The Bresnan effect
Are some players lucky charms? Or do we use luck as lazy short-hand slang to avoid the effort of identifying the set of skills that really sets them apart?
Tim Bresnan, England's bowling allrounder, now has a remarkable record in Test matches: played 13, won 13. So Bresnan will begin his 14th Test match this week yet to feel the pain of defeat in a white England jersey. Is that luck or skill?
Bresnan's role in those 13 consecutive victories has been mostly unflashy. Indeed, for many of those 13 selections, his place in the XI has been the most in jeopardy: the other ten players were picked first, with Bresnan battling it out for the final place. So far, the selectors have been proved right every time.
The unheralded rise of this understated Yorkshireman reminds me of "The No-Stats All-Star", a brilliant New York Times article by the American writer Michael Lewis. Fans of Lewis' iconic book Moneyball should read it immediately. Lewis' starting point is trying to understand how some players have an effect on a team that is not captured in their own statistical performance.
Lewis' subject is Shane Battier, a defensive player for the Houston Rockets. Battier seems to have the ability to make a team win, and yet no one knows quite how he does it. Battier's job is to guard the most talented opponents, shutting down attacking geniuses such as Kobe Bryant. So you would expect Battier to have poor numbers as a shooter and dribbler. Much more interestingly, he doesn't even have outstanding stats using the standard defensive metric of rebounds. Nor is Battier universally highly rated by his peers.
Lewis describes the situation as a basketball mystery. "A player is widely regarded inside the NBA as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win." How quickly we fall back on irrational terminology: the "magic Battier" or the "lucky charm Bresnan". In fact, Lewis goes on to deconstruct the magic in the most logical terms:
"Battier's game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his team-mates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse - often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his team-mates' rebounding. He doesn't shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to team-mates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers."
One of the coaches at the Rockets calls Battier "lego" because "when he's on the court, all the pieces start to fit together". It is a standard misconception that team selection is about picking the best all-round players and only the best players. In fact, the art of selection is picking the right team, which is an organic entity with its own unique personality. The Houston Rockets are committed to analysing how the five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts. As Lewis puts it: "The Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team's elements."
The Rockets' coaches use a statistic called the "plus-minus", which measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. There are risks with over-reliance on the plus-minus, of course. In football, the very best players are often rested for easy games - so they miss on easy "pluses". And the plus-minus flatters players who are dragged up by brilliance that surrounds them. A basketball player who finds himself on the same team with the world's four best players, and who plays only when they do, will benefit from an artificially inflated plus-minus.
Analysts need to watch out for these potential pitfalls. But the brilliance of the plus-minus, unlike other statistical measures, is that it asks absolutely the right question - how much does a player really help the team? In basketball, a good player might be a plus three -- that is, his team averages three points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. Shane Battier is plus six.
There are Battiers in every sport. Arsenal fans will tell you how what a huge difference Mikel Arteta made to their efficiency and effectiveness last season. Arteta does not possess explosive pace or power. Nor does he quite have the ability to play the thrilling eye-catching pass that made his predecessor Cesc Fabregas so exciting to watch. But when Arteta is on the pitch, Arsenal possess shape, structure and - above all - common sense and leadership. Arteta brings class and poise to a team that has often lacked maturity. In the same vein, Chelsea fans can talk into the early hours about how Claude Makelele - the defensive midfielder who masterminded their glory days in the mid-2000s - is the most underrated player in Premiership history.
There are also inverse-Battiers: players who rack up good personal stats while actually damaging the team's win-loss percentage. Every cricketer has personal experience of selfish batsmen in one-day cricket who tend to score their runs when it is easy, and take up more balls than they should while they're doing so. The saddest thing about selfish players is how often weak coaches let them get away with it to the detriment of the team.
In some respects, Bresnan (for the time being, anyway) is not the ideal cricketing example of the Battier phenomenon - because after a stellar personal best at Trent Bridge last month, Bresnan is currently sitting on a very tidy set of personal statistics.
But for much of his career to date, Bresnan's contribution to the team has not been so easy to observe in the old-fashioned statistical measures. Fortunately, England employ the perfect man to explore how the value of some players is observed best in the win-loss column. Nathan Leamon, a former maths teacher and another unsung hero of the England set-up, spends his time developing new statistical tools to explain how cricket matches are won.
I doubt Bresnan is especially interested in obscure statistical analysis. But if his career continues on its current trajectory, he might end up as the accidental standard bearer for a more enlightened approach to selecting teams. How appropriate it would be if a new number - the plus-minus column - was added to every player's personal statistics. Perhaps the cricketing incarnation of the plus-minus metric should be given a special nickname: "the Bresnan".