Data & cricket
By Mark Dexter
12th March 2015

I’ve re-jigged a quote from England’s cricket coach, Peter Moores, after another early failure at the cricket world cup. In case you weren’t aware this (low profile) competition is still going on in Australia and New Zealand, but without England any more after they were knocked out in the group stage having suffered a number heavy defeats and one close defeat to relative ‘minnows’ Bangladesh.

What Moores actually said was “we thought 275 was chaseable, we’ll have to a look at the data” after England fell short by 15 runs when chasing this figure against Bangladesh.

Those few words really made me think. As a recruiter who not only recruits exclusively in the information/data area, and as a business man who is fascinated by the application of proper information to the decision making process, I thought I had to look a bit deeper.

It’s well known in the cricketing world that Moores is a fastidious coach. He is also fascinated by the power of data and word has it that he builds a lot of his coaching strategy around the data collected from a multitude of sources which are analysed by his resident data analyst/s. Nothing wrong with that. After all, ever since Moneyball everyone has known that there is a lot of power to be found in analysing data around sport. In fact Arsenal football club recently invested over £2m when they bought StatDNA, the sports data analysis firm.

In the cricketing world the analysts look at everything from macro data such as average scores at a certain ground whether batting first or second, whether the game is played during the day or under lights in the evening, to weather data to determine how a pitch might play on a certain day. They then might look at individual player data on an opposing batsman’s weak areas so they know where to bowl to him to stop him scoring or to get him out. You might know whether a particular fielder has a ‘strong arm’ to decide if it’s a good idea to try and scamper that extra run. And so on, the list is almost endless. Cricketers ‘love a stat’ as much as any sportsman. Think moneyball again.

However the data (and the information gleaned from that data) can only go so far when it comes to winning cricket matches. Or to increasing sales or improving customer satisfaction or to managing a company’s supply chain, if you are looking at how a business uses data in its day to day operations.

There’s a whole load of other factors that come into play.

Top of my list would be what raw talent you actually have available. Common sense dictates that if you have a team full of great sportsmen then you are going to win more matches than you lose.

But then you need to look at culture. What if you have a load of top athletes but weigh them down with data to ask them to play certain way. What might that do to them? Or if a company’s ingrained culture is to do the bare minimum necessary? Will the star performers drag the company up or will they sit back and accept the status quo?

Then there’s training. Can you over-train an athlete to play a certain way and train away the very essence of what made them skilful in the first place? Or can your training function not be good enough to help people make the best of their abilities so they can’t deliver on the skills you need from them to do what the data says need doing?

And you need to look at the morale of a team. England are recovering from a period of instability with some very mixed results and had just come off the back off two huge defeats earlier in the tournament. Can any amount of coaching really turn something round that quickly, with or without access to all the data in the world?

I know that as a businessman you can have all of the information you think is possible but that sometimes you just don’t reach your business objectives. Conversely everything can just fall into place without a backward glance at the information that drives decisions. 

Why is that? What does it take to have a successful sports team or a top performing business? Can you rely too much on data and not enough on talent? I’d love to know so please feel free to give me your views!

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