Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

What matters: leadership, data analysis, culture

Three factors that can play an important role in a team's success

Ed Smith

May 15, 2013

Comments: 20 | Text size: A | A

Kevon Cooper celebrates a wicket with James Faulkner, Kings XI Punjab v Rajasthan Royals, IPL, Mohali, May 9, 2013
Rajasthan Royals are an example of a cricket team that underspends and overachieves © BCCI
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A writer yearns to have intelligent readers who engage with his ideas. Then you realise that they are examining your logic with an uncomfortably forensic eye.

Two weeks ago I argued that all students of sport need to understand randomness. That the familiar talking points of selection and tactics are lazily thrown around to explain events they often do not influence. That understanding the "causes" of why things happen in sport is very difficult.

Enter Kieran McMaster, a statistician and ESPNcricinfo reader. He asks how I can explain the evolution of the Spain football team and the All Blacks rugby squad, teams that not only win but also drive forward the evolution of their sport. Surely that is evidence of tactical supremacy? Moreover, his question gained added weight thanks to a random external event: the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. How can I square my scepticism about the short-term influence of tactics and selection with the consistent and relentless success of Sir Alex, who manipulated the levers of management so shrewdly?

Here goes.

I certainly do believe in leadership. It is obviously true that some captains and coaches make a sustained difference. Warren Gatland has transformed the Welsh rugby team from romantic underachievers to pragmatic winners. Jose Mourinho wins something wherever he goes. The pattern of success is too consistent to be explained by randomness. One out of one might be dumb luck. But it is much more likely to be skill than luck if a coach has a long sequence of different winning teams.

It is equally true that there aren't many coaches and captains in this elite category, certainly fewer than there are teams that need managers. Great coaches are incredibly rare. So clubs that continually chop and change managers, searching for the right "chemistry" (usually a euphemism) are usually taking an ill-judged risk. It is a statistical fact that changing the manager, on average, makes no difference at all to the performance of the team. It is, however, always expensive and usually distracting. Most teams would be better advised to invest in youth coaching and infrastructure rather than another round of sackings at the top.

Consider the following logic. If every club sacked its coach on the basis that they were searching for Sir Alex Ferguson, at the end of the process there would still only be one club with Sir Alex Ferguson, and dozens of disappointed teams, because there can only ever be one manager who is the best in the world. Sometimes it's better to work with what you've got rather than chase fantasies.

Secondly, I acknowledge that teams can gain a competitive advantage through smarter, clearer use of data and statistics. We all know about Moneyball and the Oakland A's. Cricket has a more current example: the Rajasthan Royals. They underspend and overachieve. And, like the A's, they use data to study how games are really won, instead of just recycling clich├ęs. According to Raghu Iyer, the Royals' CEO, their strategy is not to buy famous players but to "out-think the opposition" at the player auction.

Thirdly, I believe in the power of culture. The recurrent success of some national sides cannot be explained by random cycles of dominance. Some sporting cultures achieve success because they get more things right, from grass roots to World Cup final. The All Blacks play a wonderful brand of total rugby. They rely on skills developed throughout New Zealand's rugby culture. In Dunedin this March, during rain delays in the cricket Test match between England and New Zealand, I watched Otago practise on the adjacent rugby ground. Everyone can pass, everyone has awareness, there are no donkeys and no under-skilled thugs.

 
 
The serious analyst of sport runs into difficulties when he argues that "an Australian would never have dropped that catch because they're tougher over there", or "India lost the match because they should have picked X"
 

Something similar can be said about Spanish football. Only once have I succumbed to a satirical rant on Twitter. It was during the European Cup final of 2012. In the lead- up to the match, we had to endure ill-informed punditry about how Spain's refusal to pick "an outright striker" was a negative move, how they played a cautious game based on control of the ball rather than dynamic sweeping moves, how rival teams ought to do this and ought to do that, as though opponents hadn't already tried everything and simply lost. Basically there was a widespread reluctance to admit that Spain had developed a systemic solution to playing a better, more modern brand of football. This struck me as both insane and ungracious.

In the 14th minute, Cesc Fabregas, an attacking midfielder who was playing instead of the lamentably absent "outright striker", scored a typically classy goal. The goal revealed the interaction of control, technique, movement, intelligence and team work - a microcosm of Spanish footballing philosophy. Spain went on to win 4-0, and this columnist could not resist a series of sarcastic tweets about "boring Spain", "stupid selection", "wrong-headed tactics" and so on.

But I'm not certain, returning to our original question, that the influence of national sporting culture should be filed under the heading "tactics". It is more a case of philosophy culminating in elite expression. Put differently: if Spain had been instructed by their manager to play a violent, low-skill form of football in that final, I doubt they could have done so. So deeply ingrained is their approach that it has become second nature, not really a "tactic" at all.

I thrill to all three of these methods of gaining an edge in sport: through leadership, via analysis, and through culture.

However, and here is the crucial point, not everything that happens on the sports pitch can be explained in terms of leadership and strategy, or even culture (though the influence of culture is so subtle that it's impossible to measure).

This is especially true over the short term. The serious analyst of sport runs into difficulties when he argues that "an Australian would never have dropped that catch because they're tougher over there", or "India lost the match because they should have picked X", or "imagine how good we'd be if we changed the captain". Above all, my scepticism about causes kicks in when a match is lost and a media inquest begins into everything that immediately preceded the defeat, as though the former inevitably led to the latter.

In sport, as in life, I believe in the capacity of innovation, strategy and intelligence to make a difference over the long term. But that faith can coexist with the right to challenge the retrofitting of today's causes to suit yesterday's events.

You can be a short-term sceptic and still a long-term optimist.

Ed Smith's book, Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune, is out in paperback now. He tweets here

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by jay57870 on (May 18, 2013, 10:54 GMT)

Ed - While "leadership" & "culture" are vital to team success, I think the "data analysis" factor is overblown! Moneyball is part-reality/part-fantasy. The success of baseball sabermetrics is often exaggerated. The Oakland A's last won the World Series in 1989, but have since remained a perennial also-ran. Yes, they won the division title in 2002 with bargain players, but the hidden fact is the A's also had 3 highly-scouted winning pitchers. Few of Billy Beane's later draft picks made it big. Results in cricket are mixed too. Four IPL teams - MI, CSK, DD & PW - are using the real-time 'Over the Rope' T20 data analysis tool (developed by SportsMechanics - founded by S. Ramakrishnan, former India performance analyst). Current IPL standings: MI & CSK (top 2); DD & PW (bottom 2)! RR CEO Raghu Iyer's data-based strategy is questionable: A small squad, depleted by 3 player suspensions & no core group, collapsed in Hyderabad. Unintended consequences? Collateral damage? The jury's out, Ed!!

Posted by jay57870 on (May 18, 2013, 1:45 GMT)

While "leadership" & "culture" are vital to team success, I think the "data analysis" factor is overblown! Moneyball is part-reality/part-fantasy. The success of baseball sabermetrics is often exaggerated. The Oakland A's last won the World Series in 1989, but have since remained a perennial also-ran. Yes, they won the division title in 2002 with bargain players, but the hidden fact is that the A's also had 3 highly-scouted winning pitchers. Few of Billy Beane's later draft picks have made it. Results in cricket are mixed too. Four IPL teams - MI, CSK, DD & PW - are using the real-time 'Over the Rope' T20 data analysis tool (developed by SportsMechanics - founded by S. Ramakrishnan, former India performance analyst). Current IPL standings: MI & CSK (top 2) and DD & PW (bottom 2)! But the real shocker: The frugal RR franchise is rocked by an alleged spot-fixing scandal! Three RR players stand arrested along with several bookies (incl. an ex-RR player)! Like a RR 'Bloomberg moment', Ed?

Posted by jay57870 on (May 18, 2013, 1:39 GMT)

Ed - The real test of "leadership" is when the chips are down! The rebuilding job by John Wright & Sourav Ganguly - in lifting Team India out of the abyss of the 2000 match-fixing scandal - was masterful! The coach-captain-team "chemistry" was built with the support of a core group of mature players - Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble & Laxman! Together they instilled trust with their work-ethic & discipline. They were role models in motivating youngsters like Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer & Harbhajan! So began a winning "culture"! Similarly the Gary Kirsten & Kumble/Dhoni leadership - after Greg Chappell's coaching debacle - advanced India to the top by rebuilding on the same stable foundation. And Kirsten later took SA to the top with a core senior group - skipper Smith, Kallis, Steyn & Amla! In both nations, he engaged the motivational adventurer Mike Horn's services in scaling the summit! Now Kirsten - the master of "personal mastery" - is retiring: "Great coaches are incredibly rare" indeed, Ed!

Posted by   on (May 16, 2013, 19:27 GMT)

@Sir-Freddie, couldn't agree more. Cricket, with the bowler bowling the ball into the pitch is always going to be random. Just ask Phil Hughes if the pitches in India are not random? Even tools like hot spot can be quite random, with seemingly quite a lot of feather edges not showing up. Cricket is as random as it gets.

Agree with Ed on culture. Sports like Rugby in NZ, Football in Spain and Baseball in the US are so deeply ingrained in the culture that much of the time most of what happens on the pitch will just occur with little thought or input from coaches, with the players having lived their sport since early childhood.

Posted by AJ_Tiger86 on (May 16, 2013, 8:32 GMT)

@Cropper03 Modern physics says randomness most certainly exists, and there are a lot of things that simply cannot be predicted with 100% certainty. So there is absolutely no reason to believe that a huge part of sports is random that is beyond human control. Luck is the single most underrated aspect of sports. Fans, players, managers all seem reluctant to accept the huge role luck plays in determining the winners.

Posted by TheOnlyEmperor on (May 16, 2013, 6:16 GMT)

"Put differently: if Spain had been instructed by their manager to play a violent, low-skill form of football in that final, I doubt they could have done so. So deeply ingrained is their approach that it has become second nature, not really a "tactic" at all."

There should be no confusion between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the broad approach one takes to achieve one's objectives. Tactics is the specific action that you take to achieve one's objective for the moment. You MAY and CAN customize tactics to fit into the overall framework of strategy.

In the reference above, if the manager decided to play a more "violent and low skill" form of football in the final, it can be said to be tactical. It doesn't matter if the tactic is unconventional or cross-grained. Sometimes, it's precisely that character of the tactic that can surprise the opponent in the field (or competitor in the market place ) and secure the desired result!

Posted by Cropper03 on (May 15, 2013, 22:31 GMT)

@64blip - although you argue for the existence of randomness you seem to provide examples against it? As you say, Einstein argued that randomness or chance does not exist, Darwin also argued it does not exist and indeed physics argues against randomness. It does not exist. That is not to say that unexpected things can't happen, nor that coaching or better understanding of situations can reduce the chances of certain things occurring. But random, i.e something completely odd occurring in the middle of an event, won't happen. Anything that does happen will either be the cause of a collective team following instructions, or the impact of an individual working on instinct or their own skills. I completely agree with you on Forest winning two European cups, I'm an avid fan, but if Clough didn't show the team videos, you can be sure he instilled the culture that they should look after themselves. What he couldn't make happen, which is my point, is Trevor Francis making a run an scoring

Posted by kiwi_fan7035 on (May 15, 2013, 21:07 GMT)

"So deeply ingrained is their approach that it has become second nature, not really a "tactic" at all."

Can a "tactic" really be used if it is not deeply ingrained? Would a batsman ever be wise to change his technique mid-season - isn't it better that he deeply ingrain the change in the winter (not that the players get winters now) so as to when they bat in the match they do not need to think (consciously) the change but can in fact play as an artist (unconsciously).

This is in fact why it is unwise to change tactics too drastically in the short-term or frequently. You will notice the All blacks and Spain spend little time analysing the opposition. There players are all playing in their unconscious minds and wouldn't want to disturb this too much. Great article.

Posted by 64blip on (May 15, 2013, 17:15 GMT)

@ Cropper03 Randomness underpins the physical universe. What we perceive as a causal reality is in fact statistical. This revelation is what caused Einstein to object "God does not play dice." It turns out he does. With regards to successful teams, it lies first with the player's technical ability and then their ability to analyse and react to the contest as it unfolds. For example, the All-Blacks always seem to know what to do. It's not because they have an unlimited number of plays memorised for every situation, it's because they have been coached to think for themselves. Brian Clough did little coaching. He chose his players carefully and made it clear he expected them to sort it out for themselves. I remember captain John McGovern being asked about their preparation for European opposition (Forest won two European Cups): "We'd have a look at them for half an hour and see what they'd got - it usually wasn't much to be honest."

Posted by pratn on (May 15, 2013, 15:41 GMT)

I would agree with you there. This is a relevant bit from Nate Silver's book (The Signal and the Noise) about baseball (I'm sure it applies to cricket too --- at least to ODI and T20):

"Baseball is designed in such a way that luck tends to predominate in the near term: even the best teams lose about one-third of their ball games, and even the best hitters fail to get on base three out of every five times. Sometimes luck will obscure a player's real skill level even over the course of a whole year. During a given season, a true .275 hitter has about a 10 percent change of hitting .300 and a 10 percent chance of hitting .250 on the basis of luck alone."

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