Monday, August 2

‘Strauss and Collingwood were very open’: the man who helped cricket embrace the data | Cricket

NorthAthan Leamon laughs as he remembers the time he once took Andrew Strauss out on an ashes test. It was the 2010-11 Adelaide Test, and before the game, the Australians had called their attack on the left arm Doug Bollinger. Without having faced Bollinger in a while, Strauss asked Leamon, still relatively new to his job as a team analyst, to put together some clips.

“But the last time Bollinger played was at Headingley against Pakistan,” recalls Leamon. “So Straussy watches 20 Bollinger balls pulling the ball away from the bat and he goes. The first ball came out completely straight. I leave. And he took away his bail. He came back in, took off the pads, and sat next to me. Finally, I worked up the courage to say, ‘Sorry, I think I could have gotten you out of there, jump.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t disagree.’

Now you can laugh at that for two reasons. First of all, because more than a decade has passed and of course England ended up winning both that event and the series. And second, as a statistician, Leamon knows that a single data point alone says very little. As human beings, we are inevitably drawn to the atypical, the exception, the anecdote. Leamon has always tried to express the opposite: that to draw any kind of reliable conclusions from the data, it is useful to analyze as many of them as possible.

This and many other lessons are exposed in his new book Hitting Against The Spin, which seeks to explain some of the game’s hidden patterns and overlooked trends. Why India produces relatively few left-handed hitters (largely because spin is a bigger threat in early overs). Why was Nasser Hussain (statistically) right when he first bowled in Brisbane in 2002. And why frequent spells for fast players to “just throw” often do more harm than good.

“Analysis is about making the invisible visible,” explains Leamon. “The analogy I always use is cameras. Being able to slow things down and freeze frames allows the coach to make better decisions, but it doesn’t help him train. “

These days, virtually every major team will employ some form of advanced statistical analysis to help spot oppositions, shape tactics and identify signings. Leamon now combines his work for the England white ball team with the Multan Sultans and Kolkata Knight Riders. But when Andy Flower first hired Leamon in 2009, analytics was still in its infancy. The vast and rich cache of ball-by-ball search data on which almost the entire industry relies only really existed once Leamon built it, for thousands of minute hours. “That’s what long tours of Bangladesh are for,” he says with a smile.

Nathan Leamon
Nathan Leamon has been an analyst at the ECB since 2009. Photograph: Gareth Copley / Getty Images

And it really has been a journey: one with Ashes win and defeat, World Cup humiliation and World Cup triumph. Captains and coaches have come and gone, but Leamon has remained – the living embodiment of a cultural shift that has essentially changed the way we view the game. Naturally, pockets of traditionalist resistance remain. But what is perhaps surprising is how little Leamon found in English cricket, which largely swallowed his ideas early on. “I was fortunate that the high-level figures, people like Strauss and Paul Collingwood, were very open and enthusiastic about using data,” he recalls. “There were people who were not so convinced. But I was always surprised by how little there was. “

One of the main criticisms of data is that it can often increase scrutiny of a player’s weaknesses. Let’s say you’re a young starter who has a potential weakness against the left arm swing. Is it even healthy to know that? How much is too much knowledge? “That’s a very individual thing,” Leamon replies. “For the right player, it is useful. Some players do not want to know or are not interested. It’s not something you would push. I certainly wouldn’t be discussing any details with a player on his debut, or when he’s fairly new. “

In fact, for the modern analyst, it is often just as important to know what not to disclose. Leamon recalls another episode from early 2010 when he shows Strauss a simulation that projects that England have an 8% chance of winning the Ashes series that winter. Leamon remembers Strauss saying to him in a low voice, “You may not want to leave that on the dressing room screen.”

What’s the next leap in cricket analysis? “The biggest is the field,” says Leamon. “We still don’t know where they are standing. We don’t have the speed of the ball from the beginning. That will give us the scope to evaluate each field position. Much of that we will already be doing well. “But, and here he speaks with the confidence of someone who knows from hard-earned experience,” there will be things that we are systematically making mistakes.

Hitting Against The Spin: How Cricket Really Works by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones is out now (Constable).

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