Friday, 25 July 2014

Column 21, 2014 – The science of catching

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 93, Friday July 25, 2014.
[Full text below]

Wednesday night I was under a massive skied top edge which went so far up that air traffic control got involved. I had what seemed a good minute while it flirted with the upper atmosphere to debate the relative merits of the English way (fingers pointing down) or the Australian way (fingers pointing up).

Exactly what goes on when we catch a ball is a question that has taxed brighter minds than mine for generations.

The first actions on a flying ball are how and where it is hit: force, direction, elevation. Then there’s gravity, which, all things being equal, should mean it describes a perfect parabola before returning to earth. But things are never equal. Next is air resistance or friction, which will vary greatly depending on the rate and direction of spin, the condition of the ball and the turbulence in the boundary layer around it created by this combination, then wind speed, temperature, altitude and barometric pressure.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: “When a man catches a ball he behaves as if he had solved a set of differential equations predicting its trajectory. At some subconscious level, something functionally equivalent to the mathematical calculation is going on.”

The mathematical theories have grand names: ‘Trajectory Projection’, ‘Linear Optical Trajectory’ and ‘Optical Acceleration Cancellation’. Combining most of them to a greater or lesser extent is something called the gaze heuristic. A heuristic is an experience-based problem solving technique – learning by trial and error: we know roughly how a cricket ball will behave in the air because we’ve seen it before. We keep it central in our field of vision using our three-dimensional depth perception to manage relative position: forwards, backwards, left and right, to keep the ball in our crosshairs until we intercept it.

Researchers at EPFL, Switzerland’s federal institute of technology, are using a version of the gaze heuristic to teach a robotic arm to catch objects in under five-hundredths of a second. Real time calculation takes far too long, so the arm uses information gathered from previous similar trajectories, matched to motion-capture studies of the way humans move their hands and fingers to catch. Rather than real time trajectory computation it relies on data from previous experiments. Which is another way of saying experience. The arm is still in development but currently has a catching success rate of nearly 70%.

I’d take that any day. Especially under a skier.

I elected in the end to eschew both English and Australian methods, and tried a third way, known technically as ‘the crocodile’, or colloquially as “a complete hash of it.” Still smoking from atmospheric re-entry, the ball ricocheted off the heel of my hand into my eye, leaving me with a splendid shiner with which to advertise my heuristic ineptitude for the next week or so.

All of which, in case it’s unclear, means I dropped a sitter.

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Friday, 18 July 2014

Column 20, 2014 – The Spirit of Cricket

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 92, Friday July 18, 2014.
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The spirit of cricket usually only gets dusted off when people behave badly or contentiously. This happens roughly once a year, to conveniently remind us that a) there is a spirit of cricket, and b) no one is entirely sure what it is.

This year we’ve had the Butler-Mankad brouhaha. Last summer, there was the startlingly hypocritical Broad-not-walking commotion. And the last time India were over, we had the Bell run-out-and-reinstatement kerfuffle.

Since 2000 the spirit of cricket is enshrined in MCC’s Laws as a ‘preamble’. This in itself is controversial, many believing that to attempt to pin it down is to miss the point. I’ve just re-read it, and if the preamble is the best we can do, I am inclined to agree.

Golf has an unofficial code of conduct which is both memorable and followable: “Play the course as you find it and the ball as it lies. If you can’t do either, do what’s fair.” Isn’t that splendidly concise? There’s a lot of ground covered there.

Maybe cricket would benefit from something similarly pithy. But cricket generally prefers to be ambiguous and waffley, which ultimately perhaps is part of its charm.

Usually the spirit of cricket is only brought up when called into question. Rarely is it arbitrarily celebrated. Well, I seem to have inadvertently spent the weekend doing just that.

In our Saturday league game I had a hugely enjoyable duel with a left arm over quick bowling with a 7-2 offside field and a packed slip cordon. Very infrequently he over-pitched and I drove him straight, but mostly he had the better of the exchange.

Eventually I drove at one that wasn’t quite there and snicked a textbook edge to second slip. The bowler ran up as I trudged off, grinning from ear to ear, put an arm round my shoulders and said “Batted mate! You and I could have done that all day, eh? That was great fun!” Grinning back despite myself, I had to agree.

And there, I thought, is the spirit of cricket.

What an excellent attitude. That’s what we’re doing here. When the ball is live, we are enemies. When the ball is dead, we are comrades, united by a shared obsession.

This was my one weekend a year when I was given special spousal dispensation to play both days. Sunday, a friend’s schoolmates, Old Purleians CC, came down the M3. One of cricket’s great strengths is that it is just as pleasurable as a process as it is as a contest. In friendly matches, winning comes a distant second to a good close game. Brilliantly, the game was tied, after which we sat in the pub garden, drank beer and swapped cricket stories until the sun went down.

In conclusion I am happy to report that, contrary to reports of its demise, the spirit of cricket is alive and well and living in the country.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 11 July 2014

Column 19, 2014 – Local derby

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 91, Friday July 11, 2014.
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There are several village teams near us who all play in Hampshire Cricket League Regional Division One. A couple of them we get on well with, and share players for nets, friendlies, Wednesday night cricket, and indoor winter leagues.

When the Saturday league fixtures are published in January, it’s these you check first, warming your feet by the crackling fire in the pub, daydreaming of long summer days, and even longer winter bragging rights.

Saturday was Damerham v Godshill. It’s a big one. My good friend and drinking buddy Clive plays for Godshill. As does his eldest, Ross, while his younger one, Ben, plays for us. Several other Godzillas have become mates off the field too.

On the field it’s all so intertwined that there was only one guy in the side we played against on Saturday that has not been a team mate of mine at some point in a Wednesday, indoor or friendly game.

Of course this lends the Saturday league derby a level of expectation that can only possibly result in disappointment. And this it duly delivered. In spades.

Ben had a post-A-level blowout with his mates, Joel had a dirty weekend, Al had a broken thumb, Andy had an anniversary, Pards had to work, Mark’s nipper had a football tournament. It went on. We did scrape 11 together eventually, Crispin valiantly hobbling out of retirement, and Gary roping in two fireman colleagues to rescue us, but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t our strongest side.

Speaking of strong sides, the other ‘Big Game’ on Saturday was the MCC vs ROW match celebrating 200 years of cricket at Lord’s. Few games this year can have had more hype and publicity, and the line up of legends was indeed impressive. Though I was at a loss to understand why it was laced with current internationals. Is there really a shortage of ex-players? Anyone knock on Sky’s door? Or were they worried the legends wouldn’t manage 50 overs without assistance?

They promised very different games, Lord’s and Godshill, but both were pretty much guaranteed to be a let down, for almost entirely opposite reasons.

The Lord’s game was needlessly overstaffed, and no one gave a monkey’s who won. The Godshill game was catastrophically understaffed, and we probably cared a little bit too much about who won.

The Lord’s game was ruined by Saeed Ajmal, the best ODI bowler in the world, with an inconvenient spell of 4-5, and Aaron Finch, one of the international game’s hottest young batsman, smashing 181*.

Ours was ruined by a complete and total absence of Saeed Ajmal for us, and imperious knocks of 159* and 90* from Coops and Chris for Godshill.

But in our game at least, no one broke anyone’s hand with a beamer, and no one called a former team mate an effing c-word. That kind of stuff is best left to the pros.

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Friday, 4 July 2014

Column 18, 2014 – Being an England cricket fan

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 90, Friday July 4, 2014.
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“Yes Jimmy! That’s it mate! C’mon!” I am perched on the very edge of the sofa. Hands clasped, elbows resting on knees that won’t stop jiggling. Jimmy Anderson has just blocked another ball, and is on the brink of the most incredible nought not out in the history of the universe.

This is what it’s like being an England cricket fan.

A day before I had turned away in disgust, unable to watch any more as innocuous medium pace tore through our top order like a dose of salts, leaving five wickets to bat out the last day. Surely it’d all be over before lunch. But it wasn’t. And suddenly, it’s thrilling.

This is what it’s like being an England cricket fan.

I got home in time to see Moeen Ali turn down run after run, protecting Jimmy from the strike, inching towards a maiden Test ton it looked like he was actively trying to avoid. He said afterwards “I had to fight myself a bit.” Yeah I bet you did Mo. And boy did you win that battle. “I’d rather have got 99 and the draw than a century and lose.” It’s easy to say stuff like that, but he said it with his bat. In his first Test series. What a prospect.

This is what it’s like being an England cricket fan.

Monday, England were dismal. Captaincy utterly devoid of ideas or imagination, and two of the best bowlers in the world suddenly, inexplicably, incapable of bowling a length ball. Not for an over or two – all day. We were beyond poor.

This is what it’s like being an England cricket fan.

And now Jimmy has faced 54 balls for his 0, and has just two to survive to pull off the most unlikely draw. This last hour has been epic, slowly becoming the most gripping, exhilarating cricket I’ve seen in years. They can’t do it, can they? Yes. They can. It’s going to happen. And then Jimmy gloves that brutally perfect Eranga lifter at his throat and it’s all over. No. They can’t.

This is what it’s like being an England cricket fan.

Since the rout down under there’s been a lot of talk about re-engaging with the fans. A lot of carefully briefed players parroting on about the honour of representing their country, how much they care, how much it means, how important it is to demonstrate their passion. A lot of words.

It’s a perfect irony that Jimmy’s post-match interview managed to convey all those sentiments so powerfully, precisely because he was unable to speak.

Fighting back tears, those 30 seconds with Mike Atherton had more emotional punch, more truth in them than a thousand corporate platitudes.

It took a selfless debutant and a seasoned pro with his soul bared, but amid the rubble of that game, there was a glimpse of a future worthy of the fans.

- ends 483 words -