Oh frabjous day


Today may turn out to be a very important day in the world of Test cricket. Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the Decision Review System (DRS). While I’m all for sensible use of technology in sport, I cannot abide the way “Umpire’s Call” is designed to work. It’s an abomination.

Until today, I couldn’t see a simple way out. DRS was here to stay, and with it the Umpire’s Call, or so it seemed. A constant threat, with the ability to mar, to scar, what would otherwise have been an enjoyable day’s cricket.

Today all that changed at Dharamsala, during the Fourth (and deciding) Test between India and Australia. It couldn’t have happened in a nicer place.


Australia won the toss and elected to bat. They were bowled out for precisely 300 in 88.3 overs. India faced just one over, ending the day at 0 for 0.

A full day’s play. A decent over rate. A decent run rate. 10 wickets. 300 runs. A fabulous century by one of the finest cricketers plying his trade at present. A glorious debut by a young spinner. An enthralling contest. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Being for the benefit of all and sundry, not just Mr Kite.

And not a single review. Australia did not review any of the ten wickets they lost. India didn’t have anything to review; I can remember one instance when Bhuvaneswar Kumar thought about it, but decided against it.

There was a dearth of spurious appeals. At least that’s the way it looked to me, watching from thousands of miles away.

The batsmen all walked. Something deep in the spirit of the game, something that’s been eroding of late. [I still cringe at the memory of what Stuart Broad did. Not walking was sin enough. Not walking because the fielding side “had no reviews left”, that called for the cricketing equivalent of bell, book and candle.]

None of the batsmen was given out LBW, in a full day’s cricket, with ten wickets falling. This too on the subcontinent, with a bunch of spinners doing their bit for God and country. Unheard-of.

That’s surely a record in times of DRS, and may have been quite rare even before that.

Bowling negatively, staying well outside the off stump, trying to bore the daylights out of batsmen and spectators, wishing and willing them to lose patience and hang their bat out; slowing the over rate down to abysmal levels; using every trick in the book (and often ones not in the book) to rough up one side of the ball and to shine the other; appealing whimsically, irrelevantly and even irritatingly; running on to the pitch while bowling in the fourth innings; all this and more; there is much that despoils the game, brings it into disrepute.

Today was a welcome break from all that nonsense.

For that, I have to thank the two teams and the officials. Whatever the result, they’ve given us the example of a whole day’s cricket the way it should be played.

And it came with a bonus. How do you avoid the abomination of DRS? Get the batsmen out unambiguously, unequivocally, without the need for an LBW decision.

There’s hope yet for cricket, particularly Test cricket.




Voyages of discovery

Of late, I’ve been spending quite some time thinking about longitudinal studies; a number of you have engaged with me with encouraging feedback after my most recent post on this, on the impact of change and the time it takes to assess that impact. There are many reasons for this, but there’s a principal one. Polarised debate, often on ideological grounds, seems to have become more common in the recent past. It’s something I wrote about a number of times recently:  in Thinking About 2015 two years ago, in Routing Around Obstacles in April last year, in and in Going To The Match at the end of last year.

When debate is just ideology versus ideology, and the facts don’t matter, we live our lives in a house divided against itself.  [Personally, I think that this particular speech of Lincoln’s, while not as well-known as the Gettysburg Address, deserves more airtime].

I think it was James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, who wrote about Brexiteers defending their position on ideological grounds (to do with sovereignty of border and law), largely ignoring economic arguments, and then strangely expecting the rest of Europe to negotiate solely on economic grounds rather than ideological ones. The paraphrase is mine, not his, apologies for any unintended misinterpretation.

Just this morning, I was reading about the drought affecting Haute-Savoie. Some key phrases:

  • Experts said that last month was the driest December in Haute-Savoie for 135 years, with just 0.2mm of rain falling in Annecy.
  • And, last week, a number of resorts recorded their 50th day without natural snowfall.
  • Serge Taboulot, head meteorologist for the northern Alps at Météo France, said: “This is an unprecedented drought. We have data from the 19th century in Annecy, and we have never seen such a situation before.”
  • On some slopes the snow cover was the worst for 20 years, he added.
  • Ninety per cent of French mountains were said to be affected after below-average snowfall since the summer.


Hmmm. Doesn’t look much like a Chinese conspiracy to me. But then even that is not a fair statement to make, I show a bias. Unless we start looking at the data, everything that is debated will be seen as a conspiracy by one ideology or another.

As I wrote yesterday, one way of resolving this tension is to have good data. Now that’s a fine and dandy thing to say going forward, on a “day zero” basis. The day we announce the start of the two-year clock for Brexit qualifies as a day zero. So will the actual exit. The day Trump was elected qualifies as a day zero. So will the day he is inaugurated.

Problems where we can start collecting data sensibly are tractable, even though we should expect considerable lobbying by those who would prefer that society cannot judge them even in hindsight.

What I’m currently intrigued by is the role of the archivist. Sometimes the archivist is an unintended one. For example, I’ve been seeing reports for well over a decade that ships’ logs from the 18th and 19th centuries have reliable and consistent data to help us understand aspects of climate change.

Sometimes the archivist is an intended one, carrying out the duties of an under appreciated profession. I’ve been able to find an application for a replacement passport made by my grandfather in the UK, and until then I didn’t even know he’d been to the UK decades before I was born. I’ve found records for erstwhile relatives making their first passage to India in the 1950s. All this because we are able to get access to historical information: birth and death registers, citizenship records, journey-related information, causes of death, migration patterns, court papers, telephone directories, myriad documents that were considered public records that were carefully archived and later made public.

Sometimes the archivist is accidental-on-purpose, carefully preserving records that were originally protected against public cynosure, then released after some or other oddly-determined cooling-off period.

Sometimes what is archived for one reason is made available for another; I hope to see the open data movement start catalysing such events in the next five years or so, as enlightened holders of valuable data sets make that data available to all and sundry after assessing that the public good is not counteracted by private harm.

And sometimes the archivist is an amateur. People like you and me. Particularly people who are getting on a bit. Our stories, shared while we can still remember and still articulate what we remember. What we remember about how we lived when we were young, what we learnt at our forebears’ knees, what stories they shared with us.

Making sense out of our collective stories used to be intractable. Technological advances suggest that this problem is getting more and more solvable.

It goes beyond our stories, we all have artefacts to share. eBay and Etsy are not the only games in town for where old artefacts go to die. Just like we learnt to collect and recycle our rubbish, we will learn to collect and archive our past. There is a Silent Spring waiting to be written about this. Maybe someone who reads this will go do it.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool collector, and over the years I’ve amassed quite deep collections of a very small number of things in very narrow topics. The East India Company and the Raj. Detective fiction since Poe and Wilkie Collins. Anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Anything and everything to do with PG Wodehouse. The autographs of 20th century scientists I revere. Analogue versions of modern digital equipment. Cricket bats signed by batsmen I revere, and at least one bat signed by bowlers I revere.

Collecting is in itself not archiving, not unless you know what’s there, you can find it, you know and can attest to its provenance, and you have taken steps to take care of it. Which also means understanding if, when and how to cull the collection.

A good library is like a good garden; weeding is essential.

Let me take a walk into the wild here. And talk about how I discovered music.

We used to have an old gramophone at home. [Not the one with the crank handle and the big horn and the steel needles in a small box: I have a few of those now]. What we had was something very late-fifties/early sixties. A Garrard turntable, with a big central spindle, in the middle of what looked like a very large chest-like cabinet, opening from the top. Two speakers, one on either side, with the speaker cloth showing through the tracery of carved wood that decorated the front of the cabinet. A valve amplifier you couldn’t see in daylight, even though you smelt it warming up; you could, however, see it when it wasn’t daylight. In those days all valves were red at night.

Along with that gramophone were some albums. A whole bunch of “78s”, lacquer records from the 20s to the 50s. Another bunch of “10-inchers”, 33RPM albums that were somehow stunted in their growth. A large bunch of traditional 12″ classical albums. A smaller bunch of LPs with “modern” music. An even smaller handful of 45s. And that was it.

The 78s included some classical, some jazz and some more popular and folksy. I can only remember being entranced by a handful, Hernando’s Hideaway and Tom Dooley come quickly to mind.

The 10-inchers included a wonderful Perry Como (with Don’t Get The Stars Get In Your Eyes), a couple of Glenn Millers, Danny Kaye doing I’m Late, even a saucyish Ruth Wallis singing Down In The Indies amongst other songs.

The classical music 12-inchers covered most of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, with bits and bobs of Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. There were a decent bunch of jazz albums, quite a few Ella Fitzgerald and a similar number of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton, that kind of thing. And then there were a few oddball LPs as well. Pat Boone with Bernardine, Love Letters in The Sand, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, Don’t Forbid Me, April Love, Chains Of Love, Anastasia, Why Baby Why and so on. Edmondo Ros and Bongos from the South. Burl Ives at Carnegie Hall. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. The Pajama Game.

And a tiny handful of 45s. Summer Wine. Strangers in the Night. These Boots Were Made for Walking.

I can remember a couple of Hindi music albums as well. Sangam was one of them.

That was my day zero for music.

From that time on, I can remember precisely when someone I listened to entered my life. The day an uncle dropped in Peter Paul and Mary’s In the Wind, along with Brubeck’s Time Out. The day I went to the local record shop, Sonorous, and my father bought me A Hard Day’s Night.

From my music listening perspective, that was that for the period 1957-1968. We moved house in 1969, and things changed. The radio became more of an introducer of music. My cousin Jayashree became an arbiter of taste. Her husband, Gyan, sadly no longer with us, became a key influence on what I listened to. More of all this later.

Why am I bothering to share this? Only to make a point.

What you remember has value. Put it down somewhere. Be diligent about it. Particularly when it comes to how you lived, what relationship meant to you. What trust meant to you. What community meant to you. What schooldays were like, what school friends were like. What your childhood illnesses and medications were. What passed for everyday food and what passed for special treats. How you kept yourself occupied. What study was like, what play was like. How you kept yourself amused. Where and how you travelled. Whom you spent time with. What you read, what you watched, what you listened to.

What the weather was like. How much things cost. What skills you learnt and when.

What mattered to you. Why.

What you remember has value.

What we remember has value.

But we have to learn some basic skills in archiving in order to make what we remember useful for generations to come.

This is not meant to be a narcissistic post. If it’s come across like that, I have screwed up. Big time. My intent in sharing this is only to suggest that alongside the professional archivist and the accidental archivist, we all need to become amateur archivists. That is how we are going to build pictures of the past in order to understand the impact of things that were decided a few decades ago, and help understand things that are being decided and things that will be decided.






Thinking about pink balls

[Note to readers. This post may appear to do with cricket. Perhaps it does. But it’s about more than that].

I had to smile when I first came across what Douglas Adams had to say about our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I tried to interpret the word “technologies” as broadly as possible, looking for areas where his description matched my reaction to something. And the first one I came up with was cricket. I realised that my attitude to cricket could be summed up in his words. Test cricket? Fine. County and regional? Of course. One-day? As long as it’s the 50 or 60 over variety. Day/night? Pshaw. Pfui. Balls coloured other than red? Over my dead body. Clothes coloured other than white? When hell freezes over.

Until I thought about my attitude to cricket through the lens described by Adams, I considered myself a fairly progressive person. Since reading what he’d had to say, I’ve been working on that attitude, not just to do with cricket but to do with life in general. [That’s a general principle for me. I may write about music or food or sport or work or books or whatever, but what I’m usually trying to do is to understand something else about life].

So it took me a while to get used to people wearing pyjamas on the cricket field. It took me as long to get used to a night game and a white ball. I’m still getting used to T20.

And now.

Now comes a real test. A Test test. There’s a day-night Test in Edgbaston this coming summer. The ball used will probably be pink. Will I try and go? Will I even be willing to watch it?

Hmmm. There’s a part of me that says I should harrumph through my moustache, if I had one — that I should return some prize or honour, resign from somewhere, refuse something. Protest somehow.

But I won’t listen to that part. I don’t. Not any more.

[A digression. I don’t like DRS. Not DRS per se, which I’m fine about: but the way it has been implemented leaves much to be desired. The way the technology providers were chosen and imposed. The madness of the way “umpire’s call” has been protected. Stuff like that. I don’t feel any less progressive for disliking the way DRS has been implemented].

When I heard that day-night Test cricket was on its way, I decided I wanted to understand more about how changes like the 60 over game, the 50 over game, the 20 over game, day-night cricket, the wearing of pink pyjamas, the DRS, and so on, had actually affected the game.

The first pink-ball Test was actually Test number 2190. Does it mean the end of Test cricket as I know it? What could I learn from all that had gone earlier? Here are some of my observations:

We’re playing a lot of Test cricket. In the last seven years, we would have played about the same number of Tests that we played in the first seventy years of Test cricket. Test attendances may appear to be in decline, at least anecdotally, but just try getting a ticket for an Ashes Test in London and you may get a different view. I have debentures at Lords and at the Oval just to make sure I get to see all the touring teams.
I regularly hear assertions that the short game is somehow corrupting the long game, “twittering” cricket if I may be allowed to mangle the term that way. So I looked at the data.
Test number 2243 is being played right now. Since the Second World War, the number of games drawn as a percentage of games played looks like this:

1950-59: 31.1%
1960-69: 47.8%
1970-79: 42.4%
1980-89: 45.9%
1990-99: 35.7%
2000-09: 24.6%
2010-16: 22.7%

Surely fewer games drawn is a good thing. While I cannot draw a causal relationship between the short-form game and the improvement in the percentage of games not ending in a draw, it is a reasonable indicator of the health of the long game.
The first ever individual 300+ scores were compiled in the 1930s. So I took a look at the Tests-per-300 ratio, again by decade, concentrating on Tests since the Second World War:

1950-59: 2 triple centuries, 82 Tests per triple
1960-69: 3 triple centuries, 62 Tests per triple
1970-79: 1 triple century, 198 Tests per triple
1980-89: No triples recorded
1990-99: 4 triple centuries, 87 Tests per triple
2000-09: 8 triple centuries, 58 Tests per triple
2010-16: 7 triple centuries, 42.7 Tests per triple

So the number of Tests taken to score a triple century is the lowest it’s been since 1950. In fact there’s only one decade ever (1930-39) where the ratio was lower, and it’s an outlier for a number of reasons. If the short game is spoiling the concentration of the batsmen then it’s hard to understand how this trend is being evinced.
If I look at the RPO or runs-per-over data this is what it looks like:

1950-59: 2.3
1960-69: 2.49
1970-79: 2.69
1980-89: 2.86
1990-99: 2.86
2000-09: 3.2
2010-16: 3.22

So the batsmen are scoring more runs per over than they did before, they’re taking fewer Tests to churn out triple centuries, and more of the Tests are getting to a non-draw result than ever before. What’s not to like?
Not everyone is a fan of such quantitative ways of looking at the game. Some people prefer to complain that the game’s not the same, that something classic, something essential to the game, has “gone” with all the changes. It’s hard to deal with such statements, but here’s my personal take:
There was a time when the job of a Test opening batsman was to see the shine of the ball off, to batten the hatches while the pace bowlers tired themselves out. There was a time when batsmen were expected to “play themselves in”, to get used to the pitch and to the ball and to the conditions; this playing-in time was measured in overs, sometimes hours.
Along came people like Jayasuriya and Sehwag, and suddenly playing-in time became a myth. They started scoring freely from the moment they walked in. I don’t have good scientific evidence that there’s a causal relationship between the advent of the short game and the emergence of this phenomenon, but it seems unarguable. Limited-overs games aren’t particularly accommodating of playing-in time. It’s also nice to notice that both Jayasuriya and Sehwag have triple centuries to their names.
There was a time when there were no cross-bat strokes expected on the playing field, when Test cricketers played copybook cricket. Now we have strokes like the reverse sweep and the overhead thump over the wicketkeeper’s head. Good batsmen still play largely copybook cricket, but their repertoire has increased.
There was a time when bowlers were expected to be poor fielders and even poorer batsmen. Nowadays you see relay fielding and relay catching being considered normal, where one fielder stops a ball and another throws it back, or one rescues the ball back into the field of play and another catches it. Fielders have become a lot fitter and use techniques learnt largely from the short game. And bowlers can bat. Teams now bat all the way down the card.
All in all, when you look at modern Test cricket from a qualitative viewpoint, the batting’s better, the fielding’s better, the bowling’s better, all showing signs of having learnt from the short game.
I cannot spend this much time talking about how progressive thinking is changing the world of cricket for the better without mentioning Cage Cricket.



Yup. Cage cricket.

A six-player one-winner enclosed-space form of the game, designed to be gender-neutral.
Okay, I hear you. Harrumph in your moustache. Resign from your clubs. Return your OBE. Have your Victor Meldrew moment. Go on.
Once you’ve done that, please go take a look at the game.

And then look at these photographs I’ve just googled (my thanks to the originators of the photographs, I claim no authorship, just the use of search strings for street cricket).



Still think that Cage Cricket is all wrong? People have called it all sorts of things, in India I’ve heard terms like para cricket or galli cricket. What matters is that we lower the barriers to entry, get children involved early. Not in watching but in participating. Making it possible for them to play without having to have a cricket pitch or 22 players. Making it possible for them to learn, to develop, and even to compete at world level. Designed to suit the world they inhabit. With peer respect and feedback built in, gender-agnostic.

If you want to learn more about Cage Cricket, just go to the web site and click on Learn More. Simple as that.

It’s not just about cricket. These are things we have to get better at for everything: lowering barriers to entry, adapting to the world our children live in, building things that are relevant to their context, designing to enfranchise all.

I started with a quote from Douglas Adams, ostensibly to do with technology. I think I’ll end with a quote from Roy Amara, as quoted by Robert X Cringely:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

As I suggested at the start of this post, be generous in your interpretation of “technology”.

It’s a systematic treatment for something. It comprises tools and practices. It is based on some real knowledge, based on scientific methods of collection and testing.

I like what Kevin Kelly said about it many years ago, that “technology” is a means of speeding up evolution.

So nowadays, when I learn about a new technology, I check for myself. Am I falling into the trap of looking through the Adams lens? Am I discarding everything recent for everything I am used to, staying in my comfort zone? Am I falling into the trap of not seeing Amara’s Law in action? Am I overestimating short-run impacts while underestimating the long-run ones?

Am I basing all this on data? Reliable data? Data that stands up to corroboration, to source verification, data where I understand the basis of collection and analysis?

Otherwise it’s not cricket.

Comfort-break songs

Those who come here regularly know that I’m stuck in a time-warp when it comes to music. Early sixties to mid seventies. 99% of the music I listen to was made then. It’s not that I dislike the music made before or after; it’s more to do with the fact that so much great music was made during that time that I feel no need to travel beyond those bounds.

Just look at this list. Maybe 1500 albums produced by them. There isn’t enough time left in my life to do them justice.

Allman Brothers. America. The Animals. The Band. Joan Baez. Beatles. Bee Gees. Chuck Berry. Blind Faith. Blood Sweat and Tears. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Booker T and the MGs. David Bowie. Dave Brubeck. Buffalo Springfield. Byrds. Carpenters. Ray Charles. Chicago. Joe Cocker. Leonard Cohen. Elvis Costello. Cream. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jim Croce. Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Miles Davis. Deep Purple. John Denver. Neil Diamond. Donovan. Doobie Brothers. Doors. Bob Dylan. The Eagles. Elvis. Emerson Lake and Palmer. Fairport Convention. Jose Feliciano. Fotheringay. Fleetwood Mac. Aretha Franklin. Grand Funk Railroad. Grateful Dead. Guess Who. Jimi Hendrix. Herman’s Hermits. John Lee Hooker. Iron Butterfly. Michael Jackson. Jefferson Airplane. Jethro Tull. Janis Joplin. BB King. Carole King. King Crimson. The Kinks. Led Zeppelin. Lindisfarne. Gordon Lightfoot. Loggins and Messina. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Magna Carta. Mamas and Papas. John Martyn. Matthews Southern Comfort. John Mayall. Don Mclean. Melanie. Joni Mitchell. Wes Montgomery. Moody Blues. Van Morrison. Nana Mouskouri. New Riders of the Purple Sage.  Pentangle. Peter Paul and Mary. Pink Floyd. Queen. Otis Redding. Rolling Stones. Roxy Music. Carlos Santana. Seals and Croft. Simon and Garfunkel. Sly and the Family Stone. Steely Dan. Steppenwolf. Cat Stevens. Supertramp. James Taylor. Temptations. Ten Years After. Traffic. Velvet Underground. Ventures. Tom Waits.  The Who. Stevie Wonder. Yes.

The hundred acts above, in their multiple incarnations. With their associated acts that I haven’t bothered to list, of the Derek/Dominos class. There’s a male/white bias I guess, but not a conscious one. It’s what came down the funnel I had my ear to in those days.

One of the odd things this list did was to play long songs. I used to wonder why they were so popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Quite by chance, re-reading a Graham Nash interview, I came across a then-DJ’s comment on this and it all made sense. Long songs were the saviour the DJs were looking for, so that they could take a cigarette break.

“Cigarette breaks” are probably not in vogue any more, they’ve been replaced by other things that are antisocial, keep your hands busy, are rumoured to cause cancer and form pinpricks of light dotting the audience in modern concerts. Mobile phones.

At work we used to have cigarette breaks. Then , in the early nineties, we started calling them loo breaks in order not to point fingers at smokers. More recently, we’re calling them comfort breaks, even though many people don’t use them to go to the loo. That way the mobile phone addict doesn’t feel victimised.

I don’t listen to modern music and have no idea what modern DJs do. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the return of vinyl is accompanied by the return of Long Songs, so that the DJs squeeze in some “social media interaction” time.

Comfort-break songs.

Here are a few more from my favourite time, to add to the ones I posted about years ago.





The stories behind the numbers

I went to a Jesuit school and college in Calcutta; I was with them from 1966 to 1979. Wonderful times, times I look back upon with joy.

By the time I was in my early teens, I’d heard the story of Pheidippides many times. The literary/historical rites of passage embedded in Jesuit education in India. Pheidippides was firmly tucked in somewhere between Ghent to Aix and O Captain My Captain.

The first modern Olympics I experienced, vicariously and from afar, was the one held in Mexico City in 1968. We had no television at home, or for that matter anywhere in India. [It would be at least a decade before small black-and-white sets invaded, carrying, of all things, I Love Lucy. Hmmm. I passed].

Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Jim Hines, Tommie Smith (and his Black Power salute), these were the names I remember from the Olympics in 1968. [I had fledgling ambitions to become a sprinter in those days. The less said of that the better. We all choose our heroes to suit ourselves].

By 1972 I was a glutton for things Olympic, aided and abetted by our class teacher, Mr Redden (otherwise known to us as Lalmurgi). He got us to make scrapbooks about the event. I remember marvelling at the standardised icons that began to appear that year for each event.

The tragic events of the massacre at the Olympic village overshadowed everything else about those Olympics, and the scrapbook projects were soon forgotten.

Before that, while working on the scrapbook, I was intrigued by how the Marathon was going to be run there. Apparently they’d designed the course to resemble that year’s Olympic mascot, Waldi.


That caught my eye. Odd and interesting. But not as odd and interesting as the distance the athletes were meant to run. 26 miles 385 yards. 385 yards. Really? That kind of false precision bugged me, even as a teenager. So we were asked to believe that someone had measured the precise distance run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens some 2500 years ago and set it down to 26 miles and 385 yards. Pull the other one.

It continued to bug me. Therein lies a tale. Turns out that he wasn’t called Pheidippides, but might have been called Thersippus or Eukles, according to Wikipedia. [If you enjoy using Wikipedia please donate to them here]. Turns out that the non-Pheidippides person never ran from Marathon to Athens around the battle of Marathon, but may have been confused with a Phillipides who may have done that run — but not during the battle.

Trivia contests used to ask about the origins of the 385 yards, and the accepted answer was that the modern marathon used to be 26 miles, until the 1908 Olympics. That year, the marathon started at Windsor Castle (a stone’s throw from where I write this now) and ended at White City Stadium. [That marathon route remains popular with people living near Windsor Castle: they get into their cars and prepare to join athletic “battle” as they shop at Westfield, standing on the ruins of White City Stadium.]

Legend had it that the route designers made a classic mistake, and that the additional 385 yards were added very late on, to ensure that the race ended in front of the Royal Box. A case of droit du roi?

Turns out that isn’t quite true either. Apparently modern marathons used to be around 40km, give or take variations imposed by the route chosen, to try and model the distance between Marathon and Athens. The IAAF only standardised the distance in May 1921, and happened to use the exact distance of the 1908 London Olympics, 42.195km … or 26 miles 385 yards.

26 miles and 385 yards. Just a number. But with so many stories.

This week, I had the opportunity to delve into another number-story. During the India v England Fifth Test in Chennai, I noticed that the first five wickets to fall during the England 1st innings were all “caught”. So I went down one of my usual rabbit holes and meandered about, reading about concentrations and dispersions in ways to get out in a single innings. I’d grown up believing that there were only ten ways for a batsman to be given out while playing cricket.    The first five are easy and common: bowled, caught, leg before wicket, stumped, run out. The next five are harder and rarer: hit wicket, handled the ball, hit the ball twice, obstructing the field and timed out.

Turns out I was wrong. There is an eleventh. Retired out. Law 2.9(b). When we played cricket in school, “retired” used to mean “retired hurt” and was treated as a “not out”. The runs scored formed part of the batsman’s average, but the innings was considered complete but not out. That changed in 2001; I remember the match but missed the significance. Two Sri Lankan batsman, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, both “retired out” in a Test match against Bangladesh. That is, they walked off the pitch without being injured, without formal leave to depart from the field of play. Which meant that Law 2.9 (b) came into effect for the first time, rather than the usual 2.9(a).

Or so I thought.

Not true. It looks like Law 2.9(b) had been invoked, albeit very briefly, during the 5th Test between West Indies and India in April-May 1983. Gordon Greenidge, batting on 154, left the field at close of play on 30th April, and did not return on Sunday 1st May. He had not been injured, which meant that, technically, he could be considered “retired out”.

He hadn’t returned for a tragic reason. His young daughter Ria had been taken very ill with a kidney infection, and he’d gone to be with her. She died a few days later.

It is not clear what the scorers originally put down against his name; the scarce evidence suggests he may have been recorded as “retired hurt”. What is clear is that as a mark of respect, given the tragic circumstances, what finally went down on the scorecard was “retired not out”. According to ESPNCricinfo that’s the only known occurrence of that term on a Test scorecard.

The stories behind the numbers.

We live in times when terms like “post-truth” and “truthiness” are bandied about without a thought. That’s when the stories behind the numbers matter. Context matters. The provenance of the context matters.

So I’m going to be spending time over the Christmas break reading people like John Allen Paulos again, particularly his books Innumeracy and Beyond Numeracy. Similarly, I’m going to be retracing my steps around the works of Howard Rheingold on Crap Detection.

More to follow.