May 1, 2013

It's not about selection or tactics, silly

Understanding causes is incredibly difficult. It is much easier to assume that easily discernible surface issues are the primary explanations for victory and defeat

If you want to understand sport, you have to understand causes. More accurately, you have to understand how difficult it is to be sure about which causes really influence events, and which are merely irrelevant side issues.

Coaching is about understanding causes: what causes players to perform better? Journalism is about causes: which factors led one team to beat the other? Fans, too, reflect obsessively about causes: what might make the difference for us next season? Sport, like history, is about causes.

And yet understanding causes is incredibly difficult. Causal threads must be observed and disentangled, then weighed and judged. It is much easier simply to assume that easily discernible surface issues - such as selection and short-term tactics - are the primary explanations for why teams win and lose.

That is why the books that have most influenced my thinking about sport address the question of causes rather than sport itself. If I had to name one book that anyone with a serious interest in sport should read, it would be Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness. It scarcely mentions sport, and Taleb actively dislikes organised games. But Fooled by Randomness explores the dangers of sloppy assumptions about causality. It attacks lazy guesses about one thing "leading" to another. It makes the reader re-examine his own flawed reasoning.

Taleb recalls watching the financial markets on Bloomberg TV in December 2003. When Saddam Hussein was captured, the price of US treasury bills went up. The caption on TV explained that this price movement was "due to the capture of Saddam Hussein". Half an hour later, the price of US treasury bills went down. The TV caption explained that this was "due to the capture of Saddam Hussein".

The same "cause" had been invoked to "explain" two opposite effects, which is, obviously, logically impossible.

The next time you absorb sports punditry, keep in mind that story about Bloomberg TV and the price of Treasury bills. You will learn that a golfer misses a crucial putt "because he lost concentration", and then misses the next putt because he was "trying too hard". You will learn that a team loses one match "because they didn't stick to the game plan", then loses the next "because they were unable to think on their feet".

A manager messes up one match "because he was too loyal to his favourite players", then fails in the next "because he unnecessarily alienated the core of the team". And, my favourite: there is always the player who "benefits from utter single-mindedness" one week, and then "suffers from a damaging lack of perspective" the next.

The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren't causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat. The ancient Romans had an ironic phrase for this terrible logic - post hoc, ergo proper hoc, "after this, therefore because of this".

It is hard to imagine a stronger contender for adopting false causes than the failure of English cricket teams to win the Ashes between 1987 and 2005. This dismal sequence was, apparently, "caused" by the following factors: structure of county cricket, unshaven stubbles worn by some England captains, sticking with a failing core of senior players for too long, introducing too many new players, being insufficiently hard-working and professional, being insufficiently joyful and amateur, having too many counties, being too English, not being English enough. And so on.

Pretty much anything that existed within English cricket, at some point or other, was used to explain England's lack of success in the Ashes. An English cricketer in the 1990s only had to brush his teeth to be told that they didn't do it like that in Australia.

Above all, English cricket failed because it was not like Australian cricket. If only England teams would copy Australian teams by (in no particular order): swearing/caring/sledging/bonding/singing/ drinking/attacking/being mates/taking risks/backing themselves/fronting up/digging in/manning up/playing for the badge/never saying die… if England teams simply did all that, then, frankly, playing Shane Warne's flipper and Glenn McGrath's metronomic seam-up would be a doddle.

When your best is not quite good enough, the two levers under your control - selection and tactics - begin to look very inadequate. In other words, they are not really "causes" of defeat at all. They are simply things that happened along the way

Imagine the logical gymnastics required when England started winning Ashes series again. All the previous causes of defeat had now to be converted into explanations for victory. If England's Ashes success continues, it can only be a matter of time until we have the ultimate "Bloomberg moment", when an article is written arguing that Australia routinely loses the Ashes because they have too few state sides and must urgently copy England's first-class structure of 18 counties.

True, some things within English cricket have changed in reality as well as perception: players are now centrally contracted to the England team, for example, rather than to their counties. But not as much has changed as is often claimed. Revolution - "chumps to champs" - is a snappier narrative than gradual evolution.

But the real fun lies elsewhere. It has now become fashionable to scour Australian cricket looking for "causes" of their decline. A few years ago, the personality of Michael Clarke became the focal point for critics of the culture within Australian cricket. When Clarke came good, it was time to look elsewhere for "causes" of muted Australian performances. Ex-players attacked selection as confused, even insulting. Australia, they argued, had to pick more young players, and yet had to pick more players with hard-earned experience; they had to stick with a consistent team while also, inevitably, abandoning obvious mistakes. Sound familiar?

Mike Atherton, the former England captain who received his fair share of criticism during the era of Australian dominance, remarked wryly this week: "It is not quite so easy to be bold, to be consistent or whatever else is deemed topical, when you are losing matches."

The two central variables in sport, the main levers controlled by the management, are selection and tactics. Imagine, for a moment, that you are in charge of the lesser of two teams. You pick what you think is your best XI. And you lose, despite the team playing at or near its potential. If you stick with the same team, are you not merely sleepwalking towards another defeat? And yet if you change it, what has led you to change your mind about the team that you thought was the best XI last week and which, after all, did not really under-perform? Difficult one, isn't it, picking a team that is less good than the opposition?

Now tactics. Imagine you devise what you consider to be your optimal tactical approach. You execute the plan reasonably well. And you lose. Do you change tactics, with the same logic that led you to change the team, or stick with the old tactics that led to defeat?

Very simply, when your best is not quite good enough, the two levers under your control - selection and tactics - begin to look very inadequate. In other words, they are not really "causes" of defeat at all. They are simply things that happened along the way.

It is the same with national economics. Governments and central banks control the familiar levers of interest rates, money supply and taxation. They are endlessly criticised for their handling of all three. But what if the actual economy, the thing itself, is simply not very robust? A rabbit cannot always be conjured magically from a hat.

I would not have explored all this if I wasn't surprised at how often it is forgotten or overlooked in the analysis of sport at every level, from the pub to the board room, and from the commentary box to the armchair. We have long accepted that understanding historical causes is profoundly subtle and intellectually demanding. Exactly the same applies to understanding causes in sport.

Ed Smith's book, Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune, is out in paperback now. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sonu on May 2, 2013, 9:31 GMT

    Brilliant Article !! to be able to put this thought on paper in such a lucid manner is awesome!! keep it up Ed and hope to read more such articles from you

  • Philip on May 1, 2013, 22:12 GMT

    cont/ All of these causes are beyond the here-and-now and cannot be "fixed" be selections and tactics. They all hint at the lack of talent that people talk about. Yet, talent too is hard to define as I think may have been discussed in this column before. There has been much said about cricket vs AFL lately. One point that I seem to remember an old footy recruiter saying is that in his opinion cricket thinks it can pick 'em young, while AFL doesn't expect a 15yo to be more than a rough template. I got the impression that he felt cricket had started to "race" football for the talent and that race was pointless because you'd end up declaring winners before they were no more than halfway to the finishing line. The point is, these things which can seem trivial, could have a major effect ten years down the track that can't be easily rectified on any other time-scale. Therefore, another saying rings true. Get the little things right and the bigger things will tend to look after themselves.

  • Rohit on May 1, 2013, 19:55 GMT

    This is a gem Ed! Thanks for writing this.

  • Arpan on May 1, 2013, 18:30 GMT

    Absolutely loved the article. Taleb's latest work 'Anti-fragile' explores this issue further. It deals with things which benefit from chaos. If you haven't picked it up Ed then you must. I must also take this opportunity to thank you for the amazing tribute you paid to Rahul Dravid. (A gentleman champion) It was a while back but I had not registered on the site then. It was so understated and without the ebullience that is nowadays associated with tributes. It reflected Dravid's character and what he stood for more than any other tribute that I have come across. As an Indian and a fan of cricket I thank you.

  • Robert on May 1, 2013, 16:40 GMT

    Causality is extremely complex, and can't be fitted into a dumb 'because "a" therefore "b"' model, like those nonsensical questions in exams such as 'What were the causes of the Thirty Years War?' - the causes were the whole of European history for the preceding several centuries. People nowadays seem to imagine that 'knowledge' is the kind of thing you find on the back of matchboxes or on Trivial Pursuit cards, and this delusion is fed by Media requirements for instant headlines and quick fixes. Cricket is a vector for highly disparate variables - sporting, yes, but social, cultural, historical and many others; you can't apply a template and say 'this will work', nor one that says 'It is the fault of "X"' - because it just aint that simple. Interesting article, we need more of this intelligent analysis in cricket.

  • Rajkumar on May 1, 2013, 16:07 GMT

    @Landl47--Have been following your insightful comments since 2010-11 Ashes and have to say I disagree a bit with your observation posted here.(just a bit)Agree completely with all your comments regarding leadership and the change it can bring about.BUT it should be mentioned that it hardly applies to test cricket where pure skill is a basic prerequisite.Imagine Allan Border captaining the current Aus side.Will it make any difference to the performances of their batsmen in the subcontinent just because AB is the leader.Dont think so.Of course AB will score heavily and may set an example but that is an altogether different matter.Also could Ganguly have turned things around for India in England and Australia.More than half the team were expired/unfit/out of form.And talking about NZ punching way above their weight,they do that quite often in ODIs only...dont time they did that in a test series was against England in the just concluded test series.i

  • Dummy4 on May 1, 2013, 12:14 GMT

    Ed's article reminded me of the days of Tony Lewis and Ray Illingworth's punditry on the BBC. Basically, they backed whatever the visiting team did even if that did contradict itself from summer to summer. For example, when Australia used to alternate who would take first strike between Taylor and Marsh, Lewis and Illingworth would say "that's innovative and will unsettle the bowlers. Good captaincy" yet in a following series with Greenidge and Haynes opening and not alternating first strike the same pundits would say "That's the advantage of having a settled no. 1 and 2 at the top order. Good Captaincy".

  • Philip on May 1, 2013, 11:37 GMT

    It is hard not to concur. Winning and losing just happens, to some extent. Australia are not that good right now, just as England were not that good in the 1990s. That, however, shouldn't mean that no suggestions should be made nor ideas tried in an attempt to improve. I've been known to say a bit and I really am not at all fussed about the national team's losing streak. Caring about the game, though, is another matter. Australia will win again consistently one day. The important point is that the game is strong and fair. If Australia wins the Ashes back, so be it. But whether they do or don't won't change the fact that some things will need changing. Increasing the Sheffield Shield to eight teams is probably such a change. That would hardly be aping the County Scene. After all, there were originally only three SS teams. Then there were four.... etc. Winning and losing just happens at times, but alternative paths should not be completely ignored.

  • Vikram on May 1, 2013, 10:02 GMT

    Ed, you are quite simply one of the best writers in the world of cricket at the moment. I am a huge fan of Taleb and the way you have taken his line of thinking and applied it to Cricket and brought out some fallacies in our fundamental thinking is brilliant. Do keep up the good work and wishing you a lot of success in the literary world. We need more people like you who write on cricket and can stimulate thought and conversations!