Leamon drives the statistics revolution
England’s first data analyst plays a numbers game designed to give players a more competitive edge
He has never taken a wicket, scored a run, negotiated a broadcasting contract or even created a new Twenty20 league. Yet, quietly, Nathan Leamon can claim to be one of the most significant figures in cricket during the 2010s.
The great paradox of cricket is that, while it has fetishised statistics, the sport has lagged behind other games in providing meaningful analytical numbers – the sort that can impact how a team go about the game and help them gain a competitive edge on the field. Leamon, the England team’s analyst, has probably done more than anyone else in the game to highlight the potential for data-mining.
Cricket remains behind other games – above all its cousin baseball – in its use of data. But since being appointed as England’s first analyst in 2009, Leamon has helped close the gap.
Leamon conducts Monte Carlo simulations (the use of repeated random sampling to obtain numerical results) to map out the likely outcomes of games, in all formats, and has simulated matches with different sets of players and tactics to inform England’s strategy. His analysis breaks down the pitch into 20 blocks, of 100cm by 15cm each, finding the optimal block for each bowler against each batsman. Before each match he and the other England analysts prepare a dossier, combining video footage and statistical analysis – covering England, their opponents as
2016 World Twenty20 final
Analysis showed Chris Gayle’s vulnerability against off-spin early on. So England opened with Joe Root, who dismissed Johnson Charles first ball, then Gayle with his third ball.
2010 World Twenty20
Data analysis urged England to select Ryan Sidebottom, ahead of James Anderson, because left-arm seamers are more effective in T20. He took 10 wickets at 16.00 overall. well as the grounds the matches will be played on – for the coach and captain. A smaller package, which largely comprises video footage, is sent to the players themselves.
The story of data and cricket is typical of most sports, Leamon believes. First, “you get an initial wave of enthusiasm – you know, someone reads Moneyball, and then tries to do something similar”. Then, data is credited with a team enjoying success: for England winning the 2010 World T20 and then becoming the No1 Test side in the world. Next, data is “oversold and people make mistakes with it”, triggering, he thinks, a pushback from more traditional viewpoints. In England’s case this came with the 5-0 Ashes defeat in 2013-14, then the grim World Cup campaign in 2015, after which Leamon feared they would squander their competitive advantage in analysis.
Now, cricket has reached the next, more mature, stage: “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.”
Still, Leamon recognises cricket is “nowhere near the level of sophistication that there is in baseball”. The reasons are threefold. First, there are fewer variables in baseball. Second, there are 162 regular season games a year – a far bigger sample size. Third, baseball is a club-based sport: “It’s the market that drives analysis hardest, because of direct and immediate financial pay-offs for improving your valuing of players.” This is why T20 leagues are leading to the soaring use of data.
The next major evolution, Leamon believes, will be to automatically collect data on exact fielding positions each ball. “Then you can start to do some really interesting things about analysing the value of different fielding positions, the value of captaincy, and much more,” he says.
Use of data in cricket often defies stereotypes. Ben Stokes is renowned as one of the English cricketers who uses analysis the most, meticulously breaking down his innings or bowling spells.
Leamon, too, defies the stereotypes: from Cambridge maths graduate and sports analyst to, now, a novelist. The Test, which tells the story of stand-in England captain James McCall’s attempts to win the deciding Ashes Test, draws on Leamon’s experiences inside the England dressing room.
The inspiration, he says, was The Damned United: “It was the moment when I thought actually you can write a novel about professional sport, and it be interesting and true to life.”
The novel combines theories on cricket – like the optimal length to bowl in a Test – with the rawness of the team environment during a career-defining match. “My overriding aim is to try to put the reader inside the helmet as a batsman walks out to bat. To create a dressing room which is as realistic and true to life as I could make it, and put the reader in the middle of that dressing room. So I suppose it’s to try and tell the truth of what that world is like, in a way that’s very hard to do unless you make it fictional.”
“The Test” by Nathan Leamon (Constable) is out now
Novel approach: Nathan Leamon has used his experience with England to write a novel – – that has an Ashes series at its centre