I considered calling this article, “Wretched, weak, timid, gormless” and spending the post lamenting England’s insipid display in during the Ashes. Venting my anger at waking up, then staying up, night after night, to hear another dreadful display of batting. Good headline, eh?
Actually I didn’t. The headline is from a George Dobell piece. It’s part of a trend of articles chastising England’s woeful display down-under.
I fear our cricketing journalists may be jumping the gun. Sure, England look certain to go 2-0 down and have been bowled out for less than 180 three times in succession. But there’s another explanation to their being inept; that of no explanation at all. The problem is that our brains are simple not evolved to understand chance well – we apply causative explanations because they’ve helped us survive and now they’re leading us to hyperbole, perhaps helped by a subconscious desire to sell a few more papers here and there.
In Nicolas Taleb’s brilliant book, ‘Fooled by Randomness’, the author picks apart countless ways that we read meaning into chaos. His thesis is that we view the world as much more explainable than it is, and seek a narrative where there is none. His focus is on markets, trading and companies. One example is an incidence of survivorship bias, the extravagant praise heaped on the 10 best investors in any given week. They must be good – they’re the top 10 investors in the country. The much more likely explanation is that they took large gambles, which happened to pay off. Indeed, 1000 other traders took gambles just as unlikely to succeed at the time and are now at the bottom of the pile. Fortune smiled on a few, but we ascribed it to skill.
Cricket is a game with its foundations built on luck. Imagine a simple model. Each game is a coin toss, heads is a successful game, tails a failure. Imagine playing 100 times, that’s 100 coin tosses. During those, you will get remarkable runs of consecutive heads and tails that seem to demand explanation. In the cricketing world hundreds of journalists will be all too willing to find plenty of possibilities. That’s a very simplified model, but the reality is worse for a cricketer; confidence affects performance and performance affects confidence. Hence, one bad score is more likely to lead to another, as though one heads increases the chances of getting another heads, meaning the peaks and troughs will be even more exaggerated.
The Nobel-prize winner, Daniel Kahneman’s exceptional collection of his life’s research, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ also offers insight into our ready desire to find explanations when none are needed. He highlights our attraction towards stories that are simple rather than complex, concrete, assign roles to talent, skill and intention skill and intention rather than luck and focus on a few events that did happen rather than the 100′s of equally likely events that did not. The most compelling stories, he argues, contain the illusion of inevitability with hindsight…England were always bound to come here and be blown away…the writing’s been on the wall really for all of us smart enough to see it… There are brilliant experiments demonstrating this is not just an abstract phenomenon. It’s what we all do.
Kahneman also talks of survivorship bias, pointing to books that take successful companies and analyse what they have in common. Entirely fruitless he argues, a year after the books are published the average profitability of the lauded companies drops to almost no difference to the overall average. Gaps between pairs of companies that performed very differently over a year similarly vanish the following year. Notably, he writes, “The CEO of a successful company is likely to be called flexible, methodical and decisive. Imagine a year has passed and things have gone sour. The same executive is now described as confused, rigid and authoritarian. Both descriptions sound right at the time…” Ring any bells…Andy Flower?
The story is the same. We crave simple, causative and sexy explanations. That way we can get angry at someone for waking up at 4am to hear Monty batting, or spending life saving’s on a trip Down-Under. It’s not as easy to be angry at chance.
And so we’ve heard that England’s dreadful run of form must be the symptom of an appalling disease and must have an explanation. England are too controlling, their players are too old or past their best, there aren’t enough quick bowlers in county cricket, they play too much cricket, being brought up with every type of padding has ironically made them afraid of being hit, they’re weak willed…anything.
Some of those might be true, not all of them are whipped up from dust by journalists crammed together on tour like the players, talking, discussing, reading each others pieces and forced to write an interesting and decisive piece every day until mountains are built from pitches flatter than Adelaide. But what if it’s just bad luck? What if it doesn’t require an explanation and doesn’t necessitate a chastising from us armchair critics? A particular combination of good bowling, the some poor shots, players coinciding in their runs of poor form, good catches…. Normally these incidents are balanced by their opposites, another players is in form when one is out of form, someone is dropped on 0 and makes a century, an opposition bowler has a bad day and the rest of the attack tire. But, occasionally you’ll get a run when it takes longer for us to see the other side of chance. When a few bad runs of coin tosses coincide in the same team. Even worse when the opposite is happening for the opposition.
The authors of chastising pieces will say this is not a flash in the pan. 19 innings without 400, a dodgy run back to 2012, brutalized by Johnson. The simple story is that a woeful England have been ripped apart by Mitch – but all of England’s top 5 have all scored half centuries. Johnson has taken 8 of 24 top-6 wickets, a fair few, but not a mauling, and by comparison, Broad’s taken 8 of Australia’s 21 to fall. The difference is that Johnson’s pace has taken apart the lower order, previously very important to England’s runs. That doesn’t make a headline – “Quick bowler dismisses people not paid to bat.”
A more probable thesis is that England are a decent team going through an inevitable bad spell. The 2010 and 2011 successes were the opposite of this, a run of good fortune and of course its fair share of planning and skill. Skill and practice are big factors, I’m not denying that. But to place everything at the service of skill, hard work and explainable stories does a disservice to the players (in good form/luck or bad) and to all of us in all areas of life whenever we’re out of luck. It implies our failings are personal and not due to inevitable stochastic variation. Though at least our failures aren’t lamented for public consumption. Richie Benaud’s adage, ‘captaincy is 10% skill and 90% luck, but don’t try it without the 10%’, has wisdom beyond captaincy (it was also applied to my driving test).
Ed Smith, author of ‘Luck, what it means and why it matters’, has been trying to get such a message across to cricket for a while. His book draws on Taleb and other social scientists, as well as receiving an endorsement from Taleb himself. It’s a pity he’s not writing regularly from Australia.
On the subject of Smith, he has another interesting idea taken from social sciences, discussed here - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011znl3. Well publicised and replicated experiments show people with a monetary incentive do worse in creative tasks than those without. Over two years ago, Smith extended this idea to a concern that over-professionalism, dragging the love out of a hobby, would make people worse at what they do. There is an almost prophetical element to this in the light of the contrast between the Lehman and Flower regimes. Would an English player be allowed as much fun as growing a moustache like Mitch’s? Perhaps now I’m falling for the simple story…a repressive management regime has been extensively suggested as a cause of England’s malaise. But perhaps here at last, cricket’s journalists and social scientists are in accord.
Cricket could learn a huge amount from social sciences. Ed Smith seems like the man to do it. I really hope somebody’s listening.