Saturday 27 August 2011

Andy Flower plays the Moneyball card

It's no secret that Andy Flower is a Moneyball guy, a fan of Michael Lewis's book on Billy Beane and the Oakland As baseball team - an underfunded and unfashionable franchise made into winners by Beane's attention to statistical detail.

Peter Moores turned Flower onto Beane's methods, which worked because he realised that traditional baseball stats like Runs Batted In weren't particularly effective in measuring performance, even though everyone in the game used them and had done for a century. Some fans of fantasy baseball found better ones to run their teams, and Beane employed them to analyse players for him.

Ever since Lewis's book, every sport has tried to find its version of Moneyball. Andy Flower found Nathan Leamon, a mathematician from Cambridge University who was also a qualified coach, and provided a well-funded black-ops stats department at the ECB for him to use [it's easy to imagine A-Flo wrapping an arm around Nathan's shoulders and telling him to 'think the unthinkable...']. Flower has been even more guarded than usual when he's been asked about the numbers being run, saying only that the work was 'very interesting' - at least until last weekend, and piece by Simon Wilde in the Sunday Times.

Wilde's story [unfortunately behind the humble Rupert's paywall] revealed something of Leamon's methods. The boy's gone to town and then some. England's enthusiasm for Hawkeye extends way beyond the DRS - they've used to it log and analyse every ball delivered in Test match cricket around the world in the last five years.

With access to such vast data they now run simulations of every Test match they play, taking into account venue, conditions, selection and pitch. Leamon reckons that such 'games', when he checks them against the actual matches, 'are accurate to within four or five percent'.

Other work has been in breaking down pitches in areas for bowlers to aim at: Leamon claims England's palpable success against Sachin Tendulkar was due in part to statistical analysis that showed Sachin made the bulk of his runs on the leg side until he reached fifty.

'It's all about asking the right questions,' Leamon told Wilde, 'which can be the short cut to six months of work. A lot of the old ways of looking at the technique of opponents leads to guesswork - feet position, how they hold the bat. Hawkeye enables you to come up with answers'.

Unlikely though it is that Flower and Leamon would reveal much of what they know to a newspaper, it is nonetheless strangely comforting that five years of work has simply produced a shortcut to knowledge rather than anything more revelatory, because if the numbers had unpicked the game, had stripped it back to a simple series of probabilities, some of its deep and human mysteries would have been lost.

Moneyball worked for Billy Beane in part because every franchise plays hundreds of games per season and the vast majority aren't watched by the other coaches and teams. Test matches are much rarer things, and are more closely observed. And Moneyball only really worked until all of the other teams knew about it and started using the same information. Once they did, the variables of power and money that Beane had overcome reasserted themselves.

Baseball is also a more mechanical game than cricket. The batter only really has one swing, so his ability to adapt is compromised to a far greater degree than, say, Tendulkar's who, lest we forget, once made a double hundred in Australia without hitting a single cover drive - on purpose. The numbers are beautiful and fascinating, but as Rahul Dravid said last week, cricket is a game 'played in the space of the mind', and that is more fascinating and beautiful still.

Saturday 20 August 2011

KP: Lap of the gods

'The wheel has to turn,' Kevin Pietersen said simply, and it has. In the 15 innings he's played since the 227 in Adelaide, he has made three of his four highest Test scores and his average is back above 50. His knock yesterday summoned all of his quirky brilliance, and also the pernicious nature of cricket's gods.

There really is no other way to think about the game sometimes. No-one works harder than KP, and to overcome his long drought, he went back to the book. Both of his double hundreds, plus his 85 at the Rose Bowl against Sri Lanka [an equally high-quality innings], were most notable for the way he determined to hit everything down the ground. There is no better principal to abide by, and none better to watch.

With his swagger back, he spent the first part of his innings yesterday determined to ignore it. Ishant Sharma almost bowled him round his legs several times. Last ball before lunch he blundered into the most obvious leg slip trap ever set. On 88 he screwed a hoick just wide of mid-off. He hit the second ball after tea straight up in the air, having gone to hundred from the first. At times Bell made him look like an oaf.

Any and all of these incidents would have done for him when his luck was down and the wheel was yet to turn. What was intriguing about this almost endlessly fascinating player was his willingness to ride his luck, almost to trust it. There's a part of batting that is about fatalism, about the nature of chance, and Pietersen more than most seems willing to allow it to be part of his game. He really is extraordinary.

Thursday 18 August 2011

The missing

Injury aside, who was the last batsman dropped by England? It was Ravi Bopara, who remains, at least for the moment, next man back in. Before that? Ian Bell.

Stability is an inevitable consequence of success, as well as a contributor to it. For every era-defining side, there is a generation of players who miss out and spend the rest of their lives hearing people say: 'you'd walk into that team now...' Such has been the fate of Stuart Law, Darren Lehmann, Ian Harvey, Brad Hodge, Martin Love and other Australians. You could argue that Stuart MacGill might have played 100 Tests, or that Gilchrist could have played 60 more. West Indies would probably be pretty happy to open their bowling with Wayne Daniel and Sylvester Clarke at the moment. Who knows, in a few years, India might be looking at the Test match batting of Yuvraj Singh with longing in their hearts.

So it is with England right now. Strauss, who is 34 and has the burden of captaincy to shorten his lifespan aside, Cook is 26, Bell 29, KP 31, Prior 29, Trott 30, Morgan 24. Strauss's spot might come up after the back-to-back Ashes series. As for the others - in four years? Five? Longer?

Already there are casualties. Who can imagine Joe Denly getting back in? If Bopara doesn't get a spot as the spare man on tour, what is his future at 26? And Owais Shah? James Hildreth? What about the wonderkids of a couple of years ago - Billy Godleman, Sam Northeast - now that all of the fuss is about Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Ben Stokes, James Vince, Alex Hales?

Surrey and Somerset have, between them, Jason Roy, Steve Davies, Tom Maynard, Zafar Ansari, Stuart Meaker, Jos Buttler, Craig Meschede, Craig Kieswetter, Lewis Gregory. The bowlers have more chance, but there are plenty of them, too.

And what of Rory Hamilton-Brown? He's only 23, and a county captain. Had he been around 15 years ago, he would have played for England by now. As it is, he's never mentioned.

There is no answer to this strange combination of generational talent, serendipity and organisation. All that can be guaranteed is that one day England, like the rest, will drift back into entropy and dream of the promise that slipped them by.

NB: Australia will publish the Team Performance Review, aka the far catchier 'Ashes Autopsy' on Friday. Wonder how much store it will set by the flukes of time?

Thursday 11 August 2011

Geoffrey's anniversary

Today, as England ground India into what passes for dust in the northern summer, Geoffrey Boycott himself had to be reminded that it was the 34th anniversary of his one hundredth first class hundred, scored in an Ashes Test against Australia on his home ground at Headingley in 1977. He remains the only man to reach the mark in a Test match, a record that will probably now stand forever.

Memory jogged by Aggers on Test Match Special, he didn't need much prompting to reminisce: 'I can't say I wasn't nervous that morning, because I was, and nerves can do strange things. It took me half an hour to settle down'.

The context of that innings has been written about so often it doesn't really need rehashing here, except to say Boycott was a prodigal, returning to the side on his own terms, batting for history on his own ground in front of his own people and with the greatest mark in batsmanship staring him square in the face. The ground was over-run when he drove Greg Chappell to the long-on boundary about 20 minutes before the close.

But it was 34 years ago. Boycott the player is receding into the past. Many people who've heard him talk may not have seen him bat. I was just a kid but I remember that innings, and the last part of his career. I saw him play in a John Player Sunday League match at my old home ground at May's Bounty. He opened and got about 20 before he was caught at cover, trying to force a boundary down the hill towards the school wall. I remember he wore a cap rather than a helmet, because one of the odd rules in the John Player League was that bowlers could only have a limited run-up - I think it was eight yards, marked with a chalk line on the outfield.

I was a kid, with a kid's attention span, but I was urged to watch Boycott bat by my dad. Geoffrey was his hero on account of his impeccable technique. I had a book called Boycott On Batting, an instructional manual which, up the side of each page, had a series of pictures that worked like a flicker book and let you see Geoffrey performing several shots. That's what life was like before youtube.

But there was more to watching Boycott bat than that. The days on which he scored hundreds, which around that time were frequent, fell into a seemingly inevitable pattern. He would open, often with Mike Brearley, who you got the feeling he resented. Brearley would edge to slip, usually removing his bottom hand from the bat. You could almost feel Boycott tutt from the other end.

Before lunch he had few scoring shots. He was about defence and establishing himself at the crease. He was utterly solid, especially when playing forward, and he rarely played and missed - probably because he rarely played at anything not on the line of the stumps. His total by the break was usually somewhere between twenty and thirty.

In the afternoon session, he would cut and drive the bad ball and score with nudges off his legs from anything offline. His cover drive was struck late and with a checked follow-through, and his cut was forced off the back foot with the elbow still high. He would pass fifty after three hours or so, and by tea he might have seventy runs.

After that, with the change bowlers and the spinners on now, he would hit more bad balls. He was a master of farming the strike as he edged towards a hundred. Once he got to eighty, there was an inevitability about things, and the hundred always seemed to come in the half an hour or so before the close, whereupon he'd start planning for the next day and retreat once again. He was voracious, not so much for runs, but for time at the crease. A lot of his running was obviously selfish, and predicated on whether he wanted to face or not.

As Botham and Gower and Gooch came into the side, he became more of a figure of fun. Yet the other day, I was flipping through an old book I stumbled across, Bob Willis's Diary Of A Season, from 1978. It was the year after Boycott's triumphs against Australia, and he missed a few games against Pakistan ostensibly with an injured thumb. There was speculation as to whether he really wanted to play or not. Yet what came across clearly from Willis and the rest was that Boycott was regarded by his peers as the best batsman in England, and by some distance.

He was 36 when he made his hundredth hundred, and he went on to make another 51. Fifty one! To contextualise that figure, Mike Atherton made 54 first class hundreds in his career. Kevin Pietersen has 40. Boycott was ruthless in his way.

John Arlott, as he often would, made a telling and melancholic point about Geoffrey. 'He had,' Arlott said, 'a lonely career'. That is true, but in essence the great batsmen are alone, or at least they are when they bat. He is, in his quirky way, less alone now. I'm glad I saw him play.

Monday 8 August 2011

Matthew Hayden Encompasses His Core Philosophies Of Crictainment

Ah, Matthew Hayden, you mad old robot, you... At some point since you last walked from the crease, that big iron face of yours screwed into its familiar emoticon of furious bafflement that the oppo have had the wherewithal to dismiss the great Haydos; since the Baggy Green lid was prized off for the final time, something has happened, and it is not something expected, or something good...

A virus has been imported, the Haydos hard drive has been wiped and replaced by a Trojan Horse. The mouth that once opened only to emit variations of the phrase 'fuck off' from first slip has been reprogrammed by a mid-90s management guru. He is now the proprietor of something called The Hayden Way.

'As I encompass my core philosophies, it is with the creation of The Hayden Way...' the Bot said. 'we have been developing projects to engage people on a multitude of levels. Through branded media, bespoke events, community projects, education and activities that encourage everyone to enjoy the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle.'

A tour of its website reveals The Hayden Way to be nothing more sinister than an optimistic mish-mash of college-course brand-building, corporate pluggery ['Jet! Matthew Hayden's Number One airline choice!'] and reality TV shows starring Matthew Hayden.

Yet, as any Hollywood movie about rogue computerised life-forms will tell you, there is a grand scheme behind the rebranding of the Haydos robot. The Hayden Way wants to own a slice of something that it - and no doubt soon the rest of mankind - is calling 'crictainment'.

'Crictainment' is a revolutionary compounding of 'cricket' and 'entertainment' that involves privately-owned big city franchise teams playing each other in an annual T20 competition. But before you start, this one's in Australia. Hayden is the first investor in Brisbane Heat, a team for which he will also play.

'I have had little interest in the T20 format domestically whilst it remained a state based format, which to me, was a pathway or development program to National interests. A system, I hasten to add, that I received the benefit of as a player,' the Bot went on.

'But an eight-team Big Bash League structure – involving separate organisations running these entities with Private Equity stakeholders in the future – has launched the 'Business of Cricket' and relaunched my interest as a highly viable business decision, adding value both to The Hayden Way, and also to me personally on the field.'

A veteran of 103 Tests, the reprogrammed Haydos no longer sees value in series against any teams other than England or India. 'I love the baggy green, I love what it stands for,' he droned. 'However short of the Ashes, and potentially the Indian summer, I've said for a long time that I'm largely un-invested in that particular competition'

So bad luck South Africa, catch you later Sri Lanka. No-one wants to see you beating Australia any more. West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Pakistan... well, wouldn't want to be you guys.

Like the Terminator, The Haydos bot ended its statement by foreshadowing its own destruction: 'John Buchanan said when he was coach of Australia and Queensland that his ideal scenario was to become redundant in that role, and he did that by lifting up the younger players into the more iconic positions. I think I can add that value to the dressing room as well.'

In other words.... Er Matty... fuck off, mate.

Monday 1 August 2011

MS Dhoni: Alpha Male

When the golfer Bobby Jones was congratulated for calling a foul on himself in a tournament long ago, he replied, 'you might as well praise me for not robbing a bank'. The Corinthian Casuals football team would instruct their goalkeeper to vacate the six yard box if they conceded a penalty on the grounds that the other side had already been denied a goal by their foul. Mark Taylor declared on himself when he was level with Bradman's then-record Australian score of 334.

Sportsmanship in sport has always been coded by the times in which it happens. Jones admitted that he never played what he called 'friendly golf' even when he went out with his friends. Football's professional foul occupies a respectful category of its own. Matthew Hayden remained qualm-less as he muscled past Taylor and the Don against the mighty Zimbabwe.

The point being that acceptability is a movable feast, the product of complex interpretations that change with the years. Bodyline almost started a war; the West Indies quicks who did the same thing are the subject of awe and rose-tinted documentaries. WG regarded the umpire's decision as optional. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga risked their lives to wear black armbands. Things are equivocal.

MS Dhoni's act was about more than just sportsmanship, although it was an act of sportsmanship and should be remembered as one. Yet it was also an act of leadership, and one that explained a lot about why India are successful. It was the decision of an alpha-male with a sense of perspective.

It was noticeable, during the Sky coverage, that one of the commentators most convinced that Bell should be dismissed was Nasser Hussain. His England side would have done so, because they were not a great team and he was trying to install in them a notion that no-one should give an inch on the field. Shane Warne, a player far more accustomed to winning and the winner's mentality, said that he would have recalled Bell.

Ultimately, it's a decision based on confidence. Dhoni is confident in himself and his team. If he allowed himself to be consumed by the pressure of captaining India, he would implode. The same quality that allowed him to saunter to the crease in the World Cup final and win the game was the one that allowed him to withdraw his appeal. The truly secure man knows that his time will come again; he's not obsessed with small-picture detail.

England would do well not to get ahead of themselves. India have been asked to win a World Cup, stage the IPL, achieve number one status in Test cricket, play out a series of shimmering brilliance in South Africa, appear in front of empty stadiums in West Indies and then take on England with a main bowler and talismanic batsman missing.

Andrew Strauss said that he 'liked to think' he'd do the same as Dhoni. It will be a signal of his strength if he does.