December 20, 2012

What is momentum anyway?

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 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 :)

  • Amit 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.

  • David 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.

  • Adam 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.

  • James 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.

  • Roshan 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.

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2012, 8:49 GMT

    Amazing article!! Very well explained..!!

  • Dummy4 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.