Against Narratives

People play games and people tell stories. The point in playing a game is to compete and win. The point in telling stories is to be entertained. Stories have narrative arcs. There are six basic arcs (1, 2) as Kurt Vonnegut (and several others, perhaps more seriously and less famously) theorized.

Well, there may or may not be six. I suspect there probably are six basic arcs. But the idea of the narrative arc is rampant in cricket. It is evident in the way we describe cricket matches, the way players present their careers in their memoirs. The work of the memoir is to take the professional life of a cricketer and turn it into an entertaining narrative which will gratify the reader and possibly trigger some memories. Emotional gratification is an essential feature of entertainment. It is enabled by stitching together highs and lows, with friends and foes, alliances and betrayals, schadenfreude and compassion, triumph and failure.

Narrative arcs typically require the existence of humdrum events and important events. They require failure and redemption. They require the hero to demonstrate that she can come good “when it matters”. Mattering is important to stories. We can be amused by how terrible the depictions of sport tends to be in fictionalized accounts of it (consider movies like Remember the Titans, Chak de! India, Lagaan, Miracle on Ice, The Pride of Yankees, Rocky, or the Bodyline TV series), but the depiction of cricket in a large portion of cricket writing, and indeed the popular picture of how cricket matches develop, has more in common that those films than one might suppose. At least in those movies, the sport is really just a prop in the narrative arc of the story. Movies tell stories. Match reviews and analyses claim to be about sport.

It is an inconvenient truth then, that sport in general and cricket in particular, do not lend themselves to narrative arcs. Look through the laws and rules of any sport and you won’t find provisions for inflection points, or high points or low points. Sports are of nominalist design. Any game is constituted by an arbitrarily defined, internally consistent set of rules which ensure that no action in a game is undefined. Each action is either legal or illegal, and its consequence is unambiguous. Further every action contributes to advancement of the state of the game, either by omission or commission.

Even in sports like Tennis which lend themselves to Simpson’s Paradox, it is not the case that some points are more important than others. It is easy to see why this is the case. At least 4 points have to be won to win a game. Every point which is contested gives each player an equal opportunity to win a point. In other words, there is no rule in Tennis which says that any one contested point is worth more than any other contested point. A point can only ever be won or lost. No point is more or less important or significant than any other. All points are exactly equally significant or important. You could say that 40-15 is game point while 30-15 is not, but a player wouldn’t arrive at 40-15 without winning three of the four previous points contested in that game. The game is won because four points have been won before the opponent has won more than two. The outcome of each contested point is exactly equally significant to this outcome. No single point contributes more or less than any other.

The narrative arc of such a game runs differently. In the narrative arc the game builds up to the climax of game point, and is won with a thrilling passing shot on this “big” point. The winner on game point is put on a higher pedestal than a winner earlier in the game. But that’s not a description of what happened in the game. It is not a description of what the players have been doing. Nor is it a faithful description of Tennis. Further, it is an obviously incorrect explanation of why one player won the game and the other player lost it (there can’t be ‘big’ points and ‘small’ points in a correct explanation, since the ‘big’ points come about because of outcomes on previous points which means that previous points should be at least as ‘big’). This narrative arc of the game uses Tennis as a prop in much the same way that Rocky used Boxing as a prop.

The players contest each point as if it is the only point. Because it is, in fact, the only thing they contest at that time. They make exactly equally significant decisions during each point, their muscle memory is in exactly equally in action during each point. The quality of those decisions and actions shapes the outcome of the point and consequently of the game and the match.

What appears as “mental” strength in the better players is really generally superior capability when it comes to seeing choices, making decisions and executing actions. Roger Federer was interviewed by David Remnick of The New Yorker magazine in 2019, and when Remnick put it to him that Federer might be mentally tougher than lesser players, Federer responded by saying that better players are better because they are better at more things.

This points to an essential distinction between narrative and descriptions. Narratives are about us and the familiar stories which we are comfortable with, while descriptions are about the game. It is much easier, both for the writer to write, and for the reader to read, about some mystical ‘toughness’, than it is to read and write descriptions of accumulated wide-ranging mastery. In the latter case one would have to describe all the things the player is good at, and all the circumstances which the player is faced with and show that the better player’s arsenal is more wide-ranging than the lesser player’s arsenal. It would take a lot of skill and technical know how for a writer to make this case in a readable fashion. Its much easier to call it “mental toughness” and sound a vaguely resonant note.

Consider the 125th over of the 4th innings of the Ashes Test at Headingley in 2019

Would have been overturned on DRS! Hitting middle and leg stump according to Hawk-Eye. Poor decision, you have to say, but Australia had wasted their last review in the previous over

124.6 Lyon to Stokes, no run; Goes for the slog-sweep, hit on the pads, Wilson shakes his head! Lyon can't believe it, Australia have no reviews! That looked a pretty good shout, pitching on middle and leg. Did it straighten enough?

124.5 Lyon to Stokes, no run; Missed run out! Leach is charging down, he's miles out of his ground as the throw comes in... but Lyon drops it! Can you believe it? Stokes reverse-swept, picked out backward point, but Leach was headlong down the pitch looking for a non-existent single

124.4 Lyon to Stokes, no run; Pushed through and cut firmly but can't get it through. The field comes up now... Two to win, two for immortality

124.3 Lyon to Stokes, SIX runs; Tossed up, and he goes down town... Hanging in the air... There's a man on the rope... Gets it over his head for six! Stokes wasn't sure, it wasn't out of the middle, he crouched, he watched - and then the crowd erupted!

124.2 Lyon to Stokes, no run; Pushed through quicker and he cuts, into a gap behind point but again turns down the single down the single

124.1 Lyon to Stokes, no run; Dragged down a touch outside off, Stokes slams a cut to the man on the boundary

Count the number of decisions makes by Stokes and Lyon alone in this over. On every ball, Lyon chooses a trajectory and Stokes chooses a response. Lyon executes his choice, and Stokes executes his. If any of those choices had been different, the outcome of that delivery, and therefore, of that over and the match, could have been different. Additionally, there are decisions made by the Australian captain Tim Paine, the decisions made by Jack Leach.

Every ball in that over was exactly equally significant to the outcome of the game.

Yet, such is the power of narrative, that few will remember much about this match other than Lyon failing to collect the throw on the 5th ball, and the LBW appeal on the 6th ball of this over. The overwhelming majority of significant choices and actions in even that one over will be lost forever.

The result at Headingley was a consequence of thousands of exactly equally significant choices and actions by 22 players over 1686 balls. These are exactly equally significant in the sense that if any one of them were different, the Test match would be different.

It follows from this idea that the most significant things which shape cricket matches are the choices and actions of the participants. The greatest players are the ones who see a wider array of choices than the average player, who exercise better judgment than the average player, and whose mastery over the execution of the chosen action is superior to that of the average player. The outcome of a cricket match is the accumulated outcome of all these choices and actions. This is what makes it possible to say that some players are better than others. It is because they are better at doing cricketing things than other players.

Narrative arcs depend on selecting choices, judgments, or actions based not on their significance, but on how bright and shiny they are. It is an exercise in confusing the obvious with the significant on an industrial scale. Consider that over by Lyon in the Headingley Test. What if Nathan Lyon had chosen the more attacking option of tossing the ball up consistently at Stokes, and tried to buy him out, instead off offering him only the odd tossed up delivery? Might England have won sooner? Might Stokes have been dismissed earlier? Lyon’s chosen approach was extremely significant to the way that last wicket stand progressed. It shaped every ball he bowled.

If important moments, or inflection points are defined by “if something else had happened at this point, then the outcome would have been different”, then this is equally true on each delivery in a cricket match. If we look into the list of all the things which happen - i.e. of all the choices which are available, all the judgments players make, and all the outcomes - in a cricket match, than narrative accounts cannot avoid missing the overwhelming majority of these. It does this by baselessly dismissing things which it does not even notice as unimportant.

This close attention to what’s happening on every delivery is essentially what the ‘data’ (or more accurately, record collection) people do. The models they use vary. That is to say, they count different things - usually outcomes like runs, balls, wickets, extras, line, length or speed - but sometimes, as in the case of ESPNCricinfo’s Control measure, something more subtle. But nevertheless, at least they count things which actually occur in the game systematically.

Narrative-mongering on the other hand involves the application of one of a small set (if you believe Kurt Vonnegut and studies of corpuses of novels - a set of size 6) of shop-worn story-lines to a game. This is much easier to do than painstakingly recording events on each ball and summarizing this record later. Amazingly though, it is often the narrative-mongering-set who accuse the record-collectors of ignoring the ‘context’ and the ‘situation’. This, it seems to me, is precisely backwards. Is it not the people who coolly ignore the vast majority of events in a cricket match, and coolly slot the few events they do commit to memory into ancient slots, who are ignoring the very situations they speak of?

To be fair to the narrative-mongers, until recently, it was difficult to get hold of the record and summarize it. Falling back on traditional narratives found in the popular culture and applying them wholesale to a Test team (for example, describing a batting innings in which a side falls to late seam movement against some of the world’s best bowlers as “spineless”), was both easy for the writer and familiar for the reader. But now the world is changing. Systematically collected records are ubiquitous. Ball-by-ball records of thousands of games are freely available in public databases. The actual record is becoming impossible to ignore. It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify narrative mongering.

What will writing about sport in which the detailed sporting record is a mandatory and defining presence look like? The honest answer is that we don’t know yet. But its only the people who attempt it who are likely to find out.

Vonnegut on Stories

Federer’s interview with Remnick