When Andy Flower took over from Peter Moores as England coach in 2009, he also took forward his predecessor’s conviction that analytics would add crucial value to his coaching inputs.
He hired a strong analyst who used pitch-maps and Hawk-eye to dissect bowlers. Numbers were crunched and players told in great detail, things that a coach could not have otherwise provided. Was it a coincidence that England went to the top of ICC ranking in Test, ODI and T20 cricket during this period? But a few years later, it seemed England had taken analytics to its extreme.
Outspoken players like Pietersen and Swann talked about the claustrophobic presence of video-analytics and endless spreadsheets. On the other hand, South Africa who roped in Prasanna Agoram, a gold medallist engineer from Chennai, as their performance analyst in 2010, are clearly delighted with what he contributes to their game. India too seems to have achieved the fine balance between use of technology and the natural expression of talent that cricketers possess at the highest level.
Even as coaches and cricketers were trying to find the best use of performance analytics, the commercial demands for providing TV audiences compelling viewing were making visual analytics leap to a different orbit. The World Cup in 2015 was a major inflection point as ICC used analytics to create spectacular TV entertainment out of the world’s premier cricket tournament.
The benchmark for analytics has got higher with IPL. R Mohan, veteran cricket journalist suggests that any discussion on cricket analytics must draw the distinction between red-ball and white-ball cricket. The innovations and developments in analytics are driven by white-ball cricket; by the demands of IPL Franchises and sponsorships, advertisements and TV revenue.
Video-analytics has become a major element in keeping television audiences glued to a high-voltage entertainment where excellent camera-work combines with surreal analytics. Commentators now have a rich variety of statistical information to have lively conversations that include the audience. “The kind of fantastic data being mined is a very natural development. Technology, big data and analytics are coming together to drive the way the game is played and watched,” says Mohan.
All teams at IPL are completely invested in analytics. There is a video analyst and a performance analyst – very often a certified cricket coach – who provide feedback on technique to individual players. One understands that such a performance analyst working with MS Dhoni may be the contributing factor to MSD’s batting resurgence this season.
The franchise also has a strategic analyst who works with the owners and chief coach right from the time of player auctions. Does the franchise need an attacking opener, death-overs bowler or a wrist spinner? How does a franchise pick a squad of 25 players, each with role-specific requirements and with bench strength to cover for injuries? Kolkata Knight Riders – much like Oakland Athletics broke ground in the NBL in 2002 to select players using sabermetrics –used player analytics in 2014 to create a winning combination within their purse.
Analytics is making limited overs strategy unfold in radically different ways; batsmen no longer think slog overs – or any over – in an innings can be targeted as a 20-run over. Innovations are tested and tried for every kind of delivery – the yorker, knuckle ball or whatever. The corridor outside the off-stump is not sacred anymore.
Strategies are built on inputs like individual player’s scoring areas – where boundaries are being hit, how many dot balls are being played, predicting pressure points in the game when a dismissal is likely. Every opposing batsman’s dismissal patterns are dissected to strategize bowling options against him. Sunil Narine’s pitch-map of carom balls will be studied by opposing teams to decide which batsman would best counter him. Game strategy and playing eleven against a particular opponent are chosen depending on the venue.
At practice sessions, batsmen are asked to hit deliveries in their problem areas through a field set in an open ground; bowlers have to bowl a specific line, length and pace. It is a very busy time before the game begins!
The longer format is still a game of attrition but analytics throws up different strategies for every batsman and bowler in Test cricket too. Line, length and field placements to contain batsman and frustrate them are still in vogue.
TA Sekhar, the fast bowler who is now deep into analytics, says that in the period between 2000 and 2008, he and S Ramakrishnan (Ramky), a former first division cricketer and current cricket analytics specialist, were always in touch when India was touring, since most fast bowlers in the Indian team had trained at the MRF Pace Foundation. On one such tour to West Indies in 2006, Sreesanth had lost his out-swinger.
Ramky and Sekhar held a video conference to analyse Sreesanth’s bowling videos and helped the pacer revert to his old action to produce those effective out-swingers again. ‘Sreesanth got five wickets in the next Test at Kingston to bowl India to a win’ concluded Sekhar with relish. The batting machine still has a limited use to iron out technical faults that show up through analysis. On the other hand, the ramp shot to a bouncer or reverse sweep to the first ball faced are now common in Test cricket. Run rates in Tests are up and there are hardly any draws in recent times.
The fear that Test Cricket will lose its primacy in the near future may be unfounded because the money is coming not through gate receipts but through advertising and sponsor revenues. The logic is that viewers, including smart phone viewers will watch whenever time permits, be it ODIs or Tests, so long as the game provides entertaining action accompanied by spectacular visuals and analysis.
The best of performance analysts have the ability to marry a lot of data with videos to help coaches plan strategy and enhance individual performances. They are no longer anonymous but much sought after. Shrinivas Chandrasekaran who is Bangladesh’s performance analyst, earned his spurs with Sunrisers Hyderabad by plotting dismissals of batsmen like Gayle and McCullum in the IPL.
Analytics is already an integral part of most other sports and Ramky who pioneered all this, says without a trace of hyperbole, ‘India may not be winning all the medals, but in the future all medal winners are going to be helped by Indian Analytics.’ Cricket, like many field sports, is a game of great skill where mind and body, hand and eye, have to decide in a fraction of a second.
Practice and instinct, memory and ability have to coalesce in the athlete to create the magic. And analytics is taking player capabilities and team performance to a higher plane. However, one wonders whether the video-analytics and slow motion replays for the millions of TV–glued audiences, lull viewers into thinking the game is easy. Ensconced in front of a TV, pakodas at the elbow, people who have never caught a ball thrown at them, can play armchair expert. In the late night sky, a steepling mishit that looks like a dolly is dropped.
How the heck could he drop it? Mercifully, there appears on the screen a visual that shows two lines on the screen – one if the ball had dropped straight and the other showing the actual path of the ball wickedly swerving away. The armchair pundit is silenced for the moment.
S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, colleagues at Azim Premji University, have co-authored two acclaimed books on cricket: ‘Midwicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar’ and ‘From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests’