The sport with the most variables

A good morning to you all and I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays (for those lucky enough to have one)

I’m sitting in my kitchen enjoying a lazy breakfast, the little ones are destroying their toys in a systematic and brutal manner and in the background I have the radio on, listening to the 2nd Test match, England vs South Africa.
For those who aren’t familiar with the game this is the the 5 day version of cricket.
2 innings each and no guarantee of a result. It is often a slow burner in terms of entertainment with the story slowly unfolding over the course of the game interspersed with flashes of high drama and eventually ratcheting up to an immensely tense climax.
For instance, the first test in this series (they are normally a “best out of five” format) ended in up on the last day with the last two England players (who are not good batsmen) defending in fading light against aggressive South African bowling. One more wicket down and the match was lost. All thrilling stuff.
This slow-burning nature means that it is the perfect sport to follow on the radio. The incomparable “Test-Match Special” broadcast by the BBC is the sporting equivalent of David Attenborough.

Anyhow, that’s all fine and dandy but on to my main point.
Much as I love cricket, I couldn’t say it required the greatest degree of physical conditioning or strength, nor that it was the most popular or best rewarded.
However, putting myself in the captains’ shoes over the course of a 5-day match I would humbly submit that they do have the greatest number of variables to consider when plotting their strategy.
How on earth does one man mesh all of those separate elements together into a cohesive game plan?
I’ll let others chip in with more of those variables but for starters there is
The pitch - what state is it in? how will it change today? tomorrow? five days time? what sort of bowling does it/will it support? what sort of bowlers have you got? how long can they bowl for? what are the weather conditions? what effect are they having on all those points above? what will the weather being doing over the five days, when do I try to throttle the run rate and when to attack? and how do I achieve that with the current state of all of the above, plus the known playing style of the current batsmen.

that is merely scratching the surface as I’m sure others will agree.

Are there any other sports that require a single person to juggle such a workload over such a period?

Just about all of them.

Take baseball, and only one player – the catcher. He has to decide what pitch the pitcher should throw, and where to throw it. This involves knowing the pitcher’s best pitch, the batter’s weaknesses, the batter’s strengths, what the previous pitch was, if the batter will chase a bad pitch, how man men are on base, whether a man on first might try to steal, how the umpire is calling the strike zone that day, how good the fielders are behind the pitcher, how the light affects how the batter picks up a ball, how the wind is blowing, what’s been successful in the past, how the pitcher will react if he doesn’t make the pitch, what damage might be causes if the batter hits the ball, and many other things. And he has to consider this for every pitch.

The first baseman – considered a far less difficult position defensively – still has to consider what the pitch will be, whether he should play on the foul line or off (and how far off the line if the latter), whether there’s a runner, potential pickoff plays if there is, where to throw the ball if hit to him, where to play if hit elsewhere (easier for a first baseman than other positions), and much else.

Every batter on every pitch needs to decide where the ball is being thrown (and you have less than a second to react), how to adjust your swing to hit it, what sort of hit is needed if you swing, what the runners (if any) are doing, what the current coach’s sign is, how the pitcher has pitched to you before, what sort of pitches does he prefer, where might he throw them, etc.

You could come up with this sort of list for any sport. At the top professional level, the complexity of strategy is extremely high in every sport, and there’s no way to prove any is more complex than any other.

That was my original thought, so when considering complexity I was thinking about the largest number of variables a single person has to try and juggle and the period of time over which they have to do it.
Just for a cricket captain to decide in what order to bowl his 4-6 dedicated bowlers (who’s styles of delivery are more variable than those of a baseball pitcher) over the course of a single two-hour session is a chess game in itself, that would be on top of all the decisions to be made that are analogous to those of the catcher you mentioned.

Is the catcher pretty much the captain of the fielding side? setting fields and switching positions and bowlers/pitchers? or are those decisions taken by someone else?

Dwarf Fortress, only it’s not a sport and you always lose. :slight_smile:

ETA: if you value your time, do not click on the link above.

While all of that is true, I still agree with the OP about the cricket captain’s job. The above baseball examples are similar to what cricket players have to do (except it is the bowler in cricket that needs to know all of that stuff that the catcher knows in baseball). What is different about cricket compared with baseball, football, soccer and more is that all the strategic decisions are taken by the captain, who is also playing his own position to the same level of complexity as in any sport.

In the other major sports I named, the major strategic decisions are mostly made by one or more coaches, whose sole job is to make those decisions and direct the players accordingly.

I went to the Marshall/Ohio game today. It was weird. First half Marshall could have been up 28 zip. An Ohio player pulled the ball out of a Marshall players arms ,near the end zone, and ran it back the other way. 21-7 was a lot better. Every thing Marshall did worked in the first half. They gained 1 yard for most of the 3rd quarter. Then Ohio took over but self destructed just enough to keep from winning.

I can’t see how any sport is more complex and intricate than American Football. Every single player is acting in a very complex scheme which changes dynamically based on the responses of the other team. Those dynamic changes aren’t improvised, they are scripted and researched. Baseball and Cricket have a long series of educated guesses where the percentages vary, but that’s all about optimizing percentages. Football is much more precise and rigidly coordinated. It’s the rare game where strategy is almost always more important than skill.

I would agree that it is complex and intricate, but as as you say, the responses for American Football are scripted. i.e. juggling of the variables has been done a long time prior to the match itself. What remains to be done is the choosing and execution of those plays. That is not trivial. It takes immense skill and strategic knowledge but I’d argue it isn’t in the same ball park as the cricket captain especially as they are having to make strategic decisions amid great uncertainty for some days hence.

Just one small example,
A cricket captain knows that he has a certain type of spin bowler that can turn the ball a certain way, given the right ball, pitch and weather conditions, and from a certain end of the ground (given the camber of the wicket).
He may well choose to use other types of bowlers on the first few days in order to change the pitch conditions (through wear and tear by bowler and batsman) and risk leaking runs now for an opportunity to breakthrough on the final day.
Again, the above is being considered alongside all variables previously mentioned.

Cricket isn’t as purely strategic as American Football but it does demand short term tactical fluidity to bring about long term strategic goals.

The biggest difference for cricket is that it is a multi-day event outside (per the OP, not the shorter versions). Americans only have one example from the popular sports, baseball playoffs. There, the ultimate wins are not a single game but best out of 7. This clearly is reflected in the need to pay attention to who should pitch, who the opponents are pitching, location of individual games, amongst other things. However, those decisions are best made by the manager. Player-managers have existed, but not anymore. Historically, baseball does have an equivalent to the cricket captain in terms of strategy, but most people realized that baseball got too complicated to divide someone’s attention into 2 ways (player playing now, manager creating long-term strategy) so it just isn’t done.

But in terms of strategy on each individual play, it doesn’t get much more complicated than American football. 22 people doing completely different things that have to be aware of what each person is doing and where the football is. They often have to make consequential decisions before any action has taken place. Such as a quarterback throwing the ball to a location the wide receiver is not at yet because he knows the receiver will change directions and be at that spot. Unless a linebacker is almost on top of him, or a safety has moved into the passing lane and will intercept the ball, or the receiver has been bumped at the line of scrimmage and will not make it to his assignment in time. And the quarterback has to make these decisions in less than 3 seconds.

There’s the rub. It’s uncertainty spread over several days. That makes luck a huge factor. Captains are essentially guessing what will happen and their accuracy is probably more chance than knowledge. That lessens the merit in my eyes. It’s a “variable” to be sure, but not likely a controllable one which seems to be the point of the OP.

Nobody’s mentioned Calvinball yet. I’m surprised and more than a little disappointed.

Hmmm, that is a fine call to make. To a certain extent they are guessing. As all sports players do, but it is the quality of that guess that matters, plus the decisions they make to back-up, influence or counteract that guesswork.
Luck, of course, plays it’s part but I’d suggest that having the game over a long period of time means actually that good captaincy and decision making will more likely be rewarded in the long term.
Stick Napoleon in charge of a skirmish and you may as well flip a coin. Give him full reign for campaign and that would be a different matter.
I think in any sport (to butcher Gary Player) the better the captain’s decision making, the luckier he gets.

The answer is golf. Weather, wind ,temperature, . Every shot has to be thought about before executing it.You can hit any club a little farther if you need to. You can lay off one a little. You have to decide what you want to do. Every hole and every green is unique. They play differently all the time. When you are close to a green, there are a variety of ways to play a chip. You can roll it. You can chip part way and roll the rest. You can use a wedge and sail it to the hole. You can pass the hole and suck it back. It is a thinking game.

I see what you’re saying, but I think the length of the match serves to put the burden on the skills of the players more than the decision making. Good bowlers and batsmen given numerous opportunities rise or fall to the level of their skills and the luck and opportunity afforded by the guesses made by the Captain even out.

Really, the biggest problems with baseball and cricket in this discussion is that the game essentially comes down to a one-on-one contest of coordination, timing and guesswork. Healthy measures of luck and skill factor in, and really no matter how good the scheme, strategy or plan is it will be over shadowed by an expert opponents skill. Football on the other hand is the opposite, really no matter how skilled the players are and how athletic a poorly thought out gameplan, play call or in-play decision will result in catastrophic failure.

In short, a great bowler or pitcher will be great and successful no matter what choices the captain or coach make, and the longer the match the more that becomes true. In football the best QB, WR or LB etc. will fail miserably regardless of ability and preparation if the strategy is garbage.

Yes, I think I’d agree with that. They are very different sports.
When I’ve watched American Football I find myself admiring the man on the sidelines rather than the physical execution on the field. (I don’t think the anonymity of the uniforms help that either)
With such as baseball or cricket you have those little sub-battles and vignettes playing out over the course of an innings or longer. The story has time to build, ebb and flow and the individual has more chance to shine.

Ah! good old sport. Source of and answer to pretty much any analogy you choose to make regarding life. Thankfully we have lots to choose from and enjoy.

Of all the sports/games I’ve played, I’d have to say poker, has the most variables involved, by far, whether or not you want to call it a sport.

Not sure it fits in here though.

That opens the pool up to chess. Then poker loses.

Which in turn is replaced by the game of Go.

Neither is even close. No weather, no field conditions. Both have fewer participants than football and fewer variations of actions.

I love poker, but it’s inherently much simpler than any ball sport.

There is a finite number of possible hands in poker. There is an infinite number of possible passes, shots, tackles, jukes, hand-off/stiff arms, turns, etc.