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The perils of data-driven cricket

For all his triumphs as England coach, Andy Flower ultimately got the balance between trusting people and numbers wrong

Tim Wigmore

March 2, 2014

Comments: 38 | Text size: A | A

Was Andy Flower ultimately empowered by data or inhibited by it? © PA Photos

Cricket is an art, not a science. It's a fact that needs restating after the disintegration of Andy Flower's reign as England coach.

Slavery to data had gone too far. The triumphs of the more jocund Darren Lehmann, Flower's coaching antithesis, are a salutary reminder of the importance of fun and flair in a successful cricket team. And it's not only cricket that could learn from the tale.

Big data - the vogue term used to describe the manifold growth and availability of data, both structured and not - is an inescapable reality of the 21st century. There are 1200 exabytes (one billion gigabytes) of data stored in the world; translated, that means that, if it were all placed on CD-ROMs and stacked up, it would stretch to the moon in five separate piles, according to Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger's book Big Data. Day-to-day life can often feel like a battle to stay afloat against the relentless tide of information. One hundred and sixty billion instant messages were sent in Britain in 2013. Over 500 million tweets are sent worldwide every day.

Kevin Pietersen was the subject of a good number of those after his sacking as an England cricketer. Amid the cacophony of opinions, one voice we could have done without was David Cameron's. The prime minister gave a radio interview saying that there was a "powerful argument" for keeping the "remarkable" Pietersen in the team. Cameron had once recognised the dangers of descending into a roving reporter, promising, "We are not going to sit in an office with the 24-hour news blaring out, shouting at the headlines." Downing Street's impulse to comment on the Pietersen affair is a manifestation of information overload at its worst: with so much space to fill, politicians feel compelled to fill it. The result is that they have less time to do their day jobs.

Flower's reign, for the most part, showed the virtues of using data smartly. But data is emphatically not a substitute for intuition and flair - either in the office or on the cricket field

Datafication often brings ugly and perverse consequences. The easiest way to reduce poverty is to give people just enough money to inch them ahead of an arbitrarily defined standard of poverty, rather than tackle the deep-rooted and more complex causes. Schools are routinely decried for a narrow-minded approach to education - "teaching to the test" - but this is the inevitable result of the obsession with standarised tests. California has pioneered performance-related pay for teachers, but a huge rise in teacher-enabled cheating has been one unforeseen result.

No industry has been permeated by datafication quite like the financial sector. The complex - oh, so complex - algorithms that underpinned the financial system had a simple rationale. In place of impulsive human beings, decision-making would be transferred to formulas that dealt only in cold logic, ensuring an end to financial catastrophes. We know what happened next. Yet the crash has changed less than is commonly supposed: around seven billion shares change hands every day in the US equity markets - and five billion of those are traded by algorithms.

The Ashes tour felt like English cricket's crash. The numbers said that it couldn't possibly happen; those who spotted the warning signs were belittled as naysayers who let emotions cloud their judgement. The Ashes series was caricatured as the triumph of the old school - Lehmann's penchant for discussing the day's play over a beer - over Flower's pseudo-scientific approach. While clearly a simplification - Lehmann is no philistine when it comes to data - the accusation contains a grain of truth.

Flower's attraction to big data originated from reading Moneyball, the book that examined how the scientific methods of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane helped the baseball team punch above its financial limitations. But it is too readily forgotten that the Oakland Athletics ran out of steam in knockout games. "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs," Beane exclaimed. "My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is luck." Not even Beane found an empirical way of measuring flair, spontaneity and big-game aptitude.

After the debris of England's tour Down Under, the Sun published its list of the 61 "guilty men" - including 29 non-players - involved in England's Ashes tour. It was hard not to ask what on earth the backroom staff was doing. And, more pertinently, if England's total touring party had numbered only 51 or 41, could England really have performed any worse? The proliferation of specialist coaches and analysts seemed antithetical to the self-expression of players on the pitch.

Who's ahead? Boyd Rankin, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett all had a few problems in Perth, Western Australia Chairman's XI v England XI, Tour match, Perth, 3rd day, November 2, 2013
The selection of Finn, Rankin and Tremlett for the Ashes was proof of the pitfalls of the reliance on statistics © Getty Images

Similar questions are being asked in different fields. The average businessman now sends 108 emails a day. But as inboxes get bigger, so opportunity for creativity decreases. This reality is slowly being recognised: a multi-million dollar industry has grown around filtering emails to liberate businessmen from the grind. The world is running into the limits of Silicon Valley's favoured mantra "In God we trust - all others bring data."

No one would advocate pretending that big data isn't valid. Datafication is happening at a staggering rate; the amount of digital data doubles every three years. Flower's reign, for the most part, showed the virtues of using it smartly. But cricket data is affected by the unpredictability of human beings and so constantly fluctuates. Data is emphatically not a substitute for intuition and flair - either in the office or on the cricket field.

By the last embers of Flower's rule, England seemed not empowered by data but inhibited by it, as instinct, spontaneity and joy seeped from their cricket. Accusations of England lacking flair on the field had a point - witness Alastair Cook's insistence on having a cover sweeper regardless of the match situation. Going back to 2011, consider England's approach to tying down Sachin Tendulkar in the home series against India: they relied obsessively on drawing Tendulkar outside his off stump in the early part of his innings rather than let him get his runs on the on side, an adherence to the result of a computer simulator plan created by their team analyst, Nathan "Numbers" Leamon.

The selection of three beanpole quick bowlers to tour Australia was rooted in data that showed such bowlers were most likely to thrive in Australia. The ECB looked at the characteristics of the best quick bowlers - delayed delivery, braced front leg and so on, and then tried to coach those virtues into their own players, seemingly not realising it was too late; you can't change those things once bowlers are more than about 15. It did not matter how many boxes Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin and Chris Tremlett ticked in theory when they were utterly bereft of fitness and form in practice. It was proof of the pitfalls of excess devotion to data and reliance on bogus statistics. "Garbage in, garbage out," as some who work with data are prone to saying.

Data is a complement to intuition and judgement, not a replacement for them. As Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger argue in their study, big data "exacerbates a very old problem: relying on the numbers when they are far more fallible than we think".

Criticisms of Flower's reliance on data always lingered under the surface, as when South Africa expressed bafflement when Graham Onions was dropped for Ryan Sidebottom in 2010, a data-driven decision largely made before the tour even began.

For all his triumphs as England coach, and there were many, Flower ultimately got the balance between trusting people and numbers wrong. He was in good company. In the brave new world, those who thrive will not be those who use data most - but those who use it most smartly.

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Posted by liz1558 on (March 4, 2014, 0:43 GMT)

His methods were more of a contrast to Duncan Fletcher than anyone else. Fletcher's methods were better and the cricket far more exciting, especially the bowling attack with all that pace. Finn would ve been the perfect sort of bowler for

Fletcher. England bed need to be able to play with some freedom agaric.

Posted by Insightful2013 on (March 3, 2014, 18:38 GMT)

I believe that Flower was such a poor manager but, quite intelligent enough to know that analytics provides a professional and influential tool, with which to push his decisions and also prevent abstainments. He used the data as a manipulative tool instead of as a professional tool.He used it to cover his defective qualities. Not a person for the English psyche'. A manager has to be a people person, stroking some personalities and big sticking, others. He only wielded a big stick!

Posted by Speng on (March 3, 2014, 14:23 GMT)

I hope England's cricket intelligentsia don't fall into the trap of pouring blame on the man who was in charge when the house burned down. Flower had great success with England and nobody was complaining about his approach when they were making Australia look bad last summer. Yes the fast bowling selection behind Anderson and Broad was poor - none of Tremlett, Rankin and Finn should have been on the squad but if Swann and Anderson had bowled like they did in the summer alongside Broad's good performance the 4th bowler would have been irrelevant.

If the contrast is taken to be between the boffinish Flower and the laddish Lehman then the point is being missed... Australia is on the rise as they recover from a loss of older core players and England's on the dip as their older core players perhaps start to fail.

I will agree that Cook is the most boring captain known to man...

Posted by steve48 on (March 3, 2014, 11:42 GMT)

The trouble with data is it only proves what has already happened! For example, you can prove how many runs Ian Bell scores through gully and running the ball down to third man, but that is based on previous pitches, bowling faced and field settings. The human part is to recognize that on bouncy pitches, against quick bowlers, this area of strength can be exposed as a weakness by putting in two gullies, third man in etc. This is where the Aussies intuitively out thought our machine so effectively. Their plans for each of our batsmen were not only informed by data but analysed through what the players and coach could SEE! The success of Flowers data driven coaching made a parody of itself, becoming master, not servant, and removing imagination.

Posted by py0alb on (March 3, 2014, 10:09 GMT)

Its not using data that is the problem; its misusing it. The analysts have to know what they're doing. You need to employ people with a background in both cricket coaching AND computational simulations, its not a case of either/or.

Posted by Insult_2_Injury on (March 3, 2014, 3:42 GMT)

Hear, hear Tim. Thank God common sense is starting to be rediscovered after the the last decade of bureaucrats sucking the enjoyment out of sport with their 'qualified analysts turned coaches' basing sport on data driven processes, instead of talented sportspeople generating statistics for the record books while playing in a teamwork structure designed for player and fan enjoyment and WINNING.

It's little wonder that the see ball - smash ball of T20 has captured the imagination of players & spectators alike. The only data that matters at the moment in 20/20 is 150 runs to win off 76 balls - will they or won't they?

Cull the clipboarders and we'll get back to the only statistics that matter - Series win 5-0!

Posted by   on (March 3, 2014, 3:01 GMT)

Mitchell Johnson won the Ashes.To write an article about why England lost without mentioning his name is bizarre.For this series he was world class dominant.Put a question to England fan's:do you think you would have won the Ashes in 1981 without Ian Botham?One player can dominate a series and I still think England is capable of playing good cricket.Fram an Aussie.

Posted by statmatt on (March 3, 2014, 1:21 GMT)

Perhaps it was the wrong type of data that they used. For example, if they had looked at Graham Onions 2013 record compared to Tremlett or Finn, rather than over-analysing the type of bowler required, they might have picked a different squad.

Posted by mmoosa on (March 2, 2014, 20:48 GMT)

When one assumes that past data "patterns" repeat exactly into the future,that can be perilous if there's no plan B to fall back on. The one truism in any sport is that ultimately any management team,coach,captain gets stale and a new person/people are required...Flower's time was deemed to be up,rightly or wrongly..if anything,Captain Cook was shown up short by his Aussie counter part . The only way one would know if Lehmann is also a techno slave is by being an insider in the Aussie camp...theres no other way to tell and mere conjecture...his public persona is of a beaming,fun guy but who knows what goes on behind the scenes?

Posted by Jimmyvida on (March 2, 2014, 20:03 GMT)

Statistics shows that India is #2 in ICC test rankings. India should actually be behind Pakistan, as follows: S. Africa, Australia, England, N. Zealand, Pakistan, India. And if they get beaten by Sri Lanka they move down one notch. I propose one point for each test won at home and two points won away. That should tidy up things a bit. By the way, someone just asked why Trott is not in the English side touring the West Indies. Is the name Roach the answer. I know Johnson isn't playing for the West Indies.

Posted by noptijhopti on (March 2, 2014, 19:16 GMT)

its really amazing how quickly peoples good deeds are carpeted so fast these days.when england had some quite great successes under flower then people was not so vocal about his success.thats hypocrisy at its best.all things have a shelf one in any field,how much of a genuius he or she maybe,is going to exercise hs or her influence forever.its bound to come to an end.i mean lets be criritical of flower but if that means dissecting him ruthlessly then i am simply against hire a mostly flair driven coach and have some good results.he is also going to be found out down the line.have some respect please.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 19:03 GMT)

The data isn't wrong (it can't ever be wrong - it's data - a recording of events, unless the events were recorded wrongly, then the data is correct) what is wrong is its use and application.

Baseball has learned the hard way about data. Sabremetricians win the Rotisserie leagues year after year because of 2 things that Baseball does right - and cricket does wrong (or has not done yet) They understand what data is important and what isn't. Cricket is yet to get a handle on this. It overvalues certain aspects of the game and undervalues others. The data is available, then it is mis-interpreted by humans with illogical biases. Batting average, bowling average and number of catches are HUGELY over valued when taken out of context, yet taken out of context they are - again and again. Game state, opposition, lower order partnership, RPO and others are hugely under valued. Secondly, they realise that - at best - data is only 60% of the equation. Locker room knowledge counts for a lot.

Posted by Mr_Anonymous on (March 2, 2014, 16:50 GMT)

As a fan of Big Data, this is an excellent analysis about the pitfalls of over-reliance on data and the limitations of analysis using it in day-to-day scenarios. Deeply appreciate your point of view.

Posted by Deuce03 on (March 2, 2014, 16:12 GMT)

"Going back to 2011, consider England's approach to tying down Sachin Tendulkar in the home series against India" - and indeed, this strategy was highly effective, curtailing him to an average of under 35 (and excluding aside his desperate 91 in the last innings of the series trying to bat a full day in the follow-on, only 26). And Tendulkar was the most successful Indian batsman apart from Dravid! I'm not sure what the point here was meant to be - that the stats were useful once but came unstuck against Australia? That the warning signs were there in 2011 (on what basis?)?

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 16:11 GMT)

It is not Andy flower that lost. It's the players.Except for a couple of performances it was absolutely no show from England. Coach can only give inputs and plan to an extent. Execution needs to be done by players. England's batting clearly let down. Always in any failure there are some scape goats. Here Andy Flower and KP have been made.

Posted by ahweak on (March 2, 2014, 12:45 GMT)

The part I agree with is that instincts have been coached out of the England players. Its not just the ashes, many of England's collapses even in limited overs cricket (there have been a number of them in the recent years) suggest a lack of instinct and self belief. Once the players are made to abandon their own way of playing the game to conform to a "correct way" they cannot rely on their own skills under pressure.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 11:49 GMT)

it's not a case of whose (Lehman's or Flower's) methods are better. Each has its merits. What we should draw from all of this is, no one method should be employed indefinitely. A coach (Manager/businessman) should be flexible enough to change when he realizes his methods aren't working. Flower was too stubborn for that and what's the result? Eng humiliated in the Ashes, keep getting humiliated in the short format and KP who has been vocal about it has been sacked and made the scapegoat. Probably another data driven fallacy would be Eng reluctance to change their test like top order in the ODI format. All the other teams seem to have found the correct balance of power and building an innings, unfortunately not Eng.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 11:44 GMT)

It wasn't the quantitative approach that went wrong. We have all learnt a lot from beehives and pitch maps. It was the sheer quantity of cricket (and its arrangement;too many back to back Tests and back to back series). All of this intensified personal friction and led to burnout. Flower's grim style ultimately doesn't seem to have helped when these factors came into play. Nothing to do with crashes and algorithmic trading; poor analogy.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 10:40 GMT)

The only reason for England's sloppy performance was fear. A team who won the test series in India 2-1 not more than few months ago could not draw single in 5 matches is not acceptable by blaming batting or bowling only. They never tried to add factor other than technical, that's display of brave. Whrn SA was knocked by 281 runs in first test particularly due to MJ, they worked on removing the fear and made necessary changes to strongly comeback in next match with 231 runs victory.

Posted by RogerC on (March 2, 2014, 10:32 GMT)

How come nobody wrote any such article when Flower won 3 ashes series? Let us see how long Lehmann is successful before we decide his methods are right.

Posted by Insightful2013 on (March 2, 2014, 10:05 GMT)

I can assure you that data mining did not create a Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram, Viv Richards or a KP. It's also illogical that someone who understands and incorporates analytics would be sufficiently enlightened as to how to incorporate such data, to much improve performance. Elementary logic dictates fitness and stamina to become better. A good sportsman always begins with some talent and then hard work enhances the talent. Any coach who doesn't realize instinct is the 1st asset he should have, isn't any good. That instinct has been honed by years of experience and evaluations. A fitness coach is just that! His concern would include proper nutrition and exercises, to mine the best performances. A coach should almost always rely on his feel and evaluations re decisions. Science should be a distant secondary consideration.

Posted by shillingsworth on (March 2, 2014, 9:53 GMT)

Tiresome cliché ridden article. Apparently Flower used data, Lehmann used intuition. Sweeping generalisations based on what? First hand knowledge of the methods used by both? I doubt it. Slavish reading of articles by similarly ill informed pundits? Much more likely. Apparently 'criticisms of Flower's reliance on data always lingered under the surface'. Odd that these oh so wise critics only actually surfaced when England lost a series.

Posted by wotthef on (March 2, 2014, 9:37 GMT)

One of the key issues not highlighted in this article is the fact that you can use data to justify just about any view point and all too often a pre-conceived view is justified (perhaps even sub consciously) by selective data analysis. Hence the phrase "lies, damn lies and statistics"

For example an earlier commentator states that an "anti data article gets it wrong" and "all the perceived ills enumerated above are not faults of data but of wrong decision making which has nothing to do with the result of data analysis". Yet the article itself states that "Data is a complement to intuition and judgement, not a replacement for them".

As human beings we are all guilty of pre-judgement at some time or another which is perhaps why the use of big data is so beguiling. It all too easily becomes a panacea for removing bias, for self- improvement and for increased efficiency and improved performance. In a sport where the dollar has become king (see the recent events at the ICC) the temptation

Posted by Mono1 on (March 2, 2014, 9:27 GMT)

Tim, this is a sensational article. Relevant to more than just cricket.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 9:15 GMT)

I work in the field of Business Intelligence, Analytics and Data Science and have put together many projects. I also know and have managed someone in this field who put together the "WASP" model that you see displayed on NZ Cricket under SkyTV. The way in which data is used is wrong, but not the use of data itself. Data simply acts as an influencer of decisions, not the absolute decision maker - once a decision is made, data then acts as an informer. Data Science, like most forms of science, can never really be "wrong" - it just means you didn't have the proper variables, you did the wrong calculation or conditions changed. Human sportsmen being highly variable means conditions constantly change.

Posted by dunger.bob on (March 2, 2014, 8:50 GMT)

@ unbiasedfan: "How is data responsible for a support staff of 61!" . My take on it is that a substantial number of the 61 were there to record and then interpret the data. If that's true then the tyranny of data was directly responsible for a hefty wage and incidentals bill as well as a general dampening of flair and instinct among the players. .. I do agree that there is nothing inherently evil about data, it's how it's used that makes it good or bad. Much like an AK47.

Posted by DaisonGarvasis on (March 2, 2014, 7:55 GMT)

For all the under-rating he got during his playing years, Flower got handsomely OVER-RATED as a coach. Even got an overrated jobtitle. He should not complain in any way.

Posted by Makkumatr on (March 2, 2014, 7:41 GMT)

Fine, maybe Andy's method couldn't succeed forever. But atleast he has one. Does anyone know whether Duncan Fletcher has a method at all? Never seen a seriously critical article of him. All we know is he likes to play Solitaire on his laptop while watching the match.

Posted by unbiasedfan on (March 2, 2014, 6:48 GMT)

Once again an anti data article gets it wrong-all the perceived ills enumerated above are not faults of data but of wrong decision making which has nothing to do with the result of data analysis. 1. How is data responsible for a support staff of 61! Surely data analysis did not determine the number of support staff. 2. If England were inhibited by data surely that's not the shortcoming of data - in other words if someone looses his flair and instinct how can you hold data responsible? 3. The selection of 3 beanpole pace bowlers was correct and backed by data but making them to change their actions was a rookie mistake - data is not to be blamed-it is wrong application of data which is to be blamed.

Finally the Australian selectors were lauded for selection Shaun Marsh based on 'instinct' rather than data. Well what happened in the 2nd test-he got a pair. This could so easily have happened in the 1st test. This proves that data was correct - what happened in 1st test was a fluke.

Posted by ramesh_sound on (March 2, 2014, 6:39 GMT)

From the article, one can only make out England successfully stifled Sachin in his last tour of England. Rehash of a strategy tried by Australia in 2004, with some success. There were failure betting on the tall fast bowler. But, nowhere do we see examples of why he relied too much on data and how it led to failure. England did very well under him in general. Is it that they did not simulate the ability of a 140k bowler with high bounce operating from round the stumps? Author has a tantalizing idea, but does not substantiate it.

Posted by JohnnyRook on (March 2, 2014, 6:33 GMT)

Good article. I create software and algorithms for stock market and I can safely say you are very correct. Problem is not with the data per se but with its application.

Some things are best done by a human. When people start thinking that quantitative aspect is everything and there is nothing else, they are in for trouble. The reason is very simple. At any point, algorithms aren't fed all the data and the instructions there is to be fed. So some part of the problem are still not covered by the data/algorithm and is still in a subjective qualitative domain. Now depending on the complexity of the problem and sample size, this part may be very small or very large.

So to put it in a nutshell, best solution for cricket coaches is to use data and computers but for elementary purposes. Then let humans take over.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 5:28 GMT)

i just noticed no english players have even crossed 200 odis...Strange !

Posted by   on (March 2, 2014, 5:18 GMT)

The first sentence is where I stopped caring for this article. It is disheartening to see such segregation of art and science. Cricket needs the art of science and the science of art. Deny one and outcomes go south fast. Things like reverse swinging or spinning the ball or pulling off that perfect cover drive are as much art as they are science. Stuff like, 'flair, spontaneity and big-game aptitude' too are as much art as they are science. Ask any multiple medals-winning Olympian what s/he did different to build their big fat aptitude, and most likely you will hear in response: 'scientific training'. Knowing one's body (mostly science) and one's mind (part science, part art) come together seamlessly in big players on big days. As for cricket and laptops, knowing the *art* of managing & milking data is not every Dick and Harry's job. It needs a Michelangelo (Woolmer, anyone?) to build a cricketing Sistine Chapel from million drops of paint (data). Sadly, Mr. Flower was no Michelangelo.

Posted by MrKricket on (March 2, 2014, 4:57 GMT)

No mention of John Buchanan who probably pioneered this approach and helped take Australia to the top? It's always hard to know how much was down to his methods and how much down to the best crop of cricketers Australia has produced in 50 years. Science will only take you so far however, it does come down to ability and attitude in the end plus the odd slice of good old fashioned luck.

Posted by Batmanian on (March 2, 2014, 4:50 GMT)

It is certainly hard to capture match winning statistically. A Pietersen or Warner might only totally turn one Test in ten, but the potential that they might do so at any time justifies their inclusion, much more than their steady contributions in half their performances. I like that Aus have adjusted the rotation policy for quicks - it's true that their workloads had to be managed, but mandatory rotation was no better than bowling them until injured; using science to aid intuitive decisions is the key (it made more sense that Aus could say Siddle was being rested for dropping a yard of pace rather than his modest hauls, given his unusual role of central support bowler).

Posted by muvati11 on (March 2, 2014, 3:52 GMT)

I was one of the proponents and supporters of the use of big data on the cricket field. I hailed AF as the coach of the future. All this changed when big data was violently introduced into my own workplace. I felt stiffled with no more creativity and more boredom in the workplace. I remember screaming to one of the consultants who came into our workplace with these new ideas..."but we are not machines!". Andy Flower certainly ended up turning the England team into a bunch of machines and this was in a sport where schoolboys in school teams are usually told to just have fun before their games by their coaches!

Posted by Rally_Windies on (March 2, 2014, 3:49 GMT)

Andy, is not English ... and he will never be English , He should have trusted KP .. who is also not English ...

Broad is captain now ... Andy sure has messed up everything ....

Andy should have disciplined BROAD , and KP equally,

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