Although I haven’t been paying close attention to this year’s IPL, simply because it’s a big year ahead and I need a bit of a rest before the World Cup and the Ashes, I am incredibly interested in how T20 and cricket in general might evolve in the coming years. I’m especially interested because I recently read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and found it very interesting indeed.
For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it describes how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who was once a highly drafted college baseball player who bombed badly as a pro, managed to take a team with a small budget to the World Series finals. He did it by finding market efficiencies – in other words, identifying undervalued players who could perform a specific role incredibly well, even though they weren’t brilliant all-rounders or the archetypal athletes other teams coveted.
In doing so Beane created a highly competitive team despite spending comparatively little money on wages. And he soon transformed the way franchises thought about baseball. Instead of looking at how tall a player was, or how many replica jerseys he might sell, Beane was only interested in statistics and the ‘value’ a specific player could bring.
The parallels with cricket aren’t exact but I’ve always thought they’re relevant. Just look at the recent success of Harry Gurney. The Notts left-armer has rarely excelled in first class or list A cricket, but his left-arm angle and good cricket brain has made him an effective performer in T20, even though his reputation before this year’s Big Bash was hardly stellar. Beane would’ve gobbled up someone like Gurney as soon as he hit the market. He wouldn’t care that he wasn’t as slick and stylish as a Mitchell Starc. He’d bring him in to perform a specific role and he’d do it well.
I’ve often wondered how long it would take for T20 cricket to catch up with baseball in this regard. Although T20 has always been portrayed by many (including this site!) as merely a bit of hit and giggle, I do think it’s becoming more interesting now that the statisticians and analysts are getting involved. It’s intriguing how somewhat random players like Wayne Madsen can win lucrative T20 contracts in the PSL. Basically someone is doing their homework and trying to find efficiencies. And I think this makes T20 a much more serious and stimulating business – even though aesthetically it will never be the equal of first class cricket in my opinion.
Consequently my eyes lit up when I saw the following interview with data analyst Dan Weston on the Betway Insider blog. Weston is a former gambler who previously used his statistical expertise to win money. These days he applies his knowledge to identify players for subcontinental franchises instead. He’s therefore ahead of the game when it comes to cricket statistics – which makes him something of a revolutionary in a way that Peter Moores never was.
Weston is a former gambler who uses millions of balls’ worth of cricket data to calculate and predict the success of cricketers in all formats around the world. Like Billy Beane he eschews traditional scouting methods, which tend to rely on feel / gut instinct, and instead focuses solely on stats. Players therefore become numbers rather than personalities. It might sound a bit cold but at least his decisions are evidence-based.
He believes the key is to know which statistics are vital and which ones to ignore:
Cricket is full of inane data like: ‘This is the slowest century by an English batsman on a Tuesday.’ It’s completely worthless. Cricket teams make mistakes. You name it, they’ll make that mistake, be it selection, recruitment, in-game tactics”
Weston’s solution was to set up a business that supplies data to teams, players and agents that aims to eliminate these mistakes. His model is a complex one. He takes a players’ individual data (average, strike rate, economy) and makes adjustments to it based on recency, opposition quality, and the conditions in which each tournament is played in.
Because I follow American football I know they use this kind of statistical data regularly on the other side of the Atlantic. A site called Football Outsiders, for example, uses a metric called DVOA (which stands for defensive adjusted value over average) to determine who the best teams and best players are. Rather than using simple metrics like ‘metres made’ or ‘touchdowns scored’ they work out rankings for players which take into account specific circumstances and the toughness of the opposition.
If they did one for cricket, for example, they might find that Alastair Cook was top of the run scoring charts but merely average in the DVOA tables. This is because (as I’ve demonstrated ad nauseam over the years) he made so few hundreds against top bowling attacks in tough conditions and instead excelled at making huge scores when conditions were benign. Rather than arguing about how good certain players are on social media, DVOA actually decides these arguments for us.
Weston uses a similar formula to calculate expected stats for players at upcoming events. This enables him to recommend players to teams around the world, including for the IPL and T20 Blast.
Cricket is a conditions-driven sport. So a T20 Blast match at Canterbury will be a pace-orientated affair, whereas in Dhaka it’s going to be spinner-friendly and low-scoring.
If a batsman performs well at Canterbury, does that really apply to a match in Dhaka? Probably not. There’s limited relevance. So I analyse how historically similar players have made the transition from one league to another.
I might be asked to find a pace bowler for the T20 Blast, where an Australian will be quite highly-rated, as opposed to the IPL, where they haven’t thrived as much as their reputation would suggest because of the quality of the league.
‘Reputation’ is a key concept here. Weston believes that reputations can fool a team’s management into making poor selection and recruitment decisions. Picking on reputation is lazy. Instead he prefers what cricket fans might call horses for courses selections – although it’s a bit more sophisticated than that.
Lots of high-profile players are signed based on reputation rather than current ability. Take Brendon McCullum: he’s got a poor record against spin bowling, he doesn’t keep wicket anymore, yet subcontinental teams are signing him as a marquee player. It makes no sense whatsoever.
Interestingly, Weston believes that a statistics-driven approach will eventually lead to a resurgence in the popularity of specialists in cricket. This is obviously music to my ears. Although Ed Smith might not be so keen as it somewhat undermines his whole selection philosophy.
While T20 teams often try to fit as many batting and bowling options into their team as possible, Weston begs to differ. Why? Because cramming a plethora of all-rounders into a team can negate their effectiveness – especially when it comes to the bowlers.
You don’t want to stick an all-rounder at No. 9 because he’s just not going to bat in T20. The average No. 8 faces about seven balls per match, and the average No. 9 faces about four balls per match. If those guys are required to face more than the average, your top order batsmen haven’t done their job properly.
For No. 9, 10 and 11 you just want an out-and-out specialist bowler who would perhaps then be capable of playing a five-ball cameo. If you pick too many all-rounders you end up compromising where they bowl, because often they turn out not to be very good death bowlers.
Weston’s approach is certainly working. And he has the numbers to prove it. Indeed, teams around the world are slowly beginning to take notice. For example, last year he wrote an analysis of 10 English players who would perform well in the subcontinent. His top five all got signed by franchises … including Wayne Madsen!
As a result I expect we’ll see a lot more analysts and statisticians involved in T20 cricket in the coming years. Yes this might make T20 cricket even more like baseball, but at least it will give spectators and cricket followers something else to think about.
The sight of six after six disappearing into orbit soon has lost its lustre as far as I’m concerned. I prefer test cricket for this very reason. It’s less repetitive and the ebb and flow of the game slowly seduces you. However, if I knew there was something more strategic going on behind the scenes then I might be inclined to take T20 more seriously. Even if one doesn’t particularly enjoy watching the format on the field, one can still appreciate the science behind assembling the perfect roster off it.