Archive | January 29, 2012

Personalised medicine for England

A dozen-or-so times a game, a man wearing a helmet and shoulder pads comes onto the American football pitch. He stands poised for the play to start, catches the ball and punts it as far and high as he can. Then he goes back to the sidelines. He’s accompanied on and off the field by ten teammates, only one of whom is likely to touch the ball. The rest act as human barricades.

American sport has taken Taylorian division of labour onto the playing field. The ‘special team’ (named surely to compensate them for having such a limited role in the match) of punter and blockers in American football is one example. In baseball there are pitchers who are brought into the game at crucial points to throw maybe as few as three pitches and are then withdrawn. Ice Hockey, I recall, has ‘goons’. A friend in the US told me about his college mate who was selected for one of the pro hockey franchises’ development squads. In his first match he got caught up in some argy-bargy. Off the ice, his coach went wild. “Those two goons over there are in the team for fighting. I picked you to play hockey.”

Sport in the US has given specialisation a bad name: sportsmen who play ball games, but almost never touch the ball; skaters whose role is to hit the talented opponent, not the puck.

A detail in Pakistan’s spin-driven series victory over England may be a far more interesting sporting specialisation. Mohammed Hafeez, under the astute captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq, has a precise and well-defined role: to bowl at top-order left-handed batsmen. The third choice spinner in the Pakistan team, it is to Hafeez, that Misbah has thrown the ball when replacing one of his opening bowlers in the first and second test matches against England. Hafeez actually bowled the first over of England’s dreadful second knock at Abu Dhabi. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are left-handed batsmen, who have prospered in Test cricket in all countries. But facing Hafeez with a new ball has been a novel and baffling challenge. He has dismissed Strauss once and Cook twice in two tests.

Hafeez is preying upon the English openers’ technical shortcomings and discomfort at not facing fast and medium quick bowlers at the start of an innings. However, there is more to his success than a couple of confused Englishmen abroad. His test bowling record against left-handers features a bowling average four times better than his average against right-handers. In one respect, Hafeez is a part-timer, not getting a bowl in every match he has played and averaging fewer than 10 overs per Test appearance. But part-timer doesn’t do justice to the niche he has found. In the last 20 innings in which he has had a bowl, he has opened the bowling or been first change 11 times. Of his 26 Test wickets, 20 are left-handers. 14 of these are top-order batsmen, including Graeme Smith, Brian Lara and Darren Bravo.

In Abu Dhabi, Hafeez opened the bowling, tied down the openers, accounted for Cook and was then removed from the attack. He has a pronounced facility, recognised and exploited, to trouble left-handed batsmen.

Cricket teams are a fusion of specialists: opening batsmen, wicketkeeper, quick bowlers, spin bowlers, slip fielders, etc. Hafeez’s specialism isn’t one of these conventional roles. It’s a super-specialism. It’s certainly not unique. It can be argued that Jimmy Anderson is a ‘super specialist’ slip fielder to England’s slow bowlers. Stuart Broad thought he had a ‘super specialism’ as the England quick who could rough up batsmen with short-pitched bowling. England, in the field, have prospered, once he shed this pretension.

Hafeez, I assume, made it into the Pakistan team because of his batting. He averages over 40 and with Taufeeq Umar has established a successful opening partnership that itself averages over 40. When Duncan Fletcher coached England, he insisted that the cricketers he picked should excel in two of the three cricket disciplines. It was clear thinking that finally took England away from trying to find all-rounders to succeed Botham, but uncovered players who could bat and bowl at county level and hold their own as neither in Test cricket. I can’t be sure that Fletcher would have selected Hafeez had he been available to him, but he does seem to be an evolution to the Fletcher approach to team construction.

To prosper, international cricketers must be able to adapt: to different pitches, opponents, weather conditions, match situations and variants of the sport. Hafeez isn’t succeeding because of a narrow, focused skill. He’s an all-round cricketer, who through Misbah’s understanding of his particular strengths and the opponents’ weak-spots is having one of his attributes deployed to telling effect. I have made the argument before that batsmen should bat in the order that suits the game situation not in an inflexible scorecard order. Similarly, cricket teams seeking the advantage in closely fought series should know which of their team is best suited to the challenge of the moment. That understanding may come from statistical analysis of past performance or from a nuanced appreciation of technical ability. By following predictable patterns of play – thirty overs of seam, followed by some spin, back to seam after intervals and again immediately when the new ball is available – teams won’t eke out those advantages.

The ultra-specialisation of American sport doesn’t turn out to be a good analogy for Hafeez’s role. Those sports have squads of players available for use during each match, encouraging specialisation of function. Cricket teams need to (in a final borrowing from the States) cover all their bases with the 11 selected on the morning of the match. I think a better model comes from a completely different domain – medicine. Moving into the future, treatments for ill health won’t be determined merely by the diagnosis and the symptoms, but by an understanding of the genetic characteristics of the patient and so which pharmaceutical interventions are suited to the individual. Blockbuster drugs are being replaced by personalised medicine and we are watching Pakistan mete out some very personal medicine to the England team.