By Ahsan Butt
I was reading this great piece on Grantland on the “Kobe assist”, and this part, comparing basketball to baseball, and why the latter lends itself to statistical analysis, struck me:
Baseball analytics had its epiphany in part because Bill James and others realized that baseball was only barely a team sport, and really could be reduced to a discrete sequence of outcomes that involved singular players competing in sequences of one-on-one scenarios. But basketball achievements do not occur in a vacuum; just as it is rare for one player to be solely responsible for a made basket, it is similarly rare for one player to be solely responsible for other types of events, including rebounds and put-backs.
This isn’t especially new; if anything, non-Americans tend to be more aware of this distinction than Americans, mainly because of football (or soccer), which is the ultimate “butterfly effect” sport. (Though the Optas of the world are trying to increase the advanced stats quotient within football, and though analysts such as Michael Cox and Jonathan Wilson do make use of these statistics from time to time, the vast, vast majority of football analysis does not use, and probably does not need, advanced statistics, simply because the sport is way too fluid).
But the quoted passage does raise the pertinent point that individual sports masquerading as team sports should see more advanced statistical techniques than the average sport. And cricket is the ultimate one-on-one sport masquerading as a team sport: not including run outs, there is basically no way for more than three players to be involved in any game-event, which is another way of saying that any given time, at least 77% of the players on the field are doing literally nothing to impact play.
The question I have is: why hasn’t cricket seen Moneyball-type analysis take off?
It certainly isn’t to do with a lack of data. Cricinfo has ball-by-ball coverage of every game played since, I don’t know, 1885. The conceptual vision already exists; things like the wagon wheel and Hawkeye are similar to the ball and player tracking we see in American sports.
It doesn’t have to do with a lack of money.
It doesn’t have to do with a lack of potential gains. I could foresee a fairly sizable first-mover advantage to the first team that employs this.
There are certainly important differences between the advanced-stats world of American sports and cricket. For instance, advanced stats in American sports are used for two related but distinct purposes: to evaluate talent, and to employ better strategies. For instance, the analytics community in basketball hates guys who need a lot of shots to score X points; thus a more efficient scorer (say, Ray Allen or Steve Nash) is valued more highly than a so-called volume scorer (Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady). But crucially, advanced stats also allow you to change tactics and strategies; the emphasis on spread-the-floor teams who shoot lots of threes comes from the analytics community, which has discovered that shooting 2-point jump-shots is, after turning the ball over, basically the worst thing you can do on the offensive end in basketball.
In cricket, however, because there is not one massive pool of players which all playing actors are entitled to, the evaluation bit is probably less important. You can’t trade or sign players from another country (unless you’re England). This means that beating your opponent’s ability to evaluate talent is less important, since she can’t pick your players and you can’t pick hers.
But the tactics/strategy element certainly comes into it. For instance, let’s say we discover from advanced statistical analysis that high team scores are more correlated with the number of singles than the number of boundaries in an innings. Well, then, in that case you would impress upon your players the importance of scoring singles, and eschewing more aggressive batting. (Conversely, fielding captains would be more concerned with stopping singles than conceding boundaries).
Or let’s say advanced stats reveal that almost no runs are scored at fine leg in the first 20 overs of a test innings, and thus putting a fielder there, instead of say 3rd man (more frequently left vacant), is foolish in the extreme. Well, then, captains would plug that hole and put fine legs more than they would put third men (I realize that sentence is hilarious to anyone who doesn’t follow cricket). The point is, even without the evaluating mechanism, I can easily imagine a fairly important role for advanced stats.
So then why haven’t we seen it? Some may argue that cricket is way too uptight and traditional to welcome new metrics, but I think that’s wrong. Yes, the sport has a stuffy image...
...but in actual fact, cricket more than most sports has been open to innovation in rules, norms, and formats. (This tension, between an explicitly traditional sport constantly trying to adjust to the times and as a consequence being fairly innovative is discussed at length in Mike Marqusee’s brilliant book, Anyone but England).
Moreover, it’s not as if coaching hasn’t gone undergone a sea change in methods over the last generation. Teams now have specialized coaches not just for each discipline in the game (batting, bowling, fielding) but also subdisciplines (spin bowling, fast bowling). Cricket hasn’t missed the worldwide revolution in fitness training and nutrition either.
So what gives? Why haven’t we seen the Moneyball-ification of cricket?
This article was first published on fiverupees.com.