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Luck and How To Find It

Ben Jones analyses a day in Southampton when good fortune, and bad fortune, was as evident as ever.

The coin was tossed, Azhar Ali called correctly. “We’ll have a bat”. The luck was with Pakistan. 

Abid Ali did not have it easy in his innings. The ball was hooping around, the skies low and heavy with rain. It was a bowling day. After losing the toss, the luck had swung England’s way.

In his journey to 50, Abid Ali had played a false shot to 35% of the deliveries of the balls bowled to him. That’s the 13th highest false shot percentage for a Test fifty in the last decade. He was playing with risk, unable to soak up the pressure that England were putting on him, succumbing to the onslaught of almost offensively stereotypical British weather.

Across this series so far, 31% of Abid’s deliveries have been met with a miss or an edge, the highest for any top order batsman. On route to today’s half-century, he was dropped twice, once off Stuart Broad, once off Chris Woakes, each a meaty to the heart of the cordon spilled in a haphazard, faintly comic manner. Whilst his blow to a very delicate area may have suggested otherwise, for Abid to survive as long as he did, to get through the initial swamp of edges and chances, the luck had to be with him, and it had to be with Pakistan. 

James Anderson ran in hard, all day. His average speed in this Test – 84.5mph – was higher than any other home Test since 2014, legs pumping hard with the anger of the last week, of a week spent telling the world he wasn’t ready to sign himself into retirement. 

His Expected Average this summer (before today) was 24.7, while his actual average stood at 41.16; a rain-interrupted day later, and they’ve fallen to 24.0 and 35.25 respectively. It still has some work to do, before it settles down, but Anderson’s average was making its journey towards it rightful spot. At Manchester, no frontline bowler had a higher false shot percentage than Anderson, but none took fewer wickets. The luck – of play and misses, of dropped catches – comes back around eventually. The luck was with him, and with England.

Those dropped catches didn’t help things for England. Since the start of 2018, they have caught 73% of the chances that came their way in the slips, the second worst of any side. Over a long period, they’ve been poor at slipping. Yet before today, this summer they had caught 81% of their chances in the cordon. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley maybe have felt the flight of the ball was the main issue, but it was the the trajectory of England’s catching that caused the problem. After a brief period of decent catching, they were simply regressing to the mean, and that mean is not very good. Luck, or something similar, had left the hosts behind.

Fawad Alam was dismissed LBW by Chris Woakes, as England successfully overturned a Not Out decision. The ball pitched 0.11m – 11cm, to you and I – from the middle of the middle stump. That’s less than 1cm from the safety of Umpire’s Call, the orange glow that saves the on field umpire from embarrassment, from scrutiny. After 11 years without a Test appearance, he was undone by a handful of millimetres, the sort of minutiae you just shrug and accept. Don’t sweat the small stuff; but the luck was with England. 

The weather swept through the day, an unwelcome guest choosing when and when not to intervene, to dictate the conversation and bend the day. The balance of play, the ‘momentum’ at any given moment, at the moments when the rain and darkness forced the players from the middle, is purely random, a matter of luck alone. In the first, uninterrupted passage of the day – up until the longest rain delay – Pakistan played 27% false shots, and in that 34 over period were 85-2. In the shorter, final session of the day, Pakistan played 28% false shots, but were 41-3 from 13 overs. The pressure didn’t always tell at the time it was being applied, but it told. Luck blew from one side of the Rose Bowl to the other like the winds that brought the rain.

In sport, luck is just a waiting game. In life, it’s a concoction of wealth, privilege and circumstance, but on a cricket field it’s a case of waiting for Fortune’s Wheel to right itself – and trying to stick around long enough to see the benefit when it does.

Before today, Anderson was still left waiting for the wheel to turn, but as he so often does, he lasted long enough. Abid did, and then he didn’t. Stuart Broad will. Fawad Alam might not.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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