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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sharad 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.

  • Jeff 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?

  • Robert 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 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

  • stuart 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

  • Geoffrey 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.

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Randolph 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.

  • Sakeb 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

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