How play­ing the num­bers game thrust data gu­rus into front line

Test teams are us­ing an­a­lysts more than ever – and it is reap­ing rich re­turns for Ashes ri­vals

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Fourth Specsavers Ashes Test - Tim Wig­more at Old Traf­ford When a plan falls apart

Two years ago, Justin Langer stood in as Aus­tralia Twenty20 coach. He took with him a soli­tary mem­ber of his back­room team at West­ern Aus­tralia and Perth Scorchers: an­a­lyst Dean Plun­kett. For his dossiers, match-ups – who should bowl when to which op­po­nent – and work iden­ti­fy­ing sign­ings, Langer ac­claimed Plun­kett “an absolute genius”.

As Aus­tralia head coach, Langer has brought this rigour to in­ter­na­tional cricket – in­clud­ing Tests, where data has tra­di­tion­ally been less prom­i­nent than in T20. Dene Hills, a for­mer first-class player and now Aus­tralia’s per­for­mance an­a­lyst, has been used more promi­nently than un­der Langer’s pre­de­ces­sor Dar­ren Lehmann, who had lit­tle time for data. While Hills’s pre-match team meet­ings aim to sim­plify in­for­ma­tion, there is a strong em­pir­i­cal ground­ing to de­ci­sion­mak­ing. In­deed, ear­lier this year Aus­tralia ne­go­ti­ated a trial to use Cricviz, the cricket an­a­lyt­ics com­pany. In the 2015 Ashes, Aus­tralia at­tacked Eng­land with their quickest, scari­est bowlers.

It did not work: Aus­tralia’s quicks leaked 3.8 runs per over. In their pre-se­ries plan­ning, Aus­tralia re­solved to avoid such mis­takes and fo­cus on a re­lent­less line and length. That meant omit­ting Mitchell Starc un­til the fourth Test, while se­lect­ing the al­to­gether less glam­orous Peter Sid­dle in the first two. Aus­tralia’s pace bowlers have yielded 2.9 runs per over.

It is not the only in­stance of data in­flu­enc­ing who takes the field this se­ries. When Moeen Ali’s place was dis­cussed af­ter the first Test, Steve Smith’s Test av­er­age of 27 against left-arm spin, com­pared with 104 against off spin, counted in Jack Leach’s favour. Joe Denly’s im­pres­sive weighted av­er­age in county cricket – a met­ric tak­ing into ac­count fac­tors such as the qual­ity of op­po­nents – has been a fac­tor in his Test se­lec­tion.

Eng­land’s anal­y­sis uses a grid

sys­tem, which breaks down the pitch into 20 blocks, of 100cm by 15cm each, find­ing the op­ti­mal length to bowl both for the ground and the op­po­si­tion bats­man. The num­bers sug­gested that Craig Over­ton’s nat­u­ral length – slightly back of a length – was ideally suited to Old Traf­ford.

Be­fore this Test, Aus­tralian na­tional se­lec­tor Trevor Hohns said that, “mind­ful” of Eng­land’s record bowl­ing to left-han­ders, they were keen to play more right-han­ders. Since 2017, Stu­art Broad av­er­ages seven runs fewer per wicket against left-han­ders. While Aus­tralia did not se­lect Mitchell Marsh, as Hohns floated, they pro­moted Mar­nus Labuschagn­e to three to give Aus­tralia an ex­tra right-han­der.

Data can turn hunches into facts, thereby en­cour­ag­ing bowlers to dou­ble-down on a weakness. Two bats­men who started the se­ries well show­case as much.

Travis Head made 35 and 51 at Edg­bas­ton, but av­er­ages 14 in Tests against balls from seam­ers hitting the stumps. When he played down the wrong line to Broad, it was the fifth time out of six Head had been bowled or lbw this se­ries.

Rory Burns be­gan the se­ries with 133, yet more sig­nif­i­cant was his se­cond-in­nings dis­missal fend­ing away a short ball. Aus­tralia have ex­ploited this scin­tilla of weakness ever since. Seam­ers de­liv­ered 30 per cent of short balls to Burns at Edg­bas­ton, which rose to 48 per cent at Head­in­g­ley; short balls have dis­missed Burns in four of his past five in­nings. The bar­rage he re­ceived last night showed how Burns’s prospects may hinge on his for­ti­tude play­ing the short ball.

In a sense, none of this is any­thing new. Bowlers have al­ways dis­sected bats­men and worked out the best way to attack them – and on oc­ca­sion it does not work, as Eng­land’s seam­ers found as they toiled away against Smith yes­ter­day with no re­ward. But data has ac­cel­er­ated and clar­i­fied this process. Rather than re­ly­ing on the fal­li­bil­ity of the hu­man brain, now teams can gauge whether there is an em­pir­i­cal ba­sis to their be­liefs. Never has it taken less time for bats­men’s weak­nesses to be dis­tilled into cold num­bers, and for bowlers to hit upon the op­ti­mal ap­proach. All of this may well be part of the broader story of av­er­age scores trend­ing down­wards in Tests. At Not­ting­hamshire, Broad was shown find­ings that op­pos­ing bats­men were leav­ing 28 per cent of his de­liv­er­ies; right-han­ders even more. The fig­ure was “a lot higher” than the norm for the best bowlers, says Ku­nal Manek, the Not­ting­hamshire an­a­lyst. Dur­ing his finest spells, bats­men only left around 13-15 per cent of Broad’s de­liv­er­ies.

“There was a strong enough cor­re­la­tion to build a case,” Manek re­calls. “This stat in­trigued him. He ob­vi­ously thought it was pretty rel­e­vant to find­ing form again ahead of the Ashes.” Broad later ac­claimed these find­ings as “bril­liant coach­ing and an­a­lyst work”, and cru­cial in him get­ting bats­men to play more.

None of this is to deny how data can con­fuse more than clar­ify. If Denly’s dis­missal was an en­dorse­ment of Aus­tralia’s short-ball strat­egy against him, it took his Test av­er­age be­low 23 from seven Tests. This Old Traf­ford pitch has less pace than pre­vi­ous Test wick­ets here, ren­der­ing the back-of-a-length style that is Over­ton’s forte less ef­fec­tive. Data is easy both to over­sell and den­i­grate. Yet it is play­ing a greater part in Test cricket than ever be­fore. And so nav­i­gat­ing both the prom­ise and perils of data will be­come ever-more im­por­tant.

Just as we planned: Travis Head is dis­missed by Stu­art Broad to a ball Eng­land’s an­a­lysts knew he would strug­gle against

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