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That said, it is perhaps only in recent years that the sport has fully recognised the value in analysis beyond the ‘traditional’ and England began to reap the rewards, initially rising to number one in the World Test Rankings, and, more recently, winning the Cricket World Cup in 2019.
“In other sports,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute, “the score line and traditional data do not necessarily tell you the story of a match, but in cricket this data can help you understand the story of how the game unfolded.
“And for a long time, there was little in the way of innovation around this understanding of cricket and how it was looked at. Cricket people have grown up with this view of the game but I think now we are able to offer much better explanations and performance metrics to help with decision making in areas such as talent identification, strategy and tactics.
“We’ve been on a journey. Moneyball demonstrated to the world of elite sport the value of data and the ECB were quick to embrace this by appointing Nathan Leamon as England analyst in 2009.”
More than a decade after Leamon first walked through Grace Gates at Lord’s Cricket Ground, the ECB’s commitment to analytics has consolidated and expanded under Lindsay, who arrived from Leeds Rugby to take up the role of National Lead for Performance Analysis in 2013 with a remit that covers England’s senior and pathway age-group teams. “We currently have six full-time analysts and an intern programme,” he says.
“Alongside that, we have the support of 18 dedicated county analysis departments who provide the analytical services to their clubs. We also have a growing number of external providers who supply us with data and video.”
How is all this data used? “To influence decision-making and ultimately deliver better outcomes on and off the field,” Lindsay explains. “To do this, we need to be telling the story in a way that is understandable to the decision-maker.”
“You get an initial wave of enthusiasm,” Leamon told the Daily Telegraph in 2018. “You know, someone reads Moneyball, and then tries to do something similar.”
During the next phase, according to Leamon, data is “a little bit oversold and people make mistakes with it,” which can lead to “a reactionary pushback from more traditional viewpoints”. He feared at one stage that the ECB could lose its competitive advantage in analytics.
As Leamon observed of this late phase: “The tide comes in, and everyone realises that if you use data and use it well, and you choose when and where you use it, then you can add significant value.”
One of the goals for Lindsay and his department is to find resonant metrics and insights that make a difference to decision making – bypassing any residual scepticism of a player, coach or selector.
“For example,” he continues, “we take in all the match data from every game around the world and we break that down and store it individually ball by ball and can do some relatively complex analysis and modelling on that. Initially we had 3.18 million balls of data from cricket across the globe – it’s probably double that now due to the scope and range of data we can collect. From there, we’ve developed metrics, which we think are helpful though part of the skill is making them meaningful to coaches or the selection panel, so they intuitively get them, they understand the concepts. If they’re presented with a number that they don’t intuitively recognise in a ‘real life’ context it can sometimes lead to indifference.”
Lindsay coaches his team to “be the storyteller and try to get the coaches, selector or player to understand it on their terms so they can associate with it.”
To reach that point, an analyst must work to develop rapport with all those key stakeholders. “An analyst is not going to have a long shelf life if they go and try to tell everyone what they think they know straight away without listening to what their subject wants to know,” says Lindsay.
He then summons the memory of a previous Leaders Sport Performance Summit. “The great line I heard at Leaders was that listening to people before you try to change the way they think goes a long way. What I’ve tried to do in both cricket and rugby is encourage my staff to build a relationship with the coach; what they want to know about the game and what their questions are before you try and give them an answer.”
Lindsay’s player-facing staff are also fluent in cricket and able to hold cricket conversations with coaches and players. “We use cricket language and cricket terminology and one of the things that we consciously do, having lots of data available to us, is try and break that down into easily assimilated ways for players and coaches to understand it. Instead of a percentage or a graph or probability, it will be a suggestion or a sentence or a video; or the kind of things that people talk about in meetings rooms or changing rooms rather than an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint.
“We try to feed it into cricket terminology and, when we do use new terms, it’s with the explanation behind it that they can latch onto rather than a magical phrase plucked out of nowhere.
“We try to see things from their perspective. It could be the simplest thing they want to know; if you can give them the simplest thing then they’re going to come back and ask for the next simplest thing and then you build it from there. Bombarding anyone, continually, with challenging concepts to prove you are the smartest in the room isn’t always the most conducive for relationship building! If you try to bombard them with something that is way beyond where their headspace is at the time then I don’t think it’s going to build a relationship in the long-term.
“People are different, sports are different, it’s a human game, which is why we love it because it’s unpredictable. You get some people who are just not interested and there are other people who have a huge thirst for it and don’t necessarily know exactly what it is they want.
“We try to take an individual approach and we have that opportunity because we’re embedded in the team and we work closely with coaches and decision-makers; we get to know them and know what works for them.
“I think one service we’ve sought to provide as analysts is also to empower the decision-maker to be self-sufficient.”
The ECB ‘data lake’
The next step on the path to self-sufficiency is decision-makers engaging with the ECB’s bespoke developed app to inform tactics, strategy and scouting of opponents and grounds. As Lindsay explains: “This app that allows the data to flow live to the decision-makers and they can form their own questions in a manner conducive to them; we did some work on creating a user experience that enabled them to consume, digest and manipulate the data in a manner with which they were comfortable.”
He adds: “It means that our time is freed up to answer more detailed, in-depth questions perhaps beyond the time and resource of the decision-makers. It allows them to answer the semi-simple queries themselves and it’s all up to date. It’s gone from being an A3 print-out to a live app. We’ve been able to incorporate the different data streams that we couldn’t previously by being limited to paper. We have video, performance data, scouting information, subjective human reports, strength & conditioning data.” Coaches and captains might see a dossier that includes video footage and statistical breakdowns, while the players’ feed will largely comprise of video footage.
“Everything is in one place and it allows the decision-maker to be self-serving. It works for them, saves us time, and it saves them time.”
Lindsay says that baseball is probably the closest sport to cricket in terms of its use of statistics but historically there has been less analytical sophistication in cricket than its near neighbour. For one, there are smaller sample sizes available in cricket compared to, say, the 162 games of a Major League Baseball regular season. Also, there is a greater number of professional clubs across baseball, each with its own analytics department delving into the numbers and greater external resources available in terms of scope of data and technology.
However, Lindsay and the ECB are regularly engaged with the 18 analysis teams embedded in the clubs across English county cricket. “We have a joined-up system and any information that’s captured during first-class matches or women’s matches flows into the ECB database. Everything is on the same system.”
He refers to it as a “data lake”, which has proven useful given the varied athlete monitoring technologies used across the globe. “We’ve tried to make all of our systems device agnostic. We are able to connect the data where necessary without being restricted to one system or supplier or one specific app.
“If we were to change system, it would undergo rigorous testing and needs analysis as to what the benefits are and the performance costs of changing the system, the learning process, the difference in data, the performance difference it will make to us in the longer term. What we are able to do with the system we have got, our data lake, is we’re able to add or bolt bits on.
“To a large extent, the data that underpins cricket isn’t going to change; maybe the systems that collect it will do. We have that as a strong foundation.”
What of the variables in the game itself that make sophisticated analysis so problematic? Soil and climactic conditions, for example, will dictate how a pitch plays in different parts of the globe. A century scored at Lord’s in London is not directly comparable with a century scored at Eden Gardens in Kolkata; and that is without comparing states of play.
In England, where it rains more often, wickets tend to be greener and more compacted, which sees the ball retain its speed. The humid English conditions can also cause the ball to move more in the air; much to the delight of pace bowlers. The moisture in the ground can also preserve a new ball for longer. In the Asian Sub Continent, by comparison, pitches are drier and tend to crumble and, because the climate is less humid, the ball moves less in the air and tends to stick on the wicket. The leather of the new ball will also deteriorate quicker, which means a bouncing ball turns more than it might in England. Instead of promoting pace bowling, such conditions encourage spin bowling to a greater extent.
Lindsay and his team know these factors will impact on strategy, team selection, tactics and any number of other variables and it is necessarily reflected in their analyses. “We use metrics such as weighted averages and player ratings” he explains. “Traditionally, when you look at a batsman’s performance, the higher the average they’re considered to be the better batsman, but it doesn’t take into account the context or the opposition, or a great many other factors, or even simple issues such as how many games it’s over. We’ve developed some metrics to help flatten the playing field a little bit.”
It has proven a hit with the ECB’s decision-makers. “Once you explain what it’s doing, people want that.”
ECB analysis will continue to play a key and growing role, whether it be in team strategy, talent identification or match analysis, as England look to extend the senior men’s 2019 World Cup success across all formats of the game.
Looking for more performance insight?
This article first appeared in our Performance journal, which is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.