January 30, 2013

The vexed task of managing player workloads

The row over rotation reveals several fault lines running through Australian cricket, and also within the professional game as a whole

What is the difference between a good season and an average one, an average one and a bad one? Of course you never admit while you're still playing - even to yourself. You are too committed to the yearly round of pre-season optimism, the new tactics, the improved team cohesion. And all those factors, happily, can make a real difference to the win-loss column.

But one factor stands above all else. Injuries - especially to fast bowlers. A team with good fast bowlers, bowling well, gains a huge advantage. How big an advantage? Very few teams are predestined to compete for the honours at the top of the league; a small number are doomed to insignificance no matter what. But for most, for the middling majority, the difference between, say, finishing third and seventh, is depressingly simple. Did your bowlers break down? How many games did they miss? How quickly did they get back to their best?

My experience is painful to recall. In the 1990s, Kent would have won the championship if our fast bowlers had stayed on the pitch. Later in my career, Middlesex would have come a lot closer if we hadn't been dogged by perpetual injuries. Here's the real point: many teams could say something similar. No wonder Billy Beane, the pioneering baseball manager behind Moneyball, has a new obsession: player health. There is a huge competitive advantage in managing your players' workload better than your rivals do.

This insight is scarcely rocket science. And yet it led to a fierce controversy within Australian cricket. Using their own terminology, the selectors have adopted a system of "informed player management". The press prefers dismissively to call it a "rotation policy". I've just spent two weeks in Australia and it has been impossible to open a newspaper without seeing an impassioned diatribe about the evils of rotating players. Indeed, it has become the explanation for anything that goes wrong on the field. When David Warner whacks a drive to mid-off - which is scarcely a highly improbable event - we are told his dismissal was the inevitable result of being rested for a few days. We know rotation is the cause. But remind me, what was the malady again?

The row about rotation reveals several fault lines running through Australian cricket, and also within the professional game as a whole. Above all, the row isn't really about rotation at all. Selection is the catalyst for the argument, but not the real explanation. The much deeper cause is the quality of Australian cricket. This is not at all bad. The team dominated Sri Lanka in the Tests, drew in the ODIs and lost two very close T20 matches. This is a decent team; but by Australia's recent standards, it is worryingly - unacceptably - ordinary.

Even harder for the Australians to stomach is the fact that selection has little or nothing to do with the underlying problems. These can be summarised with overwhelming simplicity.

First, the batting is brittle and lacks depth. Just think how Australia would love now to call on Stuart Law and Darren Lehmann, who spent most of their careers out of the team - not to mention Michael Bevan, Matthew Elliott, Michael DiVenuto, Greg Blewett, Brad Hodge and Andrew Symonds.

Much of my career (1996-2008) was dominated by collecting the ball from the fences of county grounds, thinking to myself that Australia's 2nd XI batters gave a very good impression of being among the best batsmen in the world. The Australian selectors are currently on a quest to find some batsmen who will be able to play spin in India. Not so long ago, they used to leave out Lehmann, Law and Bevan - three superb players of the spinning ball. Times have changed - state cricket is weaker, so too club cricket. Quite simply, the players have dried up.

Secondly, the same broad analysis applies to the dearth of match-winning Australian spinners - a fact brought into sharper relief by the ever-present memories of Shane Warne. That Stuart McGill was usually surplus to requirements says it all.

Problem three is the inability of the highly talented crop of young Australian fast bowlers to stay fit for long enough. This has led directly to the rotation policy, which is an attempt to control the one strand of Australian cricket strategy that actually lies within the hands of the selectors. They cannot conjure a new Shane Warne out of thin air. They cannot magically summon a new generation of Waughs, Martyns, Pontings, Haydens and Langers. But they can try to maximise the prospects of their young quick bowlers staying on the park. True, they have very briefly rotated "out" Warner, an ever-present in all three formats, and also Michael Clarke, who has long-term back and hamstring problems and now a new ankle injury. But retaining deep stocks of fast bowlers is uppermost in the selectors' thoughts.

The great irony of the drawn out controversy over the rotation policy is that the debate is notionally about problem three (how to keep bowlers fit and firing) but the anger that lies behind it is really derived from points one and two. The Australian media and public are finding it hard to adjust to life watching a merely good cricket team, as though greatness would be instantly within their reach if only it shuffled the pack better.

The furious howls of derision are a classic case of obsessing about small issues while being too scared to face up to the big ones - like a man who yells that there aren't any cold beers left in the fridge, without noticing that the top two floors of his house have burnt down.

One of the central problems with cricket is that no one knows the perfect formula for preparing players for a mixture of Tests, ODIs and T20s, because there is no cohort of former players who have already done it

The rotation policy row reveals another fault line within Australian cricket. The spirit that inspired the great teams of the 1970s was the Australian instinct and talent for self-reliance: figure it out for yourself, stand on your own two feet, be your own coach, don't rely on the system. It still has its passionate defenders in the media today, and of course there is a lot to be said for it.

But sport has evolved, never more starkly than in the area of physical recovery and conditioning. You only have to look at tennis to see how support teams are enhancing performance. We don't know exactly how Novak Djokovic recovers between matches, but we do know it isn't by saying: "Mate, she'll be right, I've used the same formula for years - a few beers and a night out, then a hard jog on the roads to sweat out the alcohol the next day. No need for this rest and ice bath rubbish." No, Djokovic trusts his support staff to give him the best possible schedule to aid his playing schedule.

That is not to say that managing player workload is an exact science. Far from it. One of the central problems with cricket is that no one knows the perfect formula for preparing players for a mixture of Tests, ODIs and T20s, because there is no cohort of former players who have already done it. Today's players are guinea pigs in the three-format era.

How, for example, can you predict the physical stress of a T20 match? A close T20 can be one of the most physically and mentally demanding experiences in cricket. But I also played T20s where I got 0, fielded at mid-off and did virtually nothing. Should I have trained or recovered afterwards? Damned if I knew.

That is why cricket's rotation row is part of a much broader problem faced by any bureaucracy that has to deal with imperfect information. It is perceived to be the job of physiotherapists, physiologists, coaches, managers and selectors to "know". They are paid to present answers to fact-hungry fans. Here is the optimal formula: this amount of rest, that much practice, so many days off.

Only, they don't know for sure, none of us does, because cricket is changing so fast and the data doesn't stretch back before the advent of T20 in 2003. So the best anyone can manage is an informed judgement.

Full disclosure: many years ago, when he was coaching Kent, John Inverarity (now Australia's chairman of selectors) memorably expressed to me the significance of managing player workload to maximise their chances of being fit. However badly a player is out of form, Inverarity explained, he is still more useful to the team than someone who is injured.

Baseball has been rotating pitchers for over a hundred years. Sir Alex Ferguson has been rotating Manchester United players for decades (initially facing fierce criticism). Australian Rules Football has experienced a similar transition. Rotation has now become conventional wisdom in all those sports.

My guess is that the same will soon apply to cricket. The difference is that I can admit that I'm only guessing because, fortunately, I'm not a selector.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here