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Nathan Leamon: 'Morgan is clinical, sharp, bright. He's an analyst's dream captain'

The England white-ball analyst on planning for the T20 World Cup, the value of probabilistic thinking, and whether teams can be run entirely from the dugout

Nathan Leamon: "If you're going to work in a format at the moment as an analyst, there are strong arguments that T20 is the biggest challenge because it's evolving so quickly"  •  Getty Images

Nathan Leamon: "If you're going to work in a format at the moment as an analyst, there are strong arguments that T20 is the biggest challenge because it's evolving so quickly"  •  Getty Images

Nathan Leamon, a Cambridge University maths graduate, became an England analyst in 2009 following a career in teaching. Aside from the Test tour to New Zealand in early 2018, he has worked exclusively with the white-ball teams since 2016, and has also spent time with the Multan Sultans in the 2019 PSL and the Kolkata Knight Riders in the 2021 IPL.
The first chapter of your new book focuses on England's 2019 World Cup win, and the analysis that helped inform strategy and planning in the four years leading up to it under Andrew Strauss, Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan. You argue that the group of batters who came through in that 2015-19 cycle - Jos Buttler, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow - benefited from playing 40-over domestic one-day cricket from 2010-13, rather than 50-over cricket, because it meant they were used to scoring at a high strike rate. How important do you think it was in their development?
We'll never know for sure because there's no control group that only played 50-over cricket. All of them would have been very good white-ball batsmen, but we [England] had a whole history of producing white-ball batsmen who tended to have very good averages but whose strike rates were at the lower end of what was around in international cricket. There's no real reason to believe that they [Buttler, Stokes, Hales, et al] wouldn't have followed a similar pattern and been very good white-ball players, but without quite developing that real top-end ability to score at those higher rates consistently.
There was the intent, confidence and licence to fail coming from Morgan, Bayliss and Strauss; there was the rules shifting into a position where it favoured that type of approach; and then there was this group of batsmen coming through who had played most of their domestic careers striking at the sorts of rates we needed them to strike at. There was a multiplier effect from those three different things.
Would you advocate the Royal London Cup reverting to a 40-over format? Or was the timing just a happy coincidence?
It's an eight-year pay-off we're talking about. You need guys to play under those rules for three or four years to develop the skills, then spend three or four years learning international cricket before they're at the point you'd want them to be going into a major tournament. You wouldn't be talking about the next World Cup, you'd be talking about the one four years after. I think there are very few governing bodies willing to make that sort of long-term punt when you don't know what the game is going to look like in eight years' time.
There's a T20 World Cup later this year. Have you planned for that in the same way you did for the 50-over one?
It's different. If you look at the squads and teams that the selectors have picked, clearly, going into the 2019 World Cup, they prioritised ODI cricket, and you often had ODI squads playing T20 matches. In the time since then, you've seen the reverse: T20 squads being at or near full-strength, and some of the ODI series have been played with something more like T20 squads.
It's different because it's a different format. By far the biggest difference is the lack of certainty because of Covid. The fixture list changes month by month, games appear and disappear. We had a whole T20 World Cup get punted back two years. Planning has not been anywhere near as straightforward, but we're trying to through the same process.
You looked at the predictors of success for previous 50-over World Cup-winning teams at the start of the 2015-19 cycle - batting strength, a winning record in bilateral series in the build-up, and an experienced squad - to work out how to win one with England. Has T20 changed so much since 2016, when the last T20 World Cup was played, that you can't do the same thing for that format?
Yeah, we've had to model it differently. T20 bilateral series going into T20 World Cups are nowhere near as predictive of what will happen as their equivalents in ODI cricket are.
What about the 2023 50-over World Cup: do you expect the predictors of success to be the same? The cycles have clearly started from different points too. Is it harder to retain a World Cup than to win one?
I don't know that it's harder to retain it than to win it - we found it pretty hard to win the first one! We'll look at how some of the sides that have won it have then retained it.
It is a completely different situation. In 2015, we were building from scratch, from ground level, whereas this time round we have a very successful template, and whilst you're always looking to improve, you don't want to lose a massive strength because you're trying to improve a different area. It's more about tweaking and fine-tuning, and getting the right guys on the pitch in the best form on the day.
In the book, you discuss poker with Caspar Berry, the polymath who played professionally for three years. He talks about some areas where poker differs to sport: you are accountable to yourself, not your team, and you're able to live in the long term without pressure. Morgan, who wrote the foreword, is a poker player himself. Do you think he demonstrates some of those attributes?
Yes, 100%. By far the easiest people to work with, from my point of view, are people who think probabilistically. Anyone who likes to play poker, gamble on the horses, or play any game of chance that forces you to think probabilistically has a pretty good starting point for the type of thinking I want to get into when it comes to working with captains and coaches.
Morgan is a very analytical thinker. He's got the ability to take the emotion out of the game when it's time to plan for it or analyse it afterwards. He's very clinical in that regard. He's very sharp, very bright, and he's been around cricket for a long time. If you're an analyst, he's your dream captain.
Your use of coded signals from the balcony or dugout to him caused some controversy during England's tour to South Africa last year. As I understood it, they were a suggestion as to who should bowl the next over and what the field should be. Is that right?
I can't really talk about what it is or isn't, but essentially, it's our version of a scoreboard. We don't expect the captain to keep score in his head and know how many runs are required. There is complex information that we think is useful and adds value. So does Morgs, and so we make it available to him via the signals. The joy and the advantage of it is that it puts all of the control with the captain, because if he doesn't want to look, he doesn't look. It's there as a reference, just like the scoreboard. If he wants to check it, he can; if he doesn't want to, he doesn't have to. If you run a message on, you're imposing that communication into his thought processes.
Was that tour the first time you'd used them for England? Do you expect other teams to follow suit?
We've done it in every England game since the start of the South Africa tour - although the cameras only found us in game three, when, ironically, we were going round the houses. I'd done it with Multan Sultans in the PSL with Andy Flower and Shan Masood, and then we used it in every game in the IPL with Baz [Brendon] McCullum and Morgs again. As for other teams, I'd have thought so. Every team runs messages on. Every team sends the fast-bowling coach down to fine leg to talk to his bowlers. Every team shouts from the dugout to the boundary fielders.
I think coaches are wanting more and more ability to help captains and decision-makers in the middle. T20 cricket is an incredibly taxing task for a fielding captain: there are so many things going on that can influence the outcome, and so many calculations. There are just as many in Test cricket but they evolve much slower, whereas in T20 cricket, they change by the ball and you have to keep recalculating. Anything you can do to make the captain's life easier just makes it a better game of cricket. You're improving the quality of the decision-making.
Would that be your response to anyone who suggested the signals were against the spirit of the game?
Exactly. I'd also say that no one really knows what we're doing except us, and that you've got Andy Flower, Shan Masood, Spoons [Chris Silverwood], Morgan, Baz McCullum, who all know exactly what we're doing and are all very happy with it. That's a group pretty high on integrity and knowledge of professional cricket. If they judge it as fine, I'd back that judgement.
You mentioned KKR, who you worked with as a strategic consultant. How did you find that experience? Was the IPL similar to what you'd expected?
It was pretty similar. I went in knowing that they were a quality group of blokes and coaches, so my expectations were high, but they were met entirely. I found the whole thing really interesting, and different to international cricket, because this was a new environment with new faces and people you hadn't worked closely with before. I learned a lot. We do a lot of things well at England, and KKR did a lot of things well as well. There are definitely things we can learn from them.
You write about auction dynamics within the IPL. How much were you involved in the auction this year?
I was involved in the auction planning right the way through. We didn't have an awful lot to do because it was a mini auction [KKR signed eight players, including Harbhajan Singh, Karun Nair, Ben Cutting and Shakib Al Hasan]. We were pretty happy with the squad we had and it wasn't obvious how we could improve on it if we put players back into the auction in the hope of buying them back cheaper or buying different players with that money. Our judgement was that there was going to be a lot of money chasing a small number of players in that auction and that if we put players back in, we would only end up either buying them back for more money, or failing to buy them back. We didn't have a lot of money to spend and we were actually overjoyed with how we managed to spend it, picking up some very experienced guys who were very useful to us in those conditions.
The auction model of player recruitment has its critics, but you offer a defence that was new to me - that it makes it much harder for teams to circumvent a salary cap through "off the books" payments, therefore ensuring a competitive balance. Do you think it is the right model for the IPL - if there is such a thing?
All the different methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The auction model definitely has a higher level of transparency than most other methods.
[You might wonder] whether there is a different type of auction, that means you get a fairer and less random valuation of players; Mervyn King, who is the ex-governor of the Bank of England, read an early draft of that chapter [in the book] and had some ideas as to how you can restructure the auction in that way. At the moment a player's valuation depends very heavily on where they appear in the auction and what the exact holes are in other franchises' squads and whether they are a good fit. You saw some very high-quality batsmen go unsold or taken at base price, and you saw some fast bowlers, in particular, going for huge sums of money. That was a fluke of the dynamic of this particular auction. There might be ways of restructuring it to avoid that sort of randomness. But in terms of transparency, in terms of the drama of the event as a way of generating excitement in the tournament, I think it was a brilliant idea - and totally unprecedented in sport, as far as I'm aware.
You also write about your planning for the PSL draft with Multan in late 2019, where you assembled a squad that was top of the group stage before the tournament was postponed. You write that their owners - Ali Khan Tareen and Alamgir Tareen - were "fully committed to taking the use of analysis as far as it was possible to do so" and that you actually scaled back from the level of involvement they had envisaged.
That was definitely the case. It was [going by] the Hippocratic principle: "first, do no harm." The most effective way to use data and analytics to add value is to make sure that you don't take value away by overreaching. For people who might have an enthusiasm for data but not an exact knowledge of what's possible and what isn't, there are often misconceptions about that. It's your dream job to have owners like that who are backing you 100%, and pushing you to have more influence and more involvement.
You write that their "initial vision was that the team would essentially be run from the dugout". Clearly, the captain has certain information out in the middle that you don't have in the dugout, but was there not a temptation to buy into that vision, just to see what happened?
Not really. There were two objections to that all-in approach. One was philosophical. Andy and I both believe that teams work better when the captain has sole charge on the field. The other, more important, one in that instance was practical. A T20 captain has such a complex job: he has to change the bowlers, talk to the bowler about the bowling plan and set a field for that. He has to get feedback from the keeper about what the pitch is doing; from the bowler about what is coming out well on the day. All of those get factored in, and none of them are available to us in the dugout. It's just not practical to get that much information on and off the pitch in a steady real-time stream.
But what if there were no time restrictions on a T20 innings?
If you had headsets on all the players and that was legal, you might find teams doing it. But again, I'd have philosophical objections. It might then be practical, at least. In terms of the communication we have at our disposal [now], it's not practical to run a game entirely from the dugout.
You've worked with two T20 franchises now, with backing from the ECB. How do you envisage the next few years playing out for you?
For three to four years, the whole focus was the World Cup. That was what got me out of bed in the morning. After that, the chance to keep working with England but also spend time in franchise cricket has added enough variety and interest. T20 cricket is the format that is evolving the most at the moment. Next year is going to be most different to this year, in terms of tactics, techniques and strategies. If you're going to work in a format at the moment as an analyst, there are strong arguments that T20 is the biggest challenge because it's evolving so quickly. [The current balance] is perfect for me; I think it's a win-win.
[I have] another novel and another non-fiction book planned, too. I have to decide which to prioritise next.
Hitting Against the Spin - How Cricket Really Works by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones is published by Constable, £20

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98