A cricket analyst reviews… On Fire by Ben Stokes

Sporting autobiographies tend to wash over me. A reminder of a forgotten series, but not much more. I was recently given a copy of On Fire: My Story of England’s Summer to Remember by Ben Stokes, and made some notes along the way to keep my focus.

If you have a copy of the book, you might find it insightful to read this analysis alongside it. Page references are for the hardback copy. If you don’t have a copy, the below analysis (hopefully) speaks for itself.

p10 [On Alex Hales] “The collective feeling was that he should have felt comfortable enough in the environment that we had created to let on what was happening”.

Somewhat naive – if someone doesn’t feel able to speak up, it isn’t necessarily their fault. It is easy to think that in any team we have a positive and open culture, though we only find that out when it is tested.

p50 [Moeen Ali explains to Stokes how to succeed in ODI middle overs bowling] “Bowling in one-day cricket, I have found you need to change your mindset. It’s not about trying to get the batsmen out. The building of pressure will lead to wickets”.

Note that this strategy works with a strong batting lineup (as England now have). With mediocre batting, attempting to contain will just get you milked and vulnerable to a late onslaught with wickets in hand. It’s surprising that Moeen is delivering this insight – shouldn’t this come from the management and coaching staff? Maybe this is just being told this way to make a better story.

p66 [On putting Buttler up the order in ODIs] – “I’m normally at the forefront of calls for him to his his pads on once we get beyond the 20-over mark with plenty of wickets in hand.”

Stokes and I have come to the same conclusion. If cricketing experience and modelling are in harmony, one is on fairly safe ground.

p71 / 117 “Don’t wait until you get into the middle to decide how you’re going to play”. / “Jimmy Neesham was in my sights. This wasn’t a pre match plan”.

I like the approach to planning an innings. Yet I wonder what caused this apparent contradiction in approach with Stokes not taking his own advice and winging it against Neesham.

p115 [on Colin de Grandhomme getting Joe Root out] – “he certainly would not have been the bowler expecting to be troubling him had you considered the key match-ups before the final”.

A rare sentence in a book that isn’t big on analytics – does that mean England are using match-ups to plan which bowlers to attack? It doesn’t sound that way from the way Stokes describes his approach to an innings elsewhere in the book. Or is it that this kind of analysis would not be of interest to the target audience so is kept to a minimum?

p121 Stokes tells Jofra Archer (facing the last ball of the penultimate over) not to score a single so Stokes can face the last over. A logical approach to chasing, maximising expected runs from the seven balls remaining. I wonder if they would have made the same choice if batting first? Do teams leave runs unscored because in the first innings there isn’t the same pressure?

p129 sets out how Stokes scored 84* in the World Cup Final then went straight into the super over, scoring 8* (3). Carrying on his innings gave England an advantage – look at how strike rate evolves with balls faced. I estimate this benefit to be worth at least one expected run in a super over. Two insights: consider keeping your not-out batsman at the crease for the super over; also worth looking at whether the team batting first in super overs has an advantage from a gambling perspective.

p172 “Edgbaston … has the best atmosphere”.

There’s a contradiction in Stokes’ writing – he is in a bubble when batting, doesn’t want external factors to influence him, yet the enthusiasm of the crowd matters to him.

p196 “Lord’s is such a fast scoring ground for a batsman who is in… no matter what the pitch is like… It really can give you 20 per cent more value for your shots than other grounds”. Nice hypothesis, and I know what he means. It isn’t true though. Here’s some charts:

Fig 1: Big scores at Lord’s are not at a higher strike rate than other grounds
Fig 2: Score distributions by innings are very similar between the most frequently used Test grounds in England. Lord’s doesn’t stand out.

p176 “if an umpire gets overturned from “out” to “not out” by his TV colleague, a reluctance to give more “outs” usually follows.”

That’s believable. Since one-third of lbw reviews are umpire’s call, only c.22% of dismissals are lbw, and only one of the two umpires would be affected, this impact is unlikely to be significant.

p242 [England are nine wickets down, with eight to win. Stokes and Jack Leach are batting well together] “doubts started to creep in as I questioned myself on how to play going forward. Should I continue in the same manner?” Here, Stokes is struggling with a statistical question – the equation has changed. With 73 to win, England just needed to bat to maximise expected runs to have the best chance of winning. In other words, follow the approach I set out earlier this year. However, with eight to win, England needed to give themselves the best chance of scoring those runs. That might mean hitting boundaries off the last two balls of an over – which ordinarily would leave the number 11 facing a whole over, but in this case wins the game. Stokes’ cricketing instincts align with a statistical approach.

p260 Old Trafford is described by Stokes as generally the flattest pitch in the country. I wonder what he means by this – it certainly isn’t the easiest to bat – averages are 9% higher at The Oval in Tests. In ODIs Old Trafford is the lowest scoring of England’s grounds.

Overall, ignore the bits where Stokes talks about his current colleagues (because he will only praise them) and there’s still plenty to get your teeth into. We get a lot of insight into Stokes’ process when batting, and his soft skills as a senior player in the team. I wonder, is this a 304 page application to succeed Joe Root as England Test captain?

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