How cricket captains make good decisions

“Down comes out off-break again” “and the batsman hooks it hard and high over those short-leg fieldsmen” “But not over deep-square-leg” Even if we ignore terms like silly-mid-on, LBW, and googly one has to admit that Test match cricket is…well, unique And while some may find a sport
that takes up to five days to complete arduous for those who love the game it
is full of drama It is not just talent that determines of the outcome of the game But also the type and condition of the pitch the weather… and even the make of the ball So in a game where there are so many factors making the right decision at the right time seems difficult but it’s often the difference
between winning and losing We asked Jonathan Conner a specialist in skills acquisition with Cricket Australia to help explain how captains, bowlers and batsmen make good decisions As a researcher, using sport as like
a vehicle to investigate complex perceptual motor decision-making in humans it’s just incredible Just the fact that we’re able to take people who have (been) practising their sport for five, 10, 15 years and then investigate what it is that practice has done to them… whether it’s neurologically, or even their their coordination patterns to understand what it is that separates those who become experts international level players and those who don’t Cricket is a game where batsman and bowlers usually take centre stage but it’s the captains who have the most influence constantly making decisions that could change the game In terms of the mindset of captains it often depends on the circumstances of the game The captain and the coach will always have an ultimate goal that they’re trying to achieve whether it be dismissing a team
for a certain amount of runs or perhaps… if the opposition is in a really
dominant opposition it may just be limiting the number of runs that they score So often what we see with Test match cricket is… teams always trying to adapt to one another so different time periods of the game you’ll often see different strategies
employed And this requires the captain to be especially attuned to the situation of the game The captain has to judge… what he might think the batter is thinking the position of the game… the pitch conditions, the ball Sort of judging who has the momentum, who is on top And ultimately what their goal is Whether it’s to take wickets early or limit the scoring run rate One of the first decisions captains have to make is to choose whether to bat or ball first if they win the toss And this will mainly depend on the pitch Each pitch has its own unique characteristics And almost has a reputation for what the
ball might do on that particular surface So often captains and coaches will have
a pretty good idea of what to expect But of the day of the game they’ll often inspect the pitch and basically make a decision as to… whether they’re going to bat or bowl first And what they’re probably often looking for is… how much moisture is in the pitch how many cracks are appearing and, probably pretty importantly, where those cracks might appear One thing in Australia, we are quite well known for is… that it is usually faster and bouncier while the bowlers may have the advantage very early on in the day when the ball is new and the the pitch is nice and green and soft towards the back end of the day and day two you’d expect that the pitch gets a bit
drier and a bit harder and will ultimately be an advantage for the batting team at the time Which is why captains usually like to bat first Since the first Test between England and Australia in 1877 teams have chosen to bat first about 70% of the time But results from more than 2,000 Test
matches indicate no decisive advantage with the chance of winning losing and
drawing the game about the same whether the team’s bat first or second The choices made by the fielding captain will have more influence on the game than the toss of the coin Fielding captains you know at the start of a game often thinking quite strategically in terms of being very attacking in their
mindset So you can imagine at the start of the game with new batters coming in they are not acclimatised or accustomed or attuned to the surface, the opposition
bowlers So they’re probably at their most vulnerable Hence, why fielding captains would look to set the most attacking fields Now, this might look like large gaps in certain areas to encourage the batter to play quite
expansive shots (You) could have anywhere between three to four slips and the cover region is often left without too many fielders And that’s to encourage some vertical bat shots that are often quite risky early on in the innings The other one is the leg side Often captains will leave that area uncovered so batters can play across the line of the ball which is also quite at high risk early on As the game rolls on the captain will employ different attacking methods Often the ball will become a bit older and perhaps be swinging a little bit less so the captain might employ some spin bowlers or even part-time bowlers the batter is not quite accustomed to Another important decision for the captain is to choose when to take the new ball which the fielding team can do after 80 overs in most circumstances this opportunity will be taken But captains might delay taking the new
ball if the old one is causing issues for the batsmen There have been some uncommon scenarios where the fielding team might opt to stay with the older ball this might happen when the ball is reverse swinging or the spin bowlers are able to… collect a lot of, essentially, spin and dip Often, if they do it’ll only be for a limited number of overs before taking the new ball The number of decisions captains have to make does not end there Test match cricket is a game where players need to constantly adapt and change their game plan And while we often hear the term ‘natural talent’ used by commentators the ability to perform and make good decisions under pressure actually comes from practice and experience One of the really crucial things about
decision-making is that… no one is born to become an expert It takes years of practice and dedication highly motivated individuals who are resilient to non-selection and other challenges that all athletes eventually face Often we talk about the game is the best teacher… for captains and for players
learning to make decisions and learning from their mistakes When we talk about the number of hours players have practiced… you might have some players who achieve international level after accumulating four to six thousand hours of practice while others might take the you know 10,000 hour rule that was often sprouted by Gladwell in his
book Outliers So the idea that overall practice hours is what makes an expert is certainly not something we sort of believe in What we really advocate for is quality practice to develop those sort of decision-making
skills in both captains and players But getting access to quality practice and
coaching might not be as straightforward as one might think If you can imagine any talent biases that exist at a junior level just get amplified So the biggest one being that we’re finding that kids who are considered all-arounders are more likely to make teams So let’s say they don’t do too well at batting but they’re bowling is quite well they’ll get selected then they get more coaching, more resources… more opportunities and essentially leave behind those that sort of don’t get selected but one thing we are finding especially with something called the relative age effect which is where we have a propensity as talent selectors to pick kids who are born in the first three to six months of the year and not select those born in the last three
months of the year Once we get to state level what we find is that there’s a an evening out So those born in the last three months of the year still make it into our state domestic system and those abundant first quartile born players are the ones that are more likely to get cut and not make it to the top level Being born in the last three months of the year… constantly having adversity, facing
challenges playing against people older than yourself helps you to, sort of, make it to the top

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