July 4, 2012

What's so wrong with negative fields anyway?

When England set cautious fields they are called tactically naïve; but they win
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A month ago, I had one of the most interesting conversations I've ever had about sport. It was in a tiny restaurant in Paris with the brilliant football writer Simon Kuper. The subject was how Spain became the world's dominant football culture.

Spain have now won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. They are also currently world champions at Under-19 and U-17 levels. The Spanish way - high skill, brilliant passing, and little focus on physical size or brutality - has mastered the world. Not only are Spain serial winners, they have also set football's philosophical agenda.

Our conversation in Paris began with football, but I realised afterwards that the question applied to all sports. How do games evolve? Can original thinkers change their sports forever? Is intelligence - or better still, insight - the most underused resource in sport? Can you think your way to success?

Kuper explained to me that the origins of modern football began with a single inspired insight by the superb Dutch player and coach Johan Cruyff. Like many great ideas it sounds obvious but it is actually profound. The pass, that is what really matters in football. The precision, the perfection of the pass. Everything else - the arm-waving, the brave running around, the passionate sweat and tears - is peripheral. Being better at passing is what wins football matches.

Prompted by Cruyff, Barcelona set up La Masia academy to educate players about the pass. When you watch Spain mesmerise opponents, you are watching an idea brought to life. There is a bloodline that runs from Cruyff - via Pep Guardiola - to Xavi, Iniesta and Fàbregas, the champions of Europe, champions of the world. One idea changed the game forever. Spanish dominance is not just based on skill. It is founded on brains.

Yet the most interesting part of the story is the resistance to Spain's success, the refusal to follow the logic that has created it. Throughout Euro 2012, English pundits continued to accuse Spain of being "boring". The English old guard even condemned Spain's selection and tactics. How risk-averse, how stupid of Spain not to play a centre forward at all? Well, Spain won the final 4-0, without playing a centre forward for much of the game. Their first goal was brilliantly set up by Fàbregas, a midfielder picked instead of a regular centre forward. Stupid Spain, boring Spain? Behind the insult, observe the anger. When a pack of conventional thinkers are confused, they lash out at what they don't understand.

We see the same criticisms thrown around in cricket, the same reluctance to accept that new thinking might lead to better results. Here is an example. Pundits often ridicule captains for setting "negative" fields. The assumption is that it is always a "positive" move (i.e. that it will lead to more wickets) to have more slips and fewer fielders saving the single.

But what is positive, what is negative?

When I was a player, I often liked batting against very "positive" fields. Because I liked to bat at a reasonable tempo, feeling that the scoreboard was ticking along. Many players have a natural tempo, a pace of scoring that makes them feel they are in control. In a perfect world, of course, batsmen should be able to defend for hours without worrying about the scoring rate. But most batsmen are human beings.

I would much rather bat against an egotistical captain trying to impress the crowd than an unobtrusive captain trying to stop me batting in the way that suited me

That's why I often found it easier to score runs against flashy, "positive" captains, who were always trying to set eye-catching "aggressive" fields. While they were arranging catchers in apparently original groupings, runs flowed from the bat. I would much rather bat against an egotistical captain trying to impress the crowd than an unobtrusive captain trying to stop me batting in the way that suited me.

Now I've retired, I can reveal an effective and underused tactic: stop people scoring (whatever the type of match) and you'll probably get them out. This has become even more relevant to Test cricket during the era of T20 cricket. Batsmen have become increasingly used to hitting boundaries in Test cricket because T20 has changed the way people feel about their natural scoring rate. That's why Andrew Strauss is unafraid to have more fielders saving one and fewer catchers in Test cricket.

When England set cautious fields, they too are called "tactically naïve". And they win. When Spain don't play a centre forward, they are called boring and tactically naïve. And they win.

It is time to revisit some definitions. What are tactics but tools for winning sports matches? And since when was it naïve to play to your strengths?

A case study of thinking and winning is the story of the Oakland Athletics in baseball. Thanks to the book, and now film, Moneyball, it is has become one of the famous stories in sport. As with Cruyff's insight about the pass, the over-performance of the Oakland A's began with a single insight. The best way to approach winning a baseball match is not thinking about scoring runs. It is to focus on getting on base. A run is usually the by-product of getting on base. Runs are hard to predict; getting on base is much easier to assess and calculate. So the Athletics focused on the tractable, controllable parts of the match, ignoring the headline-grabbing end-product.

In 2002 the Athletics unveiled their new strategy. Guess what: the pack of baseball pundits and insiders didn't like it. They accused the Athletics of wrong-headedness, hubris and over-intellectualism. Undeterred, Oakland won a record 103 matches out of 162.

Conventional wisdom moves at a glacial pace because people become attached to ideas that are no longer relevant. Military historians say that generals are always preparing to fight the war that has just ended. So it is in sport.

Boring Spain, naïve England, wrong-headed Oakland? I prefer the idea that sport is always evolving, with new ideas driving the pace of change.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • khansha on July 6, 2012, 22:25 GMT

    So Ed I suppose now that you have retired - you can probably honestly admire India's approach to prepare "dust bowls", much better suited to spin bowling, and the South Asian batsman than the pacers. Honestly it is an ingenious response to preparing fast wickets more suited to pace bowling, intimidating the batsman - wouldn't you agree.

    But then why do a certain type of batsmen (oh wait Bristish) still complain about it to no end.

    As for your comparisons to Spain playing boringly - totally incorrect analogy. I don't think so at all. I feel Spain are extremely brave and creative with their constant passing around the opponent. It is the purist's type of football - Brazil of the 1970's were hailed as heros playing that football.

    In fact England's "traditional" long ball is considered rather boring and unimaginative and a little "cavemanish" in nature.

  • JeffG on July 6, 2012, 15:05 GMT

    @SaracensBob - totally understand what you say but in defence of Oakland - they won 100 games for 2 seasons in a row and 96 games the next season, which is pretty remarkable for sure a "poor" team. The fact that they didn't actually "win" in the end says more about the lottery that is the post-season in baseball (actually most US sports) It hardly seems fair that you prove yourselves the best over a 162 game season and then have to face the lottery of a 5 game series just to have the right to play a couple more short series to determine the ultimate winner. If the same applied to cricket, would Lancs have actually broken their 76 year title drought last season , or might Warks or Durham have beaten them in a playoff?

  • SaracensBob on July 6, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    Great piece, Ed - you are a true student of sport! Plus loads of great comments. A word of warning on 'stats-analysis''-based tactics. The Oakland 'A's pursued the on-base average as a winning formula. Seems to make sense but it doesn't matter how many guys you get on base unless you've got someone with the ability to make the hits that will drive the runs home! The 'A's achieved a great win percentage but in the great scheme of things they won nothing - no World Series for them. In football Graham Taylor was convinced by the 'stats' that most goals were scored as the result of the 'long ball' and set up his England team to play to that tactic. Result - utter failure. In our greatest of games the skipper sets his field, and bowling tactics, in regard to the conditions of weather and track and the state of the game then he trusts the skill of his bowlers and fielders to make an impact. Stats are a useful tool but statisticians don't win matches, cricketers do!

  • bored_iam on July 5, 2012, 23:20 GMT

    Haveta agree with @RandyOz that England possibly possesses the most boring top 6 in cricket today (with the exception of KP, on his day) but hey, they have bored oppositions to dust havent they? No. 1 well deserved. :-D

  • hhillbumper on July 5, 2012, 19:45 GMT

    The west indies were a very disciplined bowling unit.Some would say they were negative but what they had was a plan and the bowlers to stick with them. Aus have tried to follow the same plan.The reality is England win more of their tests then other teams at this point. India are laden with talent but lose consistently because they do not have the talent to bowl people out. Rather watch England frankly cause at least they are professional

  • Hammond on July 5, 2012, 12:20 GMT

    @RandyOz- the way you talk would seem to indicate that the very existence of the English cricket team devalues test cricket. Even though they did invent the game.

  • on July 5, 2012, 12:04 GMT

    Calling a constantly aggressive captain good is stupid. A good captain reads the opponent and either tries to take wickets or drain the enemy by stopping runs. So praising defensiveness as the golden trick is also rather silly.

  • on July 5, 2012, 10:32 GMT

    Defensive fields only work in Test Cricket if:

    1). The batsmen are foolish enough to fall into the trap. With more and more T20 being played many batsmen nowadays have lost the art of patience. However truly world class players will see through this and keep it simple, content to pick off singles and wear the bowlers down.

    2). You have the bowlers to execute these plans. England right now have at least 2 world class bowlers (Anderson and Swann) who can produce unplayable deliveries frequently. They also have very good support bowlers - Broad can run through a team on his day and Bresnan gives nothing away. Englands bowling is not just highly disciplined - it is very potent too.

    3). Finally, you need your bowlers and fielders to be fit enough to rise to the challenge, especially if a couple batsmen settle in and are wearing your bowlers and fielders down. England have a strict fitness regime and the result is that the bowlers can go for longer and the fielders are good athletes.

  • RandyOZ on July 5, 2012, 9:34 GMT

    Sounds like Ed is making an excuse for England's boring play which, couple with the international allsorts in the team, really degrades the value of test match cricket.

  • CMIS on July 5, 2012, 8:30 GMT

    I agree in principle... the most important thing is getting wickets. sometimes that is achieved by leaving the cover region vacant and three slips and a gully waiting, while at others it is achieved by loading the cover region with boundary and single-stoppers with the result being that the batsman lashes one to point. Many ways to skin a cat. But it depends on the type of batsman and the type of pitch. What I cannot get on board with, however, is the placing of the sweeper cover or deep point in a test match. Whatever the type of batsman and pitch this field placing only lets pressure off and makes for some pretty dull Test cricket. Worryingly it is a tendency that has spread all through the cricket world with thw possible exception of the Australians under Michael Clarke. Andrew Strauss has done it often enough and it is dispiriting. Perhaps you could have touched on that Smith, because whenever people talk of negative fields, a batsman milking a perfectly good ball away to deep poi

  • khansha on July 6, 2012, 22:25 GMT

    So Ed I suppose now that you have retired - you can probably honestly admire India's approach to prepare "dust bowls", much better suited to spin bowling, and the South Asian batsman than the pacers. Honestly it is an ingenious response to preparing fast wickets more suited to pace bowling, intimidating the batsman - wouldn't you agree.

    But then why do a certain type of batsmen (oh wait Bristish) still complain about it to no end.

    As for your comparisons to Spain playing boringly - totally incorrect analogy. I don't think so at all. I feel Spain are extremely brave and creative with their constant passing around the opponent. It is the purist's type of football - Brazil of the 1970's were hailed as heros playing that football.

    In fact England's "traditional" long ball is considered rather boring and unimaginative and a little "cavemanish" in nature.

  • JeffG on July 6, 2012, 15:05 GMT

    @SaracensBob - totally understand what you say but in defence of Oakland - they won 100 games for 2 seasons in a row and 96 games the next season, which is pretty remarkable for sure a "poor" team. The fact that they didn't actually "win" in the end says more about the lottery that is the post-season in baseball (actually most US sports) It hardly seems fair that you prove yourselves the best over a 162 game season and then have to face the lottery of a 5 game series just to have the right to play a couple more short series to determine the ultimate winner. If the same applied to cricket, would Lancs have actually broken their 76 year title drought last season , or might Warks or Durham have beaten them in a playoff?

  • SaracensBob on July 6, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    Great piece, Ed - you are a true student of sport! Plus loads of great comments. A word of warning on 'stats-analysis''-based tactics. The Oakland 'A's pursued the on-base average as a winning formula. Seems to make sense but it doesn't matter how many guys you get on base unless you've got someone with the ability to make the hits that will drive the runs home! The 'A's achieved a great win percentage but in the great scheme of things they won nothing - no World Series for them. In football Graham Taylor was convinced by the 'stats' that most goals were scored as the result of the 'long ball' and set up his England team to play to that tactic. Result - utter failure. In our greatest of games the skipper sets his field, and bowling tactics, in regard to the conditions of weather and track and the state of the game then he trusts the skill of his bowlers and fielders to make an impact. Stats are a useful tool but statisticians don't win matches, cricketers do!

  • bored_iam on July 5, 2012, 23:20 GMT

    Haveta agree with @RandyOz that England possibly possesses the most boring top 6 in cricket today (with the exception of KP, on his day) but hey, they have bored oppositions to dust havent they? No. 1 well deserved. :-D

  • hhillbumper on July 5, 2012, 19:45 GMT

    The west indies were a very disciplined bowling unit.Some would say they were negative but what they had was a plan and the bowlers to stick with them. Aus have tried to follow the same plan.The reality is England win more of their tests then other teams at this point. India are laden with talent but lose consistently because they do not have the talent to bowl people out. Rather watch England frankly cause at least they are professional

  • Hammond on July 5, 2012, 12:20 GMT

    @RandyOz- the way you talk would seem to indicate that the very existence of the English cricket team devalues test cricket. Even though they did invent the game.

  • on July 5, 2012, 12:04 GMT

    Calling a constantly aggressive captain good is stupid. A good captain reads the opponent and either tries to take wickets or drain the enemy by stopping runs. So praising defensiveness as the golden trick is also rather silly.

  • on July 5, 2012, 10:32 GMT

    Defensive fields only work in Test Cricket if:

    1). The batsmen are foolish enough to fall into the trap. With more and more T20 being played many batsmen nowadays have lost the art of patience. However truly world class players will see through this and keep it simple, content to pick off singles and wear the bowlers down.

    2). You have the bowlers to execute these plans. England right now have at least 2 world class bowlers (Anderson and Swann) who can produce unplayable deliveries frequently. They also have very good support bowlers - Broad can run through a team on his day and Bresnan gives nothing away. Englands bowling is not just highly disciplined - it is very potent too.

    3). Finally, you need your bowlers and fielders to be fit enough to rise to the challenge, especially if a couple batsmen settle in and are wearing your bowlers and fielders down. England have a strict fitness regime and the result is that the bowlers can go for longer and the fielders are good athletes.

  • RandyOZ on July 5, 2012, 9:34 GMT

    Sounds like Ed is making an excuse for England's boring play which, couple with the international allsorts in the team, really degrades the value of test match cricket.

  • CMIS on July 5, 2012, 8:30 GMT

    I agree in principle... the most important thing is getting wickets. sometimes that is achieved by leaving the cover region vacant and three slips and a gully waiting, while at others it is achieved by loading the cover region with boundary and single-stoppers with the result being that the batsman lashes one to point. Many ways to skin a cat. But it depends on the type of batsman and the type of pitch. What I cannot get on board with, however, is the placing of the sweeper cover or deep point in a test match. Whatever the type of batsman and pitch this field placing only lets pressure off and makes for some pretty dull Test cricket. Worryingly it is a tendency that has spread all through the cricket world with thw possible exception of the Australians under Michael Clarke. Andrew Strauss has done it often enough and it is dispiriting. Perhaps you could have touched on that Smith, because whenever people talk of negative fields, a batsman milking a perfectly good ball away to deep poi

  • Hammond on July 5, 2012, 7:51 GMT

    @whatawicket- nah- too old. But doesn't mean the tactics aren't any good, or couldn't be used at test level.

  • JeffG on July 5, 2012, 7:44 GMT

    @ashok16 - tommoore81 beaten me to it but just to reiterate, Moneyball (or more accurately Sabermetrics) showed that On Base Percentage is the real key to scoring runs in Baseball, not the traditional, flashier but less meaningful stats like HRs or RBIs. And to expand further, one of the best ways to get a high On Base % is to take a lot of walks (ie you don't hit the ball at all and wait for the pitcher to throw 4 "wides".) This is the ultimate in "negative" batting in Baseball and, as Ed pointed out in his book "Playing Hard Ball", it's the batter in Baseball who is most similar to the bowler in cricket - so Moneyball and On base % is more similar than you might think to Strauss & negative fields in cricket.

  • Sameer-hbk on July 5, 2012, 2:22 GMT

    First off, let it be clear that Spanish football is not boring. Maybe the English are jealous of their ability and success and so are others, but they are a delight to watch for neutrals. Secondly, stop comparing English cricket with Spanish football. England has not one single major trophy in either football or cricket since god knows when and English cricket IS very boring. The argument of being 'world beating test side' holds true when u actually win all over the world. Stop kidding yourself!!

    English cricket is a bit like the old Chelsea accumulating 1-0 draws or old Italy sitting back all day. Sure results are there, but its boring as hell. Please stop with comparing the mediocre English test team with the very talented Spanish side... This is like the time English media said Graeme Hick would be next Bradman!!! delusional...

  • Meety on July 4, 2012, 23:49 GMT

    Just like to add - that IMO, Strauss did not invent the negative field placings (sweepers), it was Vaughn.

  • Behind_the_bowlers_arm on July 4, 2012, 21:19 GMT

    I wouldnt call England's style 'negative' , i think a better description is disciplined and thorough. They have a variety of bowlers and definite plans and they dont get carried away by ego by deviating. The standard of technical batting and patience is low in opposition Test cricket batting lineups (as an Australian i'd say that is a major fault in our case) and England exploit that by giving them enough rope to hang themselves. The upcoming series against SA is obviously going to be fascinating to see if this is enough against a better quality team.

  • sifter132 on July 4, 2012, 21:14 GMT

    I'm not convinced England in cricket and Spain in football aren't just building on talent. Show me a team with not a lot of talent that adopts their strategies and then rises to the top of the world. It's the old correlation/causation argument. I don't think Moneyball is though, you had a middling/struggling team in Oakland who performed way above their perceived ability. Until we see a cricket team do that I'm not sure we can claim anything special about strategies.

  • tommoore81 on July 4, 2012, 21:06 GMT

    "There is a flaw in this argument. Moneyball glorified home runs in baseball. Home runs are exciting to watch. Spanish elevated the art of passing. Notwithstanding the whiny english press, I find myself going breathless watching them. Negative bowling in cricket - Nah thank you. I will turn off the TV."

    Have you read Moneyball? Or watched the film? It glorifies On Base Percentage. That is not the same thing as a home run. It does point this out in the article above

    And I thought sport was about winning. Or is it about anything that can be used as a stick to beat England with?

  • kiwi_fan7035 on July 4, 2012, 21:00 GMT

    Ed, Brilliant as usual. One of the more interesting field placings these days is the deep point in place at the same time as a couple of slips and a gully. Seems extra-ordinary but thats how good current players are at putting away width and why give away boundaries. The margin for error for the medium pacer is much smaller these days.

    The other thing to note is that previously by leaving cover open you would encourage players to try a risky drive -aggresively tilting the risk-return balance. These days players attack from the get-go regardless so you don't induce any more risk and you stop some of the return by having guys in the ring.

  • ashok16 on July 4, 2012, 19:57 GMT

    There is a flaw in this argument. Moneyball glorified home runs in baseball. Home runs are exciting to watch. Spanish elevated the art of passing. Notwithstanding the whiny english press, I find myself going breathless watching them. Negative bowling in cricket - Nah thank you. I will turn off the TV.

  • Lateralis on July 4, 2012, 19:49 GMT

    As for the article, I heard your conversation with Simon Hughes on TMS during one of the more recent matches. I think you are also probably right. Sport often has a tendency to make itself ever increasingly complicated and sophisticated but very often the simple things work out being more effective: play straight; line and length; shot selection; rotate the strike; restrict the run rate. On this front I am totally aligned with Boycott who always seems to espouse these simple nuggets of wisdom.

  • Nutcutlet on July 4, 2012, 19:48 GMT

    Interesting stuff from Ed, as usual. I'm never completely happy with analogies drawn from other games (and let's face it, cricket is far more complex and multifaceted than football). Defensive field placements only work successfully if you have the bowlers capable of bowling to such fields and, at the moment, England has just that - a highly efficient unit that offers batsmen precious little. The best chance that any batsman has against England at the moment is to show gr8 patience & accumulate slowly, a la Chanderpaul. Where there's some basis for a football analogy may be in the team/work ethic. In addition to the passing skills of the Spanish side, it was their fitness and industry that impressed most. The same is true of this England side. I maintain that this Eng. side is just short of great, but if they do get there (i.e.when no sensible judge can deny the accumulated evidence of success over 5+ years), it will be down to the team ethic & fitness: efficiency more than brilliance.

  • Lateralis on July 4, 2012, 19:44 GMT

    @ anuradha_d (13:28 PM GMT) First comment. If England beat competition at home, does that make opposition teams "home track bullies" too? Second, just to fill in your selective memory. Eng whitewashed Pakistan in the ODI series in the UAE and won 2-1 the following T20 against the same opposition. England actually drew the Test series in SL. Prior to the World Cup England played a hell of a lot of cricket, which is often forgotten - England were back home for about a week during a period of around 4-5 months on the road. During that time, England beat Australia in Australia 3-1, by no small margins, either. The previous year, the same side were in South Africa and gained a very creditable draw. Of course, in amongst all of these victories there were some disappointments, but England haven't faired so badl on the road. And also let me refresh your selective memory some more: England destroyed India last year in both the Tests and ODIs. Are India also just "home track bullies"?

  • YorkshirePudding on July 4, 2012, 18:29 GMT

    @anuradha_d, and the writer proves his point perfectly, theres an old saying in cricket "Do what the batsman doesnt want you to do", and batsmen want attacking fields as that stifles runs.

  • whatawicket on July 4, 2012, 16:19 GMT

    Hammond dont know if you are eng or aus but give the coaches of the respective teams a ring you should be captain and 1st choice bowler.

  • StoneRose on July 4, 2012, 14:53 GMT

    Good article, almost convinced me. But I would argue England win (on the bowling side of it, anyway) because they bowl in the 'right areas' more than any other team, not because they set 'negative' fields.

  • Hammond on July 4, 2012, 13:58 GMT

    The football and baseball references were all gobblydeegook to me, but I can say this- last year I was playing a local one day game, and a very aggressive batsman was taking us to all parts. So I set a leg trap- I put two leg gullies, a close man in front of square, deep mid wicket and mid on. I then bowled around the wicket- gentle outswingers that came from outside leg and ended up on leg or middle. We quickly dismissed the whole side, who called me a "cheat" and most hilariously accused me of bowling "bodyline"- even though I didn't bowl a single ball short of a length.. my point is that field placings have become pretty text book boring, and occasionally it helps to step back in time and try something from the past- like leg theory. You will be surprised with the results. I even think that the new ball bowlers today could use the occasionally leg slip in conjunction with the orthodox slips. It was something that you used to see a lot of. And it was a successful tactic as well.

  • anuradha_d on July 4, 2012, 13:28 GMT

    England use Naive defensive fields....and they win ?...where?...at home ?.........home track bullies !!........tigers at home........what happened against Pak ?....3-0....what happened in Lanka?.......they failed to beat a side that australia easily thrashed.......what happened in ODIs in India....5-0....what happened in world cup(50 over version)....finished 8th..........to win overseas....to be an all condition bully...to be a tiger abroad......you do need attacking fields

  • jever03 on July 4, 2012, 13:24 GMT

    Hi Ed, as always with you a very insightful article. But two corrections are necessary: the current U-20 world champions in football are Brazil and the U-17 world champions are Mexico. Spain has won either title only once in 1999 (U-20).

  • venkatesh018 on July 4, 2012, 13:07 GMT

    Ed, your point of batting in the T20 age is well made. But, in cricket particularly Test matches, saving boundaries by defensive fields can work only upto a point. The best method is to not bowl to the batsman's strong areas over longer periods, thereby forcing him to make a mistake. But when the mistake arrives, one has to have men in catching areas to complete the dismissal.

  • on July 4, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    All the tactics in your world would land you nowhere if you lacked the skill to implement it... That is where a lot of cricket captains fail, not so much in the tactic...

  • jb633 on July 4, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    Very interesting article. However believe the comparison drew upon is far from perfect. 1, Spain have mastered the game, England are battling to become a more consistent side. 2./The variables in football are less so than cricket. Pithces, weather, batting tecniques all contribute to the overall outcome. Altough it does play a part in football it does not completley dictate the way the game is played. Ie, Spain will be able to pass any side off the park (regardless of pictches, refs and weather). They have a tecnique that will work anywhere. Batting against pace, swing and spin or various pitches requires different techniques and temperaments and rarely can a player truley master them all. In cricket, field settings will always be dictated by pitches, conditions batsmen. There will never be a good captain who has developed a single mode that is always successful. Strauss does not set defensive fields as a principle and neither does Dhoni. No one philsophy will dictate the way cricke

  • Meety on July 4, 2012, 12:21 GMT

    @khanc - nope - Strauss is negative. Whether negative is a bad thing or not well crowd attendances will tell.

  • HumungousFungus on July 4, 2012, 12:07 GMT

    Excellent article again, Ed. Worth mentioning that presumably England's bowlers also have some say in how the fields are being set, and they haven't been doing too badly of late, have they?

  • gopakumar85 on July 4, 2012, 11:36 GMT

    I liked what you said ed. I honestly feel that time has come were the sporting teams accross the globe should probably focus more the basic tactical part of the game. for example as you mentioned about the pass as far as the spainish team is concerned. Currently there is something that is affecting the modern day cricket as well. I am all for new kind of shots played by the modern days batsmans like the scoops, and reverse scoops the upper cuts etc you name it. But we also need to ensure that you cant play those every next ball. There something know as basic cricket shots even a forward defence stroke can do wonders from a batsmans perspective if he is ready to apply himself, I feel there is lot which is missing in the modern day cricket. wonder what will happen after the Sachins and the Pointings hang up there boots eventually.. Dravid is already gone.. Hope there is some sanity instilled in these youngsters like playing conventional cricket.

  • Deuce03 on July 4, 2012, 11:23 GMT

    Speaking as a huge Spain fan, I have to say they *were* boring for most of the recent competition. They played pretty badly by their standards and a lot of their passing was pretty unimaginative with no real penetration. They didn't score enough goals, and required a shoot-out to get past a pretty average Portugal team, too. The final was the exception. Playing without a CF looked like a challenge they'd set themselves rather than a winning strategy. However, that they were able to play so badly and still win goes to show how far above the rest of Europe (save perhaps Germany) they are right now. Back to cricket, Strauss is often criticised for negative field placing, but it gets results. England don't draw many matches these days.

  • sameeullah on July 4, 2012, 10:44 GMT

    Well Done Ed.You are slowly becoming my favourite writer.. Thanks for being innovative and informative.

  • BellCurve on July 4, 2012, 9:59 GMT

    Cricket is war. The Allied forces would not have won WWII if they did not have courageous soldiers, cutting-edge weaponry, brilliant code breakers, visionary strategists and inspirational politicians. Unfortunately in cricket code breaking and strategy is often viewed as superfluous. Maybe that is because the soldiers are usually calling the shots?

  • vertical on July 4, 2012, 8:46 GMT

    I hate criticism shelled on Spain on being boring.I find their football enthralling and much better than the english way.Those who belittle Spain's tiki taka are the similar kinds who rather watch t20 than test cricket where you actually witness the skills of players. In the Nagpur test against Australia Dhoni was decried for using defensive fields which I found really ridiculous. Nice article Ed.

  • JeffG on July 4, 2012, 8:26 GMT

    @ vladtepes - the way the current Spain team play football is TOTALLY different to the Brazil teams of the 60s/70s. Firstly, the game itself is totally different now - much less physical and a lot slower. Brazil clearly had many great & technically gifted players but they had a lot more physicality & speed than Spain do and played at a much higher tempo. The unique thing about Spain is the way they are happy to slow the game down with large periods of passing - something that no international team has done before. And, as Barcelona have been playing this way for a while, and as most of the key Spain players have come through the Barca ranks, it seems a pretty good bet that this has had some influence on the Spanish style.

  • AndyDingley on July 4, 2012, 8:21 GMT

    Excellent article. I've see the criticism, but that is exactly the point of the article. Ed Smith is probably the most insightful writer on any sport at the moment, and his views should be accorded some respect. Challenging the orthodoxy will never gain immediate support, because it will invariably reflect poorly on the teams we invest our hopes in (England might be good at cricket right now, but our rugby and football teams are hopeless).

    If you take the example of Ben Hunt-Davies (Olympic Gold medal rower), the team he rowed with challenged the orthodoxy by abandoning everything that didn't make the boat go faster. There were some very odd ideas involved. Comparatively average rowers - great team. Gold medals all round.

    We all know what elegant cricket looks like, but not everyone knows how to win.

  • JeffG on July 4, 2012, 8:20 GMT

    Another excellent article by Ed - easily the best contributor to Cricinfo at the moment. In response to some of the other comments on here; @shrikanthk - when you actually study RR's it's very clear that the increasing prevalence of ODI and especially T20 cricket HAS had an impact. RR's hovered around 2.5 through most of the 60s and early 70s and then, once ODI started to become more common, RRs quickly rose to about 2.8 and then stayed pretty flat until the early 2000s. Then T20 came in and RRs pretty quickly started to go up and have been over 3 pretty much ever since. If this doesn't seem a lot then consider that a jump from 2.5 to 2.8 is actually a 12% increase and from 2.8 to 3.2 is a 14% increase. It has nothing to do with helmets (which really came in the 80/90s when rates were flat.) The correlation is with limited overs cricket.

  • BreakingNews on July 4, 2012, 6:20 GMT

    @Khanc, good joke. This article was not related to India, but you brought Dhoni into picture.

    So let me clear your understanding. Read the article again which talks about playing to your strengths. This is what Dhoni does, as he knows the bowlers he has in his team and the situation of the match.

  • on July 4, 2012, 4:45 GMT

    good article and good explanation except for the Cricket part....brilliant teams, great teams are based on attacking style of play, be it the Aussies or the WI...defensive fields can take you so far but to really achieve greatness you have to be aggressive and make things happen...agreed that Spain is winning everything but whom the author is going to watch when given a choice betn the Spain f 2dy or the Brazil of 70s and 90s..There are certain things above winning and those cant be achieved by defensive players or mindsets

  • vladtepes on July 4, 2012, 4:23 GMT

    shrikanthk is right on all counts.

    on another note, i love the way spain play these days, but i think it's wrong to attribute it to cryuff and following. what spain is doing now was the style of the great brazilian teams of the 60s and 70s. brazil simply passed the ball around until it was in the goal and no one would know how it got there. brazil lost a lot of that style when more and more of their best players went to play in europe where the long aerial pass is the norm.

  • khanc on July 4, 2012, 4:07 GMT

    Uh, this is the first I've heard of England being accused of negative fields. I mean, all of Ed Smith's basic points are correct, but there is nothing negative about Strauss's field settings and astuteness as captain. A negative test captain is Dhoni, the way he sets fields, and the way he drew out matches in West Indies a bit of a push could have won. I think we cricket lovers understand the sport better than Ed Smith gives us credit for.

  • on July 4, 2012, 4:00 GMT

    ya what u said was true............

  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:59 GMT

    By the way, I don't get what you mean by "stop people from scoring, and you'll get them out even in test cricket".

    The point is - You can set a field to stop batsmen from motoring at 4 rpo in a test match. But no field setting can accomplish a complete stoppage of runs (say < 2 rpo) with purely defensive play. You need wickets to accomplish that. Good, well set batsmen will always find ways to milk the bowling and motor at 3 rpo which isn't really slow in test criicket.

  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:35 GMT

    And contrary to what you may think, run-rates haven't really improved all that much in test cricket history.

    RR was around 2.4 in the 19th century, circa 2.5 between 30s and 60s, 2.8-2.9 in the 80s-90s and hovering around 3-3.2 these days.

    So since the 80s, we've barely seen 0.3-0.4 rpo improvement in RR. And even this marginal improvement needn't be attributed to limited overs cricket. I'd rather attribute it to the introduction of helmets and better bats.

    No amount of limited overs cricket can influence Test cricket. Because these are two different games. Not simply two "forms" of the same game as people want us to believe.

    Test Cricket, to my mind, is Cricket. Period. A game played with a red ball where you win a match only if you bowl a side out twice. The Risk-return tradeoffs in this game is totally different from what you observe in the white-ball game

    Test cricket is not all that different from what it was in Hobbs' day, because the game simply hasn't changed fundamentally

  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:26 GMT

    Conventional wisdom moves at a "glacial pace" because it is very hard to innovate in an ancient sport where everything has been tried and tested before

    If three slips and a gully remains the "mantra" in the opening hours of a test match, that's because this mantra has stood the test of time! Not because the practitioners of this mantra are woolly headed sentimentalists.

    Negative fields in test cricket is not really an "innovation" ushered in by T20 cricket. In county cricket in the 20s (an era notorious for its flat wickets), captains often used to practice off-theory or leg-theory wherein bowlers would restrict to one side of the wicket and stack all fielders on that side.

    Even in the 30s, there have been documented instances of defensive bowling. Eg: Verity and co setting defensive fields to Bradman at Adeleide when he scored 212 in 1936-37.

    So you see, we respect "tradition" because it reflects the wisdom of the ages. And prevents us from re-inventing the wheel.

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  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:26 GMT

    Conventional wisdom moves at a "glacial pace" because it is very hard to innovate in an ancient sport where everything has been tried and tested before

    If three slips and a gully remains the "mantra" in the opening hours of a test match, that's because this mantra has stood the test of time! Not because the practitioners of this mantra are woolly headed sentimentalists.

    Negative fields in test cricket is not really an "innovation" ushered in by T20 cricket. In county cricket in the 20s (an era notorious for its flat wickets), captains often used to practice off-theory or leg-theory wherein bowlers would restrict to one side of the wicket and stack all fielders on that side.

    Even in the 30s, there have been documented instances of defensive bowling. Eg: Verity and co setting defensive fields to Bradman at Adeleide when he scored 212 in 1936-37.

    So you see, we respect "tradition" because it reflects the wisdom of the ages. And prevents us from re-inventing the wheel.

  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:35 GMT

    And contrary to what you may think, run-rates haven't really improved all that much in test cricket history.

    RR was around 2.4 in the 19th century, circa 2.5 between 30s and 60s, 2.8-2.9 in the 80s-90s and hovering around 3-3.2 these days.

    So since the 80s, we've barely seen 0.3-0.4 rpo improvement in RR. And even this marginal improvement needn't be attributed to limited overs cricket. I'd rather attribute it to the introduction of helmets and better bats.

    No amount of limited overs cricket can influence Test cricket. Because these are two different games. Not simply two "forms" of the same game as people want us to believe.

    Test Cricket, to my mind, is Cricket. Period. A game played with a red ball where you win a match only if you bowl a side out twice. The Risk-return tradeoffs in this game is totally different from what you observe in the white-ball game

    Test cricket is not all that different from what it was in Hobbs' day, because the game simply hasn't changed fundamentally

  • shrikanthk on July 4, 2012, 3:59 GMT

    By the way, I don't get what you mean by "stop people from scoring, and you'll get them out even in test cricket".

    The point is - You can set a field to stop batsmen from motoring at 4 rpo in a test match. But no field setting can accomplish a complete stoppage of runs (say < 2 rpo) with purely defensive play. You need wickets to accomplish that. Good, well set batsmen will always find ways to milk the bowling and motor at 3 rpo which isn't really slow in test criicket.

  • on July 4, 2012, 4:00 GMT

    ya what u said was true............

  • khanc on July 4, 2012, 4:07 GMT

    Uh, this is the first I've heard of England being accused of negative fields. I mean, all of Ed Smith's basic points are correct, but there is nothing negative about Strauss's field settings and astuteness as captain. A negative test captain is Dhoni, the way he sets fields, and the way he drew out matches in West Indies a bit of a push could have won. I think we cricket lovers understand the sport better than Ed Smith gives us credit for.

  • vladtepes on July 4, 2012, 4:23 GMT

    shrikanthk is right on all counts.

    on another note, i love the way spain play these days, but i think it's wrong to attribute it to cryuff and following. what spain is doing now was the style of the great brazilian teams of the 60s and 70s. brazil simply passed the ball around until it was in the goal and no one would know how it got there. brazil lost a lot of that style when more and more of their best players went to play in europe where the long aerial pass is the norm.

  • on July 4, 2012, 4:45 GMT

    good article and good explanation except for the Cricket part....brilliant teams, great teams are based on attacking style of play, be it the Aussies or the WI...defensive fields can take you so far but to really achieve greatness you have to be aggressive and make things happen...agreed that Spain is winning everything but whom the author is going to watch when given a choice betn the Spain f 2dy or the Brazil of 70s and 90s..There are certain things above winning and those cant be achieved by defensive players or mindsets

  • BreakingNews on July 4, 2012, 6:20 GMT

    @Khanc, good joke. This article was not related to India, but you brought Dhoni into picture.

    So let me clear your understanding. Read the article again which talks about playing to your strengths. This is what Dhoni does, as he knows the bowlers he has in his team and the situation of the match.

  • JeffG on July 4, 2012, 8:20 GMT

    Another excellent article by Ed - easily the best contributor to Cricinfo at the moment. In response to some of the other comments on here; @shrikanthk - when you actually study RR's it's very clear that the increasing prevalence of ODI and especially T20 cricket HAS had an impact. RR's hovered around 2.5 through most of the 60s and early 70s and then, once ODI started to become more common, RRs quickly rose to about 2.8 and then stayed pretty flat until the early 2000s. Then T20 came in and RRs pretty quickly started to go up and have been over 3 pretty much ever since. If this doesn't seem a lot then consider that a jump from 2.5 to 2.8 is actually a 12% increase and from 2.8 to 3.2 is a 14% increase. It has nothing to do with helmets (which really came in the 80/90s when rates were flat.) The correlation is with limited overs cricket.

  • AndyDingley on July 4, 2012, 8:21 GMT

    Excellent article. I've see the criticism, but that is exactly the point of the article. Ed Smith is probably the most insightful writer on any sport at the moment, and his views should be accorded some respect. Challenging the orthodoxy will never gain immediate support, because it will invariably reflect poorly on the teams we invest our hopes in (England might be good at cricket right now, but our rugby and football teams are hopeless).

    If you take the example of Ben Hunt-Davies (Olympic Gold medal rower), the team he rowed with challenged the orthodoxy by abandoning everything that didn't make the boat go faster. There were some very odd ideas involved. Comparatively average rowers - great team. Gold medals all round.

    We all know what elegant cricket looks like, but not everyone knows how to win.