Friday, 28 August 2009

Limited Vision?

The England and Wales Cricket Board has called for a reduction in the length of the first-class one-day international game.

I don't pretend to know a whole lot of the history of one-day cricket in England, but I do remember for many years there was a 40-over Sunday league, which I used to watch on the BBC. Since all televised cricket seems to have gone to Sky, which I don't have, I haven't the foggiest idea of whether this 40-over championship is still going. As I recall, at one time there was a range of one-day formats played, ranging I think from 40 to 50 to 55 or 60.

The point I'm driving at, though, is that 40-over cricket has a long history in England. What I see here is the English deciding, in their tradition of 'splendid isolation', to pursue their own market and attempt to persuade the rest of the world to follow suit. Good luck with that.

However, I don't disagree with the principle the ECB is embracing here. 50-over cricket, for all its popularity in India, is still too long a form of the game. As with sabermetrics, the ICC could learn a thing or two from the Americans about game lengths. It's a fact that most American sports, which are hugely successful money-making enterprises, have games that last three-to-four hours. 50-over cricket lasts a whole day of six or seven hours. That's still too long. Given the choice of options, the ECB should either get the ICC behind T/20 cricket as the main short form of the game, or rally support behind a number between 20 and 40. Whisper it in Calcutta or Mumbai, but 50-over cricket is en route to becoming a peculiar form of the game, like Test matches, appealing to a particular market.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ashes Series' Bowlers Rated

Using my 'series score' system, which adjusts bowlers' statistics for the number of runs scored in the series and the consequent effect of this on the value of wickets taken, we get the following ratings:

Hilfenhaus 28
Broad 16
Siddle 16
Johnson 11
Onions 9
Hauritz 6
Harmison 2
Clark - 4
Katich - 4
Clarke - 5
Collingwood - 5
Bopara - 6
Swann - 7
Watson - 7
North - 8
Panesar -11
Anderson -14
Flintoff -17

England's victory was certainly not won by their bowlers. They were, however, more economical than the Australians, and that may be the key to victory. Swann's series score in particular probably understates his value. In the end, however, the series score is based on taking wickets, and on that basis Onions' score over 5 innings may be worth even more than Broad's score over 8. Onions probably is the most underrated bowler in the side. Flintoff's figure might come as a surprise-but he only took 8 wickets for an average of 52.13. Not a very impressive departure from Test cricket.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Kennington Oval, Ashes 2009, #4

England fans were whooping up a storm as Australian wickets fell before the spin of Swann and the pace of Broad. For once, it appeared, the English brains trust had out-thought the Australians'. Then, of course, one-two-three, wickets fell as England attempted to gain more ground on a strong Australian batting line-up that could be expected to crank out 400 runs.

At close of play last night, England's Win Expectancy stood at something around 32%, which isn't any better than what you'd get at the start of a Test. However, Strauss and Trott batted away the morning session, until Strauss's wicket fell just before lunch.

The Win Expectancy model would surprisingly suggest that England's chances of winning continue to dwindle. Go figure. One problem with my model is that there aren't many examples of a match like this Test.

CricInfo's Hawk-Eye (linked via the scorecard there) sees an 80 per cent chance of an England win. I can't help but think they are underestimating Australia's batsmen.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Cricket's Smoke

An Australian player may have been approached by a bookmaker. He reported the matter to the ICC. We also had gamblers in the vicinity of Pakistan cricket players recently. Where there's smoke, there's fire.

For me, cricket hasn't really recovered from the old Hansie Cronje scandal. I have too many questions still. I don't think the problem will be solved until cricket adopts the baseball solution - get caught betting on games, even if they don't involve your team, get permanently suspended. I would even take it further, and extend the ban on players betting to all sports. Gambling and sport just don't mix.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Kennington Oval, Ashes 2009, #3

At the end of the first day, this Test match is hard to read in terms of Win Expectancy. If the Australians can put up some good scores in their innings, they will probably win the match. However, England's actual position, at 307/8, is quite a decent chance to convert to a win. Throwing in all the factors - the Australian batting, the effect of the remaining resources for England, and England's current position - the draw remains the most favoured outcome (42 per cent), followed by an Australian victory (35 per cent), with an English victory the least likely (23 per cent).

Let's look at how England batsmen affected their chances:

Cook         -.034
Strauss +.016
Collingwood -.035
Bell +.062
Prior +.071
Flintoff -.151
Trott +.040
Swann -.013

Flintoff's was the most damaging wicket, which is to my mind somehow fitting given that this is his last Test. To prove the point about how he has been misunderstood by the selectors he should take ten wickets over the two innings, and go for not very many runs. His batting has always been overrated by England, and the persistence in regarding him as an all-rounder has weakened the side.

Australia have reason to be pleased with all their bowlers except Mitchell Johnson, who has been too expensive. Clark and Hilfenhaus may be lagging in taking wickets, but their economies are well-below the kind of number that characterizes a winning test side. Siddle's got the balance about right.

Kennington Oval, Ashes 2009, #2

Two points, at lunch.

On the win expectancy, the Cook wicket reduced England's chances of winning by .055. However, one might be surprised to learn that the stand by Strauss and Bell has had the effect of increasing the chances of a decision, which is helping Australia more than England. Australia's chance of winning is about 41 per cent.

I'm told Michael Holding, commentating on Sky, made a statement along the lines of 'Strauss isn't playing shots which suggests he might not have confidence in his batsmen'. I find statements like that beyond ludicrous. Strauss may have every confidence in his batsmen, but he's not taking risks because he recognizes he's got a chance to wear out the bowlers simply by defending his wicket. Or Holding could be right. But the point is Strauss's actions are open to more than one interpretation, and Holding is assuming Strauss has the same opinion of the England lineup as Holding does. That's not really very helpful or incisive.

Kennington Oval, Ashes 2009 #1

Hmm, I've come late to this, and missed the team news. I think both teams have made a mistake. Today's weather might favour the Australian option to go without a spinner, but over five days at the Oval I'd rather have five bowlers including at least one spinner. The Australian persistence with a four-bowler attack is mystifying me. I don't think this is good for pace bowlers' careers, although I'm still working on proving that.

But that's not as mystifying as England choosing Harmison, again. Onions has bowled at least one good innings in each Test he's played this summer. Harmison hasn't even bowled one good innings in the one Test he's played. It's just a joke, a triumph of media pressure over picking players currently demonstrating good form. I despair of England's selection policy, and have been doing so for seven years now.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

It Could Be Worse...

...for England fans. Imagine if McGrath and Warne were still in the side. Against the Spin looks at the numbers in a short post.

PS - I've hopped back across the Atlantic, which is why I haven't been blogging but jet-lagging and having some jolly 'welcome homes'. I am in London until early September. Home is quite close to Kennington Oval, so maybe I'll hang around outside the ground for a bit this weekend. Rain is forecast for Thursday, then the weather should improve.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Fresh Blood?

Simon Hughes reviews some alternatives for the next Test. Meanwhile, my preference from the aftermath of the Cardiff Test (not so sure now), Jamie Dalrymple, leads the England Lions in a two-day match against Australia at the weekend.

UPDATE, 20 AUG 2009: Dalrymple got 58 off 122 balls in the Lions' match. Why wasn't he picked for the side? Instead we had a lot of fuss about Ramprakash and even the retired Trescothick. I ask you.

Cricket's Testing Time

Dale Steyn has failed a drug test taken while he was playing in the IPL. His sample showed morphine, which it is said is a consequence of some codeine he was taking. One wouldn't say too much about it, unless an unreasonable punishment was imposed by the authorities, in the circumstances, were it not for the curious objections raised by the Board of Control for Cricket in India to the World Anti-Doping Agency's testing regime.

Ostensibly, the objections are in fact the players'; the BCCI's role in all this is purely a supportive one. However, you don't have to be particularly imaginative to raise questions about whether the organization put out the word that they'd certainly like it if players made objections. From my distance, I can only speculate.

The shocking thing is that cricket is known to have at least a few issues with performance-enhancing drugs. Furthermore, the ICC signed up for this not, a few months ago, but in July 2006. Lastly, Indian cricketers are not backed by their own international union.

The stakes here are potentially huge. Cricket is currently an Olympic sport, and that means the massive Chinese market is interested in taking up the game. For the Indian players and the BCCI to stand in the way of the WADA code puts that position at risk, and reopens the door for baseball to move into a space that it vacated when it lost its position as an Olympic sport. The ICC really needs to stand its ground, even if it makes conciliatory noises in public.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Fielding Statistics in Cricket

Samir Chopra has an important suggestion. I don't agree that for cricket statistics we need to go quite as far as baseball's newer fielding statistics like Ultimate Zone Rating, but it would be helpful to track chances and catches.

I get the feeling Samir is thinking of marking fielders for letting what should be a single or two runs go through for three or a boundary. I think it would be more helpful to track bowler's lengths, the overs and sessions in which wickets fall (which is now tracked in full scorecards, sometimes), and where catches were made, for starters. The last two are pieces of information that could easily be incorporated in existing full scorecards.

There's also an issue here about Moneyball and sabermetrics, which are not the same things. Moneyball is about finding 'market inefficiencies' - discovering things that are valuable and undervalued - in order to exploit them. You can't trade players in International cricket, so that's all a bit pointless. What a cricket sabermetrics needs to do is figure out what wins matches. There's a simple answer (wickets and runs) and a complex answer, which is a question of what skills are valuable and need to be coached. In other words, let's value results over technical mastery.

Hat tip to Baseball Think Factory.

Cricket's Enduring Scandal

Well, here we go again. Rumours swirl around Pakistan's cricketers. You'd think the ICC would have put some kind of policy in place by now that would make it absolutely clear to players that associating with gamblers would lead to trouble. They should take a leaf out of Major-League-Baseball's book and post in all dressing rooms that gambling on matches is prohibited and will result in a lifetime suspension. And add to it that being seen in company with known gamblers and bookmakers will lead to an investigation.

Sloppy Playing, Sloppy Thinking

England's cricket team were completely outplayed at the Ashes Fourth Test at Headingley. But this is sports, you learn from your mistakes, put it behind you, and focus on winning the next time. Well, unless you're a panicky England fan.

This is the perfect example of the kind of sloppy, knee-jerk thinking that characterizes the English way of doing things. Go back to that Justin Langer document. Beneath all the Australian arrogance are two key points: 1) England's players like to feel they are making progress; 2) England are psychologically weak. Point two is the kind of 'cod psychology' that gives successful athletes a bad name. I'd almost recommend ignoring that nonsense, except in making that point, this document actually tells us something important.

Let's go back a bit here. England picked an XI at the start of the series that excluded Bell and Harmison. So why are they in the side now? We know the answer to that — injuries. The question is whether they are worth retaining as injury substitutes. Harmison was, apart from Anderson, the most expensive English bowler. That's fine if you take 4-5 wickets, but he took 2. He's been found wanting, and I don't need sabermetric methods to tell me he should be dropped. Bell is a different issue, in that there isn't an obvious alternative. I'd actually stick with him over any inexperienced batsmen, such as Trott.

The real England problem is a sabermetric issue. Basically, the batsmen don't seem to know where their stumps are, and can't seem to accept that they can be making progress in a Test match if they are not giving up their wickets. This isn't ODI or T/20 territory. You can bat all five days and be guaranteed not to lose the match. So it's a simple psychological tweak needed with the batsmen. Instead of them getting fidgety when they are not scoring, they should get fidgety when they are playing shots they don't need to. Also, they should try to reset themselves more often, so they have a clear idea where the stumps are. It doesn't matter what some sledging Ocker, with more lip than brains, has to say about it.

The bowlers have a similar issue. The trouble is in their heads. Yes, short-pitched, aggressive bowling sure looks good, but the reality is that if it's not productive, go for a longer length and if your deliveries are drifting wide, aim a little bit more at leg.

With Langer's (1), the issue is simply to redefine what making progress is.

(2) tells us more about Australia than England. The Australians have a confidence that comes from a tradition of winning, and look down on a side that during the Nasser Hussain years had all the charm of a little kid looking up to the 'Australian way' as the best. Normally, the English can look at these jumped-up transportees with a confidence that comes from greater sophistication. That doesn't quite carry over into the realm of sports (particularly with Nasser), so let's draw on some other good English traditions that have equated to winning. The England side needs to remember the kind of bloody-minded stubbornness that made its soldiers and sailors the best in the world in the eighteenth century and after. 'Throw everything you like at us, mate, we'll be here tomorrow.'

Saturday, 8 August 2009

'Oh, Calamity' - Headingley Test 2009

Michael Henderson just about says it all about the Headingley Test, although I haven't actually seen any of the action. I'm told CricInfo had rather over-egged the pudding in describing North's catch off Strauss.

Looking at a rough estimate of Win Expectancy at the end of England's first innings, they had about an 18 per cent chance of winning the Test from that point. Looking at how those wins were achieved, they fall into two categories:

1) Bowling out the other side for even less. ENGLAND FAIL
2) Keeping the other side's score within about 100 runs. ENGLAND FAIL

That leaves us commentators with not much to write about.

I could talk about England selection, and even Australian selection. After the Australian's hinted at something really radical, like using five bowlers, they fell into their default option, merely replacing the spinner with a pace bowler. Meanwhile, England, confronted with Flintoff's injury, were forced to think through all the permutations. One wonders if they thought at any length about sticking Trott in the side and going with four bowlers. I doubt it.

EDIT: Couldn't we make the same complaint about both Flintoff and Harmison? They bowl to too short a length? Food for thought there.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Andy Flower is a genius.

Because he agrees with me. Squad system for bowlers? Absolutely, positively!
'Test-class bowlers are the rarest and most valuable currency in the the old saying goes, bowlers are born, batsmen are made.'

And, thus, you want to protect them from injury through overuse.

Edgbaston Win Expectancy Shifts

The Third Test between England and Australia produced, apart from this curiosity, some big shifts in win expectancy. I've pulled out the three biggest positive shifts, in terms of the side batting, and the three biggest negative ones. Reverse the polarity if you want to look at it in terms of bowling.

BIG Plus
Watson-Ponting, 41 runs for the 2nd wicket in AUS1 (+.218)
Watson-Hussey, 85 runs for the 3rd wicket in AUS2 (+.197)
Cook-Bopara, 58 runs for the 2nd wicket in ENG1 (+.171)

BIG Minus
Hussey, 0, in AUS1 (-.287)
Collingwood, 13, in ENG1 (-.188)
Ponting, 5, in AUS2 (-.178)

Honourable mention has to go to Cook, 0, in ENG1, which was worth -.176.

It's worth noting that for wickets or stands to count, they really need to come in pairs. It's no good piling on 100 runs and follow it with a pittance. Nor is taking a top batsman's wicket for a low score worth much if you don't break up the next partnership pretty quickly. You can let the wicket after that go for a bit, though. Anapestic metre, if you're of a poetic mind.

Are you surprised that the massive Clarke-North stand in the Australian second innings didn't appear? Probably not, as it was too late in the match to affect anything other than their averages. It actually did produce a positive effect, but I just wonder if the Australians should have cut it short when it was around a hundred and gone for a win. You never know.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Passing Observation

I am currently doing some win expectancy analysis of the Third Test in the Ashes series, and I noticed a curious fact. It seems that Australia's 7th and 8th wicket stands, which between them added a single run, actually improved their chances of winning. Is there some kind of cricket Moneyball-style market inefficiency we can take advantage of here? 'Hey, Johnson, throw your wicket away so we can win the match.'

The only explanation I can come up with for that, without examining all the Test scorecards, is that it suggests that the pitch or conditions favour the bowlers to such an extent that the side in can expect to take a lot of wickets quickly once the innings finish. If anyone has a better hypothesis, I'd be interested to hear it.

As soon as I finish the analysis, which I hope is later today, I'll post some thoughts about the drawn Test.