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.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Pondulkar, the IPL and nostalgia

Something strange happens to our old enemies as they prepare the leave the field. Age strips them of their armour, and as it does, they become something else, something different. Their power fades, and from underneath it comes the fuller man.

The blindness has been ours rather than theirs of course. Cricket is a game built on nostalgia of one kind or another: for what was, and for what might have been.

The IPL's fusion of high commerce and eye-melting spectacle may be designed for the future, yet corners of it are filled by the past. It's a happy by-product of the competition's need of fame to power its expansion that it has become a benign and accepting old folks home, an annual reunion for semi-retired warriors. There's Adam Gilchrist, chin a little sharper now and some grey in his stubble; Here comes Brett Lee, bowling an unplayable leg-cutter to a kid who was six years old when he made his Test debut; Over there is Murali, that weary arm looking ever more slender and tortured after many thousands of overs. Big Jake Oram's arrived, patched up and wobbling in to bowl. There are more, too: the noble and eternal Dravid, bristling Brad Hodge, those Hussey brothers...

Till now, they have been small pools eddying in the river,  hidden by the flow, but this year they have a headline act in Pondulkar, that irresistible pairing at the top of the Mumbai batting order. It doesn't matter that they haven't yet got many runs, or that one half of the duo is still a fully engaged international cricketer. Instead, it's just enough to see them together in an arena with some meaning. Ten years ago, they might have done some serious damage, too, but the IPL didn't exist then, and anyhow there's something uplifting about watching Ponting in particular searching for method in a format that, in his orthodoxy, he initially disdained.

Two men who will have a combined age of 78 before the tournament closes have given it exactly the kind of widescreen, technicolor glow that softens the bellowed commentary, that leavens the sponsored inanities, that connects thrusting modernity to its past.

And if that weren't service enough, they give it heart. Their epic careers trail behind them, and we all have our memories vested in those. They are champions brought back to the pack by age, old men in a young man's game, the last light of the comet's tail. It's almost impossible to watch them walk out and imagine that once, there were hundreds of thousands of people urging them to fail, because nothing befits them more than success.

That's the pull of nostalgia, and in the IPL, it pulls harder than anywhere else.