The Wisden Guessing Game, 2015

Guess what he’ll bowl next. Guess where she’ll look to play it. Guess who’ll be sent in next. Guess what the captain’ll do at the toss. Guess who’ll be named in the team. Guess whether the wicket’ll firm up or break up.

The uncertainty fascinates us. The cliché about glorious uncertainties reflects the fact that guessing is an integral part of cricket, not to mention sport. And it’s not confined to the field.

Wisden has for the last 100 years or so, with a few notable exceptions, named Five Cricketers of the Year past. This is not a traditional best-of-the-year award. It is unashamedly Anglo-centric, giving most weight to impact on the English cricket season. Players cannot normally receive the award more than once. These constraints make attempting to predict the eventual winners more interesting than it might otherwise be.

Back in April 2014, after my correctly guessing four out of the five 2014 COTYs, I stuck my 2015 predictions down on paper. Six months later, with the English season over and six months to go until the announcement, it’s instructive – not to mention humbling – to reassess my guesses.

2015 predictions: reevaluated

1. Virat Kohli

The signs had been promising. A tricky two-Test tour in South Africa against the world’s leading pace attack had concluded with him being the second-highest run scorer: 272 runs at 68 placed him only behind his team-mate Pujura, who had 280 at 70. It was therefore particularly surprising to see an arguably weaker attack doing for him time and again with traditional English movement. While the post-Test ODIs provided an opportunity to extract a little revenge, the fact that during the Test series he averaged less with the bat than Jimmy Anderson says it all. Saddled with the Heir of Tendulkar tag, Kohli seemed to sag rather than surge.

Assuming he doesn’t pick up the award in 2015, a long-term guess is that he’ll do so in 2019, when the World Cup returns to English shores.

Chances for 2015 COTY: Low

2. Cheteshwar Pujara

If the flamboyant Kohli didn’t find English conditions to his liking, surely the understated Pujara would, master of graft and patience that he is. Or so the accepted wisdom ran. Pujara’s failure in England was even stranger than Kohli’s. The lad who had averaged 87.60 against England in 2012-13 stumbled to 22.20 in 10 innings.

An end-of-season stint with Derbyshire, however, gave indication of some form. With his agreeing to return next year in the County Championship, the signs are that he intends to nail these conditions. Watch out next time, England: Che will be back.

Chances for 2015 COTY: Low

3. James Taylor

This was always going to be a bit of a punt. Not being in the England sides at the beginning of the year wasn’t going to help his chances. Yet with the batting order in tatters after Australia, there was a good chance that he would get a recall. Sadly for him, Robson, Ballance and Ali emphatically filled the available slots.

Despite international disappointment, his county form was good, particularly in the limited-overs competitions. In the 50-over competition, he only had 7 matches to show off, yet took his opponents for 444 runs at 88.60. If we relax the criteria to include all List A cricket, only Alex Hales scored more than his 586 runs, and at a much lower average.

His inclusion in the Lions team and the one-day squads made it clear that he was in the selectors’ thoughts, although frustratingly failed to actually make any of the teams. Worst case scenario would be for him to travel to Sri Lanka, struggle on foreign pitches, and be summarily discarded without a proper chance to show what he can do. He should at least be taken to the pre-World Cup ODI tri-series in Australia.

Chances for 2015 COTY: Low to moderate

4. Sam Robson

I wrote that Robson, Balance and Ali emphatically filled the available slots. That’s only true to an extent: as a trio they kept other contenders out, but individually Robson and Ali were a little suspect. Ali’s bowling enabled his quiet end to the summer with the bat to be overlooked, but Robson had nowhere to hide, after his form dipped.

A maiden Test century shouldn’t be overlooked, though. At county level, an end-of-season rearguard action at Old Trafford in the relegation scrap showed that form was returning, and while everyone gets into a frenzy over the World Cup, there is plenty of county cricket for him to ensure he opens in the Ashes next year. A break may be ideal for him right now.

Chances for 2015 COTY: Moderate

5. Steven Finn

“Unselectable” at the beginning of the year, but back in the ODI and T20I sides by September: England’s strike bowler was never that far away from a Test recall, but was edged out by the Plunkett-Jordan-Woakes trio. In the County Championship, 48 wickets in just 11 matches showed that his wicket-taking ability was still there, although his average of 30.72 also demonstrated that his occasional profligacy remained a concern. A decent County Championship showing in April and May 2015 could see him return for the New Zealand home Tests, or injury to one of the above trio could even let him in for the West Indies tour.

Not a bad year for Finn, but lack of Test matches means it won’t be enough to get a COTY nod. Not this year, anyway.

Chances for 2015 COTY: Low

2015 predictions: reloaded

So who will actually be invited to Lord’s to be presented with the leatherbound Wisdens in April 2015?

I naturally have no inside information. As I may have touched on earlier, guessing’s rather addictive.

1. Gary Ballance

England wanted a No. 3 lynchpin to replace Trott, and early signs are that they’ve uncovered one in Ballance. Two centuries at Lord’s were followed by a 156 at Southampton and a useful 64 at The Oval. Only Joe Root, with two helpful not-outs, surpassed his run tally of 503 and average of 71.85 against India.

For Ballance not to collect a COTY would require an act of transgression on the Amir scale. Shirtless table-dancing will barely register, though it’s not recommended in the Long Room. If he’s overlooked, I’ll eat my recently purchased sale-price Lord’s sunhat.

2. Angelo Mathews

Armed with metaphorical eggs, Mathews pelted England with beamers. At Leeds, after taking 4 for 44, Mathews shepherded the tail as he worked towards a match-winning 160. It contributed to what arguably became the worst day for English cricket since Adelaide 2006.

What a victory it was. Having had their coach lured away by England, their Tests reduced in favour of their big neighbours, and their sportsmanship questioned, Sri Lanka pulled off their first-ever Test series victory in England, to go with a 3-2 ODI victory and a win in the only T20I. Mathews deserves much of the credit for uniting his dressing room against the dark forces that seemed to encircle it.

3. Moeen Ali

The supposedly part-time spinner who outspun India in England. His maiden Test century at Headingley should provide sufficient evidence of his prowess with the willow, but it was his performance with the leather that took all, not least the subcontinental batsmen, by surprise. Against India, his 19 wickets at 23 was nothing less than embarrassing: India’s best reply was Jadeja, with 9 at 46.66; fewer than half the wickets at twice the average.

It’s also easy to forget his significant contribution to Worcestershire’s promotion back to Division 1. Although his England duties removed him from New Road for much of the season, while with Worcestershire he piled up 676 runs at 61.45 in 8 matches, giving the team a crucial early-season boost.

Despite his inherently modest and self-effacing style, Moeen also somehow seemed to wind up most days on the front page for one reason or another. If it wasn’t his wristband protest, it was the unedifying booing he received at Edgbaston. One way or another, Moeen Ali was the unofficial face of English cricket in 2014, and only the most ungracious of individuals would have it any other way. A 2015 COTY certainty.

4. Bhuvneshwar Kumar

Easy to forget, in the eventual 3-1 scoreline, that after two Tests, India had outbowled England in England. Sharma grabbed the limelight at Lord’s, but it was the workhorselike Kumar who had been most impressive. He tailed off toward the end of the series, as India’s collective will and apparent energy faltered in the face of the English counterattack, but his 19 wickets at 26.63 surpassed what anyone was expecting. Additionally, his 58 & 63* at Trent Bridge, followed by 36 & 52 on a Lord’s greentop, were above and beyond the call of duty of any No. 9.

5. Rangana Herath

Eight wickets may sound a distinctly underwhelming basis on which to hand out a COTY award. Yet Herath’s wickets came in just two Tests, and on the not traditionally spin-friendly tracks of Lord’s and Headingley. It was his height, or lack of it, rather than his spin that contributed to his wickets, with the reduced bounce increasing the threat of LBW. His second-innings wickets at Lord’s slowed down England’s declaration acceleration, thus contributing to an ultimately saved match. At Headingley, after a gutsy 48 helped his captain to reach 160, he chipped in with lower-order scalps as Sri Lanka attempted to, and eventually succeeded in breaching England’s defences.

2016 Early Bird predictions

And finally, some long-term predictions for the 2016 awards!

1. Jos Buttler

Only three Tests limited his opportunity to impress in 2014, but his ODI century at Lord’s clearly signalled his coming as a future star. Expect his maiden Test century in 2015, probably against the West Indies.

2. Alex Hales

Demolition of Sri Lanka in the World T20 showed his limited-overs potential, but his red-ball game has come on leaps and bounds. Will have a good 2015 in ODIs, and could be knocking on the door of the Test side by winter 2015.

3. Sam Robson

Will find form against the Australians to go with heaps of County Championship runs; will also be a crucial factor in keeping Middlesex in Division One in the absence of Chris Rogers.

4. Mitchell Johnson

Will be keen to repay English crowds for their past mockery, with the most dramatic means: scary facial hair stacks of wickets.

5. Brendon McCullum

New Zealand’s first triple-centurion has experience on his side and will bruise English attacks across all formats. Will show that the New Zealand tour is much more than a mere Ashes appetiser.

Good things come to the crease in small packages

James Taylor’s demolition of Ryan Sidebottom in the Yorkshire vs. Nottinghamshire T20 provided an opportunity to savour one of the most delectable sights in cricket: that of a diminutive batsman dominating a big fast bowler. 1.68m (5′7″) took down 1.91m (6′4″).

Well-built batsmen such as Andrew Flintoff (1.93m) or Alex Hales (1.96m), of course, always raise the excitement levels, and thrill audiences as they dominate attacks. Yet somehow there is an inverse correlation between stature and impressiveness: the smaller the figure, the greater the delight.

Why are pint-sized players so pleasing to watch? One reason could be that due to the lack of inherent momentum provided by weight, smaller players are forced to develop traditional, classical skills, relying on pure timing rather than brute strength. It has been observed that this currently holds true to an extent in the women’s game; the suggestion is that while the men’s game can cut corners due to higher strength levels, the women’s game remains a superior showcase of traditional cricketing technique. As fitness and strength levels increase in the women’s game, it will be interesting to see how long this holds true.

Going back to the man’s game, it’s striking how short players often not only have style, but also substance. Looking at the 11 batsmen that have over 10000 Test runs as of 2014, height seems to be a rarity. (Heights are sourced from the Internet, and are presented with a low degree of confidence.)

Player Test runs Height (m)
SR Tendulkar 15921 1.65
RT Ponting 13378 1.78
JH Kallis 13289 1.88
R Dravid 13288 1.80
KC Sangakkara 11983 1.78
BC Lara 11953 1.73
DPMD Jayawardene 11814 1.73
S Chanderpaul 11414 1.73
AR Border 11174 1.75
SR Waugh 10927 1.78
SM Gavaskar 10122 1.65
Don Bradman 6996 1.70

Kallis, at 1.88m, the outlier, or perhaps the high flier, is the only one of the XI to breach the 6-foot barrier. Dravid, Ponting, and Sangakkara, at 1.80, 1.78, and 1.78 respectively, would be perceived, at least by a British eye, to be of average height. Lara and Tendulkar, arguably the most consistently stylish batsmen in modern cricket history (how that is defined is another story; Chris Smith at Declaration Game debates this in some detail), clock in at just 1.73m and 1.65m. As twelfth man, Don Bradman slots in between Lara and Tendulkar at 1.70m.

What does this mean? Not much. There is a danger, of course, in selectively choosing examples to support a hypothesis, and this is by no means a scientific analysis. We’re looking, after all, at what makes a small batsman so appealing from our subjective viewpoint. All this does is suggest that small stature might increase the chances of piling up over 10000 career Test runs. Perhaps smaller frames, possibly being lighter, place less strain on the limbs, and thus reduce the likelihood of major injuries, allowing longer careers. Ideally we could do with a Style Index to authoritatively rank players on the attractiveness of their play. There’s an idea for Statsguru.

It may be that our delight in watching small players perform is down to a simpler reason. Perhaps it is because it seems so unexpected, so contrary to the course of nature. When an obviously muscular player comes out to bat, we expect the ball to go flying out of the park. By contrast, when a small figure appears, we subconsciously doubt his ability to do the deed. Our fears and expectations are confounded. We relish David slaying his Goliath.

DRS: power to the players, not the umpires

The pitch at Trent Bridge was so lifeless that it almost succeeded in even deadening the interminable drone about DRS that always seems to accompany any high-profile series. With England—India, though, DRS is always a handy fallback topic, thanks to the BCCI’s continued intransigence on the subject. N Srinivasan stated in December 2012 that “We don’t believe the technology is good enough”. With the increased powers that the BCCI has in the ICC, the cry of the casual, unsuspecting fan on Twitter that the ICC should force the BCCI to accept DRS is laughable.

Nevertheless, there is some talk that India may be coming round to the idea, although naturally not officially. The BCCI’s increased power may, curiously, encourage them to engage in some goodwill gestures. They now have the money; they can afford to be generous, and bask in the glow of their magnanimous actions. We’re not “a bully”: look at how reasonable we are in being willing to listen and yield to the rest of the ICC on DRS.

A key point is that accuracy of ball-tracking has improved drastically since its inception. Mike Selvey, a self-described sceptic, has been won over by this. Martin Crowe, who expresses the opposing view well, has not.

Both Crowe and Selvey suggest, however, the possibility of beneficial changes to DRS. Crowe is unconvinced of the accuracy of the predictive path, and would prefer abandoning that part of the system. Selvey, by contrast, is impressed with the apparent accuracy of current technology, and toys with the possibility of taking the DRS away from the players and into the hands of the third umpire. Furthermore, it has been suggested that this may provide the BCCI with a way to save face, should they feel it necessary.

Those who view a player-initiated review as essentially a whitewashed form of dissent may welcome a removal of such power from the player. I am afraid, though, I do not share Selvey’s view that moving the power to review from players to the third umpire “has some merit.” I view it as a terrible idea, for at least three reasons.

1. Umpires would have no function in LBW decisions

If the third umpire were to check every LBW decision, there would be absolutely no point to the on-field umpires even knowing the LBW law. You would have the curious situation wherein the umpires standing in domestic first-class cricket would need greater skills than those in the international game.

2. The game would run even slower

We already see virtually every run-out decision referred to the TV umpire. This is an acceptable use of time, since they are relatively rare, happening perhaps once every few hours. Yet LBWs are inherently much trickier to judge, so in due course, in an attempt to avoid criticism, on-field umpires would end up referring all but the most blatantly obvious LBW appeals.

Over rates, already low, would worsen, as the game stops every time the ball hits the pads, for the third umpire to confirm that it was, indeed, not out, on most occasions. Test cricket does not need any further reduction in pace: quite the opposite.

3. Player dissent would increase

Let us suppose that, in order to mitigate the above two disadvantages, the system is set up so that not every decision is referred; rather, the on-field umpire can choose whether to refer it or not. The result? Players will simply attempt to coerce the umpire into referring decisions that they think are borderline. (I have a recollection that trials of this system yielded precisely that outcome, but have been unable to find the details.)

In a slightly different set-up, during 2012 a third-umpire intervention system was tested out in Australia, with the TV umpire having the power to overrule a decision if he considered it controversial. It was scrapped mid-season, with the players unhappy with what was perceived as inconsistency and confusion over its application. Daniel Brettig reported that players would hang around on the field, hoping for an overrule, which had a knock-on impact on the rhythm of the game.

We come back to what the DRS is intended to remedy: the “howler”. Selvey rightly asks how one is supposed to differentiate between a howler and a non-howler. Where does one draw the line? Selvey sensibly indicates the absurdity of attempting to decide which decisions players may or may not review, on the basis of a sort of volume of howl. Players should be allowed to squander their reviews. Yet this does not mean that the third umpire should be given the option of overruling, as discussed. Players should be miserly with their reviews, and only use them up if they genuinely believe a blatant error has been made. Any blame for a poor decision thus remains on the players, not the umpires. Crowe goes so far as to call for the number of challenges in Tests to be reduced from two to one.

In conclusion, however, Selvey’s article made me reconsider one point that I have previously been pretty firm on: the question of whether an “umpire’s call” verdict should use up a player’s review. As it happens, I am still of the opinion that it should. Yet Selvey’s experience indicates that the margin of error is much less than I envisaged, down to about one millimetre. This suggests that “umpire’s call” verdicts are much less doubtful than might be thought: a clip of a bail is still a clip.

If the corresponding uncertainty has therefore been reduced, one of two things should be done: either 1) leave the system as it is, but dramatically reduce the yellow “umpire’s call” zone to reflect the actual accuracy of the projection, or 2) allow teams to re-use their review, since their referral has been shown to be justified. I would opt for the former. To do so, however, requires confidence in the accuracy really being as high as the manufacturers, hardly disinterested parties, claim it is. Stringent, transparent, independent verification is needed for confidence in the system.

It remains to be seen what the BCCI will do, if anything, as regards DRS. As stated earlier, there may be little political need for them to change. In search of good PR, though, we might see them make a popular decision.