Can the usage of analytics benefit the England Cricket team?

Monday, 23rd April, 2018.

In my recent podcast with Simon Hughes and Simon Mann, for 'The Analyst Inside Cricket', I discussed how analytics and the usage of data could benefit the England national team, particularly in T20.  During the last week it has become apparent that Director of England Cricket, Andrew Strauss, requested applicants for the England national team's new head selector to give a presentation on whether selection was an art, or a science, and we discussed this matter in detail, and also subsequently for Hughes' recent column in The Times newspaper.

England's desire to embrace analytics should be applauded, but it must be correctly implemented

With the appointment of Ed Smith for this role confirmed on Friday last week, there has been intense speculation - both in the traditional media, as well as on social media - as to the effect that his appointment will have.

From reports, Smith advocates the usage of analytics with regard to talent identification and as part of a comprehensive selection strategy, which as a starting point is a huge positive.  As I've mentioned previously, it was obvious that the previous selection process was not fit for purpose - how can 18 counties be covered by three selectors, including seemingly little or no quantitive analysis - with a number of puzzling and illogical selections, which can often be firmly inserted in the 'extremely ambitious' envelope.

The problem with using analytics in talent identification is that the output of an algorithm, for example, is only as good as its input.  So, for example, if very basic data is used - for example career averages (I wrote more about why they are a flawed metric here) - then they will probably flag up older players in decline and under-rate younger players who are open to further improvement.  Of course, I'm not for one minute suggesting that career averages be used as part of a selection strategy, but it's an example of how the user of analytics needs to be experienced in understanding what data is relevant, and what should be discounted.  

Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that Smith either understands how to use data himself, and can generate player data from a relatively advanced algorithm, or he appoints an assistant who can do so, reporting back to him.  There can be little doubt that this is required for this analytics-driven approach to have a chance of success for England.

Players and coaches also need to buy into this new approach

Another area which is necessary for England to succeed with this structure will be the buy-in from players and the management.  From discussions I've had with players, coaches and agents, it is evident that the approaches of players to data and analytics differs wildly, with some completely immersed in it, and others showing little, or even negative, interest.  In an ideal world, team management and captains will all be pulling in the same direction, with all open to the positive effects that usage and understanding of data in cricket can bring, both from a team selection perspective, as well as with in-play tactics.  

The problem here is that there is obvious resistance from many coaches.  While some are very receptive indeed, and can see how it would clearly benefit clubs, others are not, and possibly view the usage of data as a threat - particularly from those who haven't played the game.  I don't know how receptive current coach Trevor Bayliss is, for example, but with him stating that he will be stepping down from his position in September 2019, it is obvious that his replacement will need to be someone willing to take analytics on board with regards to decision-making.

Marginal gains more likely than dramatic change of fortunes

From a Test perspective, even if all data is applied correctly and the players and coaches are on board, I would guard against expecting miracles - small, marginal gains will be much more likely.   While I've written previously that James Vince's data makes him very unlikely to succeed, my data here suggests that even the options that I'd prefer - a Sam Northeast or a Liam Livingstone, for example - don't have expected Test averages (according to my algorithm) of much more than 10 runs per innings better than Vince.  

Even if we picked the best batting line-up that my numbers indicate, the expected gain will be around the 30-40 runs per innings bracket - enough to turn narrow defeats into draws and victories, but not enough to suddenly turn England from being a mediocre Test outfit (particularly away from home) into world-beaters - the talent pool in domestic cricket simply isn't big enough for that.  It's not like we have the second coming of Kevin Pietersen, or Joe Root, in county cricket right now.

In T20, matters are rather different.  I would advocate a complete overhaul of England's T20 selection and on-pitch tactics.  The talent pool in T20 is bigger, although as I'll discuss a little later, this is not necessarily appreciated by many observers.

Addressing issues with talent pool depth also vital

Why is the talent pool in English red-ball domestic cricket so small?  It's certainly a question that many have asked recently, but few have been able to answer.  Here are my thoughts...

1) Complete conflict of interest between county success and national team success.  What really is the incentive for counties to produce future England players, when as soon as they are deemed good enough, they can't pick them any more due to England's requirements?  What is the role of counties?  Are they to be a successful business with on-pitch success, or are they merely considered as feeder clubs for England?  It's almost like the best strategy for counties would be to have a squad of players 'almost' good enough to play for England.  While the differences in terms of available windows for playing matches is rather different in football, where matches can be played all year round, the attitude between priorities of clubs and the national teams is markedly different.  

2) Lack of TV exposure.  In its current guise, the T20 Blast is a huge competition from a logistics perspective.  18 clubs playing a minimum of 14 matches in around a 7-week window means that - unlike most major domestic T20 events - the majority of matches are not televised live.  The effect of this is that players have only a few opportunities on TV each season to impress both the national team selectors, and also to attract the attention of overseas franchises.  As I am sure many readers will be aware, this puts players at the mercy of considerable variance - even the best players in the world can put in several mediocre performances - and the end result of this is that it is the T20 players who have had TV exposure via either the England team, or in other smaller T20 events, such as Jofra Archer in the BPL, who get the attention of the IPL franchises.

In truth, there are many players who either have the current level or potential level to be effective T20 performers for England, and if England deem it necessary to rest Test/ODI players for T20, there are an abundance of players completely capable of stepping in.  Certainly, resting players due to fatigue should not be considered an excuse for England performing poorly in T20, as seems to be the case currently.  For those who have not read it, after the T20 Blast in September last year, I assessed the best performing English-qualified T20 players.  According to my algorithm, many in the current England set-up were not nearly at the top of the player lists, and some players with little or no international experience were judged to be more effective T20 players.

Regarding county red-ball exposure, it's largely the same issue.  As mentioned previously, it was impossible for three selectors to effectively cover 18 counties effectively, and if there was ever a job for quality data analytics, this was it.  I'm genuinely shocked it's taken this long to address the issue.  Live matches on either free to view or satellite TV are virtually non-existent, and if you aren't at the match, then the best you can do is highlights, or the live streaming service that some counties are beginning to provide.  

3) Player promotion too early, and in illogical formats.  In recent years, England selectors have appeared keen to hang their hat on talented young players, but before they are ready.  Eventually, they are often jettisoned and forced to rebuild their shattered confidence in the county game.  Sam Robson, Keaton Jennings, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, Liam Livingstone and Mason Crane are some examples from the last five years.  Sam Curran was bizarrely called up to the T20 squad recently and my thoughts on that at the time were documented here.

In Crane's case, he actually made his international debut in T20, when he'd had little experience in the format.  How can you explain this to the likes of Azeem Rafiq, a spinner who has performed much better in recent years in the T20 Blast, or Matt Parkinson, a player who my numbers would indicate is far ahead of Crane in this particular format (and arguably in red-ball cricket as well!).

Livingstone is another example.  Again, he made his international debut in T20, when my data suggests that he's much better equipped to succeed in the Test arena.  It was no surprise that he struggled on debut, and played something of a match-losing innings.

It is almost like the old selectors decided that they wanted players to get international exposure and just thought 'let's throw them into a T20 team because it's [perceived to be] the least important format'.  

Where is the meritocracy in this?  If a player is not yet at a stage where they can succeed in county cricket, then promoting them to international cricket is akin to throwing them to the lions.  If it was down to me, I'd say to the likes of Crane - prove yourself in county cricket first, and then we'll see how equipped you are to do well at the international stage.

4) Talented young players have their pathways to the first team blocked at big counties, by high profile (and sometimes ageing/declining) domestic players, Kolpak and overseas players, and this is somewhat related to my first point.

Over the winter, I made several presentations to Division Two English counties focusing on the role of analytics in player recruitment and retention.  I demonstrated that there were a number of young players not getting a chance in the first-team, particularly at the bigger counties in Division One, based at Test-playing grounds.

It is difficult to understand why these players are currently with these counties, when according to my data they are obviously good enough to forge a career in the first-team somewhere else.  Perhaps the players are not quite aware enough of their value, but they should be impatient for opportunities for first-team cricket, and if it means dropping into Division Two for a season or two, or even a short-term loan deal, to gain that added exposure, then so be it.

Certainly, Division Two teams should be proactively hunting these players as cost-effective solutions to weak areas in their squads, but many appear somewhat short-sighted in this regard.  

In advance of the 2018 County season several weeks ago I highlighted a number of players who haven't been picked often in their counties first team, but my data indicates are good enough to succeed at county level.  This wasn't an exhaustive list of young prospects - some do actually get a chance - but it will be interesting to see how they perform this year.

While a number are still yet to be selected by their counties, the players who have been picked have performed very well on the whole, with Amar Virdi and Ollie Pope already grabbing the headlines for Surrey.  

Managing fan and media expectations absolutely critical

With their talent pool so low, it is vital that England effectively manage the expectations of both the fans and the media, because there will be many in both areas who are - at best - not convinced by the role of data analytics in cricket, and at worst, are utter traditionalists who will almost be hoping for what they perceive as an unnecessary experiment to fail.  I am sure there are a number of journalists in the media who are already thinking of headlines if England perform badly in their home Tests against Pakistan and India this year, and in white-ball matches against Scotland, India and Australia...

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