I have had a post on my mind for a while, and it’s never really presented an example by which to convey it accurately, (and having written the piece now, I’m still not sure I did – but stick with it). There’s a lot of stuff, random cricket stuff, that floats in the flotsam and jetsam that is now my brain. But this one has stuck with me. I have always hated the kneejerk reaction of fans – the sort that has one bad run from its football team and the manager has to go. Sport has always had winners, but for it to have winners, someone has to lose. Every time I criticise, I comment, I bemoan my team’s fortunes, am I not the same as those people. Yes, those people. As if I am not one of those people.
On my former football message board dalliances, I was always the one preaching caution and patience, of not wanting to sack the manager just as he was sacked, of knowing our place in the football firmament, at a time when there was still hope, just about, in the game. I wasn’t the impatient one with England football teams. I thought the 90s cricket team, the legendary bad years for England supposedly, mainly saw the team picked on merit, and players given opportunities, other than when Illingworth bought some half-baked, old fashioned out of date thinking to the position. I was passionate about sport, but didn’t get massively angry about it. I would not even contemplate airing opinions outside of a small cadre of like-minded supporters. and found the conflict I did encounter on that message board as something bloody scary. I didn’t think I was one of “those people”.
The stigma of being associated with kneejerk and loud opinions is that it is expected of you, and you need to play to the crowd. What’s your schtick if you aren’t coming in with some “hot take” explained at high pitch and with little to back it up? Why is my opinion the right one, and why is the man or woman being paid to make decisions always wrong, in my eyes? In the eyes of the one reacting. You don’t have the font of all wisdom, I don’t.
And you aren’t allowed to forget it. You aren’t inside cricket, so you can’t know. You don’t know the finances of the football club and how the manager works with the players he’s lumbered with, so how can you comment? What do you know? Who do YOU think you are? I genuinely thought about it like that every day of How Did We Lose In Adelaide’s existence (for those new here, or who don’t know, that was my previous blog on cricket, and was the personification of Mr Angry!). Why should I be angry? What do I know that others don’t?
This is a long intro into one selection this summer that should expose the myth that we don’t have a clue, while those highly paid experts are the font of all knowledge. Just like us, the experts are winging it, on the back of received wisdom, strategic leaks, a bit of cricket knowledge, and being a bit inside cricket. That myth was exposed in the selection of Jason Roy as a test match opener.
Jason Roy as a test opener was always a “magic beans” selection. Anyone with eyes knew he had technical difficulties against the moving ball, a decent issue with his technique and no track record of playing long innings in first class cricket. What was going to be inevitable was “experts” citing two cases. The first would be David Warner, who came into test cricket on the back of limited first class experience, and if, I recall correctly, played a T20 for Australia before he’d played for NSW. The second would be Virender Sehwag, a dashing opener, who, when conditions suited, could flay attacks to all part. These two, of course, came into test cricket on flat, batting friendly playing surfaces and reasonably benign conditions. They are also freaks. Other limited over kings like Chris Gayle or Sanath Jayasuriya were playing the long form of the game at the same time as their white ball pomp. It would be disappointing if a selection was made purely on the comparison of the two recent examples. You’d expect people paid to be pundits to just do more than that.
Like Roy, Warner went from T20 cricket straight into the Test game and has made a stunning success of it – precisely because he adapted his game to the longer format. Watch Warner in a Test match now, and he doesn’t just try and whack everything. Instead, he takes his time, assesses conditions and plays the ball on its merits. Yes, he is still an attacking player, but that attitude is tempered by common sense.
Virender Sehwag was the same for India, taking the positive mindset which had served him so well in one-dayers into the Test…
This neatly segues into the cracking piece by Simon Kuper on Ed Smith last week. There are many excerpts we could take from it. Let’s leave aside acknowledging Ed Smith’s intelligence, his confidence in himself, and his wide-ranging sources of inspiration. Let’s look at these statements in the context of selecting Jason Roy.
Anyway, he has never claimed to have the answers to selecting a winning team. All he tries to do is think hard about questions that torment the growing number of modernising decision makers in all sports. How do you select, manage and drop people? How and when to use the new mountains of data? How to build team spirit? Most basically, how to improve performance?
All this went out of the window in selecting Jason Roy. This was the ultimate “gut feel” and “ignore your eyes” and “analytics” selection. Now this is Kuper’s commentary on the interview, not Smith’s view, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, eh?
Smith says: “If you ask, ‘What is selection?’ What are the moments when your judgment diverges from what would have happened anyway? That’s what selection is.” The temptation for a clever person taking a new job is to assume that all past conventional beliefs in the field were mistaken. Dominic Cummings, adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, embodies this approach. Smith avoids it. He quotes his friend Howard Marks (the American investor, not the late Welsh drugs smuggler): “Just because most people think it’s a bad idea to stand in front of a bus and you’re a contrarian thinker, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to stand in front of a bus.” Smith adds: “If you rate yourself as someone prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, you also should know the moments when conventional wisdom is right.”
The truly interesting part about this is that who were the “most people” in the Jason Roy example? Was it the voices he was hearing from inside the camp, and from key pundits and talking heads that we’d tried “traditional” openers with no success, so we should try more attacking ones (and forget about Alex Hales and his trials). Was he the bus, or the individual standing in its way? Those who really thought about it, people like us, and took the evidence we’d seen, the way he played, the “when he comes off” feast or famine, the utter talent and bravado at ODI level he has shown no signs of reining in with success even if he could, and thought “this ain’t going to work”. Especially against a really top bowling line up the Australians possess.
Smith doesn’t mention the deeper problem: England’s squad isn’t prodigiously talented. To solve the puzzle of beating India last summer, England picked decent bowlers who could bat well enough to score runs at number seven, eight or nine. Smith says: “Lower-order runs made the difference. The solution didn’t derive from statistics. It derived from problem-solving. It was a resources question: what do we have and how can that add up to getting 20 wickets and more runs than them?” Then there’s team spirit. Smith, who is dismissive of motivational buzzwords, prefers to sit in the stands watching teammates interact. “A bit pretentious, but: ‘Trust the tale, never the teller’ — DH Lawrence. The truth is in the game.
Again, this countermands any thinking behind selecting Jason Roy. What do we have and how can that add up to getting 20 wickets and more runs than them. Let’s select a batsman, who has rarely, if ever, opened in first class cricket, who has a glaring technical issue against the moving ball and a quite ineffective defensive technique going hard at the ball, who will also just try to hit out of major corners, and hope he’s Marcus Trescothick, or heaven above, Sehwag or Warner (keep quiet now). Trust the tale, never the teller. What tale did Ed Smith trust? Or, heaven above, is he just bluffing?
Yet it wasn’t enough. Arguably Smith & Co made selectorial errors, such as picking Jason Roy as an opening batsman.
Kuper leaves this little nugget to the end, and Smith does not, or was not asked, to comment.
Throughout this summer I’ve bemoaned the team we’ve had. In the middle of the piece Smith points to the structure of the Australian team of the early 2000s – six batsmen, one wicketkeeper-batsman, three seamers, one spin bowler. He then says selection then became a rank order. Was the fourth best middle-order batsman a better selection than the next cab on the rank. Was the third best seamer better than who could come in – as Lee did for, say Bichel or Kasprowicz. Here Smith gives his ideas as being getting the best players and making it work. It’s a theory, but it isn’t a particularly new one – akin to the “why don’t we pick all the great Liverpool players qualified for England in the 1980s and fill in with out other top talent.” It isn’t particularly innovative, it’s just other received wisdom, but because you wear a cravat or something. As if it damn well matters/:
This morning he strides into a King’s Cross café in sunglasses and a wound scarf that scream Saint-Tropez, 1963.
There’s a great interview with Roy Keane on youtube, when he goes through how players bad mouthed him when he was Irish assistant manager. Roy Keane did not sugarcoat his contempt at all for them. He called one a “bluffer”. Great in the media, a great talker. While Keane is not without blemish, I listen to him. He comes across as someone who doesn’t sugarcoat his views, whether you like them or not. When it comes down to it, and I’ve only time to give a couple of examples, most of those out there as pundits are “bluffers”. They know as much as we do. They try to persuade you we don’t know. I’ve taken a ton of words to say your view is every bit as worthy as Michael Vaughan, who is the ultimate bluffer (and it’s his quote about Jason Roy above), and the rest. So while I’ll never lay claim to knowing the game, or knowing what it’s like to face 90 mph bowling, but knowing what it’s like outside my technical comfort zone, I won’t bluff. I’ll give my opinion, honestly held. And so should you.
I thought I’d offer a brief personal comment on the Sun and Ben Stokes. The piece today, which I know the contents of but not read, has no merit. It has no shame. It has no thought of consequence. It is not in the public interest. It is very noticeable that in Ben Stokes’ book, I don’t believe it is mentioned (if it mentions his mum being married before, I can’t recall – I read it a while back). It is an extremely horrific thing, and I can’t for the life of me understand what possessed anyone to think this was a piece that should be published. When I think of the stick given to me by journos, and yet there is a large silence by those same people on this to their colleagues, it makes me sad. I’m not comparing myself in any way to Ben Stokes’ situation – before I get some clown who thinks I am – but at reactions. It’s a complex argument, the Sun isn’t the only scumbag paper out there, but it only really has one rival for the top of that podium, but I hope that there’s an apology and a massive donation to a charity of Stokes’ choice. I shake my head at humanity, and the lack of it. I really do. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.