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  1. After a two unexpected defeats which cost the visitors the series, England were finally on top in the 3rd innings of the 3rd Test of their tour to West Indies at St. Lucia. Their captain Joe Root had finally produced a substantial innings, and after coming second in the contest in the West Indies for most of the tour, his team was finally in a position to win something. On the other side, the West Indies, having won their series, and having lost their captain to an over rate related suspension for the final Test, were finding it hard going. They had conceded a three figure lead in the first innings and, as often happens when the batting side is ahead in the game, were finding it difficult to make headway with the ball. It was at this time that the stump microphone caught a stray comment by the England captain. He was heard saying, as all of you probably know by now: Root has since been cast as a knight in shining armour coming to the defense of gay people everywhere. The Barmy Army, Stephen Fry, Nasser Hussain, the former Arsenal and Crystal Palace forward Ian Wright - all England and all cricket (and to be fair, initially, I did this too) heard those 12 words and thought, Root had struck a blow for good in the world (Here's a good summary of reactions compiled by the reporter George Dobell for ESPNCricinfo). Hussain encapsulated this view perfectly in this tweet: Now we know the full exchange. But the more basic problem is, we didn't know it then, and it didn't seem to matter. This bothered me, not because I doubted the obvious meaning of Root's words. Many have asked, why would he say that if what Gabriel said wasn't obviously homophobic? It bothered me because Root was cast as a bystander. And yet, this exchange took place in the middle of a Test match. This is a contest which has an obvious psychological aspect to it. As we now know, Root was making eye contact with Gabriel, smiling at him, basically getting in his face, rubbing in the fact, without having to say a word, that his side was in front in the game and Gabriel was failing to get the better of him. This is all completely fine. The batsman is perfectly within his rights to try and throw the bowler off balance with a comment. In every day life, people are not in a zero-sum contest with each other the way the bowler and the batsman are in the middle of a Test match pitch. The social contract which governs our daily lives is different from the one which governs the sporting contest in Test cricket. We're not trying to defeat other people all the time. We're trying to co-exist - to live as social beings. This effort is harmed by arbitrary prejudices be they based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexuality. Its corrosive when people are cast on the margins because they are different and are powerless to prevent this banishment. These prejudices visit tremendous, and often untold, violence on their targets. The deal in Test cricket is different. There is psychology involved. And Root was a contestant, not a bystander. Gabriel's comment was not homophobic for this reason. And Root's retort was not that of a good samaritan trying to calm things down. It was the comment of a contestant in a rhetorical joust, trying to win. Consider this another way. If you went outside and hit someone on the head with a cricket ball, you'd be charged with assault. In the context of the cricketing context, its not assault, its a perfectly legitimate skill. The standards of everyday life cannot be transplanted into the middle of a Test pitch as seamlessly as they have been Root's champions. Later, in a podcast with Test Match Special, Root said that he did what he thought was right at the time. Now, Test Match Special are very good at live commentary, but as journalists, they are to the English Test team what Pravda was to the Soviet Communist Party. Root is right though. He was in a contest, and undoubtedly won that exchange with Gabriel. So in this sense, he did do what he thought was right at the time. But that's what he was trying to do - win the exchange, play on Gabriel's mind. Its what contestants do. And at the Test level, you get some of the most fierce contestants going. TMS's commentators lauded Root for showing "integrity and leadership" in his response to Gabriel. They said this despite not knowing anything about what Gabriel might have said. In Root's defense, he did try to play things down at the end of the day's play. But even there, the competitor in him could not resist getting a dig in at the opponent first up and milk the moment. Root essentially takes up two contradictory positions. First he casts himself as a bystander intervening to uphold a "responsibility to go about things in a certain manner". But then, he and the English team management played things down, as the Test Match Special producer Adam Mountford reported. So why did the ICC act? The Umpires charged Gabriel with a breach of 2.13 of the ICC Code of Conduct, and Gabriel did not contest the charge. Even so, the West Indies reportedly successfully argued that Gabriel was in contention for the ODI games, and so will serve out a 4 match ODI ban and not a 2 Test ban. Gabriel has not played ODI cricket since 2017. Once the stump microphones caught those words, the ICC basically had no option but to act. The Laws of Cricket govern the cricketing contest. The ICC's Code of Conduct exists to preserve the presentation of the game. As a result, if a player uses a bracelet to express solidarity with civilian victims of conflict, as Moeen Ali attempted to do, the "Clothing and Equipment Regulations" (for instance) can be used to prevent this because the ICC wishes to avoid political controversies. Other similar regulations govern sponsor logos, team crests and the like, because the ICC wishes to avoid commercial controversies. If a player is seen on TV shoving an opponent, or mouthing obscenities at an opponent, this looks bad too. Sponsors don't like it, and the public often doesn't like it either. The Code of Conduct exists to police this behaviour and keep a lid on things. The ICC's Code of Conduct is, at its core, a public relations device. The game itself is governed by its laws. The ICC has essentially managed the PR situation, just as the Code of Conduct was designed to enable it to do. Shannon Gabriel has been handed a ban for four ODIs, a form in which he has not been selected of the West Indies's last 12 ODIs (he last played for them on Boxing Day in 2017). Gabriel has played 11 Tests for West Indies since December 26, 2017. He will be available for their next Test match as well. The struggle against prejudice is not a public relations problem. It has to be taken seriously by people who think carefully about facts and circumstances. It is not served well by the mediocrity evident in the frustrated juggernaut that is the English sports media contingent. "I don't know all of what was said, but Root is right", is not the opinion of someone who is serious about tackling prejudice. It is the opinion of someone who is participating in the business of entertainment and wants to be seen to be tackling prejudice. There are those who understand this but nevertheless think its a force for the good. I'm not convinced that it is. No worthy cause has ever been served well by lazy mediocrity. It was Gabriel's misfortune that Root's comment was caught on the microphone. Gabriel denies that he's homophobic. In fact, assuming his account of the exchange is true, it was the very first thing is said in response to Root's much publicized comment. "I have no issues with that, but you should stop smiling at me." Had the stump microphone caught the full exchange, would Gabriel be handed a ban and a fine? Almost certainly not. Stump microphones should be switched off between deliveries. Voyeurism is not transparency. Entertainment is not scrutiny. These categories matter. They should be taken seriously. In the unfortunate case of Shannon Gabriel, they were not.
  2. After India lost at Perth, a truism about the current Indian side has emerged in the press and among observers on twitter. The charge against the India is that they are prone to picking the wrong team. From a distance, you can see the picture this charge is trying to paint. It suggests incompetence on the part of India's team management (specifically, the head coach Ravi Shastri, and the captain Virat Kohli). This sense is encapsulated by this observation which appeared on my timeline yesterday. This, about one of the world's best cricket teams. One of the better presentations of the the India-are-prone-to-selection-errors argument is by Freddie Wilde for the cricket data company CricViz. Selection is a matter of judgment. At any given point in time, in any Test team, more than one equally reasonable combination is always possible. Therefore, to lay a Test defeat at the door of the selection of one of two players in an XI is tenuous. Further, all fifteen (or however many) players selected to a squad are considered good enough to play in the XI. Therefore, it is little more than a shell game to ask "if X wasn't picked, why is X in the squad". The answer is obvious - the squad has more than 11 members and the team has only eleven spots. At Perth, its fairly obvious that Umesh Yadav had a bad game. But this, by itself, does not show that India would have been better off picking a spinner in his place. Nathan Lyon has a lot of experience of bowling in Australia and is a very very good bowler. With more than 326 Test wickets in 81 Tests before the Perth Test, he could lay claim to being Australia's best ever Test off-spinner. Australia rarely drop him when he's available, no matter what the conditions. He has featured in 82 of the 86 Tests Australia have played since his Test debut. The options available to India were two spinners who have never bowled in Australia before. Nevertheless, Ravindra Jadeja is a terrific bowler and would have been a good option, even with an Australian line-up dominated by lefties. The six fast bowlers not named Umesh Yadav had an excellent game. Hanuma Vihari had to bowl for India because Umesh Yadav was struggling. Given how successful the fast bowlers were, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that picking Umesh Yadav instead of a spinner was a bad decision. Umesh Yadav has bowled well at Perth in the past and took 5/93 in a dismal Indian bowling effort here in 2012. He also took 10 wickets the last time he played for India. Umesh Yadav has never been one to keep the runs down. He either gets wickets or he goes for runs. With the other three Indian fast men demonstrating much improved control, India could have picked a 4th bowler who would offer them some added depth in their batting and keep the score under control, or they could have gone with the shock weapon - the seamer who might go for runs, but could have a spell worth two or three quick wickets. We've considered the spin option. What of Bhuvneshwar Kumar? Kumar last played for India in South Africa in January. Since then, he has played a lot of limited overs cricket for India but has been injured and was ruled out of the England tour (where he might have enjoyed the conditions). Kumar's record is too good for him to be left out. It was worth taking him to Australia in the hope that he could play in the tour game. Everybody would be able to bowl and bat in the tour game, and everybody but Bhuvneshwar Kumar did, suggesting that he had not recovered by then. As Kohli indicated, Kumar had recovered to be available for selection, but didn't have any significant bowling under his belt. Wilde summarizes this situation as follows: Except that Kohli didn't say that Bhuvneshwar was unselectable. Nor did he suggest it. If you listen to what Kohli says, his entire point was that it was a close decision and Umesh Yadav's form, together with the fact that Bhuvneshwar hadn't bowled much recently, meant that Umesh Yadav got the nod ahead of Bhuvneshwar. India did misread the conditions at Lord's when they played two spinners. None of the other selection decisions - leaving out Rahane and Pujara in South Africa and England respectively - could be considered bad decisions. They were arguable decisions. In fact, none of the selection decisions Selection is a favorite subject for observers and writers. Some have gone so far as to describe the selection choices of the current Indian side as "blunders" - careless, or stupid mistakes. This is a peculiar formulation. Consider what's happening here. Lay people are accusing Test players of careless, stupid selection! This is obviously the voice of disappointment. But it does not seem to be a particularly self-aware voice. It is generally impossible to criticize selection seriously. By seriously, I mean, to make a good quality argument which justifies a claim to the effect that a particular selection was obviously bad. This is because there's always more than one reasonable combination available to a squad in any given Test. At Perth, India could have played Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Umesh Yadav or Ravindra Jadeja as their fourth bowler. All three would have been reasonable selections. Therefore, selecting any one of these cannot be considered an error. Every India captain (and their team management) has shown a particular pattern to their selection. The selection has never been careless or random or stupid. Sourav Ganguly preferred to err on the side of batting depth. Rahul Dravid was more attacking, but he would hedge his bets. Kohli has shown a near monomaniacal preference for chasing twenty wickets. India have played five bowlers as a rule under Kohli, and he has seemed averse to picking bowlers for their ability with the bat. There appears to be little expectation that the bowlers should contribute with the bat. It is possible to consider this as being too attacking. But it is not a stupid idea. Nor is it arbitrary. Even though I would prefer it if Kohli were to hedge his bets a little (I would have preferred it if India had played Ravindra Jadeja at Perth) and not attack so much, I can see that this is the way they want to play. The one thing about Kohli, both in the way he bats and in the way he sets up his team, is the total absence of any fear of losing. This is a quality to be admired in the captain of the Indian team. It is an anti-nationalistic approach which treats the game as a game - as a contest to be won, rather than as a proxy for some ridiculous "national pride". These are professional sportsmen and not warriors, and that's how it should be. Anytime you hear criticism of selection choice, you can be sure of two things. First, it has no cricketing merit, and second, it is the voice of disappointment or resentment, not reason. Now, some of these resentments may even be justified. It is not in serious dispute that the way in which Anil Kumble was replaced by Ravi Shastri in 2017 was dubious. I wrote about it at the time (1, 2, 3). But even so, this does not justify bad arguments about selection.
  3. I watched most of India's batting on the 3rd day after waking up early on Saturday morning to do so. When I went to sleep on Friday night, I feared that Australia might still be batting, with Mitchell Starc and Travis Head doing their best impression of Jason Gillespie and Steve Waugh. But India earned lead of 15, which, from 127/6 still mean that the last 4 Australian wickets added 108. Murali Vijay played as though he knows he is keeping the spot warm for Prithvi Shaw. KL Rahul played like a left-wing legislator who, having come through a surprisingly close challenge in an election, votes and speaks as though he's determined never again to be challenged on the basis of not being left-wing enough. Rahul spent much of the series in England speculating hopelessly outside off stump while the ball moved extravagantly off the pitch. At the Oval he turned the tables on that area outside the off stump, slaughtering most deliveries hung out there by England's expectant seamers. He seems to have carried that vengeance with him to Australia. The Adelaide wicket has been cagey. Its not flat and its not a flier. There's always been a little bit for the bowlers off the pitch. Not enough to bother the player who is prepared to bide his time and play late. But enough to make the more cavalier style of batting a risky proposition. The outfield has been slower than any in recent memory anywhere in the world, testing patience even more than usual. Australia's right-arm seamers bowled well today. Mitchell Starc seems to be enervated by the pitch and looked well below his best. More than Cummins or Hazlewood, Starc appeared far more anxious about his choice of length. I haven't watch Ashwin bowl in this Test, but I did watch the superb Nathan Lyon. It took all of Cheteshwar Pujara's experience to keep him at bay. Pujara's batting against Lyon reminded me of his innings against Monty Panesar (especially) and Graeme Swann at the Wankhede stadium in 2012. Watching Pujara gets me thinking about transport. He runs between wickets like a large leisure boat. But more importantly, he bats like a train. He has his track and he sticks to it. Against Lyon, Pujara batted according the field set to him. Lyon consistently kept a slip and a two man leg-trap with a short-leg and leg-gully, but no silly mid-off. He bowled for the foot marks outside the right hander's off stump. Pujara kept kicking the ball away with the bat glued to the inside of the pad, drawing Lyon's line closer to his middle and leg-stump, at which point he would try to score into the leg side. Pujara's bat never advanced past the pad. He seemed absolutely confident that the ball was never hit the stumps from that line of attack. We know he was right because once, after Pujara had kicked the ball away after advancing a step down the pitch, the umpire gave the LBW to Lyon, only to have it reversed on review. Lyon might have moved that leg-slip to silly mid-off with some advantage. Pujara does not sweep or paddle, and the silly mid-off might have forced the batsman to change tracks. Australia defended deeper against Kohli. Nathan Lyon had a deep mid-wicket to Kohli for most of his innings. He also didn't have the leg-gully. Kohli played with the bat far more than Pujara. This meant that he would score more runs, especially into the off side, but it also meant that Lyon was offered both edges of Kohli's bat. With the wicket beginning to wear from nearly 120 overs from each end, the likelihood of the ball misbehaving out of the rough is improving steadily. Towards the end of the day, there was a break in play. Almost immediately after that, Kohli played at Lyon's stock ball to the right-hander with the bat well in front of the pad, and the catch popped up to Aaron Finch at short leg. For Lyon, it was a reward for some magnificent bowling. But I can't help wondering if he might have benefited more if he had not allowed Pujara to play him to a stalemate. Lyon could have gotten Pujara, but the batsman's methods ensured that the odds of this happening were minimized. It was a terrific session of play all in all. The match situation favors India, if only because Australia have to bat last, the wicket is beginning to wear and nobody has scored freely on this pitch.
  4. Mithali Raj is a great player. She has a Test double hundred, more ODI runs than any player in history, and more than 200 international caps for India. She was left out of India’s eleven for their semi final in the recently concluded T20 World Cup. India lost that game. A player of Raj’s ability being dropped in such an important is unusual but not unheard of. Anil Kumble was left out of the eleven at the 2003 World Cup final. At the time, Kumble of one of only two Indian bowlers who have more than 300 limited overs wickets and had been the mainstay of India’s limited overs attack in the previous decade. Matters exploded spectacularly after Raj wrote to the BCCI CEO and Cricket Operations General Manager (and former India wicketkeeper) Saba Karim to complain about being left out. Her letter to the BCCI is essentially a complaint against two individuals - Diana Edulji and Ramesh Powar. Her first complaint against Powar is that he changed the batting order and asked her to bat in the middle order. Mithali Raj found this unsuitable. Her second complaint against him is that he dropped her from the eleven for the semi final. She writes that she went to the team manager because she didn’t like what the head coach was saying. In the letter, Raj casts the decision to drop her as the coach’s decision. The Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur has also written to the BCCI and flatly contradicts Raj's characterization of the decision as one made by the coach. The Indian Vice-Captain Smriti Mandhana has also written to the BCCI and agrees with the captain. She writes that all playing elevens were selected using the same procedure. Raj's complaints against the head coach and her disappointment at being dropped is understandable. The team management is perfectly within its rights to decide things like the batting order. Besides, given that Raj went to the team manager to ask her to referee her dispute with the head coach, its hardly surprising that the head coach and the team manager agreed with the captain and vice-captain that she should be left out of the eleven. If she was required in the middle-order and didn't bat want to bat in the middle-order, it's best for everybody if she didn't play at all. In any event, based on Raj's accounts and the accounts of others, its clear that this was a cricketing matter, and no matter what you might think of the merits of the decision, the legitimacy of the decision is not in question. It is more than a little bit surprising that a player of Raj's excellence and experience should let her disappointment get the better of her in this way. Raj's complaint against Edulji seemed puzzling from the beginning. It appears in the first part of the letter, before the case against the head coach is laid out. The idea that a member of the CoA or the CoA should interfere with who gets picked in the eleven from the squad is as preposterous as asking Jagmohan Dalmiya to get involved in such a dispute. Edulji rightly took the view that the CoA wouldn't get involved in team selection. Tushar Arothe, Ramesh Powar's predecessor as head coach, has added his voice to Raj's. His intervention is bizarre because he suggests that Edulji interfered with the team selection at the Asia Cup because, after the tournament ended, she inquired into the selection decisions made by the team management. It is not unusual for former players to express opinions about team selection even though they may be office holders at BCCI. Sourav Ganguly played over a hundred Tests for India and captained India. He is currently the President of the Cricket Association of Bengal which is a member association of the BCCI. He often comments on the selection and performance of men's team. It would be very surprising if he didn't offer his opinion to the players and the selectors in private as well. But this does not mean that the Cricket Association of Bengal is interfering with selection. Mithali Raj has written to the BCCI CEO Rahul Johri (Her letter is addressed to "Rahul Sir and Saba) complaining about Diana Edulji only a few days after Edulji disagreed with the CoA chairman Vinod Rai's decision to keep Johri in his job following an inquiry into allegations of improper behaviour against Johri by a BCCI employee. The committee which inquired into the allegations against Johri did not return a unanimous verdict. One of the three members dissented, and accused the BCCI and CoA of not following the law (specifically, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013). At the CoA, the chairman Vinod Rai is accused of suppressing the dissenting voice in the inquiry committee and ignoring Edulji's opposition to grant Johri a "clean chit". Apart from the fact that Raj's complaint against Edulji is substantively feeble, it is remarkable that she has written to the BCCI's CEO to complain about a member of the CoA, who's job is to supervise the CEO. It is an incredible coincidence that Johri should receive a written complaint against Edulji a a few days after Edulji opposed Johri's reinstatement following an inquiry which did not unanimously exonerate him. If Raj was advised by her advisors to complain in writing, then she was advised poorly. If any part of this advice came from Johri, this would be obviously inappropriate. Did Johri (directly or indirectly) advise Mithali Raj to put her complaints against Diana Edulji in writing? Only Mithali Raj and Rahul Johri can answer this question. Note that Raj's letter appeared in public on November 27. It was reported that she met the BCCI CEO and General Manager on November 26. At first Raj's letter seemed to be an ill-judged expression of disappointment. Now that subsequent communications by the head coach, captain and vice-captain have been made public, it looks worse than ill-judged. It is very sad that a great player has allowed herself to be put in such a terrible position where in she has been contradicted by her head coach and her colleagues. It would be even sadder if her obvious disappointment has been exploited in a larger political power struggle at the BCCI.
  5. Toni Kroos stood over the football on the edge of the Swedish penalty area. The angle was acute. Marco Reus stood over the ball with Kroos, and pointed out to the Real Madrid midfielder that it might be better if he went for goal since the Swedish defense had a height advantage over the German attack. Kroos did. He played a very short pass to Reus who lined up a drive for Kroos around the nominal Swedish wall. Kroos’s drive curled around the wall with pace and nestled in the far corner of the Swedish goal. Kroos had come through when it mattered. Germany’s world champion midfield maestro had just produced that holy grail in elite professional sport - the clutch performance. The standard account of sporting contests suggests that there are some parts of games which are more important than others. There are key moments and key players who specialize in these key moments. The great tennis players, we are told, excel especially when the game is on the line. The great footballers are the ones who finish (or defend) that one crucial chance late in the game. Great basketball players specialize in the last few dozen seconds of games. They take their game to higher level. The great batsmen are the ones who score when it matters. It follows from this idea that some parts of sporting contest matter more than others. Identifying these moments and winning them is a skill which some players have and others don't. This distinction opens the floodgates to much of what passes for the evaluation of individual players. It also shapes the nature of fandom. Fans praise or condemn players based on their perceived achievements in these big moments. Sport is cast in a gladiatorial light in which there are winners and champions, and just as importantly, losers and cowards. The record provides little evidence to support the idea that sporting contests are made up of big moments and smaller moments, key moments and average moments. This essay considers some of this evidence, primarily from cricket, examines why this picture of sport persists despite the evidence, and suggests that this picture of sport may not be the predominant way of understanding sporting contests in the foreseeable future. In limited overs cricket matches, for example, the advanced phase of the run chase is considered the “business end” of the game. This is batting when “the pressure is on”, “when it matters”. There are great finishers and then there are others. And the basic difference seems to be that the great finishers are usually there at the end of a successful chase. They “win the game for their side”. And yet, the record does not reveal a single player who fits this description. Every player who ever achieved a reputation as a finisher just happens to have played in very strong teams which had very strong batting lineups. Michael Bevan and MS Dhoni, two of the greatest finishers in limited overs cricket score slower in run chases than the rest of the team. What’s more, in a large number of run chases, they are not required at all. Dhoni has played in 166 run chases, of which India have won 104 and lost 62. He has batted in only 131 of these chases, of which India have won 69 and lost 62. Dhoni averages 50 in these games and scores at 81 runs per 100 balls. At the other end, India’s batsmen average 31 and score at 89 runs per 100 balls. Dhoni’s reputation as a cold-blooded finisher was greatly enhanced in Australia in 2012. On February 12, 2012, the two teams met at the Adelaide Oval. Australia batted first and reached 269/8. In response, India reached 178/3 after 34 overs and required 92 in 96 balls. Gautam Gambhir was out off the first ball of the 35th over and Dhoni came to the crease. India eventually won by four wickets with two balls to spare. But they needed 13 from the last over, 12 off the last four balls. Dhoni hit a six and finished 44 not out in 58 balls. The reviews of the game referred to an ‘ice-cool’ Dhoni, but there was also the lingering feeling that the game should not have been in the balance for as long as it had been. Sidharth Monga’s account of India’s run chase at the time puts Dhoni’s effort in context. India had not batted well on the tour. Their record in Australia was modest. Dhoni was under pressure, but made sure that India got over the line. The facts suggest a different picture. At the start of that final over, Dhoni had 33 in 55 balls to his name and India had scored 79 in 89 during his time at the wicket. The other end produced 46/2 in 34. Overall, the other end produced 48/2 in 37. Dhoni’s caution was subsidized by successful aggression at the other end. He could afford to bide his time only because the runs came quickly at the other end. Why was our attention drawn to Dhoni’s caution, and not to the successful aggression at the other end? Perhaps it is because we notice that Dhoni is there at the end. Finishers who “see their team home” are the ones who are still there “when it matters”. This is generally true not only about MS Dhoni, but about ‘finishers’ in general. The table below shows a list of the most prolific middle order “finishers’ in ODI history. The ones in grey score slower than their average partner in run chases. Among the exceptions (in white), all but three score less than one-fifth of one run faster than the players at the other end.Virat Kohli, who has a brilliant record in run chases, scores 69(72) in the average run chase. In these chases, other Indian batsmen produce 66(72) for 1.85 dismissals. There are exceptions. AB de Villiers, Suresh Raina, Aravinda de Silva and Andrew Symonds score appreciably quicker than their teammates and are also more consistent. Yet, these four players would not feature on anyone’s list of reliable finishers in the way that Bevan or Dhoni would. Some of them would figure in many people’s list of adventurous stroke makers, great players even. But, especially in the case of AB de Villiers, there has been criticism of de Villiers’ inability to “take his team home”. The chart below shows a 5 over rolling scoring rate for the player and for the average teammate by over in an ODI. The grey bars (on the right vertical axis) show the number of instances in which a player has been at the wicket in a given over in an ODI. Each circle represents the player’s scoring rate (on the left vertical axis) over the previous 5 overs, while each star represents the scoring rate at the other end over the previous 5 overs. De Villiers consistently scores quicker than the player at the other end. Kohli scores as quick as the player at the other end, and then, on the rare occasions when it is still necessary, he can explode after the 40th over. MS Dhoni on the other hand, consistently scores slower than his partner during ODI run chases, except towards the very end. Unsurprisingly, Kohli and Dhoni are more successful than de Villiers in run chases. Compared to him, they have to do less of the heavy lifting. But de Villiers is as good if not better than Kohli or Dhoni at doing his share of the heavy lifting. The 100 most prolific run chasers in the world are shown in the chart below. The horizontal axis represents the ratio of teammates’ scoring rate to that of the player. If this ratio is less than one, it means that the player scores quicker than his teammates and vice versa. The vertical axis represents the ratio of teammates’ dismissal rate to that of the player. If this ratio is more than one, it means that the player is more consistent than his teammates and vice versa. This allows us to organize players into four categories - anchors (62%), quick scorers (11%), superior players (23%), and liabilities (4%). Anchors are more consistent and score slower. Quick scorers are less consistent and score quicker. Superior players score quicker and are more consistent. Liabilities score slower and are less consistent. As the chart shows, most of the most prolific run chasers are anchors. Superior players are typically marginally superior. For every run scored by Virat Kohli, 0.97 runs are scored at the other end. Liabilities are expectedly extremely rare. Most of them either keep wickets or bowl. Only one ‘superior’ player in ODI history has scored at least 10% faster than their teammates and been at least 10% more consistent than their teammates - Tendulkar between 1994-04. Viv Richards scored 22% faster than his teammates and was 9% more consistent. From 1994 to 2004, a period spanning three world cups, Tendulkar played primarily (though not exclusively) as opener, and made 6039 runs in chases, more than any middle-order batsman has in their entire career batting second. His career lasted a quarter of a century. His longevity justifies the consideration of a decade of his career in isolation. 94-04 is a good time span. It covers his twenties. It begins when he began opening the batting and ends with an injury riddled period of transition for him in 2004. The players who are considered finishers have the luxury of playing in strong teams which provide them with the luxury of scoring slower and protecting their wicket. Finishers acquire their reputation because of consistent success. But the basis of that success is a strong team. Great chasing teams are strong batting teams. Finishing is a team skill. The “finisher” does not exist in the sense that most people imagine. There is no player who ‘takes his team home’. There are players who have the luxury of biding their time because a lot of heavy lifting is being done very ably at the other end with regard to the scoring rate for about 80-90% of the run chase. These players may not get the not out, but they contribute at least as much, if not more to the run chase than the ‘finisher’ does.The trope about ‘big moments’ exists across sports. In professional tennis, for instance, it is widely accepted among fans that there are important points and unimportant points because in theory it is possible to win a tennis match despite winning fewer points than the opponent. Data available at Tennis Abstract shows that top players are not significantly better or worse at winning any particular type of points. They don’t perform better on “important points” than on others. The authors at Tennis Abstract provide a measure known as the Dominance Ratio which gives the number of points won by a player off the opponent’s serve divided by the number of points conceded by a player while serving. This measure (Rafael Nadal (1.29), Roger Federer (1.31), Novak Djokovic (1.27) and Andy Murray (1.20)) also shows that the best players are better at winning points in general. In baseball the idea of the ‘clutch’ hitter has existed for decades and has been studied at least since the 1970s. There is no serious evidence to suggest that ‘clutch’ hitting is actually a skill. Some studies have found the odd player who could be marginally considered to demonstrate ‘clutch’ capability, but these are not players who are typically considered ‘clutch’ players. So why does this idea persist? The idea of the ‘big moment’ and the ‘clutch player’ who excels in the big moment seems to be due to a combination of two well understood cognitive biases which human beings are prone to. The availability bias is our tendency to confuse the obvious with the significant. When evaluating a concept or an event, we tend to make use of those things which are most easily available to our minds. Memorable events during games are easier to remember and evaluate than all the events in games. For example, MS Dhoni not only stayed till the end that day at Adelaide in 2012, but he also hit a memorable six in the last over. However, that boundary was no more or less significant than any other delivery in the run chase on which a boundary was hit, or, more crucially, was not hit. In that last over, Dhoni had little option but to go for it. But the conditions which produced this desperate situation were as significant as the 13 runs in the final over. The confirmation bias is our tendency to recall events in a way which confirms our pre-existing beliefs or ideas about those events. If we accept that big moments decide games, then we’re likely look for these big moments. Hence, when watching Federer play Nadal, we watch Nadal win an epic rally at 40-40, 5-5 in the fourth set, and start thinking to ourselves “wow! Nadal turns up in the big moments!”. However, if the so-called big moments really did exist in games, then all the preceding events in games (points in tennis, deliveries in cricket, attacks in football) which brought the big moment into being must be at least as big. Therefore, the big moment can’t actually exist. Cognitive biases typically point to a problem of measurement. It is very difficult to remember every episode in a game simply by watching it either at the ground, from the press box or on TV. Until recently, these were the only modes of observation and measurement available to most viewers and journalists. As Toni Kroos stood over the football in injury time, he knew the score like everybody else. He knew how much time was left. He knew that if they could score with that set piece, they would almost certainly win. In that moment of the Germany v Sweden game of 2018, just before he took the free kick, this was not just the biggest moment, it was the only moment, not only for Kroos, but also for everybody watching. After the game, when one is no longer in that 92nd minute watching Kroos stand over the ball, and one is now evaluating the game as a whole, the only thing which can be said is that Germany scored a late winner. One has to shift standpoints from being in that 92nd minute with Kroos, to standing apart and examining the game as a whole. Germany had 76% of the possession and 18 shots on the Swedish goal. The game was shaped as much by each of those preceding 91 minutes as it was by that 92nd minute. The rules of football, and therefore the opportunity to score a goal, were identical in each minute. The game was not decided in the 92nd minute. It was decided equally in all 93 minutes. The 92nd minute was memorable and wonderful. But it’s not especially the reason for the outcome. Finally, let’s consider the idea of the “clutch” player. Clutch players are generally better than other players. Therefore, they are more likely than other players to do memorable things. Some of those memorable things appear to us to be significant. But this is not because they are especially good in those moments which appear significant to observers. It’s because they are always better. Better teams are made up of better players. Better teams tend to win more. Sometimes weaker teams win. These are upsets. The idea of a ‘clutch player’ - a player who is measurably superior in the ‘big moments’ than at other times - does not exist in sport. It exists in descriptions of sport due to the limitations of observers. It cannot exist in sport, because if it did, it would mean that short cuts exist in sport - that there are ways of winning without being excellent. “He’s average most of the time, but that one time, when it mattered, he came through.” This is a description of a fluke, not a skill. Excellence in sport is ever present. We hang on to ideas about ‘big moments’ and ‘clutch players’ because excellence is exhausting. It is exhausting to contemplate, difficult to describe, and until recently, the type of systematic measurements which would show excellence were beyond the reach of the average sports watcher (and indeed, the average sports writer). Excellence was the domain of coaches and trainers who taught their wards methods and techniques. Methods and techniques are designed to produce good outcomes as a rule. The proliferation of measurements has made excellence accessible to spectators. As these become ubiquitous, perhaps we will learn to watch games differently. Our picture of sport will hopefully shift from today’s blood and guts chauvinism to a more humane one. Humane, not just in the nature of its criticism, but also in its capacity for precision. Toni Kroos is one of the world’s best midfielders. He’s also a specialist in dead-ball situations. He was on the ball that day in injury time because of these facts. Not because he’s “clutch” in the “big moments”. That free kick was not a measure of his capacity to deliver when it matters. It was a consequence of his excellence as a football player.
  6. The purpose of this post is to maintain a record of a promotional offer made by Wisden on the evening of March 29, the day Australian captain Steve Smith had his terrible public mea culpa in a press conference in Australia. Wisden posted a tweet of their offer. Their promotions page also (screenshot below from here and here, with my thanks) detailed this offer. These details are as follows: Wisden evidently realized that this was being received poorly. They deleted their tweet and edited their subscriptions page to remove the language about this subscription offer. This deletion was done without warning, and followed by the terse tweet saying "Apologies for any offence in our previous tweet - a misjudgement", which omits any information about what the previous tweet was about and why it was deleted. Wisden's very next post was of Steve Smith press conference. Wisden has, to date, not provided any details about who thought up the promotions offer, or why the offer was withdrawn.
  7. India bowled South Africa out for 118 in 32.2 overs in the 1st innings of the 2nd One Day International of their ongoing six match series in South Africa. This left them 119 to win. India’s run chase began immediately after a 10 minute interval since South Africa’s innings ended with more than 30 minutes left for the scheduled break. When it was time for the scheduled break, 15 overs of India’s innings had been completed and India were 26 runs away from their target. The Umpires decided to exercise rule 11.4.4 of the 2017 standard ODI playing conditions, and extended play for a maximum of 15 minutes (or a minimum of 4 overs). This rule is as follows: “The umpires may decide to play 15 minutes (a minimum of four overs) extra time at the scheduled interval if requested by either captain if, in the umpires’ opinion, it would bring about a definite result in that session. If the umpires do not believe a result can be achieved no extra time shall be allowed. If it is decided to play such extra time, the whole period shall be played out even though the possibility of finishing the match may have disappeared before the full period has expired.” It took more than 15 minutes to complete the four overs. There is no provision in the rules to start a new over if the 15 extra minutes have already been played. India were 2 runs short of their target after four overs. The umpires duly took the players off for the scheduled break. This decision was universally condemned. It is worth examining the substance of this condemnation because this is an instance in which the umpires were condemned for following the rules correctly and precisely. In other words, those who condemned the umpires were completely wrong, and the umpires were completely right. Essentially, the argument was that even though they followed the rules, the umpires were wrong because their decision defied “common sense”. Further, it was suggested that the rules were archaic, the decision was ridiculous and the situation was a farce. As the players walked away for the break, observers (commentators on television, various journalists on twitter) were darkly predicting that there would be nobody left at the ground when the players returned from their break. On a video show for ESPNCricinfo the former India wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta even invented a provision in the rules to the effect that if both captains agree, play can continue! Such a provision does not exist in the rules. He was not alone. Dozens of ex-players and journalists were unanimous about how the ridiculousness of the decision and awfulness of the situation. Who exactly was being inconvenienced by the umpires’ decision? The television broadcasters, who got to run innings break programming and the commercials which go with it? The press in the press box, who were served lunch as per the usual custom by the hosts at the ground, and got an extra talking point which they otherwise might have been short of in a one-sided game? The spectators who had come prepared for a leisurely day at the cricket, expecting a 100 overs game which would last until evening? The vendors at the ground who got to serve customers over lunch? Who exactly was inconvenienced by the umpires decision? The decision was perfectly correct according to the rules, and apart from the fact that the game was run correctly, everybody associated with the game did better thanks to the decision compared to what they might have done had the umpires ignored the rules and played extra overs. The one testable prediction in all the outrage, that nobody would be around at the end of the game, turned out to be wrong. As ESPNCricinfo’s live ball-by-ball commentator reported, “My colleague Sid Monga tells me there is still a decent crowd hanging around at the stadium” Rarely has there been such an unanimously held view which was based on no observable external reality. The conventional wisdom in this case was absolutely certain that the decision was “farcical”, “ridiculous”, “stupid”, “unbelievable”. The basis of this certitude is this notion of “common sense”. It was the common sense decision to play the extra over(s) even though the rules did not permit this. It is worth examining the notion of common sense. Laws govern and bring order to our lives. But life would still exist even if there were no laws (or some completely different set of laws). It would not exist in the way it exists today, but it would still exist. Games are different from life. Games are not governed by laws, they are constituted by them. Without the rules of a game, there is no game. Life precedes laws, while laws precede games. Games are completely defined, closed systems. Any move by a participant in a game (be it cricket or chess or football) can be identified unambiguously as being either a legal move (i.e. something permitted in the game) or an illegal move (i.e. something not permitted in the game). The goal of the game is predefined. This means that conditions which have to met so that the goal can be said to have been achieved, are known in advance. Games begin and end. This distinction between games and general life is important because it places a strict limit on the applicability of things which might be applicable to general laws to the laws of games. There is no concept of “natural justice” in a game. Games are structured as a competition - someone is supposed to lose by design. The set of rules which constitute (again, not govern, but constitute) a game is arbitrary. This set does not exist for any reason, other than the fact that it constitutes the game. The laws of games are not supposed to have silences. Whenever events occur whose legal status is truly disputable, the laws of games are amended to end such disputes (for example, the switch hit, or Ajay Jadeja’s exploitation of a loophole in the short run rule when batting with a tailender). Common sense is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” It consists of “common sense consists of knowledge, judgement, and taste which is more or less universal and which is held more or less without reflection or argument.” Webster’s dictionary defines it as “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” This is distinct from the idea of conventional wisdom which refers to ideas or explanations which are considered to be true. In games, there is no underlying order which the rules attempt to encode. The idea of the merit or goodness of a rule exists only in the sense that the rule might contradict or be redundant in relation to some already existing rule. In life, the idea of "common sense" is necessary precisely because it refers to some underlying order which can be adopted even without explicitly written instruction or rules. There is no basis for such common agreement about a game. Cricket does not occur in nature. Games themselves are not social or natural phenomena which the rules attempt to explain, they are completely formal entities which rules construct. The common sense view is that the umpires should have relaxed the rules and allowed the extra over to be played. According to those who hold this to be the common sense view, the umpires decision was not just ridiculous adherence to archaic laws which should have been avoided, this was obviously so. Those who hold this common sense view misunderstand the basic idea of what a game is. But even if one were to see the mistaken terms adopted by the adherents of this common sense view, they are wrong. Had the umpires relaxed the rules, they would have explicitly favored India, even if both captains agreed to continue to the game (lets ignore the fact that agreement between captains is irrelevant in the situation at hand). This is something umpires are not supposed to do. The veteran cricket statistician Mohandas Menon observed that “[w]ith only 19 overs bowled, South Africa can still save this ODI match, if it now rains the whole day!” It is not clear if Mr. Menon intended this observation to be in support of the common sense view. But it proves the exact opposite. Objectively, had the umpires ignored the rules and extended play beyond what is permitted in the rules, they would have eliminated this possibility. The remoteness of this possibility is irrelevant. The whole point of having an umpire - an entity which is (a) disinterested in the outcome of a contest, and (b) expert in the rules governing the contest - is to avoid favoring one team or another in any way. An essential point of a game is that while the game is in progress, the contest is technically always on. The fact that one side may be significantly closer to a win compared to the other side, even if this is overwhelmingly the case, is irrelevant. To say that the umpires should have relaxed the rules and allowed the extra over(s) necessary for India to score the 2 runs is identical to saying that they should have stopped after 15 overs (or 16 or 17 or 14), since it was it was clear (or common sense) that India were going to win. Yet, nobody would think that this would be an acceptable common sense decision, would they? Now, one could argue that the ICC should revise the rules and give the umpires some extra discretion. Instead of specifying a maximum of 15 minutes and a minimum of 4 overs, the rule could leave this entirely up to the umpires. But we all know how well observers react to umpires exercising discretion. The reason why the ICC has made the rules so explicit is to protect umpires from being accused of bias or “inconsistent application of rules” when they exercise any discretion which the rules might grant them. The conventional wisdom about the common sense view of the umpire’s decision is wrong. The rules are not archaic. They came into force on September 28, 2017. The rules were applied correctly. There was no reason, none at all, to think that the situational was farcical, except that lots of people who either did not know the rules or did not grasp the implication of what they were suggesting created an echo chamber which said that the situation was farcical. Mockery is wonderful when it is underpinned by some significant truth. In this case, the only truth it revealed was not about the game, but about its pundits. The umpires, as they usually do, got it exactly right.
  8. The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who inspired the creation of the Thomas Friedman column generator, once explained his work as an opinion writer by saying that he did pictures, not pixels. Pictures are easy to wing, and easier to fudge, as Ed Smith demonstrated in his ill-fated essay about the role of stress in elite sport. The essay was withdrawn, thanks mainly to the persistent inquiries of Subash Jayaraman (1,2,3,4). Whenever such things occur, the gossip machine in the community in which it occurs is attracted to this new subject like a moth. Among the things which have been widely observed about Smith in the underbelly of the cricket writing world is his tendency to "recycle" or, less charitably, "self-plagiarize". Given the sheer volume of Smith's output, it is not surprising that he does this. The merits of this practice are debatable. The idea of repeating oneself does not worry me. One of the most effective ways to drive home ideas is to keep restating them (and in the process, developing them). In April 2015, Ed Smith wrote an essay for ESPNCricinfo in which he compared the development of Kenyan long distance runners to the development of cricketers. His thesis in the essay was based on a book marathon running by Ed Caesar titled Two Hours. I got interested in this subject when I read a two part story about the researcher Yannis Pitsiladis's ambition of developing a runner who can run a marathon in under two hours by Jere Longman in the New York Times (1, 2) earlier this year. Since then, I've followed this subject in The Sports Gene by David Epstein, and, thanks to Smith's cover story in the July 2016 issue of The Cricket Monthly entitled Batting 3.0, Ed Caesar's Two Hours. Smith does not cite either Caesar or Epstein in Batting 3.0. But it turns out that the portion on running in this cover story draws heavily on his earlier essay from April 2015. Here is portion from Batting 3.0 What else can cricket learn from the Kalenjin? The analogy is obviously inexact. It is possible to run well with zero coaching, though that is less likely in cricket (as we saw with the grip). But the deeper point holds. For developing cricketers, early specialisation and over-coaching - though it may apparently yield an advantage at the time - turns into a disadvantage over the long run. De Villiers might have been a "better" cricketer aged ten if he'd played only cricket. But at 25, the rugby and tennis inside him helped him to go past the players stuck in a cricketing ghetto. One constant danger in the era of ultra-professionalism is that our sport falls prey to the delusion that educating cricketers can be turned into an exact science, with the latest fads and theories imposed on the next generation across a worldwide network of "expert" and "professional" academies. This problem is exacerbated by cricket's tendency towards hobby-horseism. A good idea is turned into a mantra that hardens into rule. You must do this, you can't do that, there is only one way. A fad breaks out that takes on a momentum of its own. In fact, we are increasingly learning that the best players usually develop (though not always) through a complex, intuitive and often mysterious mixture of informal and formal learning, with informal education - "no trainers" - dominating the conversation in the early years. Who are the Kalenjin of batsmanship? In terms of the number of players possessed of superb technique, I think India leads the world. Part of this, admittedly, is the sheer volume of candidates. Another factor is that fewer Indian players - compared to English ones, for example - experience a structured or official learning environment at a very young age. They play. So their batting accidentally benefits from the Kalenjin pattern - technology and science first withheld, then embraced. As Indian cricket gets richer, the challenge, ironically, will be to escape the damage that follows from meddling, over-interventionist systems and coaches.Here is the same portion from his 2015 essay: If the first essay was written by A, and the second were written by B, this would be a textbook case of mosaic plagiarism. Since A and B are the same person, it isn't. It could be considered a case of self-plagiarism (a vexed issue), and there's certainly recycling involved, but lets set aside the ethical implications of all this. There is also the question of citation which is more serious. In Batting 3.0, Smith simply refers to the April 2015 essay by saying "In 2015, I wrote for ESPNCricinfo about marathon runners." While this is perhaps literally true, it leaves out the bit where, in 2015, Smith wrote about something he read in a book about marathon runners. As he put it in that essay When I read about the strange influence of first learning barefoot then using the latest technology - in the admirable and thought-provoking book Two Hours by Ed Caesar, published this July - I wrote in the margin: just like cricket coaching.Having read Caesar, Epstein, Gladwell, and being familiar with some of the work of K. Anders Ericsson and his collaboration with Herbert Simon thanks to my day job, I'm not convinced that Smith's version of what any of these writers are saying is plausible. Smith's central thesis in his 2015 essay is that Caesar's account tells us that "the advantages of modernity and technology need to be first withheld and then embraced." He bases this on his reading. in Caesar's work, of the use of shoes by Kenyan marathon runners. In Smith's words, the proposition is as follows: I looked hard to find this argument in Caesar's work. I could not locate it. Smith sets up an opposition between "sports science", "modernity", "technique and science" on the one hand (these, of course, are the bailiwick of modern western coaches/trainers/shoe companies etc.) and "natural technique", "folk wisdom and feeling", and "homespun training methods" on the other (these belong to the Kenyans). Apart from being nauseatingly paternal, this view also misunderstands the idea of "science". A science provides reliable explanations of things and involves the development not only of these explanations, but also the methods and theories which can be used to form reliable explanations. Here is what Caesar actually says. His major source is Yannis Pitsiladis, who also figures in Epstein's chapters on running in The Sports Gene. In the notes, on page 207, Caesar writes: In the main text, the debate about barefoot running occurs in a specific context which Smith omits altogether. While describing the history of the development of shoes used by long distance runners, Caesar reports that at one point the conventional wisdom of the industry was that runners wanted a shoe which basically felt like running barefoot - "Less than a hundred grams, not a lot of cushioning" as Andy Barr, a designer for Adidas tells Caesar. To their surprise, they found that elite runners wanted the exact opposite. This motivated Adidas to design shoes against the prevailing conventional wisdom. This conventional wisdom had come about thanks to Christopher McDougall's Born to Run and, in Caesar's words, "the explosion of the barefoot running movement." Caesar reports that the Italian physiotherapist Vincenzo Lancini believes that Kenyan runners feet propelled them faster than other athletes with a smaller loss of energy. Lancini believes that this is due to the large amount of time Kenyan runners spend barefoot as children and as young teenagers. Caesar himself points out that even top runners keep "micro-training" the muscles of the foot and lower leg by training on rough, uneven roads. Caesar notes that the central character in his book, the runner Geoffrey Mutai for instance "doesn't spend a minute of his working day on a flat surface, and so his muscles are always working to balance and respond." As Lancini puts it, "They learn to listen with their feet." Unsurprisingly, what is common to Lancini and Pitsiladis's accounts (and to Caesar's reporting of these accounts) is that they are careful, narrow explanations. At every stage in their accounts, both Epstein and Caesar take great care to avoid sloppy generalizations. It is not surprising that very little time is spent in the two books mulling over the apparent "conundrum" which seems to have captured Smith's imagination. It's worth quoting again. Smith says There isn't any actual conundrum in that paragraph. Where's the contradiction between not wearing (or rather, not being able to afford) shoes when on is a kid and wearing them when one is no longer a kid? For that matter, what is "natural" about learning to hit a golf ball against a circular water tank (as Bradman did), and what is unnatural about being coached? If the shoe is the modern "technology" of running, what is its counter part in Smith's cricketing analogy? Bats? Or coaching technique? In Smith's lackadaisical semantic universe, technique, technology, science and natural things are all interchangeable. They mean whatever he means they mean every time he uses them. It continues in the latter half of Smith's 2015 essay. He writes "Connected to the question of impairing natural development is the problem of over-training and specialising too early. The now debunked "10,000 hours theory" - which holds that genius is created by selecting a discipline as early as possible and then loading on mountains of practice - is being replaced by a far more subtle understanding of nurturing talent." The 10,000 hours theory has absolutely nothing to do with "genius". It has to do with expertise. K. Anders Ericcson was responding in his study to the idea that expertise in predominantly down to "innate talent". (See Gladwell's response to Epstein, who has a careful argument complicating the 10000 hour rule in The Sports Gene) In their study, the authors conclude the "elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice." (p. 400). There's nothing there about "specializing too early", or about "selecting a discipline as early as possible." All they're saying is that contrary to the proposition that expertise down to immutable innate talent, it is actually down to putting in about 10 years of deliberate effort. The argument they make is about the immutability of innate talent (i.e. the idea that innate talent is the invariant property of expertise). Deliberate practice has nothing to do with "specializing too early". It simply refers to "a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance". Under this definition, AB de Villiers from playing organized hockey, or some other sport would still be "deliberate practice" and would still be included in the ten thousand hours. Smith is considered to be a writer who explores ideas beyond the traditional scope of the cricket writer. Yet, the evidence suggests that he doesn't really care about what words mean. Nor does he seem to take ideas particularly seriously. Ideas seem to be merely a vehicle to producing the massive volume of writing he churns out on a monthly basis for multiple publications. Perhaps he would say, like Friedman, that he does pictures, not pixels. But even pictures have to be meaningful and coherent, not glorified loose agglomerations of semi-technical terms. Smith audience, and here I refer to readers who enjoy his work, seems to enjoy the painless stories he spins. If you take ideas and the things words mean seriously, Smith's discussion of marathon runners, like his discussion of stress, ought to give you a splitting headache.
  9. Over at the Cricket Couch, Subash Jayaraman has been doing stellar work (1, 2, 3, 4) scrutinizing Ed Smith's July 25, 2016 essay* for ESPNCricinfo. Subash shows that the parts of this essay which laid out a brief history of the scientific consensus about stress were drawn, almost verbatim, from an essay published in the Economist on July 23, 2016. Thanks to Subash's work, Smith's essay has now been withdrawn by ESPNCricinfo. As many readers will already know, I have been a freelance contributor to Cricinfo's Cordon weblog since July 2013. I have also contributed articles to Cricinfo's monthly magazine The Cricket Monthly. This is also one of the reasons why the frequency of my posts here has declined in recent years. This post is about two of Ed Smith's appropriations from the essay in The Economist. I noticed these a week ago, but needed to look up the original work to confirm my suspicion. Today I did so. The Economist's article describes Hans Selye's work on conceptualizing stress at the University of Montreal in the 1930s. [For] centuries physicists have used the word stress to describe force applied to materials. It was not until the 1930s that Hans Selye, a Hungarian-born endocrinologist, began using it of live beings. Selye injected rats with cow hormones, exposed them to extreme temperatures and partially severed their spinal cords to prove that all these sorts of maltreatment affected the rodents in the same ways: they lost muscle tone, developed stomach ulcers and suffered immune-system failure. He used the word for both the abuse of the rats and the health effects. Later on, it started to be used for psychological suffering as well.Here's Ed Smith's version of the same Selye's original note in Nature(pdf) from 1936 begins as follows: Selye subjected rats (not rodents - squirrels, hamsters, and porcupines are rodents too) to various harmful things, and found that they demonstrated symptoms which were independent of the specific harmful thing they were subjected to. (The bit about cow hormones is also to be found in Kelly McGonigal's book The Upside Of Stress which is quoted by the Economist, and by Smith) In Smith's retelling, Selye subjected 'cows and rodents' to extreme physical deprivation and suffering'. Selye did no such thing. I'm no expert in the field of endocrinology, but I've read enough undergraduate essays to know a clumsy effort at appropriating another person's work when I see it. Even discounting the appropriation side of things, it is clear that Smith's description of Selye's work is flatly wrong. After Subash published his first story, Cricinfo added an update to Smith's post which said You'd think that someone well versed in a subject would be able to describe the pioneering study on the subject less clumsily. Let's move on. Later in the essay, Smith writes Here's the same study in the Economist's words The Economist and Smith are not saying the same thing. Smith says "the way we perceive stress changes how it affects us". The Economist refers to people having "a more positive view of stress". The paper(pdf) by Crum and her colleagues from 2013 says the following: As defined in Crum's paper, a 'mindset' is "a mental frame or lens that selectively organizes and encodes information, thereby orienting an individual toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding one toward corresponding actions and responses" (p. 717) Sensory information has to be present in order for perception to occur. We perceive things about instances of concepts, not concepts themselves. Mindsets, as Crum's definition shows, are different. For example, it is not possible to perceive that for his Cricinfo essay, Ed Smith appropriated The Economist's essay without the two essays being available for comparison. However, after perceiving this about Ed Smith's essay, it is possible to develop a particularly skeptical mindset towards his future essays. What Smith has done to The Economist's (accurate) description of Crum's work is similar to what he has done to their (accurate) description of Selye's work. He has, it appears, replaced a word here and there, and done so in such shabby fashion that it ended up misrepresenting the original work. Even if we discount the probable plagiarism, Smith's account is wrong. Anybody who bases their understanding of the modern understanding of stress on Smith's account is going have be wrong about stress. Smith does say towards the beginning of the piece "First cricket, then a little science." A little science is a dangerous thing. The most astonishing aspect of this episode is Smith's total silence in the matter. In the days since July 23, he has, according to his own twitter feed, published multiple articles, including one for Cricinfo. Further, he continues to work as a live commentator for BBC's prestigious Test Match Special radio commentary team during the on going Pakistan v England series. It is clear, that outside of Cricinfo, who have removed the article from their website, no other publication or platform in the cricket journalism and/or presentation profession has a word to say about this subject. Notwithstanding the title, it has not been a pleasure to prepare this post. Cricket writing is not my day job. I do it because I enjoy writing and arguing, and because I love cricket. It is disappointing to see these things being treated so squalidly by a person in Smith's position. I hope he will explain himself soon, and I really hope the explanation turns out to be innocent. *This link shows a cached version of the essay from google's cache. Smith's essay has been removed from the Cricinfo website.
  10. Today Subash Jayaraman (The Cricket Couch) announced that after 189 episodes, he has discontinued his highly regarded podcast series 'Couch Talk'. Since I wrote about it early 2013, Couch Talk has gone from strength to strength. It became a regular feature on ESPNCricinfo and the great and the good from the cricket world appeared on it. It goes without saying that my review had little to do with these developments. As I pointed out then, my view of Couch Talk appears from a privileged standpoint. Subash has shared with me the guests he wanted to invite, his efforts at pursuing the many superstars who appeared on his show, and the lessons he learnt about the complicated world of agents, contracts, embargoes and egos. He has discussed how he imagined the shape of many of his interviews and would often go through many drafts of both individual questions, and the sequence in which they were to appear. Not only was there a sequence, there were often subjects he absolutely wanted to broach, and the subjects which he was willing to forego should the conversation develop in an unforeseen but interesting direction. I bring this up to illustrate the careful, methodical preparation which formed the basis of every single interview. The hours spent in pursuing and persuading guests, preparing interviews, editing and transcribing the recordings and working with editors meant that every 20-40 minute interview easily involved 20-30 hours of work. It is impossible to be a professional cricket journalist. Given that the game is a monopoly (called the ICC), nobody whose living depends on this monopoly can ever hope to have anywhere close to the required leverage to commit journalism (this would involve scrutinizing the monopoly). As a result, the world of professional cricket reporting, despite being financially rewarding (increasingly so with the advent of the franchise game) contains very few lifers. The veterans of the field tend to cover sport and even other beats. Other talented writers and reporters tire of the job and move on to other fields within a few years. Unlike the Government, there is no "Right to Information" act, nor is there any democratic expectation of disclosure from private societies and associations like the BCCI and the ICC, let alone from the vast private corporations which make vast profits from the game by broadcasting it on TV. Despite its pretentions, the ICC is not an adversarial body by design (like the Government) and does not really owe anybody any answers. As a result, much of what passes for journalism consists, in effect, of serving as a third party publicist for the game and its stars. It is a truism that celebrity is more profitable than controversy and controversy is more profitable the argument. So published material must, as a rule, be shiny and simple. Complexity, inconvenient foundational questions ("how much money is too much money?", "Is T20 cricket?", "to what extent does cricket have a place in it for women?", "does the power in cricket lie with the Boards or the TV companies?") and the complicated responses which might do justice to them are not the every day bread and butter of the cricket media. As a rule, podcasts have to be loud, must consist of at least two participants who have wisecracks ready-at-hand. As a rule, longer stories must be features about players, and should steer away from mundane day to day material reality in favor of peddling nostalgia ("how did you feel when you reached a hundred that day?"). This is not the case because the reporters are stupid or unimaginative, it is the case because it is what sells. One only has to listen to them in private conversation to know how they really feel about much of this. All this makes a podcast like Subash's extremely unlikely. Nurturing it for 189 episodes is about as difficult as a 189 on a bad pitch against an all-time great Test attack. It remains to Subash's eternal credit that once his podcast grew into a regular feature on Cricket's biggest home on the internet, he remained (to a great extent) true to his amateur, outsider's beginnings. Even though he did shows with big stars (which were popular and eagerly anticipated by listeners, readers and editors alike), he also stayed true to his original idiosyncratic interests in the margins of the international men's game. The West Indies Under 19 coach, Graeme West, India all-rounder Shikha Pandey, Edward Fox, "Archi" Archiwal and their dream of building a home for cricket in Kansas and Peter Chismon, the world traveller cricket fan have been on Couch Talk, as has Oliver Broom who cycled from London to Brisbane to watch the 2010-11 Ashes.At the same time, Curtly Ambrose, David Gower, John Buchanan and nearly every major superstar you can think of also feature in Subash's 189 interviews over five years. Want to know the ins and outs of the Supreme Court of India's rulings on the corruption in the IPL? You couldn't do better than to listen to Subash's interview with two lawyers - Suhrith Parthasarathy and Aju John - on the subject. Want to learn of the difficulties of reporting on spot fixing? Listen to the former editor of Sports Illustrated India Kadambari Murali. Here is another wonderful interview with Ebba Qureshi who is married to the Pakistan and Surrey all-rounder Azhar Mehmood. This interview with Saqlain Mushtaq for The Cricket Monthly is, in my opinion, Subash's finest interview with a player. Umpires, writers, editors, filmmakers, administrators, franchise executives and cricket fans all appeared on Couch Talk during its five year run. Many of them appeared multiple times. Together, they constitute an immense corpus - a record of the game in this time which only the biggest portals with their massive budgets and writing/reporting staffs can claim to match. If one wanted, for example, to instruct Subash's fellow Americans in the history and the art of cricket, Couch Talk would form the perfect documentary backbone of a first class graduate seminar on the subject. Knowing Subash as I do, I'm confident that this is not the end. Cricket is changing in radical and often unwelcome ways. Having called off his regularly scheduled programming, Subash is now freed from having to conduct the bread and butter interviews with the standard issue international cricketer. These were, in my opinion, his least interesting and least significant interviews (having discussed this with him, I know he does not entirely agree). If there is a genuinely significant development in the game, I have no doubt that Subash's interest will be piqued again and Couch Talk will approach and pass its double century in only the most exquisitely crafted singles. In anticipation of these, farewell Couch Talk.