April 2, 2012

Buchanan puts the science into selection

New Zealand did away with their selection panel last year. Instead they have a selection manager who reads pie charts before drawing up a squad list

The Oakland Athletics baseball team did not have the most talented players in the US major leagues, nor the most money. What they did have was a strategy for "the art of winning an unfair game". Unfair because other teams had the cash to buy up the most talented players, which Oakland did not. Oakland, though, had an edge in detailed statistical analysis, which allowed them to make best use of the resources available to them and, in the end, to punch far above their weight. New Zealand Cricket is aiming for something similar.

The country has a population of just over four million, whose overriding sport of choice is rugby. Cricket is small in New Zealand, with a correspondingly small pool of players to choose from. In terms of cricket numbers, though, they are no worse off than some of the game's powerhouses. Across the six provincial teams, with a group of Under-19s, New Zealand have about the same number of domestic players in their system as South Africa and Australia do, around 140.

However, in real terms there is a marked difference. New Zealand's smaller population means that the chances of less talented individuals making it into those 140 are greater. It results in a less competitive cricket environment, the effects of which are felt in the national team. Still, New Zealand compete, fiercely if not always triumphantly, with every other team at the elite level of international cricket. The problem facing John Buchanan when he was appointed director of cricket in New Zealand last May was how to turn that spunk into success. He started by revamping the selection process.

It's a theory somewhat similar to the one applied with Oakland in Moneyball, and zones in on optimal use of the available supply of cricketers to ensure the national team is best stocked. "We are working towards getting the sort of skills that we need to play with in all formats," Buchanan told ESPNcricinfo. "The selection system needed an overhaul and needed to produce something that everybody had confidence in, and we are moving in that direction."

It's a clean-cut and clinical look at cricket, an idea that was born out of Buchanan's eight-year tenure as Australian coach. "I always felt there were way too many people in and around the team environment, whether it is selectors, coaches, captains or team managers," he said. "You hear them talk about a person and then they leave the room and say something completely different about that same person. There were too many confusing messages, particularly when you are dealing with selection issues."

Buchanan explained that selectors' jobs are not only about managing players who already represent the national team, but also about dealing with those who are pushing for places. For that reason, he believes the system that selectors use should be as unbiased as possible, so every candidate who is deserving of a chance gets one. "Selection is not only about those who are in, it's about those who are not in," he said. "It's important to try to streamline the whole system."

Buchanan's approach is based on objectivity. The blueprint he has put in place relies heavily on statistical data to make selection as impartial as possible. New Zealand's Dominion Post newspaper was leaked a copy of the selection policy in practice. Each player has a pie-chart drawn up for him, which is divided into slices of different sizes that stand for different aspects of his game, in order to create a total score.

"The most important selection criteria is now significant performance at 35%, followed by consistent performance at 25%, contribution to the team, 15%, fitness, 10%, fielding, 10%, and least valuable, at 5%, is selectors' intuition," Jonathan Millmow, sports editor of the Post wrote.

The pie-chart attempts to reflect how well and how often players put in notable performances. "Significant performances" are classified as centuries and five-wicket hauls, but they are worth less if scored against a part-time attack or if obtained when blowing away a tail. "Consistent performances" are judged on batting averages and on bowling economy and strike rates. If these numbers are maintained or improved in a season, a player is regarded as consistent. There is also a rating for the role the performances have in team success, with contributions that are key to victories rating higher than those that come in losing causes.

Buchanan said the numbers in Millmow's report were not entirely correct but the principles were. "There's a range of things that go into making [the pie-chart] up. It makes selection far less subjective. Although there will always be subjectivity, hopefully it makes it more objective."

Kim Littlejohn, New Zealand's selection manager, collects all the data from the provincial coaches, analyses it and presents it to John Wright, the national coach. Together they pick a squad and it is up to Wright to choose the XI who will play on any given day.

Buchanan's approach is based on objectivity. The blueprint he has put in place relies heavily on statistical data to make selection a process that is as impartial as possible

Essentially it means if a player has performed well in the domestic season, irrespective of age or personality, such as Mark Gillespie, his chances of playing in the national side are almost guaranteed. It also means if someone has missed out, Littlejohn will be able to tell him exactly which area he needs to work on to increase his chances of being picked. It takes away the uncertainty of not knowing why someone was overlooked, which Buchanan thinks will improve relations between players and administrators hugely. "All the players are looking for is consistency and specific feedback. They need to believe somebody is watching and seeing what they are doing," he said. "We are utilising a tool that is relatively objective and therefore consistent."

New Zealand do not have a selection panel, unlike other countries, because Littlejohn runs the department himself. Buchanan said they would gradually look at appointing a group of scouts who will assist Littlejohn in putting the information together, but for the moment all the work sits on his plate.

"It is about placing a lot of responsibility on the provincial coaches to provide very good information on not just their players but other players that they see. The coaches are much closer to individual players than anybody else, so we are trying to utilise their information along with statistical information," Buchanan said.

After its first season the system is still a work in progress, Buchanan said, but he is pleased it is being applied at all levels, from the national team and women's team to age-group levels. One of the glaring weaknesses it has highlighted is the need for greater depth in all aspects of the game, particularly batting, because not enough players are scoring as highly on the consistency index, so replacements for the current internationals are not easily available. "I wouldn't say that if we lose two or three players we can immediately replace them," Buchanan said, "but we are beginning to develop and increase that depth,"

Kane Williamson was the team's only centurion in the recently completed Test series against South Africa; the rest of the top five struggled. On the bowling side, when Tim Southee was dropped, New Zealand called up Gillespie and Brent Arnel. Only Gillespie was successful, leaving them with the same problem they had when Southee played, in that one of their four seamers was the weak link.

Even without the pie-chart to assist them, New Zealand should have been able to isolate the shallow playing pool as their biggest concern. It is how he addresses that problem that will be a measure of Buchanan's tenure. He insists it will take some time before he can be judged on results, especially after this summer ended with losses in all three series against South Africa. "It depends how you measure success. If you measure it by results in the field, you couldn't regard it as a success," Buchanan said, although he was able to take some positives as well. "If we look at systems and processes, then we are going along nicely."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent