Ashes 2013: Why Do England Play Like They Do?
“Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather then to pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.” - Michael Lewis, Moneyball, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
One of the fundamental principles of sport is that the ultimate goal is to win. However, in recent times that principle has morphed into a similar, but subtly different principle of avoiding defeat. Such a mindset has stemmed from the psychology shift that losing hurts more than winning heals.
The commercialization and modernization of sport are to blame for such a thought process. 24 hour news coverage, the insidious invasion of modern day media and the increased financial rewards on offer have engendered a feeling that the stakes are higher than ever.
Such a mentality could perhaps be described as Superbowlism. The Super Bowl is the main event in the American sporting calendar, and it has been for some time. However, the growth of the modern day media with its hyperbole and purple prose has seen the Super Bowl become almost a parody of its former self. Every year is bigger, every year is better and every year is best, despite the fact that the sport itself is unchanging.
This Superbowlism has invaded all professional sport to create an age in which sport’s own self importance is higher than it has ever been. A timely example of this can be seen in the Spirit of Cricket, which has over time been eroded from a romantics morality compass to a totally redundant fad.
Whilst Stuart Broad’s wicket in 2013 is technically no more valuable than David Gower’s 25 years before, or Sir Donald Bradman’s 80 years before, or WG Grace’s 110 years before; when Broad is out in the middle of the pitch, with an enormous TV audience, 15 different cameras honed in on him, 24 hour news coverage to report replays and interviews, millions of column inches to be filled, Stuart Broad’s wicket to Stuart Broad feels more valuable than individuals wickets from bygone eras felt to them—and not losing and incurring all the consequences of defeat feels more important than ever before. This is Superbowlism in action.
This mindset shift has coincided with radical developments in the way sport is coached, played and managed. Cricket was hit by its professional training revolution in the 1990’s. The importance of fitness, biomechanics, video analysis, etc. all came to the fore following the development of the Australian Cricket Academy in 1987. This led to more than a decade of international sides replicating and then progressing the revolutionary ideas set in progress at the famous Academy at Henley Beach in Adelaide.
The training and planning attention to detail was taken to another level by the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the late 90’s and early 00’s when they sought to overcome financial constraints with a more statistical and analytical approach to signings and tactics.
The team’s story was famously written about in Michael Lewis’ book, that was then made into a film, Moneyball. The tale of the Athletics’ transformation from unattractive, unfashionable losers into a highly professional and successful side thanks to faith in numbers has become part of, not just baseball, but sporting folklore. That the phrase ‘Moneyball’ is entrenched into every sport’s lexicon is testament to the effect it has had.
That effect was felt none more so than by Nathan Leamon, a former Cambridge mathematician and qualified cricket coach, who in 2009 was advised by Andy Whittall, the former Zimbabwe player and a close friend of the then recently appointed England coach Andy Flower, to apply for the post of England’s Analyst.
Speaking to The Sunday Times in 2011, Leamon said “Flower wanted someone who could provide new ways of breaking down the game and getting a competitive advantage. I see the job as a continuation of what I did at a different level when I was coaching, which was finding the most efficient way to win matches.”
The emergence of Moneyball theory, and Leamon’s appointment as England’s Analyst, fortunately coincided with computers progressing at a staggering speed, enabling him not only to use the guiding principles of Moneyball, but in fact develop them even further.
In the same interview with The Sunday Times, Leamon revealed that he has created a computer simulation programme which enables him to play out matches with different teams, conditions and tactics. The results of which are used to calculate the best possible strategies. “We feed into the simulator information about pitches and the 22 players who might play and it plays the game a number of times and tells us the likely outcome” he said, before going on to proudly proclaim the simulation is accurate to “within 4-5%.”
Leamon also embraces the Hawk Eye ball-tracking system in enormous depth, using it to formulate strategies to dismiss various batsmen, as well as purely digging and analysing statistics. For example, Leamon says that having analysed the toss from 500 Tests, it is as likely you will win when you’ve lost it, as when you’ve won it. Sabermetrics is the technical term for specialized analysis of baseball—perhaps it’s time to coin the phrase Leamonetrics, or Flowermetrics.
However, there is a danger of becoming swamped in statistics and numbers. First and foremost, what is often forgotten about Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics Baseball team is that they never actually won the World Series. The Athletics transformed themselves from unattractive losers into highly competitive professionals, but never scaled the peak of baseball. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for an England team seeking, but not quite reaching, the peak of international cricket.
Moreover, if statistical analysis can continue to be developed as it is, and simulation can produce results with 4-5% accuracy, there is surely a danger the human intricacies of cricket become increasingly redundant and we instead are on a collision course with a world where we simply watch two teams of robots do battle. Alastair’s Androids versus Clarke’s Computers.
But forgetting the future for now, England should be commended for their method. It may at times be monotonous, predictable and even boring, but there’s an argument to be made that the way England play cricket is in fact the vertex of the growth of modern professional sport.
Superbowlism, high performance training and Moneyball tactics (which originated from the ever widening financial divisions present in professional sport) are natural changes in all sports that have led to England’s current method. They aren’t the best cricket team in the world, but they’re at the pinnacle of forward thinking.
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