July 4, 2012

What's so wrong with negative fields anyway?

When England set cautious fields they are called tactically naïve; but they win

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

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