Neutering the intelligent cricketer

morkelIn 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.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

3 responses to “Neutering the intelligent cricketer”

  1. David Mutton says :

    This is a very thought-provoking piece Chris Perhaps this is galloping off on a tangent but one of the things which sometimes disturbs me about baseball is its relationship with numbers. Not so much the analysis but that at times the game gets reduced to them – is player X slightly down on their post-season average, is pitcher Y worth the money for his EPA etc. It – to this romantic humanist at least – almost reduces humans with all their complexities into little more than robotic figures performing either better or worse than expectation. In short – where cricket can learn from baseball (and has) is utilizing data to understand past performance and improve future actions. But I hope it does not go the route where data IS the performance (which, at least to my understanding, is the fundamentals of Lewis’ Moneyball theory). Does that make any sense at all?

    • chrisps says :

      David, it does make sense. I have seen the equation of statistic with value in other sports, too.

      Baseball gripped me for the two years I spent in Philadelphia – the stats, it won’t surprise you, were part of the appeal. But I was surprised how inflexibly they were used by teams. It was common to see a LH pinch-hitter introduced and the right armed pitcher replaced with a lefty because of the better stats left-armed pitchers apparently had against LH batters. I could have been wrong, but there didn’t seem to be any assessment of whether the pitcher was pitching well and so should be trusted to continue.

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