Episode 57: Cricket’s romantic numbers

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Cricket has always been rich in statistics, but lately they have deepened and multiplied. Cricket’s new professional data analysts can access the detailed results of every single ball bowled in major cricket matches for over twenty years and use them to influence team selections, tactics and onfield decisions. This has alarmed many critics, who say it is turning cricket into a process without character or the thrill of the unexpected. Not so, argues Ben Jones, the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller on their cricket-themed podcast. He is a leading member of the new profession and co-author with Nathan Leamon, chief analyst for the England One-Day and T20 teams, of a fascinating book Hitting Against The Spin. Ben shows that for those who know how to arrange and orchestrate them, numbers deepen the romance of the music of cricket.

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Ben explains how data analysis lit up a key finding in the book – the modern rise of left-handed batters in international cricket – and why and how higher standards of umpiring restored their natural advantage against pace bowling. (In contrast India, where spin predominates, still favours right-handers.) 6-10 minutes

Another major theme is the reward in cricket for unorthodoxy and unfamiliarity. Ben cites the book’s studies of left-handed bowlers, and the one-offs in Malinga and Muralitharan, and the early success of the reverse sweep in batting. He suggests that against the game’s élite players, who have mastered every conventional technique from opponents, disruption is a vital weapon – confronting them with patterns that they have not processed thousands of times before.  11-15 minutes

He suggests that “conventional wisdom” often survives in cricket long after the conditions which made it wise have disappeared: a big example is the habit of captains batting first when they win the toss, although for over forty years, since the arrival of covered wickets, the advantage of batting first has been sharply reduced.  The fear of criticism for ignoring orthodoxy has induced too many captains to lose by making the ”right” decision and ignore the factors which make victory more likely with the “wrong” one.  16-20 minutes

Ben discusses how easy it is to draw a false inference from data (citing, from football, the idea that making fewer passes in approach play is the best chance of scoring more goals.) The crucial value of cricket data is not to establish a rigid plan for success but to discover an approach which is more likely to win and which suits the group of players chosen to execute it. A prime example was the switch induced by Nathan from England’s failed defensive methods in one-day cricket to the aggressive approach which won the 2019 World Cup. This was prompted not only by the message of the data but by the arrival of a new group of England players with an aggressive mindset,  partly the result of adapting to the reduction in domestic one-day competitions from 50 to 40 overs. 21-26 minutes Strikingly, Nathan’s data suggested that good batting counted more towards victory than good bowling. 43-44 minutes

Ben suggests reasons why data analysis has achieved more for England in short forms rather than Tests, 27-29, 45-47 minutes and why it has so far failed to produce metrics for assessing captains (especially their off-field influence). Work is in hand to change this and make their selection less arbitrary or formulaic – although it may well continue to underestimate the value of great captains such as Illingworth, Brearley and latterly, Misbah ul-Haq of Pakistan, whose knowledge and leadership skills did not show up in their bare numbers. 27-34 minutes

Ben convincingly rebuts two common attacks by cricketing romantics that data analysis fails to capture the individuality of players and the unpredictability of the game. It may well influence the selection or purchase of players but it is not intended to commoditize them and establish that one should be ranked higher than another of the same type. Quite the contrary: data illuminate why players are different and what elements of their game give them success. He draws on the book’s penetrating data-driven comparison of two great but dissimilar leg-spinners, Kumble and Warne. “Putting numbers on differences does not make them any less romantic.” Analysis created the motive for the exciting restoration of the leg-spinner to short-form cricket. 34-40 minutes

As to unpredictability, this diminishes at higher levels of the game, as players’ abilities converge, but data analysis does not flatten it further. Ben suggests rather that it helps to spring surprises on great players and improve the chances of changing the pattern of a game. 41-43 minutes

Finally, Ben explains that although more and more analysts are working in women’s cricket, this has not yet generated enough detailed ball-by-ball data, in its recent take-off, to support the big-picture conclusions he and Nathan reached about the men’s game. He looks forward to seeing the same startling discoveries from women’s data as from men’s. 50-53 minutes

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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