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On the uncertainty of sport

The Ashes, for the benefit of cricket infidels, is the name given to the more than a century long cricketing rivalry between England and Australia. Whoever won the last series has them. And today, an Ashes Marathon begins, in the form of no less than ten five day international cricket matches between England and Australia in the space of less than a year. In order to get the Ashes to stop clashing with the Cricket World Cup, or something, there will be a five match Ashes series here in England, and then straight after that another five match Ashes series in Australia.

England now have the Ashes and all the smart talk says that on paper they are by far the stronger side, and will still have the Ashes in a year’s time.

But sport is not played on paper. I remember as a child being utterly bewildered when Australia defeated, by the sickening margin of four games to nothing, an England cricket touring team containing batsmen May, Cowdrey, Graveney and Dexter, and (get this) bowlers Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Laker and Lock. To many Samizdata readers, those names will only be names, but believe me, those are names. You want paper? The paper they wrote that team on was paper all right. Yet England, on the actual pitches, were hammered. (Also hammered rather too much off the pitches, from what I have since read.) I learned the lesson good and early that with sport, you never know.

Consider that final British Lions v Australia rugby union game, last Saturday (highlights here – don’t click if you don’t want noise). Michael Jennings and I and a couple of mates watched it in a pub in Southwark, with me getting there about fifteen seconds before the kick-off, which was just as well because the Lions, having scored no tries at all in the previous game, scored their first try of this game in hardly more than a minute. We all then sagely agreed that going down in a game very early can be an advantage, because you then have to forget your nerves and really play, and often you do, with the resulting momentum sweeping you to a big win. Australia will be back, we said.

At first we were wrong, as the Lions opened up an amazing 19-3 lead. But although the Australian backs were operating behind a losing scrum they still looked dangerous, and Australia scored thirteen unanswered points either side of half time. Who was to say they wouldn’t carry on scoring? We all then expected a game just like the previous two, of the sort that would be settled by whoever kicked their penalty kicks in the final few minutes coming out one or two points ahead, in a series that could easily have gone either way, 3-0 in either direction if just a few kicks had fallen just a bit more this way or that way.

So, Lions only 3 points up, and from having been unstoppable suddenly looking very vulnerable, with about half an hour to go. What then happened? What happened was that the Lions backs suddenly sprang to life and scored three dashing tries, sweeping the Lions to victory by the mind-boggling margin of 25 points. Who saw that coming? Not me. Not Michael, or the two other blokes. In retrospect, that most flawless of observational procedures, it was all inevitable, given the scrum advantage the Lions had established. But at the time, it was astonishing.

Or consider Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win the following afternoon. No less a personage than former champion Boris Becker, commentating for the BBC, said that the one score-line he had really not been expecting was three sets to nil. He didn’t think either player would let that happen. Yet Djokovic, famously a man who is never beaten until truly beaten, did. Murray, who had come back from two sets down in an earlier round and who lost the first set of his semi-final, did not, come the final, lose a single set. What odds could you have got beforehand against that happening?

I am sure that there is some suitably Samizdata-ish moral to append to the above, about how the uncertainty of sport mirrors the uncertainty of life itself, and that the uncertainty of life proves the necessity for the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Well, that will have to be it. I have a cricket match to attend to.

England have won the toss, and will bat.

17 comments to On the uncertainty of sport

  • Okay, here’s a quick cricket related joke for you.

    What’s the definition of an optimist?

    An Aussie batsman who puts on sun-cream before going out to bat…

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Already England are on the back foot, with 3 wickets already gone, just after lunch.

    The adventurous thing to do would have been to put Australia in, to exploit the weather, cloudy today, perfect for the likes of Jimmy A, but due to be back sunny again for the rest of the game.

    England seem to be less impressed by short term weather forecasts than I am.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Four down. Cook, Pietersen, Trott, all gone.

    See what I mean?

  • RAB

    Halfpenny for your thoughts on the British Lions victory chaps? 🙂

  • Dave Walker

    Mmm; last I knew, whoever has the Ashes, has a replica – the original urn being considered too fragile to leave the Long Room at Lords :-).

    In addition to the to-and-fro flow of plays, there’s arguably greater uncertainty in Cricket and Tennis than Rugby. While Rugby matches are decided purely on absolute accumulation of points, Cricket and Tennis, being split into Innings and Games + Sets respectively, have scoring systems where it’s possible to score more total points than your opponent in a match, and still lose. Tennis in particular, is very strange on this front; matches were originally “first to 60 points, or more with a clear margin of 2”. If the maths of the most extreme match is worked out, I’ve calculated that it’s possible for a bloke to lose a tennis match with a points score of 183 to the winner’s 105…

  • What I really found remarkable about that Wimbledon final was that Djokovic managed to go up a service break in each of the second and third sets, and then lose both sets. In neither case did the set even go to a tie-break – Murray just powered back after going down. I wouldn’t have thought Djokovic would lose either set like that from where he was, but he did.

    England are now all out for 215 and Australia 27/3. Who knows where this is now going. On the other hand, I have been saying that Australia’s best hope comes from the fact that their seam bowling is excellent (and not everyone was giving them proper credit for this) while their batting is suspect. Play so far today might have just confirmed all this.

  • Mr Ed

    For most of my lifetime, no English team has eaten omelettes, as you could never be certain that they could beat eggs.

  • veryretired

    For some unknown reason, I find the posts about cricket very charming and oh so very English.

    I just wish I had the slightest clue about what you’re talking about…

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I like the comment of an Indian sage, who said that the British invented Cricket so they would know what God meant by eternity.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    If England won the toss, does that mean they are good tossers? And don’t Scotland and Wales play cricket?

  • Regional

    The Straya batsman are valiantly trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  • Regional

    Very Retired,
    That’d make you a unique person.

  • Mr Ed

    Nick, there is a Welsh county team, Glamorgan, who play first class cricket (their position in the new-fangled league I canot recall), but as a national team, Wales is not a force, and the Scots do not have a cricket tradition of note.

    However, there is a European Cricket Championship on this week, involving even Gibraltar. They play Guernsey at Horsham, West Sussex at 2.30 pm today.

  • The one thing that I do find amazing is how much improved British sports are compared to the rest of the world and how bad they used to be in the 1970s/80s. The English cricket team is now #1 or #2 in pretty much every variety of the game. The rugby is way better, last year’s olympics was astouding for the number of team GB medals, we currently have the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and so on. I suspect this is due to National Lottery sports funding but I’m not sure. It does however leave me slightly amazed. Fortunately if I want to be depressed I can always watch the football (soccer) teams

  • wobbly

    If the Brits had national lottery funded PEDs it would explain something, although you’d have thought it would help with the soccer teams too. Maybe it’s an opiate of the masses thing, keeping the proles from agitating about jobs.

  • Ian Bennett

    Ah, yes; cricket. Ten minutes of excitement crammed into five days.

  • Rich Rostrom

    If form always held, sport would be boring.

    The one sport where form seems to hold most of the time is tennis. There have been dominant #1 players who had long streaks of never losing a match. Navratilova in her time, IIRC. (IANA tennis fan.)

    I don’t know much about competitive cricket (records and standings and such). I do follow baseball very closely, and baseball and cricket are variants of the same root game. In baseball, form definitely does not hold. The best MLB teams win 60% of their games, the worst win 40%. In the last 8 seasons, only 6 teams (of 300) have broken .600, and only 16 have been under .400; the best record was .636, and the worst .340. I suspect that cricket has a similar spread.