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.


diogenes said...

on the other hand, is this not a re-affirmation of the traditional virtues of Yorkshire cricket? The way that, on a soft 1st innings pitch, Johnny Wardle would deliberately pepper an area of the pitch to create conditions that would conduce for the second innings. Illingworth and co would outbowl him in innings 1 and be comprehensively outbowled at the death because he had deliberately altered the pich to suit him. Or Illingworth's analysis of Sobers, so in 1969 he would bring on D'Oliveira to bowl a half-volley wide outside off-stump in the hope of enticing a catch...which happened gratifyingly often that series. Or, indeed, Vaughan's approach to Hayden of blocking his big off-drives at the start of the innings. However, it is less than clear to me that Strauss's bowlers operate with specific plans against batsmen. The field placings for Swann against aggressive players of spin - eg Hussey, Dravid, etc - have tended to suggest to me the complete lack of a plan or analysis.

John Halliwell said...

It was good to arrive at the third last para, OB, and find your re-affirmation of cricket's enduring soul at a time when we appear to be increasingly obsessed with statistics and analysis. The culmination of the post with Dravid's striking observation seems so apt.

The post made me think of previous England captains who would have embraced Leamon's methods and got excited as they contemplated the use of voluminous data when drawing up plans to counteract the outstanding batsmen and bowlers of the time. The only captain I could come up with who might have embraced Leamon to the nth degree was Jardine, and not just because of his obsession with finding answers to the Bradman problem. His personality, as far as I understand it from biographical extracts, suggests a man who would have revelled in the minute analysis afforded by Leamon's work; perhaps the antithesis of a Gower, Cowdrey, or Gatting, but within striking distance of a Brearley, Hutton or even Illingworth. In other words and on further reflection: I haven't really got much of a clue. But the 'what if' always holds a fascination for me.

pay per head service said...

yeah actually everyone knows that Andy Flower is a "Money ball" guy as you well said it and I have heard good things about Michael Lewis's book on Billy Beane and the Oakland As baseball team, I think I will buy it