Cause and effect!

Australia’s early elimination from World Twenty20 has made us all laugh, but it will not decide the fate of the Ashes series, writes David Hopps.

Australia are out of World Twenty20 and the debate has already begun about how much this will impact on their challenge for the Ashes. The optimists among us imagine that Australia will now succumb to levels of despondency never before seen from those who wear the Baggy Green. The pessimists fear that they now have an extra fortnight to rest, refresh and plan their Ashes campaign to the smallest detail.

What is certain is that when the story of the 2009 Ashes is told, the importance of Australia’s elimination in World Twenty20 will be exaggerated beyond recognition. Which way it will be exaggerated is yet to be determined. But by the simple law of hindsight, it will become a moment of incalculable importance.

In sport we do this all the time, over-emphasising a connection between two events, supposedly to prove that one causes another. Often the supposed proof available is the outcome. We are entering the world here of what statisticians call false correlation — and what sportswriters call irrefutable evidence.

The belief that the connection between two events causes an outcome is a logical fallacy. For example, pollution levels and crime have both risen in the past 50 years, so pollution causes crime. There is just enough evidence to suggest a possible link. Statisticians prefer to regard this coincidence until it is proven otherwise. Sports lovers find such moments irresistible, claiming the connection as an obvious fact.

Push me for an opinion and I might just conclude that Australia’s premature departure from World Twenty20 might be a tiny disadvantage. It has reminded England that Australia are not all-powerful and even in two distinct forms of the game as Twenty20 and a five-day Test that is no bad thing.

Even were Australia to win the Ashes 5–0, I would still think that, unless it was proved that in the interim Brett Lee developed a 90mph late-swinging yorker or that Ricky Ponting adjusted the top of his backswing with the result that he batted like a God all summer.

Touring sides hate nothing more than long periods of inactivity. They are away from friends and family and hanker for home as the monotony of touring life sets in. Most professional cricketers these days are the world’s worst sightseers. They are on tour to play cricket. That is the reason they are there. The idea that Australia can now plan an unstoppable campaign is undermined by the fact that roughly half their Ashes squad won’t arrive in England for another week.

The fact is that Ponting, Lee and Co. will now have too much dead time on their hands. And the continuation of World Twenty20 will be a constant reminder of their failure. It’s just a shame that Andrew Symonds isn’t around to tempt them to drink their way through it.

There was a false correlation in the 2005 Ashes: the idea that England’s victory in a Twenty20 match at The Rose Bowl set up their Ashes win. Everybody believes it, including the coach at the time, Duncan Fletcher. But the theory that it gave England belief and momentum is undermined by the fact that they lost heavily in the first Test at Lord’s. The day that Glenn McGrath injured an ankle by treading on a cricket ball was just one of many factors — possibly hundreds — that weighed far more heavily.

So there we have it. Australia’s early elimination from World Twenty20 is most important because it has given us all a bit of a laugh. That’s a good enough reason to be celebrating it. But as for it deciding the Ashes, don’t overplay its importance, just add it to the 1,001 factors between now and the final day at The Oval on August 24.