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“Pressure”, Keith Miller once told the veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson, is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not”. Miller had seen combat as a fighter pilot in World War II. His observation should have been the last word on the subject. But the idea of pressure remains an enduring favorite of the cricket commentariat. It is used, for the most part, as a prelude to the other favorite subject of the cricket commentariat - manliness. Manliness, toughness - just how much of a man a player is, is determined by the result a player produces under pressure. 

This often leads to some palpable contradictions. For example, at 286/9 in the fourth innings at Headingley in the 2019 Ashes, England’s situation in the Test was hopeless. At the same time, Ben Stokes was said to be under tremendous pressure to deliver victory. It was, apparently, a hopeless pressure situation. 73 were required as Jack Leach joined Stokes for the final wicket stand. Only 5 other stands out of 605 10th wicket stands in the 4th innings of a test have produced at least 73. 99% of the time, the last wicket pair adds less than England’s requirement that day. If we consider all four Test innings, then 99.13% of all last wicket stands have produced less than 73. There have been only fourteen 10th wicket stands in all fourth innings in Test history which ended with the winning runs. Eight of these fourteen were worth 19 runs or less, 11 were worth 48 runs or less. The two highest fourth innings 10th wicket stands which ended in victory came in 2019 - Stokes & Leach at Headingley, and Kusal Perera & Vishva Fernando at Kingsmead, Durban.

The record suggests that those who observed that the situation was hopeless for England when the 9th wicket fell are right. Until February 2019, no team had ever won a Test match from that position. In August 2019, it had been done once in 160 years. There could have been no reasonable expectation of victory even if England had Bradman batting with Leach. Stokes had to hit out because he couldn’t rely on Leach (first class batting average 12.5) to hold his end up for too long against Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon and Pattinson. Now, Stokes is very good at hitting the long ball. He’s probably one of the best hitters in the world. But none of this adds up to there being any pressure on Stokes to produce a result or preserve his team’s position in a hopeless situation.

Most fourth innings hundreds which help to successfully chase down large targets are innings played from situations where the form book suggests that a win would be a miracle. Miracles are flukes unless they keep occurring, in which case they’re not miracles but marks of excellence. Steven Smith did not play a first class match for 14 months and 10 days before his comeback in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. He reeled off six Test innings of 144, 142, 92, 211, 82 and 80. He averages over 60 in Test cricket. He averages 90 in the first match innings of Tests. Given this evidence of his overall quality, those scores were far more likely to be a consequence of his excellence than they might have been of his good fortune. Ben Stokes averages 37 in Tests. Given this record, his innings at Headingley was less likely to be a sign of his excellence compared to Smith’s innings. There are some obvious cases where most cricket watchers will readily accept the proposition that an outlier performance involves a large element of good fortune. Ashton Agar’s 98 on Test debut batting at number 11 was an innings unlikely to be repeated by him or by other number 11s.

Flukes and fortune play a role in some of the most storied innings of this type. Even the great Brian Lara’s famous 153* at Barbados in 1999 benefited not only from a famous dropped catch by Ian Healy, but also from this LBW shout going Lara’s way early in his innings. Similarly, Sachin Tendulkar’s 136 might have ended much earlier had it not been for a stumping missed by Moin Khan. You could argue that it’s not Lara’s or Tendulkar’s fault that they benefited from those errors. The point is though, that given their actions, their survival was contingent on a mistake by someone else. They offered chances. If cricket had a tradition of recording errors in the way that baseball does, this would have been clear.

Yet, this idea that a player who is having an unusually perfect day out, like Stokes was in his 135 not out, is often described as BBC Test Match Special’s top presenter Jonathan Agnew described him in the documentary The Test. Agnew’s view of that last wicket stand was “The Aussies, they’d gone, they’d scrambled. Whereas Stokes, clinical!” As some of my logician friends would point out, this by Agnew was post hoc ergo propter hoc. Everything Stokes tried was coming off, and nothing Australia tried seemed to work, so Australia must have been mentally shot, while Stokes must have been in some zone of mental perfection. It must surely be a basic role of members of the cricket commentariat to be able to tell the difference between events which are due to an extraordinary confluence of good fortune, and events which are due to an extraordinary demonstration of skill. The former is very rare by definition, the latter is habitual. The idea that extraordinary occurrences in cricket are a matter of luck because if they weren’t they would occur more often and would be less extraordinary, remains a massive blindspot for much of the cricket commentariat.

Test cricket provides us with this brilliant illustration of the paradoxical nature of what we commonly understand to be pressure. Ian Chappell has often observed that first innings runs are the most important runs in a Test match. They are the runs which decide the shape of the Test match. It should follow that batsmen are under the greatest pressure in the first innings. This is when they are in the greatest control of their destiny. It is when the capriciousness of the pitch is least likely to ruin their day. They live and die by their skill and their concentration. The greatest high-pressure batsmen then, are those who are most consistent in the first innings of Test matches. For this is when they are expected to produce the goods. Yet, these runs are often noticed the least. The table below gives the centuries per match innings by result. It is in the first innings that a century shapes a result most significantly.


Match Inns\Result

Draw

Won

Lost

l

0.91

0.89

0.25

2

0.72

0.21

0.93

3

0.53

0.18

0.53

4

0.21

0.14

0.13


Other sports provide us with this illustration too. Great footballers live in the popular imagination via iconic moments, but they are great footballers only because they play all other moments at an incredibly high standard. One of my favorite observations in all of sport comes from the former Spain and Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque. Del Bosque used to be a central midfielder in his playing days, and of Sergio Busquets (Barcelona & Spain) he observed “if you watch the game, you do not see Busquets, but if you watch Busquests, you see the whole game.”. Del Bosque was describing excellence there. The average decision Sergio Busquets makes on the football pitch is of such a high standard that it shapes much of what follows.

Brian Lara was not a great player because he made 153 not out against Australia at Barbados in that 4th innings. That was a chancy affair. It made for an entertaining story. But that is no evidence of his quality. Lara was a great player because of his cumulative record all over the world which sets him apart, not only from almost all of his contemporaries or from almost all of his compatriots, but from almost all batsmen to have played the game. Similarly, Ben Stokes’ innings or Kusal Perera’s for that matter, are no evidence of the quality of their batsmanship. That becomes evident only from their cumulative record.

This business of pressure then, is perhaps not about cricket or cricketers at all. It seems to be about our anxieties and hopes. If we get to enjoy an unexpectedly favorable outcome, we are prepared to create a simulacrum for ourselves in which we sketch heroic identities and characters and imbue them with superhuman (usually, super-manly) properties. We do it when we are disappointed too. For years, Sachin Tendulkar was thought to “not produce runs when they really mattered”. We build up our heroes and tear down our monstrous villains. As Jean Baudrillard observed 40 years ago, these simulacra often settle down to produce their own conventional wisdom - their own hyperreality. They shape a view of the world which has no basis in reality.

It is hard to escape reality in top level professional sport though. The excellence is relentless. So much so that often we, as spectators, fail to realize just how outstanding the human beings playing sport in front of us are at their craft. Quite apart from questions of what defines greatness in the top level sport, the average standard in top-level sport is far beyond the capabilities of every spectator other than one who is also a top-level sportsperson. Greatness is evidence of exceptional cumulative excellence even within this limited elite set of human beings. That excellence is far removed from spectatorial anxieties which manifest themselves as pressure. It depends on the standard of the average performance and not of the outlying one.

You may be wondering at this point about Nathan Lyon. Didn’t he miss a run-out which he would not miss most of the time? Yes, he did. But players make the occasional mistake on the first day too. Mark Waugh dropped relative straightforward chances once in a while. The difference lies in how the mistake is read, not in the existence of the mistake itself.

The question of pressure illuminates two ways of thinking about the top level sportsman. There is, let’s accept it, the popular view - that some players perform better under pressure because they are inherently better, stronger men - products of better soil, better water, better genes. Blessed by a greater God. And then there is the other view in which some players appear to perform better under pressure because they are better players. I prefer this view. Because it provides a way to think about what a person has actually done to achieve excellence rather than taking refuge in some doctrine of superiority. It depends on what people have done rather than one what people are. It is a constructive picture of reality as opposed to the other, mythical one.

I am not unmindful of the allure of the mythical picture. It is not difficult to imagine the story one might tell oneself about the tattooed warrior named Stokes as a powerful patron saint of causes which appear lost to everyone but him. I will suggest gently that to do so is to miss both the real Stokes and real cricket.

There is reality in cricket and sport more generally which cannot be swamped by simulacra made up of pressure or rivalry or any other spectatorial anxiety. It is why competitive professional top level sport will never be purely entertainment. Ben Stokes’ innings, and Kusal Perera’s were both wondrous, fantastical flukes adorned with spectacular hitting. I can see Perera’s pull for six off Rabada and Stokes’s reverse-wallop off Lyon (I don’t think ‘reverse-sweep’ does it justice) in my mind’s eye as though they’re happening live. They told us nothing that we did not already know about Ben Stokes, Kusal Perera, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia, or England. Everything went right at the time for Stokes and Perera. That happens on the rare extraordinary occasion. Such occasions should be enjoyed for what they are - a departure from expectation. A reversion to the mean invariably follows. That reversion does not make Ben Stokes a poor performer “under pressure” anymore than the extraordinary century makes him a great performer “under pressure”. The pressure is our invention from beginning to end.


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