March 12, 2015

Data-obsessed England need reality check

They are lagging behind in ODIs because their habit of taking refuge in stats to explain defeat has lost its relevance

An information overload and fixation with "processes" may be affecting England in more ways than one © ICC

In his bestselling exploration of intuitive "thinking without thinking", Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Paul Van Riper, a legendary ex-US Marine officer and Vietnam veteran selected by the Pentagon in 2000 to play a rogue Gulf-state military commander in the most expensive war game ever staged (what in fact turned out to be a dress-rehearsal for the Iraq War).

The US military's "Blue Team" was furnished with "an unprecedented amount of information and intelligence from every corner of the US government and a methodology that was logical and systematic and rational and rigorous. They had every toy in the Pentagon's arsenal," including software running live simulations modelling the interaction of Van Riper's economic, cultural, diplomatic, social, informational and political systems for patterns of behaviour and vulnerabilities. Both sides were made fully aware of their adversary's capabilities. Preparation lasted two years.

When battle commenced, Blue duly pored over the data from its state-of-the-art decision-making tool - "Operational Net Assessment" - and it deliberated. It then took out Red's communication systems and, with an all-very-conventional show of strength, presented an ultimatum to surrender. But Red had preempted this and, drawing on old-fashioned methods to circulate messages and launch planes, they began an all-out assault on Blue's warships, sinking 16: "Had Millennium Challenge been a real war instead of just an exercise, 20,000 American servicemen and women would have been killed before their own army had even fired a shot." By being "in command and out of control", allowing in-the-field improvisation, Van Riper won a resounding victory. In Gladwell's terms, he had created a "structure for spontaneity".

And so to England, and the perpetual whirring of their heaving, expensively retained backroom staff, their thralldom to a technocratic approach the exact degree of deployment of which cannot be precisely known (the grey-matter grey area, from individual to individual), but which can be gleaned - or "thin-sliced", to use a Gladwellism - from a couple of cringingly symptomatic quotes from coach and captain.

Peter Moores' "We shall have to look at the data" has clung to him like damp cobwebs, and will doubtless haunt him in the same way that "Can we not knock it?" haunted another calamity-coated England boss. This followed Eoin Morgan's grim appraisal after the nine-wicket defeat to Sri Lanka: "Going in at halfway, we were 25 above par. The stats backed that up".

When asked in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to Bangladesh whether England were overly wedded to stats, Morgan became defensive (wags might argue he's been that way for months). Yet, to see the once-swashbuckling Morgan parroting management speak would suggest a man desiccated by the system, a player once characterised by his fearless, instinctive, mould-breaking strokeplay scrambled into a fretful, dogmatic, inhibited figure. When it comes to English cricket, you might say it's par for the course.

England's abject World Cup performance will doubtless lead to much introspection, both at the top and bottom of the pyramid. Is ours a cricketing culture which, routinely or unknowingly, stifles spontaneity and flair? (Incidentally, is it a surprise that the two key players in England's rise to Test No. 1 and victory in the 2010 World T20 were Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann, two free-thinking mavericks?)

In any large organisation, the global health of the system can be impeded by the "survivalism" of the sub-systems, by the local tendency to need to justify your continued relevance. Micro self-interest doesn't always beget macro efficiency. In relation to England's support staff, then, might it not be that once the human software reaches saturation point, the search for marginal gains may be best tackled by doing nothing, by allowing room for spontaneity?

England's abject World Cup performance will doubtless lead to much introspection, both at the top and bottom of the pyramid. Is ours a cricketing culture which, routinely or unknowingly, stifles spontaneity and flair?

Perhaps, ultimately, that is why Moores reached instinctively for the crutch of crunched numbers: the justification of his role. Maybe analytics were his USP. Maybe it was the appliance of science that he brought to the party, countervailing the absence of (useful but not essential) international experience. And perhaps that also explains the ECB's decision to return to Moores, since he is the embodiment of a system that pours more and more of its profits into that flotilla of specialists.

Challenging the data - rather, the belief in the data - would be tantamount to questioning your own faith. The road to Damascus is not an easy journey these days. Loss of confidence in analytics would mean loss of confidence in a pillar of the regime. Yet psychological experiments have shown that more information increases only certitude, not correctness. In many situations, writes Gladwell, "extra information is more than useless. It's harmful. It confuses the issues".

Van Riper sidestepped this "paralysis through analysis" while highlighting his adversary's cardinal error: "You get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning… If you get too caught up in the production of information, you drown in the data."

England talk a lot about "getting our processes right". Yet the abstraction of processes from context - from the solid, situational evidence cricket provides via the medium of the scoreboard - creates a blindness. Just as Van Riper demonstrated with war, cricketing knowledge is adversarial, non-linear. It doesn't take place in a vacuum, only in a messy, unpredictable fog. England's desire never to be surprised means they frequently are when opponents depart from the script. Then, the data conceals more than it illuminates. And it often inhibits.

For those quick to point out the glaringly obvious fact that it's not analytics per se that's the issue, only their usage, it's worth reminding that Van Riper wasn't some antediluvian Luddite but a man who downed a $250m war machine: "When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision-making," he stated, "neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance".

Earlier in his career, Van Riper baulked at the systematic deliberation forced upon him during similar war games, because by the time the decision had been arrived at the reality had often changed. Sound familiar? "It wasn't that Van Riper hated all rational analysis", glosses Gladwell. "It's that he thought it was inappropriate in the midst of battle, where the uncertainties of war and the pressures of time made it impossible to compare options carefully and calmly."

There has been much comment on the foolishness of deriving a gameplan from data drawn from a period when, to all intents and purposes, one-day cricket was a different game. Surely, you would think, the management cannot have been stupid enough to make that error. Either way, a statistically modelled strategy is an approach inherently wedded to the past, intrinsically reactive, and this while England's erstwhile rivals are running off into the sunset and dragging ODI cricket with them.

England's young players, snared in a claustrophobic, micromanaged bubble, may be so conditioned by data that they feel lost without it. Perhaps, moving forward, they might require their own version of the Data Protection Act.

Scott Oliver tweets here