Tag Archives: Cricket

England’s World Cup Failure: A nerd explains why all the pundits are wrong

worldcupfootballEvery time I hear another pundit explaining their theory behind England’s failure at the world cup I get all hot and bothered. My wife could literally not care less about football or my feelings on the subject, so I thought I would share my them with you ūüėČ

You see, it seems that football does not benefit, as cricket and baseball do, from that important type of pundit, the statistician.

For if they did, they would realise that failing to make it into the last 16 this year is not a failure at all.

Why? Because we have to remember that there are, at time of writing, 209 national men’s teams registered with FIFA – and that FIFA estimates that 250 million people play the beautiful game. So just getting to the finals is a real achievement.

On the other hand you can argue that England should be in the top flight – it has a decent population, it has money to spend and many aspirational heroes.

Well.. it does do well, currently, England is ranked 10th in the world, and has often been higher. But does that mean it should always reach the last 16 of the world cup? No.

Take a step back. Even with so many teams, that world ranking should mean a team like England should make it ‘usually’, but certainly not always. Indeed, it has made the last 16 every time since 1958, indeed it’s a surprise to me that they have run so long without missing out.

It has always been known that football has a ‘luck factor’ indeed this is one of its best features – upsets happen – and that is why the league has a round-robin design, and also why some tournaments are done by knockout – the league aims to find the best teams, tournaments aim to find the best moments.

England did not play badly this world cup. The goals conceded were really pretty darn good, and England had more shots on goal than their opponents. But for the rub of the green, they could have been through and lauded by all. So how can the pundits have such strong opinions?

Easy. Because it’s their job to sound like they know.


So how have teams like Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands managed to spend so much time in the top 3? If it was all luck, they would not. Well, this means that there are actually recipes for better performance, elusive but real…

However, just as the government would hate for you realise they do not control the economy, football pundits and administrators alike would not like you to know (or indeed to know themselves) that this recipe is largely outside of their control – the biggest factors being: population size, other games to play, weather, virtuous circles (inspiration, promise of fame, etc) and last but certainly not least, luck.

Winning the toss

WARNING: Please do not even try to read this unless you are cricket fan. If you are not it will only irritate you ūüėČ thx.


Test Cricket: Australia vs. South Africa: 6 tosses to ZERO, nada, nought. Time for a change in the rules.

by Jarrod Hart


Winning the toss in cricket can be a very significant advantage, and lead to unfairness. Let me explain…

Firstly, I am going to admit that I am an avid cricket fan. And being a nerd too, this makes me doubly susceptible to a love affair with sports statistics.

I probably learnt most of my maths skills working out how many runs Graeme Pollock required to improve his season’s average, or calculating the run rate¬†required¬†by Clive Rice’s Transvaal team to win the Benson & Hedges night series final at the Wanderers.

So what is my problem with the toss?

In many sports there are environmental factors that skew the game – the sun shining in your eye when you serve, the dew on the putting green, the wind behind Jonny Wilkinson, and so on.

A cricket pitch is no different. Being composed of sand and grass, it is not wholly predictable – it is also prone to evolve over time.

It can therefore be a big advantage to bat first, or perhaps to bat second. The skilled captain can often tell what the pitch will do from looking at it. To make things fair, a coin toss is used to see who gets to choose who goes first. Fine. Over the course of years, all teams will win some and lose some.¬†However, with test matches taking five days each, the teams only play each other once every few years, so the ‘fairness’ may take a generation to arrive.¬†

The stats are clear. Winning the toss helps. Get the latest stats from wikipedia; at the time of writing 34.7% of toss winners had won the match. 30.8% of toss losers had won. The remainder draw/tie.

Some people will still say, oh, that’s not too big an effect, less than, say, the home advantage in football. Yes the numbers aren’t too dramatic, but what no-one seems to be pointing out is that that 3.9% difference is actually coming from a somewhat bigger difference in a smaller subset of the matches.

For example, many cricket tests are one-sided. That is to say, the favourite wins. In cricket upsets are fairly rare (rarer than in football for example). Draws yes, but complete reversals are not that common. This means that there have been lots of outclassed teams winning the toss (statistically, even the most outclassed team win the toss half the time). They have of course, mostly lost.

Secondly, there have been matches where the pitch really was constant. That is to say the toss didn’t help.

So we are left only with the matches between evenly matched teams on pitches that change. The 3.9% positive toss effect must be a stronger effect coming from this subset of the results.

I also have anecdotal evidence (all scientists, wince now). I have often watched a match, where the first team has scored 600 of a flat pitch, and then seen the second team face a ball that suddenly stays low or cuts around. We have recently seen some almighty thrashings, some by an innings plus. These by teams that were, just before the match, considered fairly equal.

Now we come to the present time. The #1 and #2 teams in the world have been locked in battle for several months. I am of course referring to the ongoing test series between South Africa and Australia. And Australia have just won their sixth toss in a row. They have won the last three matches, on ‘evolving’ pitches, and of course I am bitter, of course I am looking for excuses. But I am rational enough to see unfairness when it strikes.

I was not going to write about it. I knew it would come over as whining. Until a friend pointed out a simple solution: they could have one toss at the start of the series and then alternate the choices for the remaining tests, thereby preventing one team heaping the unfairness too high.

Today’s sixth win in a row for Australia was too much. We need a change in the rules. The South Africans have lost their #1 ranking to the toss, and it stinks.

The last 6 tests:

Test no. 1899 Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)

Test no. 1902  Toss won by Australia, match by SA (In Australia)

Test no. 1904  Toss won by Australia, match by Australia  (In Australia)

Test no. 1910 Toss won by Australia,  match by Australia (In SA)

Test no. 1913  Toss won by Australia,  match by Australia (In SA)

Test no. 1916 Yes, Toss won by Australia,  match ongoing (In SA)

Foot-note: Being a cricket stats nerd, it was of course sad news to hear that Bill Frindall, a peerless cricket analyst had died. He acted as the eye of a the nerd-storm that has been raging for years, about which most of the world was blissfully unaware. His death has left us all without bearing, little squalls in the night. ¬†CricInfo is not not quite the same. Yes, it’s rammed full of passionate staff, many of whom are nerds and scholars of the game, but it seems to lack the Frindall touch. I ask you this: who will care about this problem with the toss in this new world order? Bill would have.