Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Defensiveness

So, England have scraped a draw with one wicket left, after batting the entire last day with no intention whatsoever of going for the win. It's a result that will no doubt have non-cricket lovers puzzled at why anyone should care. To them, I imagine it is proof of everything that is worst in the sport. Five days and still no result.

There is a reason for it, which is that in Test cricket, the players on opposing sides aren't competing over the same thing in the way they are in many other sports. The batting side is trying to get as many runs as possible, but rather than trying primarily to restrict them, the fielding side is trying to get them out. If a side prevents its opponents from meeting their objectives, but do not meet their own, then a draw seems the only just result. It is victory through success, not by default.

It seems like a strange thing, yet in so many other sports, defensiveness and not giving anything away has become the route to success. I watched the judo and the wrestling at the Olympics, and in both cases the stalling game predominated, presumably because those who take risks in those sports lose more often. In rugby, I recall reading a book on the game that emphasised that the try was actually not the main priority, because too many things had to go right at once for it to happen. Get into position, it argued, don't give anything away, take the penalties and the kicks. Even in baseball (and American sports are ostensiably obsessed with action) a quick read through Moneyball suggests that the ability to attract walks through the opponent's mistakes is the batter's currency, not just home runs.

Why am I thinking about this in general? Because it affects the two sports I play most to such an extent, and because there is a more complex relationship going on in them between attack and defence. When it comes to BJJ/submission grappling, matches again seem to degenerate into long fights over the grips and slow, grinding games, simply because one mistake means you've lost. The emphasis is on never making that mistake, never giving any room for your opponent to win. The same could broadly be said to be true of epee fencing, where bouts frequently lose periods to 'feeling out' and stalling.

Yet good submission grapplers are also unfeasibly agressive when they see an opportunity, and we do occasionally see the spectacular. Sabre fencing, meanwhile, where a purely defensive parrying approach simply doesn't work often enough to be successful, is at the other extreme of agression, most fights generally starting with at least a couple of double hits in a row (where both people hit each other simultaneously, ignoring their defence).

Why? In sabre's case, I think it's linked directly to making defence more difficult, to such an extent that I now believe sabre is quite unbalanced as a weapon. In grappling's case, I think it's linked to the idea of being able to win with just one successful submission. I think it's also about the extent to which you're able to force someone into the game you want in these sports.

Meanwhile, of course, Stuart Broad is still out there, surviving seventy odd balls for ten runs...

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