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cricket news: Big Moments and Clutch Players

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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.
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