Monday, March 24, 2014

Sensational Steyn?

"Sensational Steyn too hot for NZ". So goes Cricinfo's headline for the group game between New Zealand and South Africa at the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. Steyn bowled 4 overs - the 3rd, 14th, 18th and 20th overs in South Africa's innings. Here is his spell in its entirety, thanks to Cricinfo's superb video editors. I watched every single ball. As it happens, my newest post for Cordon, which happened to be published alongside this game, deals with the question of whether the 20 over contest can be cricket. On the face of it, Steyn's effort seems to contradict my claim about the limits of a bowler's role in T20.

Perhaps so. In this quick post, I'll explain why Steyn's effort and the description of it which in it dominant avatars includes "this is why he's the best bowler in the world" to Cricinfo's headline, illustrates my point, both of the mediocre disfigured caricature of cricket that is T20 and the response to it.

But first, a description of what Steyn actually did. His first over was fairly basic. Back of a length around off stump, which the batsman played on merit. Martin Guptill didn't try to take chances. He simply got behind the line of the ball and played it. The deliveries were unthreatening. None were aimed at the stumps, none were full enough to drive or short enough to pull. Nothing exceptional. Just basic line and length, which a competent first class journeyman should be (and usually is) easily capable of.

Steyn kept up a this basic line and length throughout the next 3 overs with some variations to the left handed batsman. Occasionally, he saw the batsman backing away to leg and followed him. On one occasion, he bowled a slower ball which a batsman failed to pick and hit to long on for a catch. On another, a batsman tried to pull a Steyn delivery and the fielder at deep mid-wicket took a fine diving catch.

Steyn's great achievement was to not go for double digit overs, especially in the last two overs that he bowled. But how much of this was due to what he did, and how much of it was due to bad choices made by batsmen? Consider the fact that Ross Taylor, the batsman who had scored 50 by then, faced only 1 ball from Steyn's final over. The other batsmen, instead of taking a single and letting Taylor bat, tried to hit the first three balls of Steyn's over to the boundary. Actually, they tried to hit the first 4 to the boundary and connected the 4th. Any of the first three could have gone to the boundary off an edge, but didn't. As it happened, the batsmen got bat on ball 2 times out of 4. The first time, it went to hand. A fraction of a millimetre more of the bat and it would have gone to the third man boundary instead of the wicket keeper's gloves. A larger fraction of a millimetre and it would have gone to third man for a single. Since it was delivered cross seam, that first ball was not an attempt to swing the ball away from the outside edge of the bat.

The most that can be said about what Steyn did is that he didn't drift on the batsman's pads. But this was to be expected since his field was set for this, with the fine leg fielder inside the circle. Its not great bowling to bowl to one's field, its merely basic bowling. Even with this basic bowling, Steyn would have to be lucky, playing with only 9 fielders and a batsman swinging hard at everything (the merits of this are another matter, but they do not contribute to the quality of what Steyn did), to have batsmen miss and Steyn hit.

These final over finishes are lotteries. South Africa's win had more to do with Steyn's good fortune than they did with Steyn's brilliance. This is no reflection on Steyn or on the batsman, but simply on the state of the contest.

In South Africa's previous match, which they lost by 5 runs, Angelo Mathews got a top edge for four off Steyn. If the win against New Zealand was due to Steyn's brilliance, was the defeat against Sri Lanka due to his mediocrity? Obviously, neither claim is true. This is due to the compression of the contest. The fatal problem of T20 is that batsmen take chances all the time. Tight last over finishes, even in ODIs are lotteries - they are usually determined by whether or not a chance taken by a batsman comes off or not - their outcome can almost never be attributed to what either bowler or batsman deliberately do.

Steyn didn't "defend" 7 runs in the final over. He did bowl the final over. That it cost less than 7 runs is only marginally related to his bowling. It has no more to do with anything he did than the fact that the 17th over of the innings bowled by Imran Tahir went for only 2 runs has to do with Imran Tahir. New Zealand needed 31 in the final 4 overs with 7 wickets in hand. Colin Munro tried reverse sweeps and then conventional sweeps but got out. That over from Tahir was probably as important as any of Steyn's in the final analysis.

But perhaps I should leave the last word to Cricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary.
17.5 Steyn to Taylor, no run, another dot ball, Taylor again can't get bat on ball to a quick one outside off, no footwork at all as Taylor fishes at that one, what a bowler Steyn is!
Dale Steyn's a terrific bowler. His bowling against New Zealand in a T20 game tells us nothing about his ability as a bowler. It is a signature characteristic of T20 that it promotes this type of cognitive dissonance - where the complete absence of footwork gets used as the basis for deciding a bowler's brilliance.

Had Luke Ronchi's outside edge evaded Quinton de Kock and gone to the boundary, just as Corey Anderson's did earlier in the New Zealand innings, South Africa would have lost and Steyn wouldn't have been "sensational", because he wouldn't have "defended" 7 in the final over.

These are not deliberate inches, but entirely accidental ones. We know this because in real cricket these inches are negotiated deliberately and precisely. Just ask Ryan Harris or Cheteshwar Pujara. Why, ask Steyn himself.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

4th Innings Run Chases in the last 15 years

India's decision to agree to a draw in the last hour at Dominica has created an illusion that M S Dhoni's team is unusually cautious when it comes to 4th innings run chase. This is the record of all Test teams in the last 15 years in 4th innings where a target of at least 200 was set.

How often a team is set a target of 200 or more in the 4th innings is a function of the quality of the team's bowling attack as well. As this record shows, India's performance in this area is no better or worse than any other side. The Australians have been the strongest Test team in the world in this period and they have played out as many draws as they have wins. Even Michael Clarke has a 18-10 win-loss record.

Teams in the subcontinent have lost a higher share of games in the 4th innings compared to other teams. This is perhaps because the wickets in the subcontinent decline faster than wickets in England or New Zealand.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Police Officer's Grim Testimony To The Mudgal Committee

A report in the Times of India states that a police officer reported to the Mudgal committee that a bookmaker named M S Dhoni in relation to fixing a game between the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals. The exiled former cricket administrator Lalit Modi shared what he calls the "full report of IPS Officer Sampath" on twitter.

There is often a lot of hearsay in these matters. In this instance, it is useful (if the document is genuine and indeed complete as Mr. Modi says) to have a primary source - a police officer's testimony. I read the document. At one point, the following is stated:
It was stated that Vikram Agarwal told him that there was negotiation for. match fixing between Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings,and Meiyappan has to communicate to Ghennai Super ·Kings Captain M.S. Dhoni and few others for finalization: Later Kitty came to know that they were planning to fix the match between Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings scheduled on 12.05.2013. Again on 27.04.2013 also after the dinner party, negotiation was on and Vikram Agarwal informed to Kitty some deal was worked out. Later after dinner party Meiyappan has informed that Chennai Super Kings M.S. Dhoni has agreed to play as per plan and his team will score 140 runs - and this was communicated to somebody (Sanjay) in Jaipur over phone by Vikram Agarwal when Kitty was nearby.
It should be kept in mind that this is one police officer's written testimony. Other testimony is obviously not available in the public domain. The full picture of actual events may well be at odds with what this police officer says. But it is significant that (a) a police officer has reported all this in writing to a fact finding committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India. (b) it is as dark and disturbing as it is, and (c) it suggests that Meiyappan's role went beyond betting and providing information.

At least as far as I can tell, this is the first time that a document such as this has become available in the public domain. I am fairly certain that professional journalists see documents such as this one all the time. As any researcher will tell you, primary sources are revealing in ways that are often hard to fathom at first reading. This makes this document significant.

I'd read this skeptically. But as a cricket fan, I am also inclined to take this seriously given that there must be some legal jeopardy associated with making stuff up in writing to an inquiry committee constituted on the recommendation of a law court.

These are grim times for cricket in India.