‘Old Urn’ Itself Could Alter Aussie Ashes Tactics

The oldest prize in Test cricket is once again up for grabs. Commencing earlier today, Australia is taking on England away from its own backyard in an attempt to regain the Ashes. Michael Clarke’s men have shown transparently that this one is the series they have the greatest desire to win, despite the old urn’s grossly underwhelming aesthetic stature.

Following its creation as the spoils of victory in series between these combatants in 1882 (though curiously never designated as such formally), its place in the sport as a bilateral trophy (one that can be won only by either of two teams) was unique for almost 80 years.

This changed only during the remarkable 1960/61 West Indies tour in Australia, which was capped with the minting of the Frank Worrell Trophy, to be contested thereafter between those teams. There has more recently been a real proliferation of these trophies, especially since the mid-1990s.

Currently, with 10 Test playing nations involved in World cricket, there are consequently 45 bilateral sets of opponents, and a total of 11 different bilateral trophies (effective since 2008) are now actively played for periodically, with Australia being the ‘worst offenders’, playing for 6 such trophies out of its 9 Test rivals.

Cricket fans – please feel free to disagree, but one’s personal view is that with the Ashes an obvious exception (given its history), many of these other bilateral trophies are surplus to one’s interest above and beyond the simple significance of the Test series and its ultimate result, and often play a role of little more than a shameless gimmick, and a diminution of the actual cricket.

Nonetheless, in any individual Test series, the simple tactical objective is generally to win the series, and if that becomes mathematically impossible or even improbable, a series draw is still better than a loss.

A complicating factor in cricket, however, is that there is no universal consensus – the ICC ranking system aside – on the value of a draw relative to a loss, unlike other sports where league points make this explicit (one-half in many sports, one-third in modern soccer). The existence of a trophy, assuming that ‘holding’ it really matters to players and fans, muddies the tactical waters, as the holder has to be beaten for the ‘silverware’ to change hands.

There is relevance in this setting of interest to microeconomists through incentives and strategy. Sporting contests have much potential to tell us economists more than a thing or two about the way firms behave in duopolistic industries where the competitors are not equally resourced.

Assuming there is some value to holding the trophy, potential follows for this value to skew attacking and defensive tactical decisions of both captains, comparative to the identical series scenario where there is no trophy on the line.

This upcoming series can be used to illustrate a textbook case of how a bilateral trophy being at stake may just alter team behaviour at the margin. However unlikely you think it, suppose the series is level at 1-1 after four Tests, and that late on day five of the fifth test, the final and deciding game is on a knife’s edge (and that a draw is still a comparable possibility).

Since 1-1 is not good enough for Australia to return home with the prize (England currently holds the Ashes), it is easy to envisage how Michael Clarke would throw caution to the wind to give his XI every possible chance of winning the decider, not to mention what Alistair Cook’s ‘game theoretic’ tactical response might be.

In the counterfactual that there exist no Ashes for him to regain, rather it’s purely the series outcome that matters, one might imagine how he may turn defensive to suffice for a draw and (arguably) claim a moral victory in levelling an away series against a significantly more favoured team. The inclination for him to do this might be accentuated if his captaincy and/or personal form were under scrutiny during the series, with equal honours perversely providing him some measure of vindication.

Even if you summarily reject any possibility that Clarke would ever sway toward that tactical inclination, you might be willing to accept how Zimbabwean skipper Brendan Taylor would analogously almost certainly opt for any stalemate within reach at the death of an away series to their neighbours – the World top-ranked South Africans.

At any rate, I suspect that fans of Australian cricket will have a wide range of views about how they will feel about a drawn series. Many will consider it equivalent to a series loss, since the Ashes are not regained either way. Others like me, with the recent 4-0 whitewash in India still fresh in the mind, will still take some matter of pride in averting a third successive series loss against the old enemy.

Photo of author

Author: Liam Lenten

Published on:

Published in:

cricket, incetives, strategy

5 thoughts on “‘Old Urn’ Itself Could Alter Aussie Ashes Tactics”

  1. Are these decisions greatly different from the risks taken only in extremis in other sports, such as pulling the goalie in hockey, sending the goalkeeper forward in soccer, or throwing otherwise reckless backward passes in American football?

  2. Hi Ken, the distinction here is that the factual and the conterfactual may lead to different outcomes; whereas in those examples you mentioned, there is no real analogous counterfactual – ie. in soccer, all league matches are worth the same number of league points….unless you were comparing league and cup (knock-out) games, but those two are different competitions, anyway. Nonetheless, the extremes are always fascinating, whatever the sport:)

  3. Nice article Liam. I think that this is not just restricted to bilateral series with trophies at stake. It is often debated among fans whether teams who are one down in a series should aggressively chase an unlikely win (at the risk of losing the series by a wider margin) or treat each match separately and accept a drawn match / close series loss. But obviously, the higher the regard the trophy is held in, the greater the strategic impact. I wonder also if the strategy is changed somewhat by the fact that Australia host a home ashes series just a few months after the one in England concludes (rather than the usual 18-30 month wait between series). Winning the Australian version will probably be perceived as much more important by both captains as they will hold the urn for much longer. This effect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that holding the urn after the English series provides an advantage in Australia – in the form of a drawn series being good enough. Finally, it will be interesting to see what the proposed test championship will do to the relative importance of an ashes series. Imagine, for example, England hold the ashes and the series is tied at 1-1, Australia chasing 400 in the final test with four sessions left. They need the win to lift the urn, but it also could be the case that a draw would qualify them for the next round of the test championship, while a loss would see them miss out. I’m sure, though the amount of data would be the difficulty, we could theoretically infer the value placed on various trophies.

  4. Liam, I’m not sure your reply to Ken is exactly right. In both cases, there is an intermeidate objective (e.g. maximising the expected difference between goals scored and goals conceded) that is normally highly linearly correlated with the ultimate objective, but in extreme situations becomes highly non-linear leading to a change in strategy. So ice-hockey teams most of the time keep the goalie in place, but pull him in situations where conceding a goal doesn’t change the outcome but scoring a goal would achieve a draw. And similarly, in the first match of an Ashes series or last match of a non-Ashes series, one might seek to maximise the difference in probability of winning minus probability of losing, but in the final match of the Ashes, losing has the same value as drawing. Either way, it is an application of Jensen’s inequality. Endgame convexifying of the payoff function leads to risk-taking behaviour and endgame concavitising leads to greater risk aversion.

    It sounds like a good Honours project, though. Is there any evidence that 3rd-innings declarations show consistent changes in the level of risk aversion when it is the last game of an Ashes series rather than a normal test.

  5. Thanks Seamus and Scott…true in that sense, it is not that much different, although Test cricket is not a structured league system like most sports, rather they are succession of one-off contests (though with some degree of regularity in a 4-5 year cycle), and so the distinction of series with v without bilateral trophies is highly idiosyncratic cf analogous examples from other sports, which is of unique intuitive appeal. Anyway, yes, the point about being well outside the (linear) relevant range is conceded. Scott, I too think that those marginal hypotheticals you mention would make for a compelling analysis…if I could get an honours student interested (as Seamus muses), then I’d be thrilled to supervise:)

Comments are closed.