May 13, 2013

Meet the analyst

The man staring intently at his laptop in the dugout is an increasingly central member of a team's support staff

A man - often a bespectacled one - glued to his laptop, more often than not seated next to the head coach, seems to have become a permanent fixture in the ever-expanding line-up of support staff that cricket teams feature these days.

His designation - video analyst, analyst, or performance analyst - may differ from one set-up to another, but his role is increasingly being accepted and acknowledged as important by all teams. Times have changed.

"In 2002, we used to run from pillar to post, trying to convince Ranji Trophy coaches and captains of the importance of analytics," says Prasanna Agoram, who works as the performance analyst of South Africa's national team and the IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore. "Nobody back then thought that men with laptops could make a difference to a team's performance.

Now not only do all the IPL and Ranji teams have analysts, almost all the Under-19 teams in India also have them.

The advent of Twenty20 cricket has had a large part to play in the change. What was essentially a post-mortem and opposition-analysis tool had to become a real-time analysis tool to stay relevant in instant cricket. Currently the three majors in data analysis in the Indian cricket market - SportsMechanics, Sporting Minds and Kadamba - have their own versions of real-time decision-support systems.

"The game changes within a matter of a couple of balls, so you have to provide real-time inputs," says Subramanian Ramakrishnan, popularly known as Ramky, the founder-director of SportsMechanics. "A combination of mathematical algorithm formulae, situation of the game, and gut feeling helps you come up with a solution that can change the course of a game.

"Usually players out in the middle look at the scoreboard and play accordingly. Here the dugout handles the analysis and a player only has to focus on execution."

Ramky has played a pivotal role in forcing Indian sports set-ups to take data analysis seriously. After being appointed as the Indian cricket team's performance analyst in 2003, he went on to found SportsMechanics and also diversified into performance analysis in Olympic sports. SportsMechanics now helps the likes of badminton player Saina Nehwal in opponent analysis, and also has the Indian national cricket team as a key client. Four IPL teams - Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings, Delhi Daredevils and Pune Warriors - have been using SportsMechanics' T20 software, Over the Rope, this season.

The real-time decision-making system that analysts provide, if used effectively, might provide as much input as a key member of the support staff does in a game. The software enables a coach to survey all the possible options that are feasible during a game.

For instance, say Mumbai are playing Super Kings and Ravindra Jadeja takes a couple of quick wickets. The software will present all the historical and predictive data of the remaining Mumbai batsmen to their coach, helping him decide on the best possible option in terms of whom to send in to bat next.

T20 cricket has had a major impact on the players' mindset and on the market dynamics of cricket. Analytics has been affected too. Earlier players were assessed on their average, more or less. When ODIs started to dominate international cricket, terms like strike rate and economy rate came into vogue. With T20, the goalposts have been moved again.

"T20s have made data analysis more complex," says AR Srikkanth, Kolkata Knight Riders' analyst. "For instance, for a batsman, a release shot - the stroke that follows a couple of dot balls - has become very important, so you have to let a bowler know what a batsman's release shot usually is.

"T20s have made data analysis more complex. For instance, for a batsman, a release shot - the stroke that follows a couple of dot balls - has become very important, so you have to let a bowler know what a batsman's release shot usually is"
AR Srikkanth, KKR's analyst

"For a bowler, the comeback ball - the one after being hit for a four or a six - is critical. If you don't focus on the comeback ball, you may end up conceding 20 or 25 runs in an over without realising it."

This means that IPL teams don't just look at the overall strike rate and economy rate of a batsman or a bowler while pursuing players. "When it comes to signing a domestic batsman, the main factors that we delve into are the number of times he has finished games for a team, how many times has he been involved in match-winning partnerships, number of balls and dot balls he faces, his ratio of rotating strike, and the ability to hit boundaries," says Srikkanth.

As for bowlers, just like a batsman's innings is broken down into groups of every ten balls he faces, a bowler gets a detailed breakdown of his spell. "It matters a lot as to whether a bowler prefers to bowl all his four overs at one go or in three or four spells. The kind of balls he bowls in a particular spell have to be made known to the batsmen in advance," Prasanna says.

The IPL has brought in an unprecedented monetary dimension to cricket - not only in terms of player purses but also of players being remunerated differently. Cricket analysts need to factor the economic aspect in their data crunching.

"There is a good chance of market value playing on a player's mind. It may result in him prioritising personal interest over his team's interest. Such a possibility is eradicated if you notice such a trend while analysing performances in detail," Ramky says.

Considering data analysts watch more video footage of competitive cricket all over the world than anyone else in a dressing room, their involvement in IPL auctions is on the rise. It was Srikkanth who first suggested KKR take a punt on Sunil Narine's unorthodox offspin two years ago when they wanted a quality spinner.

Prasanna says he will think a thousand times before suggesting RCB pay a million dollars for a pace bowler, considering he will play half his games "on belters in Bangalore".

While data analysts may and do differ on the calibre and value of a particular player, they are in unison when it comes to their job titles, and the tendency to refer to them as "video analysts". Not just because their job is much more than just watching videos, but also because most of them are qualified coaches.

"I don't know who coined that term but we would rather prefer being referred to as a performance analyst." Srikkanth says. "I hope there comes a day when a performance analyst will be known either as 'intelligence provider' or 'assistant coach'."

Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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