Why Stokes and McCullum aren’t worried about bad shots, only bad innings

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Bad shots are bad shots, but in an age when the dumbest moments are endlessly replayed and dissected, it’s important to at least try and take in the bigger picture. A batter who sometimes plays the wrong shot is nowhere near as bad as a batter who’s always worrying about playing the wrong shot.

All the highfalutin talk about Ben Stokes’ England team rewriting Test cricket and boldly startrekking where no cricketers have ever startrekked before rather masks the fact that the biggest gain from their change in attitude has been that it allows for basic everyday competence with the bat.

Incredible pyrotechnic run chases and 500 in a day are great and memorable and all, but erasing the regular sub-100 catastrophes has been every bit as helpful. England were bowled out for double-digit scores five times between the start of 2019 and when Stokes took over as captain in June last year, but not once since. That period also featured 10 team totals between 100 and 150. There have been only two since – one of which was the first innings of Stokes’ first match in charge when some of the side may not yet have arrived on the same page as him.

Two ways batters get out

Many fans and pundits hear Brendon McCullum’s obvious reluctance to criticise batters for numbnuts shots that got them out and they think, “Oh these guys can get away with anything. Someone needs to tell them.”

You know what? Professional batters who get out to numbnuts shots don’t generally need to be told. They were batting and then they had to stop batting and the thing that brought about that change was a numbnuts thing they did. If your job is being great at batting, you’ll most likely notice a detail like that. You may even dwell on it to an unhealthy extent.

That is only one way batters get out though. Another way batters get out is they half-play a shot they aren’t entirely sure about. Half-played indecisive shots don’t tend to make good, clean contact with 90mph deliveries arcing through the air and/or skewing a degree or two off the pitch.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need to be caught very precisely midway between two different shot options to miss or mishit something. You can be 60, 70, 80 or 90% sure you’re doing the right thing and that niggling, self-sabotaging doubt can still be the difference between scoring runs and your dismissal.

We would guess that in Test cricket this way of getting out is more common than losing your wicket to a stupid shot.

Stupid shots v indecisiveness

England’s attitude at the minute is that bad shots are only dangerous when you play them, but doubt is dangerous all the time. The captain and coach therefore try and counter what they see as the bigger threat.

When you question a batter’s judgement in one specific instance, you almost certainly create a very small bit of doubt in them about every other instance. So they pretty much do not do that.

They say this instead: Whatever you want to do, just do it. Don’t think twice, just react. We won’t criticise you afterwards unless you were anything other than wholehearted going for whatever shot you chose.

They try to feed conviction.

International batters will almost certainly internalise truly bad decisions automatically. It’s also worth pointing out that the skilful ones will massively improve the percentages on what wouldn’t ordinarily be considered a ‘percentage shot’ by playing it with total certainty.

There’s no point painting this no-real-recriminations philosophy as a cure-all, because clearly it isn’t. It has however been a means of attaining some basic batting competence most of the time. In Test cricket, where every single decision is questioned by onlookers, that is a much harder thing to maintain than you might think.

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  1. Those of us who remember the bowling of Glen McGrath (aaghhh the pain) and Shane Warne (stop, please, I’ll tell you anything) will know of another way for batsmen to get out in tests, which is getting out defending. With McGrath nibbling away outside off stump, it was only a matter of time before the classic defensive shot became a classic caught behind. And Warne, pitching and turning and pitching and turning all the way until one didn’t turn and it was Englishbatsman lbw Warne again.

    KP was the first to change this, most notably in the final test of the 2005 series. If you are just waiting for the one that will get you out, it’s probably better to be on 158 when it happens instead of 7.

    This has been the main problem with English test batting over the years. When it goes badly and wickets fall quickly, we let it happen without scoring. We make it much worse than it needs to be by retreating into a shell. The philosophy seems to be that 10 from 70 balls is better than 20 from 20.

    Aggressive batting seems to me to be not much other than making sure that every hittable ball is hitted. The selection is still there, but the bias is towards scoring. Our batters used to leave a dozen possible boundary balls for fear of being criticized with that killer phrase “He didn’t need to hit that one.” Well guess what, if he had needed to hit the first eleven of them to the boundary, he’d have scored 44 runs more.

    1. I so agree with the essence of KC’s piece and the essence of your agreement with it Bert…


      …as you know…

      …your “44 more runs” figure is flawed.

      The number of additional runs he’d probably have scored is an expected score based on the likelihood of success of the shot “he didn’t need to hit”,

      For example, if the only two possibilities for such a shot was four runs or out and the likelihood of each possible outcome the same, then he’d have probably scored, on average, four runs more, not 44 runs more. It would only have been 44 runs more if the chance of success (scoring four) was 11 in 12 and the chance of failure (out) one in 12.

      But you know that, don’t you, Bert?

      There is also an aspect rarely talked about, in the matter of “not waiting for the ball that is destined to get you”, that the very act of batting aggressively, when it comes off even to some extent, puts the bowler off his line and length to the extent that it becomes far less likely that he’ll bowl the ball that is destined to get you. Further, the business of “seeing the shine off the new ball” is not merely about how many balls are bowled, regardless of how much we fans look at the scoreboard and think “the ball is now X overs old”, it is also about the amount of wear and tear on the ball, which is a combination of balls bowled and how many times the ball has been hit and how hard the ball has been hit.

      I’ll stop ranting.

      1. …your “44 more runs” figure is flawed.

        I’m flawed, I mean, I’m floored by your cruel dismantling of my analysis. You are of course correct, mathematically. I would say though that the deliveries England were wont to leave all those years ago were more like 80/20 balls, 70/30 at worst. It was virtually anything that didn’t actually need to be hit for defensive reasons. That would give somewhere around 10 to 15 extra runs, which because this was an all-batters disease could mean 60 to 100 extra team runs per innings.

        We worked out here years ago that in certain circumstances, runs are not the currency of batting. Balls faced is a far better way to assess an innings. But that is only when playing for a draw. When playing for a win, runs are in fact the right currency to use, because literally that is the only deciding factor. It’s often said that to win you need to take twenty wickets, but in fact that is neither necessary or sufficient. To win, you necessarily have to have more runs than your opponent.

        To get runs, that is, to win, you have to let batters bat. We’ve had too much analysis of the specifics of failure over the years, to the point where our batsmen were scared to play a shot. There is no perfect tactic, but erring on the side of aggression is likely to lead to much better results than erring on the side of caution. There was a time when nil-nil or one-one in a home Ashes series would have been seen as a triumph. If there is any short definition of what Bazball actually is, maybe it is simply that in this team it would be seen as a failure.

  2. There may be times when I cry out in frustration when a ball is hit to one of the five fielders positioned deep. However, I quickly remind myself of how poorly we were batting while Joe Root was performing exceptionally well.

  3. Bazball

    The story of how cricket reached America.

    1. Harry Brook has a Major League Baseball logo on his bat.


      No, it’s a prearranged marketing tie in.

      Or is it?


  4. This is getting a lot of criticism from fans of teams other than India, Australia and England, but something has got to give and I’d rather see fewer bilateral ODIs than see a continuation of the current trend.

    1. I so agree with “this”, APW, not only the stuff about fewer bilateral ODIs, but also the stuff about ringfencing serious money for test cricket and for women’s cricket.

    2. England really haven’t played many bilateral ODIs since the last World Cup. In the four years since they’ve played 36 ODIs, nine a year. That’s less days than 2 complete test matches. Abandoning ODIs for three out of every four years will make very little difference to England but may cause much bigger issues to the smaller nations.

      1. It would help England because every ODI also involves as much travel as a Test match.

        But totally agree that it’s far from beneficial for plenty of nations. What would the likes of Ireland or the Netherlands get out of it? Almost zero cricket? Great. Really helpful.

      2. Specifically for those two cases… There is a case for having a regular European Cup featuring England and Ireland and probably two associate qualifiers (most like Netherlands and Scotland, the step down to the likes of Italy and Germany is pretty steep) as a mirror of the Asia Cup which also features full and associate members. I think the Asia Cup tends to be T20 or ODI depending on which format is currently most useful (eg in run up to 50 over World Cup you want a few more ODIs so that’s what they use the Asia Cup for). You could have a round robin and a final in not much more time than an England ODI bilateral. Now there are two full members in Europe and a few more pro or semi-pro associate teams, this kind of idea might be a more meaningful use of the summer calendar space than a bilateral.

        The problem from an England perspective would be the quality and commercial viability of the opposition, though England men have lost to Ireland, Scotland and Netherlands before. You might want to invite the West Indies (and let USA/Canada into qualifying, Brazil too if there’s a parallel women’s tournament, as there should be) and have a Euro-American Cup. I hope this is the kind of context-creating idea people are at least thinking about, given how well the Asia Cup has worked.

  5. I have been thinking, the things that win cricket matches are hundreds and fifers.
    These don’t happen by accident (unless you are the hilarious Stuart Broad or Michael Clarke [which I think are exactly the exceptions that prove the rule]). You have to be batting or bowling well, taking advantage of conditions and doing it for the best part of a day to get a hundred or a fifer.

    I think you need to pick the batsmen with the best chance of scoring a hundred if things go well for them, and the bowlers who could get you 5 wickets. I know this sounds like pick the best players, obviously, but pick ones who can be match winners, not just bits and pieces players.

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