Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: Cricket World Cup

In defence of Moores and data

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It was probably the worst thing he could say. “We’ve got to look at the data” is not a great line for a cricket coach to say to the press after going out of a World Cup.

It’s especially bad when that team has been previously criticised for being over-reliant on data, and sucking the spontaneity out of players.

But let’s be fair to Peter Moores: whatever he had said would not be good enough. The question whenever a country flounders in a big event is: “what went wrong?”. The answer is usually complicated and not necessarily immediately evident. And so the reply is often of the form: “we will try and work it out and learn from it.”

So how do teams work it out? Using anecdotes? Talking to fans? Plucking a theory out of thin air? No, they look at the (whisper it quietly) data.

Of course they do. If looking at data is now taboo, English cricket will suffer. What England need to do is look at the right data, put it in context, and work out what to do next.

But several media commentators have latched on to data as the culprit. We have our new bogeyman, and he is armed with a spreadsheet.

“English cricket kills itself”. That’s the headline in the Spectator. From the piece by Alex Massie:

“We’ve got to look at the data.” If ever there was an appropriate epitaph or this era of English cricket this is it. England have, under Moores, known the price of everything but the value of nothing. The data has given them heaps of information; they’ve had no idea what to do with it.

But why would they? Cricket is a complex game but not a mysterious one. It has changed much less than most people think….

England, however, think there’s some magic sauce that can unlock the mysteries of cricket. So they crunch numbers and discover that x percent of games are won by a score of y or that when z then b and if c then a+b = d. Is it any wonder then they play like humans impersonating robots?

And so on, until this conclusion: “The problem is the bloody data.”

Really? What’s the alternative?

And so the bandwagon starts to roll:

Yet… When articles are written about England’s loss to Bangladesh, they will cite numbers such as:

Between the 21st and 31st overs, only 40 runs were scored for the loss of 3 wickets.

(I just came up with that. I looked at the data.)

Or commentators will look at some other stat which will be seen as where the match was won or lost. That Bangladesh were allowed to plunder 78 off the last 10 overs. That England had them at 32 for 2 after 10 overs, but let a good start get away from them. You can take your pick.

England will have more sophisticated numbers at their disposal, such as what kinds of deliveries produced more dot-balls, or about field placings. Should they ignore them? Simply say it was a “bad day at the office”, or some other sporting cliche?

As the Guardian’s Andy Bull put it recently:

The laptop is just another tool in the box, useless unless the players understand the value of the information it provides, and no more valuable than their own ability to adapt and improvise during a match.

Interestingly, the word that Massie and Bull both use is “value”. If we consign data to a marginal or even zero role, then we will miss valuable insights.

The statistics are there. They lend themselves to being crunched. That’s not a bad thing, per se. Nor is it a good thing. But to say that the numbers are the problem is madness.

England and the ODI fallacy

England lose to Sri Lanka, 2011 World CupEngland don’t play enough one-day cricket to challenge for the World Cup. True?

It was true. It’s not any more, yet it’s a myth that’s still doing the rounds. A recent version comes from retired Sri Lankan spin bowling legend Muttiah Muralitharan. In an interview with the Telegraph, he says:

they [England] don’t play enough one-day internationals abroad like other countries. We play 30-35 one-day matches in a year but England play about 14 or 15, so that is not enough. They play more Tests and that is why they are good in Tests, but they think domestic matches are enough to experience one-day cricket. It is not.

Murali is spot on, if you look at 2012. That year, England played 15 one-day internationals (ODIs) compared to Sri Lanka’s 33.

But that year is something of a blip in the last decade or so. In 2007, England (34) played more ODIs than Sri Lanka (29). It was the same in 2011 – England played 30, Sri Lanka 28. In other years, it’s been Sri Lanka that’s played more, but not by much.

Of course, it was very much the case that England played way too few ODIs to be competitive. In cricket, just as any other sport, results are key. But you also need experience, and simply being less exposed to the 50-over version of international cricket is going to hamper you when it comes to performing at the World Cup.

From 1992 to 2002, England played the fewest ODIs of any of the major cricket sides (I’m not counting Bangladesh or Zimbabwe in this analysis).

Think about this from a player’s point of view. If you had started in the England team in 1992 (and didn’t get dropped or injured), it would have taken you until somewhere in 2004 to get 200 ODI matches under your belt. If you had played for India, your 200th cap would have been in 1999, a full 5 years earlier. India play the most ODIs, so let’s compare to other teams. The next slowest to 200 caps would have been from New Zealand and the West Indies, with their equivalent players getting their 200th cap in 2001, a good 3 years earlier than our English player.

But since 2003, that’s all changed. In the 12 years since 2003, England have played far more one-day cricket, more than South Africa, New Zealand, and the West Indies, and not far behind the others. In that time, an ever-present player would have picked up 273 caps; an Indian player could have accumulated 350 caps. The gap has narrowed.

The four year rolling chart (below, click for full size version) of ODIs played says it all. England scrape along the bottom until 2003, but have picked up since and play a comparable number of ODIs to the other major teams. I have used the rolling four-year chart as the year-by-year version has too many ups and downs to illustrate the trend of matches played. Also, four years is a good time period, as it fits with the World Cup cycle.

ODIs per country, 4-year rolling (annotated)

Of course, the teams that play the most don’t always win the World Cup: Australia have shown that. But in the case of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, as well as the 2007 Australians, their World Cup wins came after a four-year cycle of being one of the top two teams in terms of matches played. Experience isn’t everything, but it clearly helps.

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