's net session, Abu Dhabi, January, 24, 2012
Why the calls for Strauss and Pietersen to be sacked when it was just a case of England's top six collectively not scoring enough runs? © AFP
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Series/Tournaments: England tour of Sri Lanka
Teams: England

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

RSS Feeds: Ed Smith

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Mercury71 on (April 13, 2012, 18:29 GMT)

Kindness - that's what the people who show no mercy at any sign of weakness lack. Having read your work a bit, it is obvious you were raised to be kinder and more discerning than most :)

Posted by applethief on (April 13, 2012, 0:25 GMT)

Also, this article carelessly overlooks England's "ascent" to #1 that was far more of a case of descent by other sides. They simply made hay against diminishing sides and relied heavily on home success. England never earned the #1 rank in the way that Australia did, so it's no surprise that they've disappointed so badly in that spot.

Posted by BillyCC on (April 12, 2012, 21:31 GMT)

This article applies to batting in general. Tendulkar's slump and Ponting's slump recently doesn't mean they have suddenly become bad batsman. It is randomness in a sense that makes up for their prolonged periods great form in the past decade. They are now probably near where their long term career averages were going tobe anyway: 54 for Ponting and 55 for Tendulkar.

Posted by StaalBurgher on (April 12, 2012, 21:09 GMT)

The article definitely has a grain of truth. However, I think England's performances were also influenced by bad technique for the conditions.

This touches on another topic. Repeatedly swopping players because they are not performing up to a certain standard. Sometimes I feel they are swopped unnecessarily - for example Aussie spinners after Warne. It is like they expect to produce another Warne-like spinner and won't accept less. Take Harris for SA as an example. He was never the world's greatest spinner but he was the best we had. What would be the point rotating endless between him and a few others that are slightly worse, hoping that by some miracle one will begin to take wickets? None. Instead we used what limited resources we had in the spin department at that time.

In the past this was England's biggest issue in the batting department. An issue that has largely been solved by importing numerous players from SA from all age groups - and yes I am including Strauss in that.

Posted by applethief on (April 12, 2012, 15:55 GMT)

Nice try, but sorry, not buying it. England were horribly found out in test cricket in the sub continent & UAE. Squeaking a win in Colombo ain't impressing anyone, I'm afraid.

Posted by PutMarshyOn on (April 12, 2012, 10:53 GMT)

So which is the odd test out - Columbo or the previous 4 (and the previous umpteen in the sub-continent before that)? Sure, there is far more randomness in life than we'd like to accept, but for 4 tests in a row? You could say that the anomaly in Columbo was Pietersen. Looking at his performances of late the 150 would qualify as a random blip. Take his knock out and the match is too close to call.

To be frank this and similar pieces by other journos of the same nationality look like apologist attempts to justify England's #1 status despite a 1-4 return. Not that it is unique to any one country. Similar stuff has poured out of the Aus press since the team went on the slide circa '05. I wouldn't say randomness has much to do with it though.

Posted by Marktc on (April 12, 2012, 10:09 GMT)

Surely you have to win a string of tests before you can be declared 'recovered'?

Posted by   on (April 12, 2012, 9:08 GMT)

What about the bad patch that India has gone thro over a period of 8 tests abraod??? Why haven't results changed for them?

Posted by   on (April 12, 2012, 6:17 GMT)

This Article holds some merit. Yes its possible that all bastmen have bad luck at the same time( the graph example) but when looking at the amount of times the batsmen failed it cant be brought down to bad luck. I watched englands first test vs Sri Lanka(missed the previous ones) and the way they batted was more of a 'close my eyes and pray i connect' technique rather than actually playing the ball on its merit. With a mindset like that youre going to be in trouble..and thats where the problem lies. On paper the English batting lineup is pretty good. But they are mentally weak. Take out the kingpin( Strauss) and the second(Trott) and the rest are clueless.

Posted by spirotheocropolis on (April 12, 2012, 1:00 GMT)

great teams bat through bad form - somebody in a world number one side should have stepped up to the plate - especially in four consecutive matches

Posted by   on (April 11, 2012, 19:09 GMT)

I generally value what you have to say because its incisive and informative. However in this case you have attempted to obfuscate English deficiencies against quality spin bowling, esp. against Pakistan. No doubt Peterson batted brilliantly in the last Test match against SL but it doesn't hide the fact that this batting is frail when it comes to high quality spin. There is nothing random about it.

Posted by BobR on (April 11, 2012, 18:58 GMT)

Just as Asian teams suffer in the seaming conditions in England other teams when touring sub-continent countries struggle against spin. It was obvious in the series against Pakistan that every English batsman struggled against quality spin.They got knocked over like domino's just as India/Pakistan did in English conditions previously. Get over it guys. Quite frankly I've never saw such in-depth analyses when teams such as Pakistan, India and Sri-Lanka struggle against quality seam bowling in England. Stop the analysis and get on with it! Improve in these areas if you want to be world number one, in the true sense. The series ahead against South Africa this summer is going to be a much tougher challenge.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (April 11, 2012, 18:30 GMT)

Ed, nice try, but you fail to persuade me of the collective 'randomness' of England's lack of batting form esp. in the UAE. Just watching the England top six scratch around against Ajmal, Hafeez & co told me that this wasn't a collective loss of form, it was a glaring deficiency in technique. The sweep shot played against a ball that might not turn at all, or turn away, came out again & again - meant to be a safe release shot, but in reality a I- haven't-got- a-clue-I-may-as-well try- this-cross-bat that left the pad in the wrong place or missed a slightly quicker ball all together. Let's face it, it was wretched. Of course the wickets suited the Pakistani spinners, but England was reduced to a disorganised rabble. Ian Bell, vaunted as the 'best England player of spin' was esp. clueless, next to Eion Morgan. Morgan has gone away now, but Bell, a Flower auto-pick, survives. IMO, he has had more than enough chances & England should now be searching in earnest for a new #5. India awaits!

Posted by Vkarthik on (April 11, 2012, 18:28 GMT)

Problem with your analysis is England got shot out consistently for low totals against certain types of bowlers on certain types of pitches. Australia also conceded 3 innings lead in Srilanka back when they were on high. But each time they came back well in the 2nd innings and won all 3 tests. You cannot possibly deny England is clueless against decent spin. They had a deck that didn't assist spin much. God back in the game

Posted by   on (April 11, 2012, 15:48 GMT)

Ed, i understand where you are coming from as sometimes unsatisfactory batting performances can just occur without the batting side actually doing much wrong. However, i simply do not believe Englands batting woes this summer was a freak result of all the batsman suddenly hitting bad form. If you look at the all series preceding this winter against India, Sri Lanka, Australia and so forth. England was facing pace dominated attacks in conditions which they were accustomed and consistently scored heavily. Yet this winter when they faced spin attacks on sub-continental pitches, a combination they have historically struggled against. They consistently failed to score runs- this is no coincidence. The idea of randomness can explain away the odd bad performance, but can't justify why England were simply poor in 7 consecutive innings.

Posted by Busie1979 on (April 11, 2012, 13:36 GMT)

Good article. I would add one thing - sometimes the problem in a particular game is application, but mis-application can be random. A good batsman getting out to a bad shot. An accurate bowler bowling waywardly. The odd bad game here or there should not result in a guy getting dropped. Also a few good innings against the long term trend should not get a guy picked (eg. Pete Forrest, Ed Cowan). This is the problem with Australian selection policy - selections are based on short term thinking with preference given to very recent performances rather than consistency over time. Australian selectors seem to have knee jerk reactions to a game here or a game there. But then they have their favourites who are given a lot of leniency after an extended run of poor form despite good, but not brilliant career performances (eg, Watson, North, Mitchell Johnson) (for the record, I'm not saying Watson should be dropped, he should bat at 5 or 6).

Posted by Green_and_Gold on (April 11, 2012, 13:17 GMT)

Fair point on the random aspect (as mentioned with the graphs) however if you find that all batsman are not performing over one series then is it random or is it that the batsman are not used to the conditions. Not being able to play spin on a spinning deck is harder than on a surface where the ball doesnt spin (this hiding the inability). You also have to ask yourself how you got out - was it the batsman fault (ie stupid shot) or was it the bowler (set the batsman up and outplayed him). There are lots of non-random aspects of the game too.

Posted by stodgy_left_hander on (April 11, 2012, 12:56 GMT)

Interesting Ed, however, I think your analysis does a disservice to Pakistan. The main thing that changed between the UAE and Columbo was the quality of the bowling attack. Surely you have to at least consider the quality of the opposition...! Secondly, 8 consecutive innings of failures purely down to randomness is pretty unlikely. That's 48 consecutive dismissals, if we are just looking at the top 6. Plus in this case there are also other poor results on spin friendly wickets which should be relevant to the sample. E.g. Strauss, Pieterson, Bell and Prior average in the mid 30's in Asia (and I think these figures include games against Bangladesh thus inflating the numbers). That's evidence, from a greater sample, suggests a batting weakness on spin friendly surfaces.

Posted by o-bomb on (April 11, 2012, 11:38 GMT)

It's an interesting theory, and while it may have some merit I think it would be dangerous to accept it thoroughly especially as there are other significant factors contributing to England's collective batting failures. What struck me was the number of England wickets claimed by spinners over the course of the 5 tests, whether it be Ajmal and Hafeez who turn it one way or Rehman and Herath who turn it the other. The batters looked uncomfortable for long periods playing spin of either type particularly against Pakistan. @The_Ogres makes a good point about batsmen being influenced by previous batsmen's scores, making the random arguement slightly less valid than it would first appear.

Posted by RandyOZ on (April 11, 2012, 11:19 GMT)

@allblue - they tried to copy the Australian model when we swept our way to victory in India. The problem was the English batsmen were just no where near the quality of the Aussies. Once again they try to copy Australia's plans and once again they fail.

Posted by MatthewWright on (April 11, 2012, 10:31 GMT)

Allblue and Randy OZ, you both seem to have it in for England here - I don't believe Ed Smith is saying that his theory is definitely true and that all others are false, I think he's just putting forward a plausible idea (and incidentally, I think he's got a point). To say that Strauss is not test-standard is ridiculous. You need only look at his record to see that he is a high-quality player with a great record as captain and I'm sure he will come good this summer. Same with Bell, he's shown his quality many times before and is possibly the most technically correct batsman in the world so there's no reason to suggest he's a 'muppet against spin'. A very good article I thought, putting forward an idea that I've not heard anybody suggest before and is well worth a moment's thought.

Posted by The_Ogres on (April 11, 2012, 10:16 GMT)

Where I do not agree with you, is on the analysis regarding the simultaneous failure of the batsmen (the overlaying cardiograms example).

Your analysis seems to imply that the batsmen's scores are not correlated or in statistical terms "independent events". As you surely know, this could not be further from the truth. Most batsmen would acknowlegde that the previous batsmen's scores have a huge influence on their performance.

And herein lies, I think, the core of the criticism addressed at the English team's winter performances. When a few batsmen fail, the next men in should be able to adapt their game to the match situation, take less risks and hopefully eke out a draw, like they did more than once in South Africa a few winters back. (Yes, being a middle order batsman is no piece of cake!)

When collectively they do not manage this four times in a row, it becomes unlikely for this to be random. Not impossible, just unlikely.

Posted by The_Ogres on (April 11, 2012, 9:56 GMT)

Very good piece, as always.

I agree with your assessment (albeit not explicitly expressed) that "form" in cricket (and in sport more generally) is more often than not is is a product of our imagination. It is the desperate attempt of the human mind to make sense of the randomness of the sportsmen's performances, a search for patterns (much like the causes for the so called "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon").

Some time back I ran some statistical analysis on goal scoring in football and could not find in the (very limited) analysed set of data any evidence of autocorrelation (i.e. that scoring in a match made that particular player any mor likely to score in the next). Cricket's data pool is much richer and outcomes (runs scored) much better suited for this kind of analysis, so some analysis of the cricinfo's statisticians might shed more light.

On a side note, the concept of "form"is nonetheless relevant, if only because sportsmen believe in it, some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Posted by brittop on (April 11, 2012, 9:40 GMT)

I would conjecture that "loss of form" is almost entirely a state of mind. England batsmen playing against spin on sub-continental wickets is "out of their comfort zone", so I reckon they're coming to the crease thinking about how they should be playing instead of just playing. I guess to get to the "just playing" state, they need to play there more often, which I imagine us difficult with the amount of cricket going on. Also it could just be that the bowlers are bowling excellently. I think, in general, there is a tendency to say the batsmen are out of form without giving credit to the bowlers. I think this is one reason why bowlers tend to get dropped more than batsmen.

Posted by JMLowman on (April 11, 2012, 9:23 GMT)

Isn't it just that some elements are random and some aren't. Anyone who's played the game at any level knows that a couple of low scores can be about being bang in form and nicking one just as it can be about being out of form and missing a straight one. Good players also play and miss from time to time, or get lucky or unlucky decisions, or get dropped, so there are fine margins between big scores and low scores. However in the case of England vs Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there was a very specific issue about the batsmen not being able to play spin properly in those conditions. I therefore don't think it was a random result, and the sample isn't actually that small - 67 innings by England's top 7 resulting in a far lower average than the previous few samples of 67 innings before that.

Posted by nzcricket174 on (April 11, 2012, 9:06 GMT)

Ian Bell is just a bunny when it comes to good spin. Only dubbed by the English as "best player of spin in the world", obviously they have never seen any sub-continent batsman bat before, or even Michael Clarke. Even Brendon McCullum, a terrible player of spin, managed to get a double hundred in India.

Posted by allblue on (April 11, 2012, 8:47 GMT)

I don't agree with regards to to the UAE. How many times were the England batsmen getting out lbw to the sweep? What's worse, the pre-meditated sweep. The combination of a 'quick' skiddy, slow bowler in Ajmal, a low bouncing wicket, the sweep and crucially DRS undid them time and again. So why play the shot? Absurdly, at times they were sweeping half-volleys! It's a players' personal responsibility to sort their own game out, but coaches have an overview and should have identified this obviously flawed approach. If it hits in line, isn't turning much (and Ajmal isn't a big spinner of the ball) and isn't bouncing over it doesn't matter about the big stride DRS will do for you. I wonder if Graham Gooch had a role in this. He scored plenty in the 1987 World Cup sweeping everything, but back then a big stride meant no lbw. Did the compulsion to sweep come from him? England's batting woes in the UAE were a collective failure - the players, the coaches and the management.

Posted by RandyOZ on (April 11, 2012, 8:46 GMT)

Poor is poor when you're a muppet against spin like Bell, and you are a muppet against all form of bowling like Strauss. Strauss is below test standard and if he wasn't born in SA he wouldn't be there.

Posted by mehulmatrix on (April 11, 2012, 8:20 GMT)

Very good article. Media and people just seem to make some material for news after defeats rather than a rational outlook. Also the point about having a neutral analysis even after winning is important, since its a long term process that can make a great team. Rather then randomness, i think the approach of england batsmen and quality spin, both had a part to play. Some good balls, but also over attacking or too defensive or pre-meditated shots led to dismissals. In the last test, the approach was more sensible and natural and hence did good i think. But the important thing was england batsmen learned and also there was no negative impact on their bowling and planning.

Posted by BellCurve on (April 11, 2012, 8:16 GMT)

Thank you, Ed Smith, for asking a question worthy of consideration. A batsman who on average is dismissed 1 time per 100 deliveries and scores 50 runs per 100 deliveries will average exactly 50 in Test cricket. You could argue that, broadly speaking, in standard conditions, and against standard opposition, there is a 1% chance that he will be dismissed every time he faces a ball. If he is not dismissed he will add on average 0.5 runs to his total. These probabilities can be used in mathematical formulae and simulation models. The results of such theoretical exercises are astounding. Randomness is a crucial component in cricket and needs to be understood by all serious students of the game. Batsmen in particular are vulnerable and careers of excellent batsmen have been destroyed because selectors have not understood randomness. If you add quality of opposition and conditions to the equation, the problem really gets interesting. Graeme Hick is a case in point. So is Bradman.

Posted by dave_williams_london on (April 11, 2012, 8:04 GMT)

Ed, you're not much of a mathematician, are you?

Posted by   on (April 11, 2012, 7:06 GMT)

In the midst of randomness and probablistic logic, you have missed out on a very crucial aspect..........There is a specific skill set you need to tackle world class spin bowling in the dustbowls in the subcontinent.....It cannot be denid that the same set of world class batsmen looked midgets in front of Ajmal and Rehman, and came to the party only in the second test in the islands....Andrew Strauss's scruitny as leader is foolish as he is one of the best in the business......But trying to justify England's losses through mathematical theories is a little naive

Posted by Rahulbose on (April 11, 2012, 6:43 GMT)

LOL, what delusional rationalization. The event in quetsion (colective failure by Eng bastmen) has a very high correlation with another event (playing tests in Asia against good spinners) its highly predictable and not very random. Until recently this event was also very highly correlated to playing in an Ashes series.

Posted by Romanticstud on (April 11, 2012, 6:32 GMT)

@Nadeem1976 yes batting is an art, but you can be in top form and out of nowhere you can get an unplayable delivery from any bowler. Take the case of Jacques Kallis against Sreesanth in Durban 2010. Sreesanth bowled the unplayable delivery which got through Kallis' defenses, remembering that Kallis had made a double hundred and two hundreds at Centurion and Cape Town respectively. There is one player that has played spin better than most on the sub-continent, Hashim Amla, maybe because he is of Indian decent. But then what about the Indians in Australia, what happened there, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ghambir and co ... great stats between them but still no win.

Posted by Romanticstud on (April 11, 2012, 6:20 GMT)

If you look at the top batsmen in the world today Ricky Ponting comes to mind as having a slump from 2009 until recently, but was not dropped from the test team. There have been inconsistent runs of form with both Jacques Kallis and Michael Clarke, both have scored big runs. Ignore the big runs and you will see that both have had a number of low scoring inninngs. South Africa rely on Kallis, Amla, Smith and De Villiers, yes, they have performed well average wise, but also there have been coincidental collapses like in Cape Town against Australia, and recently in the first inninngs in the first test in New Zealand, although Cape Town was also the source of Kallis's high score later against Sri-Lanka, another team that has had fluctuating form from Sangakarra and Jayawardene, Dilshan and Samaweera. India too have had their big guns enter the same random low as England angainst England and Australia.

Posted by Nadeem1976 on (April 11, 2012, 4:23 GMT)

Good article but i don't agree with you about batting form and randomness. Batting is art and it's very hard to play spin in sub continent. England batsmen don't know how to bat in these conditions because they are used to fast and seaming pitches. Even great australians and WI used to lose or draw test matches in sub content at their prime. Playing under hot sun and dry slow pitches is extremely difficult for english batsmen. England did not win the last match Sri lanka lost it. Sri lanka did not have the second good spinner in the team. If Murli was there England would never win a series in srilanka at all. Bad bowling by sri lanka in last match.

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