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How England select cricket teams: 'When we say data, we don't just mean the numbers'

ECB player identification lead David Court discusses an unusual first summer in his job

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Zak Crawley had scored only three first-class hundreds before his Test call-up  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Zak Crawley had scored only three first-class hundreds before his Test call-up  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

On the surface, Zak Crawley's case for selection at the time of his first call-up to England's Test squad was weak. County Championship batting average? 30.55. First-class hundreds? Only three. Appearances for England-19s? Zero.
But beneath that, the selectors had seen plenty that they liked. They had noted Crawley's ability against the short ball, the rate at which he was improving, and his character, while recognising that playing half of his county fixtures at Canterbury - a low-scoring ground - meant his headline figures looked less impressive than they might have done for another player.
"When we say 'data', we don't just mean the numbers you'd get from ball-tracking or Opta," says David Court, the ECB's player identification lead. "That can involve holistic data: the aggregation of scouting reports, and that rich insight that you can get from counties and coaches." The signal from the less quantifiable data was that Crawley was a player of high potential; 11 months later, his 267 against Pakistan rammed the point home.
Court re-joined the ECB in March after four years working at the FA, filling his current role following Mo Bobat's promotion to performance director. He had previously worked as a performance manager, and oversaw the regional Super Fours team at Under-17 level at the time Crawley was passing through.
"Zak was involved in that regional tournament, so he was clearly a good player, but he didn't play for England Under-19s. He's obviously really progressed. One of our continued challenges is to keep looking at that potential, and asking: what are the attributes required to be successful in international cricket?
"Current performance is not necessarily the best predictor of future success - that's something I harp on about a lot. We have to be really conscious that we're identifying potential, and not just current performance. Players' progress is not linear, and we have to be aware of that."
Having a young player perform like Tom Lammonby did is really positive - you want to see young players performing when the heat is on
David Court on the opportunities afforded to young players in the Bob Willis Trophy
Crawley's elevation to the Test side exemplified the fact that more data goes into selection meetings than a batting average modified by an algorithm, but it also added to a trend that is less celebrated at the ECB. A product of Tonbridge School, Crawley was one of nine players in England's side for the second Test against Pakistan this summer to have attended private school, reported by the Sunday Times to be a record figure.
It is a statistic that Court is aware of, but not one that leads him to believe there is any overwhelming bias towards people from a certain background in England's selection process. "There are loads of factors at play," he says. "My role is focused on international selection, so that's not necessarily something we would discuss. It's something we'd be aware of, but it's definitely a wider issue around the decline of cricket in state schools.
"I'm a state school boy, and even when I was at school a long time ago there were fewer opportunities to play, fewer pitches to play on than there once were. It's multi-faceted. The other thing to say is that a lot of private school do run really good cricket programmes - they have high-quality coaching and some of the best facilities. And I guess some of the data is skewed by some schools recruiting and offering scholarships to the best young players. There are so many different factors."
Perhaps more pressing is the lack of black players within the English game. At the launch of Surrey's ACE programme as a standalone charity, chair Ebony Rainford-Brent described talent ID among black communities as "non-existent", but Court suggests that it is part of a societal problem, rather than an indication of unconscious biases among decision-makers.
"It isn't just a cricket problem," he says. "Ebony is right: I've worked with her previously when I was at Surrey, and we've exchanged emails about where we [the ECB] might be able to help in terms of identification of players. The opportunity to play and develop is crucial: everyone working in player identification wants a wider talent pool to select from so that we can select the best players for England.
"We used the idea of 'multiple eyes, multiple times' to address bias: we use different people from different backgrounds to look at players and use that to aggregate information before presenting it. The wider and more diverse that talent pool is, the better. Ultimately our role is to select to best players to win games for England; it would be great if - like in last year's World Cup - we can represent modern Britain with a diverse team at the same time."
If Court's first summer in the job was not quite as he anticipated - he joined immediately before lockdown was imposed - then he is still confident that he has managed to gain some value from it. In particular, he notes the opportunities that young players were afforded in the Bob Willis Trophy on account of the absence of overseas signings, several Kolpaks and with more players than usual on England duty as "really exciting".
"The number of England-qualified players went from 83% [in the 2019 County Championship] to 90%, alongside an increase of a few percent in the number of Under-19s. The challenge from a player ID perspective is then benchmarking that against previous performances, and working out the value of a performance in the Bob Willis Trophy compared to a normal season.
"I managed to watch a bit of the final at Lord's with Ed [Smith] and James [Taylor], and having a young player perform like Tom Lammonby did is really positive - you want to see young players performing when the heat is on. Even in the penultimate game, he got second-innings runs at Worcester to ensure they got to that final. Our job is to then make sense of those performances, understand which players are developing, and whether they have the long-term potential to go on and represent England."
Court's time in football, in which he worked with clubs "right the way through from Champions League to League Two level" to have them develop their talent ID strategies, invites a comparison: which sport has a better infrastructure for the identification and development of players?
"I'm still trying to establish the similarities and differences," he says, "but one of cricket's key strengths is the strong relationship between coaches and counties. Long may that continue as an open dialogue between county and country: it's really healthy, and it ultimately helps the players transition into international level because we know more about them as a person as well as what's they're like as cricketers.
"Speaking to Alec Stewart [Surrey's director of cricket], who is one of our scouts, he sees that as a key part of counties' role: to develop players to play for England. In all the conversations I've had with counties, they've been really open and willing to talk about which players they feel should be making a case for England and who is likely to be involved in the future from their side."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98