What is natural?

What does it mean for something to be “natural”? The concept is all over the place. As branding it is something to aspire to. A state that must be protected. Something distinct from humans.

It’s especially jarring in discussions of nutrition and health. The absence of chemicals is ipso facto better for you. The diets of generations past something sacrosanct.

But it’s often an arbitrary distinction.

These orange carrots may not have been sprayed or grown with chemicals, but they’ve been altered by generations of farming. This slice of land may not have any obvious human alterations, no buildings or roads. But our presence in and around it has changed it. We’ve thinned it with our steps and diets. We’ve changed the climate, macro and micro.

Our perceptions of nature are almost always skin deep. Our recognised impact only the most brutal. I’m halfway through a Quarterly Essay on the Murray-Darling Basin, where much of Australia’s agriculture is located and water politics is fierce.

But right now I’m gripped by a contested state of nature:

These stories of the river are increasingly contested, as the engineers attempt to model and restore some portion of “natural” flows. The irrigators on the Lachlan, in their interviews with me, posed the question of what the Water Holder thought the “natural” state of the Cumbung Swamp would have been, and what “sustainable” might look like. What is natural? What people remember from their childhood, what the traditional owners have recorded in stories, or what the water engineers’ models tell us would once have happened before we built dams and locks and weirs and drew away so much of the water for our own use? And how to account for climate change?

The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote. In both the real and the political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, nature is often referred to, used as a justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality.

Put aside that natural appears to be conflated with “healthy”. It’s temporal.

The question seems to be about the baseline. At what point was the river system “natural”? And, if we pick a time when humans were present, why is it any more natural than it is now?

Does it pay to win the toss?

Something that has always bugged me about cricket is that the coin toss seems to have a huge impact. That’s the framing, anyway. The entire first morning of a test match is usually taken with what the winner should do – bat or bowl first.

Innumerable factors play into this decision, including weather, recent games, psychology and schedule. It sometimes seems more art than science.

But does it matter? Between 2000 and 2018 the toss winner won about 40% of games and the loser about 35%, according to noted cricket statistician Ric Finlay. Considering the sheer number of games, this seems pretty significant. I decided to scrape Cricinfo’s stat page to see if there’s anything else to tease out.

Firstly, as you’d expect from a coin toss, the results of a coin toss are about 50/50. Here’s Australia’s record at home:


But let’s go a bit deeper and break it down by country. The results of test matches played in Australia roughly line up with what Finlay says. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, it seems winning the toss is slightly more advantageous in the shorter formats. I would have thought the opposite, as pitches deteriorate and there’s more time for poor weather etc. in a test match.


Some of this is probably noise. There have been significantly fewer T20s than test matches played, for instance. Maybe more to unpack in the ODI’s.

Funnily enough, India is pretty dire for my theory. It’s even worse for test matches in India and even better for T20 matches. But, again, relatively few T20 matches. Also significantly fewer test matches played in India than in Australia, so that’s one to watch.


Let’s look at England. This one is a little closer to what we saw in Australia, which makes me think the quantity of matches played is important. It also makes me question the connection between the toss and weather.


All of this is roughly around with Finlay says, which makes me think there’s something to winning the toss. And the advantage for one dayers is pretty consistent across these countries. I’m not prepared to call it yet. But there could be a marginal effect here. Gonna keep exploring.

Why I'm not a professional sportsperson, maybe?

Following up on yesterday’s deep dive into NBA birthdays I’ve been reading more about the relative age effect. This is the apparent phenomena whereby “older” players are over represented in professional sports. By older I mean that professional athletes are more likely to be born at the beginning of the year.

There’s actually a remarkable amount of research on this phenomena, and it appears to hold for some sports, in some countries, especially in Europe. One paper notes:

During the last three decades, researchers have identified overrepresentations of athletes born in the first quartile of the selection year (i.e. January to March if the cut-off date is 1 January) across cultural contexts in sports such as football, ice hockey, handball, baseball, basketball, rugby, volleyball, tennis, ski sports and swimming, Till et al.. demonstrated the possible extent of such over representations of relatively older players in rugby: 47.0 % of the regional and 55.7 % of the national junior representative players were born in the first 3 months of the selection year

It does not appear to hold for the NBA, as I discovered yesterday. That basketball finding was in France. And many of these studies found the phenomena reduces with age. It’s more prevalent in teams of teenagers than the higher grades, for instance.

But what about cricket? Again, a thought that hit me today as I was planning attending some upcoming test matches. One study of Australian cricket players again found no significant difference in relative age among state level players, but did for lower grades.

Players born in the first quartile of the cricket season were significantly over- represented in both male Under-15, Under-17, Under-19 and female Under-15 and Under-18 levels. However, there was no significant difference at the senior state level for either male or female cricketers.

What about Sri Lanka? Where schools play an outsized role in player development and the club system is a mess. I haven’t been able to find research on this so I decided to scrape the birthdays for all 150 Sri Lankan test players from Wikipedia:


Not much to go on here. Not much of a difference. And not enough data points to say the variation is much more than randomness. I may try to find a larger database of Sri Lankan club players.

But, have I been cursed for my October birth? It seems to depend on a lot. Given I grew up in Australia probably not.