Saturday, 20 April 2013

England's blue moments

Writing about the 1986 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, Martin Amis said of chess: '[They are playing] the foremost game of pure skill yet devised by the human mind, a game that is in fact beyond the scope of the human mind, well beyond it, an unmasterable game'.

Eleven years later, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue. The match and its aftermath were conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue, of fear and loathing. Kasparov claimed to have detected a 'deep intelligence and creativity' in the machine, his suggestion being that there had been some human intervention in its play. By 2006, a software programme called Deep Fritz was beating another world champ, Vladimir Kramnik, and now the various machines even play each other and gain their own rankings.

Ultimately, the machines beat the humans through sheer grunt: they could calculate more outcomes more quickly. They never got tired or paranoid, they didn't suffer from the anxiety that Kasparov felt while representing the entire human race against them. The only achievement ahead of the machines is whether they can actually 'solve' chess; that is, calculate the perfect outcome of any game from any position.

There is no element of 'chaos' in chess: there are no bad bounces or freak weather, the board and the pieces don't change. Its variables are perhaps finite. It might be a leap to suggest that sport is as vulnerable to computing power as a game, but there is no doubt that it will shape its future.

Some sports will be more resistant to numbers than others. Football generates a haze of meaningless TV stats because it exists in chaos, statistically speaking. It's a fluid, random game that lacks the rigidity to support really conclusive analysis. Gridiron exists towards the other end of the 'scale' in that it's quite rigorously positioned and patterned.

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, the book that represents a kind of year zero moment for modern sporting stattos, also wrote about Gridiron. Blindside was in part the story of the importance of a certain extremely rare physique playing in a particular position. Here, where biomechanics meet statistics, are the threads of cricket's future.

At Loughborough University, where the ECB has its Performance Centre, almost every ball bowled in any form of international cricket is logged, its outcome added to an already vast database. It becomes a kind of anatomical chart of everyone playing the game. Broad and specific patterns in each format emerge, and from those come not just tactics, but the types of player needed to implement them.

You could call this the 'known half' of stats research, in that it's open to anyone with the resources to do it. It's also in its way unmediated and random. It's produced by a wide base of playing skills, from guys that grew up playing tape-ball to players coached systematically from their early teens.

The other half, lesser known, comes where biomechanics meets with statistical analysis. England's coaching teams believe that they have identified five common factors that all international fast bowlers have, and similarly, five possessed by all top-level spinners. There is specific work on six hitting, on revolutions on the ball in spin bowling and lots more.

This work creates paradigms into which suitable players are fitted and then driven up the elite coaching 'pathways' devised to produce players for the England team. There's some brilliant and revelatory work going on, but it is in a way reminiscent of the way that Deep Blue began to 'solve' chess. It strips away mystery, and to a degree individuality.

England are a very good side, but they did not come up with reverse swing, they have never produced a mystery spinner. Their two really innovative players, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, come from outside of their systems. What they do very well is refine technique in a ruthless way to produce the fine margins needed to win at the highest level. 'Executing their skills' as they call it. As such, they are already becoming the product of the research work done.

Martin Amis thought chess was an unmasterable game, but the machines are proving him wrong. Cricket, with all of its variations and oddities, its geographical sweep, its luck and its superstitions, its weather and its deadly psychology, actually might be. But some of its deeper mysteries are being revealed, and new kinds of machines are emerging to play it.

10 comments:

Backwatersman said...

The thing is, though, that what makes watching cricket interesting and worthwhile has very little to do with winning or losing. I write as a Leicestershire supporter.

chrispscricket said...

If what you describe is the path to success, it will only further entrench the superiority of the wealthier cricket nations - those who can invest in the analysis and measurement.

In vain, I posed the ICC some questions about international cricket statistics (http://wp.me/p1OY5E-hQ) and whether there should be an open source that may benefit all nations. But even that wouldn't provide that much traction if, as you indicate, it is the biomechanical information that is key.

Ankit said...

Quite and interesting point of view. While it is good to know that the wealthier nations are coming up with a science, I do not see a majore paradigm shift in the way test cricket is played or prepared for.

Cricket has a lot of dynamically changing variables that cannot be prefed into a system. it is what you call: every data is new.

Ankit said...

Quite an interesting point of view. While it is good to know that the wealthier nations are coming up with a science, I do not see a majore paradigm shift in the way test cricket is played or prepared for.

Cricket has a lot of dynamically changing variables that cannot be prefed into a system. it is what you call: every data is new.

Tim Newman said...

What they do very well is refine technique in a ruthless way to produce the fine margins needed to win at the highest level. 'Executing their skills' as they call it.

This is the approach the Sky cycling team adopted when they propelled Bradley Wiggins to a Tour win, calling it "marginal gains". In essence, they look to any possible (legal) advantage they can gain no matter how tiny, and hope they add up to produce a winning margin...which in cycling does not need to be very great.

Cricket Passion said...

I believe, England as Inventor of cricket game could not really sustain its supremacy over the period of time. We can do the “root cause analysis”. England never produces the best spinner or batsman those who can really handle the turning track but nowadays after taking the Cook as captain charge things have changed significantly. The recent England tour to India explained it very well. England not only performed well but they beat world champion India in there home ground while best in class Indian Batsman could not even fight properly.

Cricket is Here said...

England team with Panaser and Graeme Swann is balanced team now, gone are the days when England faced difficulties to handle the spinners. But it will be nice to see the contest in upcoming series.

awbraae said...

Yeah, you can build a champion athlete biomechanically, but can you create the mind of a champion athlete in the same way? I would be very surprised if England's bionic man programme lived up to expectations, as I expect it will produce technically perfect cricketers who lack the temperament needed to win the big matches.

Paul Fearnley said...

Max 'Tanglefoot' Walker. Mike Proctor. 'Basher' Hassan. Shiv 'Shuffle' Chanderpaul. Derek 'Rags' Randall. Jeff 'Javelin Thrower' Thomson. Tav. 'Deadly' Derek. Colin 'The Demon of Frome' Dredge. Colin 'Wide of the Crease' Croft. Phil 'Tap, tap, twiddle, twiddle' Mead.
Robots all. Not. Thank God! Keep cricket gloriously quirkily human. And sod the results!

Chris Brew said...

There's very little chance that chess will ever be "solved". The numbers of possible moves are just too big. Although we can _imagine_ robot-like recipes for solving chess, mathematics says, with only slightly less than utter certainty, that these recipes are out of reach in this universe.

And, if you want, here's how to use virtual reality to increase the chance the Monty will catch the next skyer:

http://www.journalofvision.org/content/9/13/14

Briefly, it tells how expert catchers track the ball, even when the 'ball' is doing physically impossible things. I warn you that the standard of throwing and catching in American sports is really, really high. Baseball gloves help, but that's not all of it.