Finest of margins: how chaos theory has defined England v New Zealand

Finest of margins: how chaos theory has defined England v New Zealand

Picture the scene: winter 1961, Department of Meteorology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Edward Lorenz, affable professor of Meteorology is in his office tinkering with his computerised weather system. This particular morning, Lorenz wants to take a closer look at one of his computerised weather patterns so he re-enters the sequence of digits in order to recreate it, sets his machine off whirring and goes to grab a cup of coffee while the computer does its thing. Namely, printing out a series of wavy lines of the letter “a” in, “a long series of hills and valleys” to represent a weather system. Lorenz returns shortly after, and what he finds makes him almost spill the remnants of his java on to his brogues.

The two weather system printouts, far from being duplicates, are completely different. In his haste, Lorenz has entered the number to only three decimal places, rather than the usual six, .506 rather than .506127. This fraction of a difference has a dramatic effect. That cold morning Lorenz stumbled into chaos theory, the notion that nature is incredibly sensitive to the tiniest change. It would later become simplified as the Butterfly Effect, after Lorenz wrote a paper in 1972 titled, Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

Chaos can be defined as a “state of utter confusion or disorder”, which anyone who has been in the changing room after a flurry of quick wickets can easily relate to. Cricket lends itself particularly well to chaos theory.

One of the joys, or tortures, of following sport is to go down these hypothetically shaped rabbit holes. “What if …” is muttered as much by the sports fan as the spurned lover. In both cases it is often in postmortem, the writing of the result and the relationship firmly etched on the wall.

In his 1998 book Chaos, James Gleick describes the related work that chaos theorists undertake as “having a long look into the universe’s bowels” – which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to what fans do year-round in pubs, trains and on the internet after the final whistle has sounded or the stumps have been drawn.

Most sports hinge on a series of tiny moments. Vast amounts of money and time are spent on doing something a fraction quicker or more efficiently.

But what about when the universe weighs in and throws up a bit of chaos for a laugh? Lorenz and his followers would have had a field day with the recent cricketing match-ups between England and New Zealand.

2019, Durham. By his own admission, Mark Wood has tiny hands. In a must-win World Cup game for England he runs in to bowl at Ross Taylor with the Black Caps 61 for two in pursuit of 306. The ball is full and Taylor whips it straight back past Wood who reaches out in his follow-through to land the faintest tickle with one of the diminutive digits on his right hand. The ball cannons into the stumps at the non-striker’s end and Kane Williamson is stranded short of his ground. He’s out. With 27 off 40 balls, Williamson was well set and New Zealand would have backed themselves to chase the runs. His highly unfortunate departure brought about a clatter of wickets and England ran out comfortable winners to keep their World Cup campaign alive. Afterwards, Wood admitted the fluke dismissal was probably the only way he was going to get Williamson out.

2019, Lord’s. Ben Stokes crouches over his bat. His pale skin is flushed pink with exertion. His eyes glassy, glazed, shark-like. A great white in pale blue. He has to keep moving, propelling England’s run chase forward in order for them to stay alive in this match. The emotional and physical exertion required to do so is starting to take its toll. He drops to his knees between overs, taking deep breaths, torso rising and falling, gulping in oxygen. England are 222 for seven, they need 22 off nine balls and are desperate for a boundary. Jimmy Neesham, floppy fringe and matinee idol looks, has just dismissed Liam Plunkett, caught a few feet inside the long on boundary going for the much-needed maximum.

The next ball Neesham floats outside the off-stump, Stokes drops to his knee and slaps the ball high and far. But it’s not quite far enough and Stokes knows it immediately. Trent Bolt takes the catch cleanly a couple of feet inside the boundary but the momentum of the ball forces him to take a backward step and he treads on the rope with ball in hand. In a split second Stokes has gone from being out – England left with 22 needed off eight balls with Jofra Archer and Adil Rashid at the crease – to not out and the more palatable equation of 16 off eight with, crucially, Stokes still there.

When Ian Smith uttered the immortal “by the barest of margins” line shortly afterwards, he could have been referring to any number of moments that the game hinged on. Bolt stepping on the rope, Stokes’s final-over ricochet, Wood (inexplicably in full protective kit … what was that about marginal gains?) diving for his ground off the last ball. Buttler’s final-ball-of-the-super-over boundary, Neesham’s super-over six. Jason Roy’s misfielding and Roy not misfielding. Rather than a solitary flap, this match saw the butterfly breakdancing between backflips.

2021, UAE. England face New Zealand again in Wednesday’s semi-final. You don’t need a computer system to see that all the signs point to another tight contest. The universe has conspired against Roy and Tymal Mills meaning England are weakened and coming off the back of defeat to South Africa and an uncharacteristically sloppy performance in the field. New Zealand are quietly going about their business as ever. In their last match against Afghanistan they were pin-sharp, taking all their catches and saving runs – Daryl Mitchell enacting one of those gravity-defying boundary saves that must make a small part of Trent Boult (and Martin Guptill) wince every time they are pulled off.

Williamson’s side will be looking to avenge events of 2019 while Eoin Morgan is trying to get his mitts on another ICC trophy. The sides have been separated only by cigarette paper and a further super over in recent meetings and the low-scoring totals seen in this World Cup could well result in another match decided by a tiny moment. Lorenz wouldn’t have it any other way. And whisper it, neither would we.