Are Stokes and McCullum right? Is a win bigger than a loss?

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It was a win that England were racing to catch from the outset. The Test began with Zak Crawley hitting three fours off Naseem Shah’s opening over and it ended with the light meters out. Ben Stokes’ men never really slowed in between.

Even if England hadn’t won, you’d have to respect the effort. It’s hard to improve on 657 in 101 overs in your first innings and you could certainly forgive a side for failing to take 20 wickets on the same pitch.

England could barely have done more. That it was only just enough puts all that batting impatience into perspective.

The haste

To quickly recap, England reached 500 quicker than any team ever has before. It was really bloody weird. It was like they’d deployed not just one, but a whole herd of Virender Sehwags – their four centurions all scored at somewhere around a run a ball, or, in Harry Brook’s case, significantly quicker.

With the ball, they needled and wheedled and just about managed to avoid giving up. Credit to Pakistan for almost persuading them to do so. Replying to a first innings like England’s can’t be an easy job.

Then it was England’s second innings. In for a penny, in for a thousand pounds: 264-7 in 36 overs – an effort that did as much to keep Pakistan’s hopes alive as it did their own. Perhaps in making the running, they kidded themselves they were the only team that could win and so enabled that decisive effort with the ball in the dying light on the fifth day.

But what if it had all gone wrong?

How much of a risk?

“There may be a time where you risk losing to win and if Pakistan are good enough to beat us, that’s cool too,” said England’s coach Brendon McCullum before this series began.

That’s easy enough to say at the outset and it sounds even better when your approach has been vindicated with a win. But what’s everyone’s take if England had fallen flat on their arses in that first innings? Or if Pakistan had hared along to their fourth innings target and all of those earlier efforts had been in vain? How cool would that have been?

We wouldn’t say we’d have been 100% fine with it. But we’d have been cool enough.

Risking defeat in pursuit of victory is always admirable and often productive and that’s why it’s one of Stokes and McCullum’s central tenets. However, in the modern era, the upsides also outweigh the downsides to an even greater degree.

There will always be a point at which proactivity becomes irresponsibility but we’d argue that point is further along than it used to be.

Think of the matches you remember. Then do the impossible and think of all the matches you don’t remember. The relentless tsunami of international fixtures means there are probably quite a lot of the latter these days. A lot of cricket simply gets washed away.

That’s the basis of the equation here: victory and defeat aren’t really of equal weight. We remember both the good wins and the great wins, but only really the absolutely godawful losses – and even those we don’t tend to dwell on. And at least they’re colourful.

So why not risk losing? In the grander scheme of things, what would actually be lost?

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  1. I didn’t see the final day’s play and too early for any highlights to appear, not that they’d help in any way, being terrible, but seeing the scorecard with Pakistan losing the last 5 wickets for 9 runs, I’m guessing England didnt win it, rather Pakistan lost it.

    Is this a fair blind assessment?

    1. No, that only really reflects a change in priority when England reached the tail. Look at balls faced for each of the batters for a truer picture.

      1. …a whole herd of Virender Sehwags

        According to the OED, it’s an assault of Sehwags. This goes alongside an eternity of Dravids, an arrogance of Gangulies and a luxuriance of Tendulkars. In other teams it’s a terror of Marshalls, a patience of Chanderpauls and a scabby rash of Pontings. A collection of Haydens doesn’t have a word, as it is too appalling to contemplate.

  2. Great game. Unfortunately, at a key climactic moment, Simon Mann said ‘DRS system.’ So it’s all ruined.

    1. I can see how that might put you off, but I don’t think this is the place for… oh I see, you mean a climactic moment in the cricket.

      1. Imagine a diagram illustrating the points at which a certain TMS commentator’s analyses intersect.

        A Simon Menn Venn, perhaps?

    2. My day was going OK until a share-trading platform asked me to update a survey “As required by the MiFID Directive” AARGH FML

  3. While on the topic of irritating mis-spaking- and also on the topic (discussed in a recent thread) of the new ECB regime and the approach for The Hundred from private equity barbarians, the Sky interview on Saturday with Richard Thompson was illuminating.

    The one mis-spaking therein which really riled me was the suggestion that England is the only test playing location in the Northern Hemisphere. I suspect that Thompson is not geographically challenged and that he meant to say, “the only location where tests are played in the Northern Hemisphere summer”…but that’s not what he said.

    Unfortunately, pedants like me place a discount on everything else such a chap says after misplacing the entire Indian subcontinent, the Arabian peninsula and the Caribbean in the wrong hemisphere.

    Just as Simon Mann is now on my grammar offenders register for the terrible error reported by Sam above. I do hope, Sam, that you can recover your passion for whatever it was you were doing when the offence took place.

  4. I can’t help but wonder if people praising the ‘you have to risk losing to win’ attitude are fans of the attitude for it’s own sake (it makes things exciting), or simply because since England have taken that approach, they’ve won nearly every match. Any approach that (seemingly) leads to winning almost every Test is going to be popular, after all.

    There is evidence to suggest that risking, say, a 50% chance of losing to gain a 50% chance of winning would seem to be a negative strategy in the long run, at least psychologically. Psychological studies suggest the pain of losing something is felt roughly twice as much as gaining something of the same value would be, so by that metric drawing every game against an evenly-matched opponent (where a win is ‘worth’ roughly the same as a loss) would be far preferable to winning half and losing half.

    I am guessing that when McCullum and Stokes talk about ‘risking losing to win’, though, they don’t mean ‘reducing every game to the equivalent of a coin toss’, they mean ‘taking more risks than England have tended to in the past and playing the game in a way that suits the team’.

    1. Absolutely, APW.

      It is in part a strategy born of confidence – i.e. you believe you have a good enough team to win more often than you lose even if you take risks to engineer the odds away from the draw.

      Engineering the odds away from the draw is not the same thing as reducing the game to a coin toss – that is one of the beauties of first class cricket; the draw remains an integral part of the game. Today’s game very nearly ended as a draw, but what aa terrifically exciting draw it would have been compared with the bore draw that seemed on the cards when Pindi revealed itself to be a road.

      My bugbear with England as a test side for some years has been the wastage of talent – we have very good players – many of whom were contributing to England being at or near the top in white ball formats – who were delivering less than the sum of their parts as a test team for several years.

      This fresh approach has turned that bugbear situation around – England as a test team now looks considerably more than the sum of its parts – players are delivering superb performances in extremely challenging conditions and circumstances.

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