WHO’S WINNING?

One recurring childhood memory of a typical summer’s day involves my father and I watching together, in silence, the first session of a Test match. It would be some time in the 1980s. In these memories it’s usually a beautiful summer’s day too, but in order to be able to see the screen at all – this being in the days of giant cathode ray tube televisions – all sunlight is firmly blocked behind shutters and curtain.

Eventually, approaching the lunch interval, one of my sisters would breeze in from a game of tennis or something and the first question was always the same: “Who’s winning?” My dad’s answer was always the same too. After letting out a resigned sigh, and pausing for effect, he would reply: “You can’t possibly know the answer to that question on the first morning of a Test match.”

Many things have changed since those days. Live Test cricket on the BBC disappeared long ago. TVs are rather less allergic to sunlight. England have not yet found a batsman quite so glorious to watch in full flow as David Gower (and imagine how good he would have looked in HD). But I digress. One thing, largely, has remained as it always was: we still have no real way of judging who is winning a match, especially in its early stages, other than through subjective opinion or through listening to what the pundits in the commentary box make of it all.

Many, perhaps most other popular sports play out in a way that makes secondary interpretation of events largely redundant. A scoreline which directly reflects the balance of power is the means by which football, rugby, golf, tennis, hockey, volleyball and so on are both conducted and eventually decided. In horse racing, cycling, athletics and rowing there is an extra degree of subtlety in that the eventual winner may not actually be in front until late in the race, and may not even want to be in front until its climax.

The same is partially true of cricket, although there are more layers of complexity to deal with. Without having certain facts to hand – for example, the quality of the bowling and the movement available in the air and off the pitch – it is extremely hard to know if 75-3 at lunch on the first day of a Test match is a good score or a sub-standard score. If you only have 20 seconds to check the score in a busy day of meetings, and don’t have time to absorb and interpret other factors, you are left yearning for something a little bit more.

Cricket is ready to advance from this point. Instead of having to read through a 400-word bulletin and then try to interpret from the raw facts presented whether your team has gained or squandered a slim advantage – and, let’s face it, some reporters posting snapshot copy online lack the experience and specialised knowledge to be able to offer even cursory analysis – the time has come to be given a scientific view on the match situation. And this is where CricViz has the opportunity to blaze a trail. Go back to that 20-second window I was describing earlier. If, instead of checking your phone for the score on cricinfo or BBC Sport you did the same on CricViz, then you would immediately be given extra information (in addition to the score) that gives you so much more. Win probability for each team, most likely final outcome, performance indicators and the degree of batting difficulty – are the four additional pieces of data which say so much more than 75-3 at lunch on day one.

Where the app has the scope to really come into its own is when a match ebbs and flows. As we know, the perceived strength of a team’s position, when batting, can be radically eroded by a flurry of wickets or boosted magnificently by one huge partnership. The fourth one-day international between England and Australia at Headingley last Saturday experienced some wild fluctuations. But the fascinating thing is that most of these pronounced swings of fortune were confined not to England’s chase, but to Australia’s own innings, after Steve Smith had won the toss and opted to bat first (a little surprisingly given an early start in September when bowling conditions are often very favourable).

That the Aussies managed to set a target of 300 was remarkable from an initial platform of 30-3 in the ninth over. Glen Maxwell was then dropped twice before producing a thrilling counter-punch of 85 from just 64 balls and suddenly a really huge score seemed possible. Back came England with a burst of momentum-checking wickets to leave it 215-7 in the 42nd over. Now, surely, Australia had to be set for a modest total. Not a bit of it. Australia’s number nine John Hastings provided muscular support for the free-wheeling Matthew Wade and there we had it – a final total of 299-7.

If this innings had been a historical stock-market index it would have lived through the Wall Street Crash, the dotcom bubble, Black Monday, you name it. Shrewd in-play bettors would have had great opportunities to establish strong positions on the hugely popular exchanges, and certainly CricViz would have enjoyed charting the violent pendulum swings in play and relaying its own interpretation of individual situations.

The potential is there for something radical and exciting. Stay tuned.

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