Ben Jones analyses a day of mixed fortunes.
“You make your own luck”.
“I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”
“The more I practice, the luckier I get”.
There are lots of quotes about luck. They’re mostly nonsense.
Today was a strange day in Leeds. The opening two sessions of this third Test match – the morning and afternoon, effectively rolled into one rain interrupted block – were brief affairs, conducted with umbrellas at half-mast and the atmosphere similarly confused.
Having opted to bowl first, under grey clouds that could have kept Turner busy for a summer or two, England did everything they are constantly being told to. Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, English seamers at opposing ends of their careers, ensured that they weren’t going to suffer from not pitching it up.
In those two initial curtailed sessions, they pitched up 55% of their deliveries; never in the entire CricViz database have England ever bowled fuller in the first two sessions of a Test match. “Bowl fuller, and the ball takes the edge and doesn’t pass the bat” – the battle cry of the ex-professional, but tell that to England’s opening duo. They won’t react kindly, you’d think. In those two sessions, 26% of England’s deliveries missed the bat; 9% caught the edge.
Edges from Marcus Harris and Usman Khawaja brought a wicket in each of those shortened passages, but otherwise, nothing was doing. England’s luck was out.
David Warner played a false shot to 53% of the deliveries he faced in his first 30 balls – never before has he been less in control at the start of an innings. This is a man who darts, who dashes, wants to take on the opposition and put them under pressure. He’s never looked riskier, never closer to dismissal.
It was a fever which spread to the team as a whole. In the first 25 overs of play today, Australia played 34% false shots; more often than twice an over, Tim Paine’s batsmen weren’t in control of their shots. Since records began in 2006, Australia have batted in 259 Test innings; only three times have they played more false shots at this stage. In those innings Australia were bowled out for 60, 47, and 88, in performances which to varying degrees precipitated fundamental change in Australian cricket.
According to our Expected Wickets model, the deliveries England bowled in those opening two “sessions” would normally have taken 2.67 wickets, but only two came. All those misses, all those edges, were failing to translate themselves to actual ink in the scorebook.
Essentially, we were all witness to the sort of performances which sees Aussie captains placed on notice, Dukes balls introduced to Shield cricket, values questioned. Except, well, Australia weren’t losing wickets.
There’s a reason that Fortuna has always been linked with the wheel. Sometimes you’re on top, and sometimes you’re at the bottom, but you always come round to the other side. The point is, luck swirls. It’s a mischievous, disloyal companion that arrives, dictates your life and carries you along on a wave then deserts you. If you build your success on its presence, your success won’t last long.
There were no wickets from the first 46 plays and misses today. Then, all of a sudden, there were two from the next three.
According to our model, Stuart Broad’s dismissal of Travis Head was almost unavoidable. It had a 12.3% chance of taking a wicket, making it the most threatening ball of the day; 137kph, seaming a remarkable 2.1° off the pitch, clipping the top of off, an absolute jaffa and just the sixth ball Head faced.
And yet even in this moment of clear, obvious bowling quality, there’s luck lurking in the background. Had David Warner, or any well-set batsman faced that same delivery, it may have been met with a straight bat, led to nothing, and we all decry the misfortune of another English bowler.
Matthew Wade didn’t deserve to get out, really. He defended adequately, only for the ball to bounce around, searching for the stumps until it eventually found it’s target. He was unlucky, the victim of a turning tide.
In the morning/afternoon session, we saw a wicket every 19 false shots. England were floundering, cursing their luck as the edges didn’t carry, the misses not even getting that far. That was their bad luck in its rawest terms, and then, as it always does, it turned. In the evening session, we saw one every six false shots. England were on top.
Ben Stokes’ junk full toss to Labuschagne had a 1.3% chance of taking a wicket. That’s nothing, and yet it dismissed the best batsman of the day, an undeserving dismissal in fading light.
Yet Stokes’ Expected Wickets figure today was 1.06. He has, cumulatively across his day, done enough to have a tally in that wickets column. His work, across a period of time, deserved reward. Such is luck.
According to our model, England should have taken about four wickets in the extended evening session. They took eight. By stumps, England were outperforming Expected Wickets. The pendulum had swung, and Australia had been hard done by.
Since the data has been recorded, there have been 531 Tests and in only eight of them has Day One seen a higher percentage of false shots. It’s a reasonable reflection of the day that Australia were bowled out. In this sense, justice was done, but only as part of a larger chunk of time; for England, the passage where Australia fell apart was in large part the result of good fortune.
Whether luck evens out is more a philosophical question than a purely mathematical one. Statisticians have put forward very convincing arguments that it doesn’t, that luck flows the way of the rich and the powerful just as it does in “real” life. It feels cold, and hard, and true. But there’s a romantic alternative, an alternative philosophical path, which we can take together.
We aren’t in control of our lives, you know. Everything that happens, each of our actions, is in constant conversation with a thousand other things, simultaneously, impacting silently on every single other thing. Some of those things we can see, but most of them we can’t. Some people explain it with religion, some with politics, but in sport we tend to call it luck.
The only quote about luck worth listening to is one from the English author EM Forster. He said, “There is much good luck in the world, but it is luck. We are none of us safe. We are children, playing or quarrelling on the line.” We stand, take our portion of fortune when we reach the front of the queue then go about our lives. Today Australia feasted, then succumbed to famine; England, the inverse. It’s the ebb and flow of Test cricket; the ebb and flow of sport; the ebb and flow of life.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.