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    Ashes: Don't panic, England

    Thursday Dec 26, 2013

    Although Australia have played very well in the first three Tests of the return Ashes series, there can be no hiding the fact that England have been utterly dismal; brief periods of competitiveness have been interspersed among whole days of inadequacy. The natural reaction to such poor performance - in any sphere of human endeavour - is to identify those responsible, remove them from their positions and expect that their replacements will do better. A political party heavily defeated in an election may change its leader; the headteacher of a school judged to be failing is likely to be out of a job soon afterwards. Such replacements are often made on impulse - they will be taken as evidence that a determined effort is being made to improve, whereas leaving the same people in their positions will be construed to be treating the poor performance as acceptable. Thus it is in cricket too: whenever a team underperforms, the press and fans invariably demand that heads should roll.

    In the rush to make such decisions, though, important factors are overlooked: is the poor performance necessarily an indicator of terminal decline, or simply a temporary loss of form? Is there an obvious replacement, and is he likely to do better than the current occupant of the position? It is these questions which England need to consider before making drastic changes to the team.

    The number 11 who averaged 100

    Wednesday Oct 02, 2013

    Very few batsmen have averaged over 100 in a full English season; it requires an outstanding run of form to be maintained over the whole summer. Don Bradman missed out on his first two tours of England, before finally becoming the first to the milestone with 2429 runs on the 1938 tour, at an average of 115.66 - a record which still stands. Even Denis Compton, in his golden summer of 1947, scored his 3816 runs at an average of 'only' 90.85. Geoff Boycott achieved the feat in 1971 and repeated it in 1979, then Graham Gooch added his name to the list in the 'summer of the bat' in 1990. Mark Ramprakash, enjoying a renaissance after his move from Middlesex to Surrey, became the first to do it in two consecutive seasons (2006 and 2007); in 2012 Nick Compton came agonisingly close, finishing with an average of 99.60 when six more runs in his final innings would have been enough.

    Amongst those names there is one other, although he is sometimes relegated to a footnote if a minimum number of completed innings is used as the qualification for inclusion in the averages. Rather than an outstanding run of form, he was a beneficiary of the way averages have traditionally been calculated: runs per dismissal, not runs per innings. A batsman's average is increased if he has a large number of not out innings - and, sixty years ago, Bill Johnston, the regular number 11 for the Australian touring team, took this to its extreme: by only being out once all season.

    When 642 was not enough

    Tuesday Sep 10, 2013

    Some of the most dramatic turnarounds in cricket history have been orchestrated by the greatest names in the game on its biggest stage, changing the course of a Test series: Ian Botham's assault at Headingley turned the 1981 Ashes on its head, then twenty years later VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid ground Australia into the Kolkata dust as India won the series from 1-0 down and a first innings deficit of 274. Others, though, have taken place away for the limelight, been little noticed at the time and largely forgotten since. One of the most unlikely comebacks in a first-class match occurred towards the end of the 2004 English season, with no consequence beyond helping one team's push for promotion and consigning the other to a further season in the second division.

    When Glamorgan travelled to Chelmsford that September, they occupied third place in the division, but with three matches remaining, a win for the hosts would have given them a chance of snatching the promotion spot. The match started well for the visitors, with David Harrison bowling Will Jefferson in the opening over, but that was as good as things got for them on the first day. Andy Flower took advantage of being dropped twice early in his innings to add 122 with Paul Grayson for the second wicket, and after Grayson fell to Robert Croft for 57, Ronnie Irani joined Flower to put on a further 146 for the third. Simon Jones eventually dismissed Flower for 119 and added the wicket of Ravi Bopara soon afterwards, but Irani and James Foster continued to make hay for the rest of the day. At stumps Essex were 445/4, with Irani already well past a hundred and Foster in sight of his.

    The ICC's Elite Panel of umpires is a fine idea in theory: select the umpires for each Test from a list of twelve, each of whom has risen through the ranks to be appointed to that level, and who are continually monitored so a below par performance on the field may see them relegated from the panel, while others at lower levels have the opportunity to be promoted.

    In practice, however, it suffers from one major flaw: the requirement that neither of the two on-field umpires, nor the TV umpire, may be from either of the countries involved in the match. This would be less of a problem if the umpires on the panel were more evenly distributed around the Test-playing countries, so that only two or three of them would be barred from standing in a particular series. As it is, four of the twelve (Ian Gould, Nigel Llong, Richard Illingworth and Richard Kettleborough) are English, and another four (Bruce Oxenford, Rod Tucker, Steve Davis and Paul Reiffel) are Australian.

    Chris Martin bows out of international cricket, having held New Zealand's seam attack together for the decade following the retirement of Chris Cairns. Since making his debut against South Africa in 2000, Martin has picked up 233 Test wickets, while no other seamer from the country has managed even 100 over the same period.

    His achievements with the ball, however, were largely overshadowed by the facet of his game which endeared him to neutral fans the world over: his sheer ineptness with the bat. The sight of Martin walking to the crease was always a sign to opposing bowlers that an easy wicket was on the cards, and to the opening batsmen that they would soon be required to pad up. That he finished with an average as high as 2.36 was primarily due to remaining not out in exactly half his innings (his partners usually assumed that he wouldn't last long, so they might as well hit out while they could); he made 36 ducks, was left unbeaten on 0 a further 28 times, and reached double figures only once. He blamed his lack of ability on the fact that he'd always had to cycle to practice - thus missing out on the chance to learn to bat, because he couldn't fit the bat on his bike.

    Wisden called him "the man who came from two countries, and played for two others", and his career was certainly one of the more unusual in the annals of cricket history. John Traicos was born to Greek parents on May 17, 1947 in Zagazig, a town on the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo - better known for its ancient ruins than as a breeding ground for international cricketers.

    A year later his family moved to Rhodesia, at the time a partially autonomous British colony; although it had earlier voted against becoming a province of South Africa, it retained a team in the Currie Cup. He grew up following the South Africa side of the 1950s, with Jackie McGlew, Trevor Goddard, Peter Heine, Neil Adcock and Hugh Tayfield - but recalled putting his partisanship to one side to appreciate the performances of Richie Benaud on Australia's 1957-58 tour, when he averaged 55 with the bat including two centuries, and took 30 wickets at 22 apiece.

    An extension of Erdos and Bacon numbers is the combination of the two: a person's "Erdos-Bacon number" is the sum of their Erdos number and Bacon number. To possess a finite such a number, the individual in question must have both a chain of research papers linking them to Erdos, and a chain of films linking them to Bacon; numerous scientists and mathematicians have appeared in films, and a handful of actors have collaborated on scientific papers, so there are quite a number of people with both.

    What about Bacon-Tendulkar numbers? Plenty of cricketers have appeared in films, so there are likely to be some with both numbers defined. For a start, Tendulkar himself appeared in Stumped (2003) alongside Alyy Khan, who appeared in A Mighty Heart (2007) alongside Demetri Goritsas, who appeared in X-Men: First Class (2011) alongside Kevin Bacon. Thus Tendulkar's Bacon number is 3, and since his Tendulkar number is 0 by definition, he has a Bacon-Tendulkar number of 3. Since Kevin Bacon is not known to have played cricket, the only way anyone could achieve a lower number would be to act with Bacon and play with Tendulkar; no-one has yet managed both, so Tendulkar's 3 appears to be the lowest such number of anyone.

    Given a group of people, some of whom are connected in a particular way, a natural question to ask is: how many links does it take to connect any person to any other, or to a specified 'base' person? Mathematics has the "Erdos number": someone has an Erdos number of 1 if they co-wrote a research paper with Paul Erdos, 2 if they didn't write one with Erdos but did write one with someone else who wrote one with him, and so on.

    Cinema has the similarly defined "Bacon number": someone with a Bacon number of 1 appeared in a film alongside Kevin Bacon, someone with a Bacon number of 2 appeared alongside someone who appeared alongside Bacon. What if we consider a similar concept for cricket? Erdos and Bacon were chosen as the 'base' individuals for their respective disciplines because they had a large number of connections: Erdos had more co-authors than any other mathematician in history, and Bacon a similarly high number of co-actors - so it makes sense for the 'base' individual in cricket to be the one who has played either with or against more players than anyone else in the history of international matches; unsurprisingly, this is Sachin Tendulkar.