Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Edgbaston vs Washington, DC

Washington wins! Regrettably, the Society for American Baseball Research scheduled its annual conference to coincide with the Third Test of the Ashes series. I'll try to keep up with the news from there, but from past experience I know it's quite hard unless there's another cricket fan in the neighbourhood.

Hopefully, I'll get some ideas for further studies so that the temporary cricket famine will be a price worth paying.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Sir Geoffrey's Edgbaston Recipe

Boycott, writing before the bad news about Kevin Pietersen, reconstructs the England side for the Edgbaston Test.

His recipe is:
Bell for Pietersen
Harmison for Onions
Sidebottom for Broad

As much as I think Sir Geoffrey is the closest thing to a real, live cricketer who thinks along sabermetric lines, I can't back all his suggestions. Although Sidebottom had a good first innings at this same ground against South Africa last year, he's not a particularly penetrative bowler against top batting sides. I don't think he'll provide sufficient difference to Broad. I don't mind giving Broad a match off, on my 'rest the bowlers' principle, but I don't see them as significantly different.

Harmison is an idea I can get behind. He's had his moments against Australia, especially during the 2005 Ashes series. He also did well against the South Africans at the Oval last year. However, he hasn't really been a consistent bowler since that last home Ashes series, so if he flopped at Edgbaston I'm not sure I'd go back to him. I'm not sure I'd bring him in to replace Onions. Onions has, in limited playing time, shown some ability to get Australian wickets.

Bell is a risky pick. I'm not sure I'd do it, but I don't know who else is available. People have suggested Key, but he's risky, too. He's vulnerable batting at the end of sessions as the Australians have shown in the past. But who else is there? The only players whose County Championship statistics are making an obvious case are Key and Jamie Dalrymple. I feel the stats have to yield first place to the people who actually watch a lot of cricket, and know the players, in making this pick. However, given Broad's spectacular catch, I'd give extra weight to fielding ability here.

So, my recipe has two changes from the Lord's Test.
Harmison for Broad
Best fielding batting candidate for Pietersen

Broad for Onions only if Onions is hurt.

Johnson: Rest or Play?

Mitchell Johnson's form seems to be causing some concern in Australia. Even CricInfo bloggers compare him unfavourably with Stuart Broad, which is pretty damning considering one is an opening bowler and the other a 'change' bowler. One of my many theories is that, to paraphrase a baseball expression, There Is No Such Thing As a Reliable Bowler (TINSTARB). Here are some interesting figures to ponder.

Series Overs Economy
07/08 Aus vs SrL 82 2.94
07/08 Aus vs Ind 250.1 3.15
07/08 WIn vs Aus 355 3.31
Three months off
08/09 Ind vs Aus 166 3.14
08/09 Aus vs NZl 231.4 2.35
08/09 Aus vs RSA 391.2 2.76
08/09 RSA vs Aus 530.2 2.88
Three months off
09 Aus vs Eng 82.4 4.00

Notice that the more overs Johnson bowls, how his economy in each series goes up. He also saw his economy start high in the first series of the Southern Hemispher season. I think a combination of these factors is involved here. He's bowled, in Tests alone, over 900 overs in the past two years. This number is probably about the norm for the typical pace bowler at Test level; but since I think bowlers' workloads are too high, for the moment this is a datapoint in my argument.

On the other hand, he also does worse away from home. He wouldn't be the first cricketer in the world who thrived on home cooking. (See Trescothick, Marcus.)

Give Johnson a Test match off, then bring him back. If he still underperforms his average, and there's a better option, play the better option.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Bangladesh Makes History?

England won, ending 75 years of Lord's discomfort. What more can one say? Well, a few things, but let's savour the moment, and turn instead, for today, to events in the Caribbean.

While I've been on hiatus, the fragile West Indian side, which seemed finally to be coming out of a long funk after battling stoutly in a drawn series against New Zealand and then beating England in the Caribbean, gradually fell to pieces again. They basically rolled over against almost the same England side. They reached the semifinals of the 20/20 World Championship, and had a slightly dispiriting one-day series against India. Then the Player's Association fell out with the Board, which has been making a lot of bad decisions lately.

Thus, a profoundly weakened side took the field against Bangladesh, who promptly beat them, twice. Now, I happen to think people underrate Bangladesh a little bit. They're not as good as those Zimbabwe sides of 1998 to 2001, but they're definitely in reach of the sides just above them on Test ladder.

In other words, for West Indies to field a second-string side against them is an idea not likely to end successfully. And that's what happened. Bangladesh took on a weak side and won not just a Test, but a whole series.

Was this good for Bangladesh cricket? I wouldn't like to say no, but it's a response worth considering. Was this the kind of humiliation that West Indies' cricket needs to shake up its house? Definitely not. Both sides in the dispute can blame the other for the debacle.

What makes matters worse, is that the ICC has no real sanction available to solve this problem by suspending West Indies' Test status until they get their house in order. The best West Indian players can look forward to Indian Premier League money, while others can play in England for the time being, so it's basically taking the players' side against the Board's, which would be inappropriate for the ICC.

Frankly, as an international sport, cricket is looking more and more of a shambles. Maybe the time has come for something like a cross between the English Premier League and the American system, with franchises around the world, playing T/20, while local associations administer some international five-day matches as a sideline. Those countries that want to have Test matches can fit them in around this 'Super League'.

But you know what? I think some cricket boards might find themselves without a franchise.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Bump in the Road

'Records are made to be broken.'

No-one has chased down 522, but every patriotic Englishman or Englishwoman must have gone to bed tonight with that saying at the back of his or her mind. Might I draw your attention to this test? Or, more worryingly, this one? Yes, those teams didn't chase down 522 runs, but they did go into their final innings with challenging targets. The only big difference is they achieved their victories at home.

Clarke and Haddin have actually shifted momentum towards Australia in a decisive way. England are looking like they are on the ropes now, if you ask me. In fact, calculating Australia's chances of victory suggests to me that they are above 50 per cent. I don't believe it, myself. (Sometimes, the numbers lie.) I think we'll see a draw. Tommorrow will see whether I should trust the numbers.

If they do pull it out, expect to see more articles like this one. I have a bone to pick with it, where Mr de Lisle writes:
In fact [the bowlers] batted better than most of the batsmen.

Good, I say. The issue is whether it's more important to win matches or to avoid losing them. In my italianate way, I lean toward the latter. Don't give away wickets with a long tail of feeble batsmen, especially against a strong batting side like the Australians. West Indies show you the flaw in that strategy. It's more important to bat as deeply as you can. I'd even argue that Australia's difficulties arise out of taking that advice to the extreme. They almost certainly need another bowler. Three seamers and a spinner are not enough, unless two of those are all-time greats like McGrath and Warne. You need five bowlers, although one of them can just be a 'change' bowler who keeps the runs down and gives the attacking bowlers a rest. But perhaps that's better discussed another time.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Declaration Time?

England face a nice problem in the Lord's Test against the Australians. How many runs will make the game safe? How much time is needed to take ten Australian wickets? It was exercising the Sky commentators through most of the session after Tea, but I thought Atherton summed it up well. 'Bat through to about 40 minutes of the morning session, then declare,' he said.

At the time he made that statement, I thought England needed less time and more runs, and suggested batting through to mid-afternoon. Then, somebody made the comment that Lord's lately had proven to be a hard ground to take wickets on days 4 and 5. (Or maybe it was just day 5.) People often say such things, then you look it up and they are completely wrong.

Test             Day 4      Day 5
2004 vs NZL 9 3
2004 vs WIN 8 7
2005 vs AUS 5 n/a
2006 vs SRL 3 3
2006 vs PAK 8 4
2007 vs WIN 11 0
2007 vs IND 11 6
2008 vs NZL 10 6
2008 vs RSA 1 2

Mostly memory is a case of people remembering the last time. In 2008, England couldn't buy a wicket at Lord's against South Africa for two days. In fact, looking over the past six years, taking ten wickets starting sometime on the fourth day looks pretty attractive. With a full day on Monday, I think England should calculate on getting 4 wickets. So how much time will it take to break the first six partnerships on Sunday?

I think Atherton has it about right. Declare sometime during the morning session, and go for it.

Lord's Nelsons

111 was bad news for the Australians today.

I've been playing around with a slightly modified version of the Runs/Wickets state ideas I'd mentioned earlier this year. I'm moving in the direction of 'Win Expectancy', although to do it properly, one needs to use a Markov chain I think.

Here are my calculations of the chances of an Australian victory after the fall of each Australian wicket:

Opening of Australian innings: 11.2 per cent
Hughes +8.6
Ponting +2.5
Katich no change
Hussey -9.3
Clarke -2.6
North +4.6
Johnson +1.2
Haddin -2.2

This data might indicate something I've been thinking about for a while, which is that the openers' wickets aren't as important as may be thought. Any runs they score helps their team's cause. The crucial point in the match is the battle for the 3rd and 4th wickets. If these fall cheaply, in quick succession, that shifts the advantage toward the bowling side quite strongly.

In today's play Katich's and Hussey's stand didn't help out very much, because after Hughes and Ponting were out for low scores, it was vital for the third-wicket partnership to make up the difference. They didn't, and to dismiss Hussey for only eight more runs after Katich was caught by Broad put the Australians in a very difficult situation.

Of course, each wicket only affects the match a small amount, so one shouldn't put too much weight on the third and fourth wickets. It's not hard to recover lost ground with a fifty partnership for the sixth or seventh wicket. That's the beauty of Test cricket, that it's so finely balanced at any given moment.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Flintoff's Farewell to Test Cricket

Andrew Flintoff, England 'all-rounder', is to retire from Test cricket. It's too early to do a post-mortem on his Test career, but this is momentous news, worthy of a post.

Flintoff played a significant role in the development of sabermetric cricket. One of the first studies I ever did—on paper, not electronically, so no link—told me straightaway that he had been mislabelled, and it was to curse him for all his career. As I heard Jonathan Agnew say, on the BBC Radio 4 Midnight News, 'In black and white, Flintoff's career figures don't add up to much...a bowling average...higher than his batting.'

Yes, they don't add up to much because people were so in awe of his batting style when he was brought into the side back in 1998, that it was overlooked that he was an excellent 'change' bowler. With 'all-rounder' attached to his name, Flintoff was always doomed to disappoint in the Test arena. His attacking style of batsmanship had too many holes that could be exploited by good bowling. He never 'adds up', because people are too busy looking at his shortcomings, not at his successes.

There's a joke in the world of baseball sabermetrics about how 'statheads' live in their mothers' basements studying spreadsheets on a computer. 'Get your head out of a spreadsheet and watch a game,' goes the jibe. Yet it only took some dozy Yank who never played the game, and barely watched it, (I am a radio listener) a few minutes one lunchtime with a pen, a calculator, a bit of paper and some cricket statistics copied off the Internet to figure out that all those people watching the games had Flintoff tagged wrongly. He was a world-class Test bowler who could bat a bit. I salute him.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Something in the Air

Here's a query for Statsguru at how many times has a team given up six hundred runs in a match's second innings and drawn the match? The answer is eight.

The interesting point is that three of those draws have occurred this year, and two of those matches involved England.

During the first day, I commented to my erstwhile associate Mr Austin, that it seemed as if England had finally figured out something I learned almost as soon as I started using sabermetric methods to look at cricket: to build a winning team, first build a platform to avoid defeat. Or, in other words, make sure your tail is not full of cheap wickets, even if your attack suffers.

I just wonder if this reflects the Strauss-Flower combination. It's not the sort of attitude the Hussain-Fletcher era would have endorsed. They played to win, on Australia's terms; and never did against Australia. Let's see how things develop in this series.