Neutering the intelligent cricketer
In cricket, the physically strong can be undone by the weak who are technically gifted; and the clever can prevail over the skilled. It does now, however, appear that the advantage of the intelligent cricketer is being eroded.
That was my reflection on listening to the recent Couch Talk interview with CKM Dhananjai, Performance Analyst with the Indian national team. The interview began like a bad day at work with the interviewee talking about ‘performance enhancement’, ‘SWOT analyses’ and data ‘delivery models’. Subash Jayaraman probed in his courteous way and out came the evidence for there being an active programme to neuter the intelligent cricketer.
Before I substantiate that charge, I will clarify my position on cricket and analytics. Readers of Declaration Game will know that I like to play with numbers, test hypotheses, find associations and contrasts. I do it because I find mainstream coverage of cricket lacking in insight and reliant upon assumptions, cliché and inherited beliefs. I don’t think there’s a secret formula to winning cricket games that can be found if only we conduct enough regression analyses. But I do sense that a sport with so many numbers has done little to understand the probabilities of outcomes for players and teams, and the actions and conditions that affect those probabilities. It’s also harmless fun.
Back on ‘The Couch’, CKN Dhananjai started to give examples of the information he would make available to Indian players.
to play a Morne Morkel, a batsman is already given information about what he does, his instances of bowling a bouncer every three or four balls, and if he is hit for a boundary in a particular ball, what is his follow-up ball, and all that stuff.
This is granular, highly specific information. The technically skilled batsman, capable of absorbing and applying that information, is now on a par when facing Morkel, with the intelligent player, who through his own observation has discerned the pattern in Morkel’s bowling, or perhaps can detect from the South African’s run-up and delivery stride when the bouncer is coming.
Dhananjai’s second example is for the fielding team.
There are many cricketers in the world today who like to hit and run, and we have analytics on that, so you know that if they hit and run, there is an opportunity for a run-out.
The cover point who studies the new batsman’s body language to detect the nervousness that will lead to a poorly judged run has no advantage over the fielder who has listened to the analyst’s briefing and has the ‘hit and run’ batsman pointed out when he arrives at the crease. It’s hard to imagine the creative and cunning tactic of the young Jack Hobbs being tolerated – Hobbs would gift new batsmen a run or two to him in the covers before swooping and running out the complacent batsman.
It’s not just a player’s intelligence that is being neutered in this data-led approach to coaching and match preparation, but individual responsibility; the desire for self-determination that would have a batsman either study a bowler from the pavilion or quiz him over drinks after the game to identify and absorb his opponent’s variations. Those lessons are received passively now in video presentations about the opposition.
It was CKM Dhananjai’s response to the final question of the Couch Talk interview that made me want to distance myself from this analytical approach to the game. He was asked: ‘do you actually get to enjoy a particular game of cricket?’
That’s an interesting question, and a tough one, actually. As a fan… I don’t think I can ever watch a cricket game as a fan, to be honest. There lies the answer. Even if I am watching something on TV sitting at home, it is very difficult to watch it as a normal fan because of the fact that you have been immersed in this day in and day out for more than ten years now.
His dedication to stripping the game down to probabilities and predictive analysis, have left this former cricketer unable to watch the game purely for fun.