Guest Column Guest ColumnRSS FeedFeeds  | Archives

What is momentum anyway?

The m-word gets thrown about a lot in cricket, but what does it really mean?

John Hotten

December 20, 2012

Comments: 9 | Text size: A | A

Hashim Amla comes down the track to play one to the leg side, South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 3rd day, November 11, 2011
Momentum-defying: Hashim Amla scored a hundred at Newlands in 2011, immediately after Australia collapsed for 47 and South Africa for 96 © Getty Images
Enlarge
Related Links

Have England found a captain who doesn't believe in momentum - and a winning captain at that? Such a man might be a rarity in a soundbyte culture, where the idea has become, like the existence of God, inescapable but impossible to disprove.

Alastair Cook, who has guided England to their first series victory in India for 28 years, failed to offer such comforting platitudes when a win in Mumbai had tied the series at 1-1 with two to play, but even though he dared to dismiss the suggestion that momentum was on his side, he guided England home anyway.

"After the first game momentum was with India," Cook said before the Kolkata Test, "but we managed to bounce back. The Mumbai win has certainly left us a little more confident, and with a belief that what we are doing is fine. That doesn't mean it is going to count for anything in this match."

The notion of momentum has exerted a momentum all of its own upon the modern era. Cricket, especially in its longer forms, is such a nuanced game, it is often difficult to tell who, if anyone, holds an advantage, and into that vacuum must come something. Coaches like the idea of momentum because it is a positive thought to give to players. Commentators, especially ex-players, love it because it appeals to powers of insight that the layman may not have.

A little while ago, Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, a book about an impoverished MLB franchise that prospered when they realised that baseball coaches often misjudged the value of players, saw that he had left a question hanging: why, if those coaches had spent their entire lives watching baseball, had they got player selection wrong so often?

The answer led him to the door of Daniel Kahneman, a man who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, even though he wasn't an economist but a psychologist. ("Ah don't take that Nobel stuff too seriously," he rather charmingly told Lewis when he arrived to have coffee.) Together with the late Amos Tversky, Kahneman had, between the years of 1971 and 1984, researched an area known broadly as "the availability heuristic", which showed that human judgement is often based on the most easily recalled information. He explained this by means of a simple experiment: a roulette wheel was rigged to stop on one of two numbers, 10 or 65. Kahneman asked the groups he assembled in front of the wheel to write down the number they saw. He then asked them an unrelated question: "What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?"

The average answer of the groups whose wheel landed on 10 was 25%, and that of the groups for whom it landed on 65 was 45%. Clearly the unrelated roulette number affected their guess.

Kahneman called this "the anchoring effect". There are thousands of examples of it in cricket, many coming from players who have been inconsistent but whose best moments are deeply memorable: Steve Harmison's 7 for 12 is worth considering in this light, a performance that came 18 months into a Test career and resounded for the next seven years ("We all know what Steve's capable of" became a much-uttered phrase).

Kahneman's work also seemed to offer a response as to why coaches, commentators and observers often based their judgement on nebulous concepts and "instincts" rather than empirical evidence of statistical performance. Momentum is the king of the nebulous concepts affected by the availability heuristic.

Yet can it exist as anything other than a concept? During one of the craziest Test matches of the modern era, at Newlands in November 2011, Australia were dismissed for 284, South Africa were bowled out for 96, and before the end of day two, Australia's second-innings score stood at 21 for 9.

 
 
Cricket is such a nuanced game, it is often difficult to tell who, if anyone, holds an advantage, and into that vacuum must come something. Coaches like the idea of momentum because it is a positive thought to give to players
 

On commentary, Robin Jackman asserted, "South Africa have the momentum here." How did he make that judgement? Probably because, to his mind, South Africa taking 9 for 21 was more readily available than the knowledge that Australia were 209 runs ahead on a day when 20 wickets had fallen for 128 runs.

As it turned out, Jackman was right. South Africa went on to win by eight wickets, with centuries from Smith and Amla. Yet the game makes the case for Kahneman as well. The batting collapses of both teams in a single day exerted a tremendous internal force, even though the scores either side of them, 284 in Australia's first knock and 236 for 2 in South Africa's second, were far less panic-stricken and fell within the normal range. It's easy to conclude that those collapses had "momentum" too: in the minds of both batsmen and bowlers, tumbling wickets were the most easily available thought and thus became a destructive and self-fulfilling notion.

On the third morning of the game, Amla and Smith batted quietly for the first hour, scoring 31 runs, before taking the Australian bowling apart, Amla's century coming from 126 deliveries. That initial hour of calm helped the batsmen restore some mental equilibrium to the game, and as the runs began to come, the psychological reference points of both batters and bowlers changed once more. Smith and Amla's play "highlighted the ridiculous nature of the second day", according to ESPNcricinfo's report.

Most Test matches are far less extreme, and yet their nature is often fickle and contrary. A week after Newlands, with the "momentum" of their epic win behind them, South Africa duly lost the second Test to Australia.

Momentum may be nothing more than a balance of probabilities that shifts as the game does, with each movement encouraging a different memory with which to compare it. If it exists, it exists in this fluid and individual state, and unless a team has a collective psyche, it could be convincingly argued that it doesn't exist at all.

John Hotten blogs here

RSS Feeds: Jon Hotten

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (December 21, 2012, 12:50 GMT)

Excellent article on one of those annoying sporting cliches that never goes away. Its probably good to start off with defining what momentum means: I'd say its the effect that winning a session/game has on winning the next session/game accounting for the fact that the team that won the session was simply a better one.

While the availability heuristic the way you described it explains a part of 'momentum', I don't think it explains the larger question of why we get an illusion of momentum where there is none. Part of what might be going on is the confirmation bias (I think this is also in Thinking Fast and Slow): We tend to remember when teams 'seized the momentum' and won rather than ones where they had the momentum and then went on to lose.

Secondly I think that a lot of the talk about momentum is after the fact navel gazing when one side was simply better than another.

PS: I'm a big fan of both Lewis and Kahnemann. Nice to see someone with this view on cricket :)

Posted by Amit_13 on (December 20, 2012, 12:58 GMT)

Someone with a brain that is not cricket biased. Brilliant! Big fan of differentiating between seeing and observing. Excellent article.

Posted by cloudmess on (December 20, 2012, 12:34 GMT)

Absolutely fascinating article. I've always thought the idea of 'momentum' was a deeply psychological one (and cricket is a game full of subtle psychologies) and based upon subconscious expectations. But this article explains it even more fully. Probably the most decisive cricket of the series came in the match England actually lost - the huge partnership between Cook and Prior in the second innnings. It subconsciously changed a collective mindset and expectation, still stuck in post UAE shock.

Posted by py0alb on (December 20, 2012, 12:13 GMT)

Momentum is an undeniable psychological reality.

If you have a team 50-5 and they fight back to reach 200, they're going to be empowered, you're going to be gutted and probably bowled out in reply for 150.

If you have them 180-2 and then fight back to knock them over for 200, they're going to be the ones who are gutted, and you're going to be empowered and push on to 400.

Same score, completely different psychology moving forward.

That's what we mean by momentum. Its by no means infallible, but its certainly a factor.

Posted by JMLowman on (December 20, 2012, 11:40 GMT)

Brilliant article. "Momentum" shifts so often in a series and even a match that it can't be a significant factor. Look at how many times England in particular have bounced back from defeats to win in recent history. If momentum was a key factor, they would have got hammered after chastening defeats like Headingley 2009, Perth 2010 and Ahmedabad 2012, but they won the next game.

To me this is more about the balance between confidence and resolve. Some players feed more than others off confidence - one big score leads to another - while others are at their best when responding to adversity - one failure hardens their resolve for the next innings. The word momentum should be replaced with vocabulary that is relevant: confidence, resolve, form, luck.

There are however very occaasional times when it feels that there is some irresistable momentum in sport - the end of the 2012 Ryder Cup for example. These things can't be easily explained so momentum is fair byword for momentus.

Posted by RoshanDgreat on (December 20, 2012, 10:24 GMT)

Talking about momentum.. I can remember what Freddie flintoff mentioned in his twitter that if "Zaheer is not able to bowl in second test of India-England series in England" India will be all gone and will loose 0-4. Similarly after first test loss at melbourne Mcgrath was saying that India will loose 0-4. It simply shows that how much momentum is important at the start of series. A positive wibes lead to more positive wibes. Hats of to Cook and England team for doing opposite of that.

Posted by   on (December 20, 2012, 8:49 GMT)

Amazing article!! Very well explained..!!

Posted by   on (December 20, 2012, 5:41 GMT)

What a wonderful article ! Thank you John Hotten. I often ponder such subjects of psychology but didn't expect to find one so insightful here at cricinfo.

Comments have now been closed for this article

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Jon HottenClose
Jon Hotten is the author of Muscle and The Years Of The Locust, neither of which is about cricket, and writes the blog The Old Batsman, which is. @theoldbatsman

'Pietersen uses his hands beautifully to get in front'

Modern Masters: Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Manjrekar discuss Kevin Pietersen's un-English technique

    Cricket cannot bend rules to accommodate chuckers

Martin Crowe: Bowlers with dodgy actions must not be given leeway to maintain a balance between bat and ball

    'You'll only improve as a commentator if you are a good listener'

Couch Talk: Jim Maxwell talks about his early days, and why commentators need to stay in touch with cricketers

    'Haven't seen anyone play as straight as Sachin'

My XI: Martin Crowe on Tendulkar's finely calibrated footwork

It's home advantage, not doctored pitches

Michael Jeh: Why do columnists look for conspiracy theories every time a visiting team collapses abjectly?

News | Features Last 7 days

How bad must a defeat be to be unacceptable?

A gutting loss to England, after leading the series 1-0, has thrown up some glaring inadequacies in the Indian team but there is little being said or done in terms of improvement

Role model Moeen setting high standard

His rapid improvement with the ball has been integral to England coming from behind to lead the series - but that is just one area where Moeen Ali continues to impress

Time to liberate MS Dhoni

After 8-0, MS Dhoni could look forward to building a team from scratch; now, there is nothing left for him to contribute. Free him from the Test captaincy and he could yet give back in other ways

Dhoni's control test

For all MS Dhoni's many trophies and accomplishments, Test cricket continues to resist his magic and indefinitely postpone his motorbike ride into the sunset

Should Dhoni focus on one-day cricket?

His decisions in the England series have seemed to confirm that he does not care too much for the Test game. Maybe he should be concentrating on the World Cup

News | Features Last 7 days

    How bad must a defeat be to be unacceptable? (137)

    A gutting loss to England, after leading the series 1-0, has thrown up some glaring inadequacies in the Indian team but there is little being said or done in terms of improvement

    Time to liberate MS Dhoni (114)

    After 8-0, MS Dhoni could look forward to building a team from scratch; now, there is nothing left for him to contribute. Free him from the Test captaincy and he could yet give back in other ways

    Should Dhoni focus on one-day cricket? (78)

    His decisions in the England series have seemed to confirm that he does not care too much for the Test game. Maybe he should be concentrating on the World Cup

    Dhoni's control test (75)

    For all MS Dhoni's many trophies and accomplishments, Test cricket continues to resist his magic and indefinitely postpone his motorbike ride into the sunset

    The two faces of James Anderson (57)

    Why does the man who is possibly England's greatest fast bowler occasionally turn into Mr Hyde on the field?