Sunday, December 30, 2012

Obituary: Remembering Tony Greig

Few players have impacted the worldwide direction of cricket.  Or, to put it another way, while many cricketers turn a game by dint of skill or attitude, precious few shape cricket's big picture. 

For all his talent, memories of the great Sachin Tendulkar will highlight his nonpareil ability with the willow.  However, the One Day revolution occurred during his peak and he did not compel it, but merely embraced theis new style of batsmanship.  This revolution was authored primarily by a tiny, almost forgotten wicketkeeper from a sleepy island and his tactically aggressive captain.

In contrast, Anthony William Greig was a man who changed the way we regard the game –a South African who wanted to play Test cricket during the apartheid years and did so.  Then, he led England and finally took on the role as perhaps the first truly modern professional cricket player in the world.   

Tony Greig was the ultimate pragmatist.

Pragmatism requires clarity of vision and of thought: it is a process of identifying problems and solving them simply and brutally.  With Greig, this manifested in his combative and versatile approach to the game.  This attitude saw him graduate from Western Province to Sussex, England and then the captaincy of his (first) adopted country.

Another of the traits of the results-focused is strength of will.  Hewas the first to challenge Lillee and Thomson during their Ashes campaign of 1974-75; two years later, his grit – and big ton at Kolkata – and subsequently led the first victorious MCC squad to India since his hero, Douglas Jardine.  His leadership style was so obviously influenced by Jardine’s that he may as well have worn the Harlequin cap: calculating and yet noble as defined by his own distinct moral code.

His captaincy was astute and forthright.  He deployed a thirtysomething David Steele at the top of the order and coaxed Boycott from his self-imposed exile, while focusing England first on making England  difficult to beat.  His final act as a recognised player was signing with Packer and World Series Cricket, a significant coup for the nascent league.  Leaving the establishment for the betterment of cricket players' collective financial future and serving as Packer's chief overseas recruiter made him a cricket figure of the utmost importance.

The utilitarian is always questioned both aesthetically and morally.  Greig’s reasons weren’t necessarily always the most wholesome – let’s not beat about that fact – but he bore the ultimate mark of the pragmatist: coming out on top more often than not.  Tony Greig made effective decisions that led to his benefit and that of others – and what more could one ask from a leader?

Greig did not go quietly into the night.  Six months – almost to the day – before his death, he delivered a stirring – if controversial – Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket.  In the eyes of some, he implored India to take spiritual leadership of a game it practically leases to the rest of the world; others saw his presentation as further patriarchalism from a constant critic.

It would hardly have been Tony Greig if he didn’t address issues directly.

He will be remembered.  He will be missed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bowler's preview: MCG

While the first day of the Second Test between Sri Lanka and Australia at the MCG provided us with thirteen wickets for approximately 300 runs, this is no real surprise considering the way the pitch has played over the course of the past half-decade, and indeed this season.

The average first innings in Tests at the ‘G over the past five years has been slightly over 324 runs per innings, with the highest total recorded in 2009-10 when Australia recorded 4/454 against the touring Pakistanis.  Of the past nineteen innings at the G, that contest was the equal-fewest wickets lost by any one team throughout that period (11).  That several of those Pakistanis have now subsequently been sanctioned for spot-or-match fixing in no way minimises this achievement.

At Test level, the pitch has responded far better to pace than to spin.  This is probably due to a dearth of quality spin played at the MCG over the past five years: there have only been a total of 76 overs of legspin bowled at the ground at that time, of which eighteen were delivered by don’t-wannabe spinner Steve Smith – unsurprisingly for the relatively poor economy rate (E/R) of 4.11.  In fact, between Smith and Anil Kumble, leg-spinners accounted for the highest E/R for any bowling style at the ‘G as they gave up 3.8 runs per over.  That they average 20.6 in the first innings at Melbourne is purely down to Kumble’s 5/108 in 2007-08.

The same lack of leg-spinners in Shield cricket this year means that only 18 overs have been delivered in such style this season for no positive result (cumulative figures 0/66).  It’s telling that the most gifted Australian leg-spinner of his generation, Cameron White, now basically ignores his bowling to concentrate on his cavalier batting.  The pitch this season, has responded best to pace bowling: only eight wickets today have been lost to spin (all off-spin, and mostly to Glenn Maxwell), while the immortal Gary Putland has the best (two) innings match figures at the ground with 7/64 and 5/28.  This results in Shield season-best figures of 12/94.

Off-spinners are both cheaper at the ground in Tests and First Class cricket: they average a cumulative 48.63 over Test matches at the MCG and 43.13 at Shield level, while costing 2.9 and 3.6 respectively.  However, during the fourth innings of Test matches, the tweakers come into their own.  The table below shows their average strike rate (S/R) and average decrease markedly at cost to their economy:

Bowling type performance by Test Innings, MCG

Innings 1
Innings 2
Innings 3
Innings 4

Fast bowling average
Legspin average


Offspin average
Chinaman average



Fast bowling E/R
Legspin E/R

Offspin E/R
Chinaman E/R



Fast bowling S/R
Legspin S/R

Offspin S/R
Chinaman S/R



From the table above, we can surmise that the pitch at Melbourne does exactly what the classical Test pitch should– offer something for fast bowlers on a good batting track day one, before becoming a very good deck for hitters on days two and three before degenerating into a tricky wicket on the final two days.

Has this trend been constant?  Actually, batsmanship has become much harder over the past two MCG Tests.  This is in part to a Hilfenhaus-led Indian collapse last season and a horrible Australian batting performance the year before.   Test averages have declined from a high of 41.4 to last year’s 25.6.  Sri Lanka’s ... intriguing ... batting choices yesterday are only liable to contribute further to this decline.

This is the second in our series of bowler’s previews, which should give an insight into how the pitch will play – and thoroughly dependent on the whims of selectors.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Man United v Real Madrid steeped in history

The “storied” clubs in European football history spring to mind with the merest effort. There are only a few clubs whose dominance has spanned the decades of memory: a few clubs each from England, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

So when two of these clubs with rich histories face each other, it's only natural that these encounters become keenly anticipated. Column inches and bandwidth are consumed voraciously. This week, an unexceptional matchup in a mediocre competition earned more press than warranted only because the protagonists had a history; in this case, Chelsea and Leeds meeting in a Cup tie retrieved foggy but extremely pleasant memories of the early 1970s, Don Revie and The Damned United. The juxtaposition of nor'n White and southern Blue achieved more notoriety than either team – or the game itself – deserved because of the rose-coloured cellophane taped to the lenses of commentators' binoculars.

Today's Champions League draw has gifted us with another opportunity for nostalgia and romance: in the next round of the Champions League, Real Madrid and Manchester United will compete for a place in the Champions League quarter finals. The tie has all a writer could hope for: reputation, individual and collective histories and opportunities for speculation on managerial unemployment.

However, despite their comparative starry reputations, most objective discussion surrounding this pair of old romantics suggest that they have underperformed during 2012-13. United features a pyramid resting unsteadily on backfield foundations constructed apparently from papier-mâché, while Real Madrid appear finally to have submitted to the second law of Thermodynamics and fallen victim to all-consuming entropy developing from within.

Despite both clubs being far inferior iterations than those to which their supporters may be accustomed, enough quality remains – usually forward of the centre – for them to maintain their birthright usual position at the pointy end of their respective table. However, perhaps more in commentary as to the lack of parity across the footballing class divides, neither squad passes the “eye test”; United lack the resoluteness of Nemanja Vidic's pomp, while Los Merengues lack their devastating fluency of 2011-12.

But in truth, the sheer volume of verbiage is almost entirely justified (well, unless you happen to read Mike Calvin's columns on Life's a Pitch). These two teams are replete with history and what is history but a collection of stories? Aside from being written by the winners, history is malleable, almost completely subjective and born of advent. It's also much more powerful when repeated orally; stories and deeds are magnified, sometimes losing precision but gaining narrative. That we have limited access to (and, thankfully, analysis of) matches past is why rivalries like that of Chelsea-Leeds maintains much of its currency after forty-one-plus years. Stories are what make football – and sport, in general – powerful, not the statistical impact of Robin van Persie on his new club.

This makes rose-coloured glasses a thoroughly acceptable, if not necessarily accurate, method of evaluating the past and predicting the future. It's almost certainly a far more fun and optimistic way of watching our football.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bowler's Preview: the case for/against Nathan Lyon

Over the past five years, Test scores at Bellerive have steadily declined.  The last time scores of real significance were made at Hobart was during the Sri Lankans' last visit (2007/08), where Kumar Sanggakara made a chanceless 192; this followed on from forgotten man Phil Jaques' Test-best 150.  In fact, while each dismissal in 2007-08 cost 52.4 runs, this average has declined over the five-year span to it's probable nadir (18.6) during last summer's low-scoring Australian loss to New Zealand.

This reflects an increasing trend at Bellerive for encounters dominated by the flingers.  First Class matches in Hobart have been a bowler's dream this season: the last two (of three) Shield matches have ended in Innings defeats.  In both cases the losing cause failed to break 100 in their first innings.  This is reflected in the poor dismissal averages which rank amongst the worst best lowest in Australian First Class cricket this season.

Average runs per dismissal, Bellerive

Five-year Test
2012-13 First Class

When deciding at the toss whether to bat or field, the captains will take into account several factors: the pitch, the weather (probable showers), their relative strengths and whether the pitch will take spin.  Over the course of past five years' Test cricket, the evidence suggests that spin bowling isn't particularly effective for tweakers.  In fact, the best innings figures belong to Nathan Lyon who took 3/25 in seven overs against New Zealand last season; the only other figures of note are those of Simon Katich, whose chinamen captured 3/34 against Pakistan in 2009.  Indeed, spin has been responsible for only 22% of all Test wickets over the past three Bellerive Tests.

Bowling style
Total Innings
Total analysis
Off spin
Leg spin
*Total Innings ncludes the number of bowlers – ie. Should Lyon and Michael Clarke bowl in the first innings against Sri Lanka, it would count as two.  Should only Lyon bowl (last over before lunch, as is Clarke’s wont), then the figure is only 1.

The debate over whether Australia should include four fast bowlers has some merit in Hobart, but - though this was in some ways a default option given Josh "brown paper bag" Hazelwood's inexperience and Australian bowlers' propensity for injury - considering the selectors opted to play Lyon in Western Australia, he is likely to play in Tasmania.

Lyon hasn't had much experience on the Bellerive pitch; in South Australia's only First-Class game there this season he delivered only four overs for ten runs and had certified non-spinner Johan Botha preferred to him.  Although he's unquestionably Australia's best offie since Tim May, it may be that this disturbing lack of structural integrity in Australian fast men that most contributes to Lyon retaining his Test spot until retirement.

However, considering how well Tasmanian climes have responded fast bowling over this season, there is a solid argument that four fast bowlers (well, unless they're Sri Lankan quicks) could be well suited to most efficiently capture the 20 wickets required for a win.  Unfortunately in the table below we couldn't afford a separate category for straight-breakers (ie. Johan Botha), so he's lumped in with off-spinners.

Bowling style
Innings used
Total analysis
Off spin
  What can we draw from the information above (apart from the fact that a similar analysis for the MCG will be a bastard)?  Simply, Lyon's quote-unquote intangibles earn him a place for Australia - especially with his small sample size providing no conclusive proof that actual finger-spinners flourish or die on a relatively small ground.  However, with the combination of the low cloud that's often brought along with showers suggest that a potent pace attack is going to contribute most to success.

Why a bowler's preview?  Simple - when did you hear of a batsman being dropped because of the weather or the pitch?  Not since the days of Andrew Hilditch, which are hopefully receding into the distance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Yet more miscellany

Apologies for the lack of recent posts - it's finals week for a hideous quarter of neurophysiology, limbs anatomy and functional skills.  Hence ... a dearth of time for writing.  Hopefully I'm back up and running in a week.