Leicestershire turn to data-driven recruitment in bid to narrow the gap
Despite five defeats from five in this year's Blast, Paul Nixon is confident in the club's strategy
An old friend used to make the same joke to me every time we were watching the football together. Regardless of who was playing, after about 30 minutes of intense tactical analysis he would turn to me and say, "You know who I reckon would be a good signing for this lot? Messi."
As daft as it may have been, he was never wrong. Blank cheque and blue sky recruiting is both easy and, in a sporting world where finance increasingly correlates with success, crucial. But what if your cheque book is blank because you can't write any?
That is the predicament Leicestershire find themselves in. And after a winless start following their first five matches in the Blast, it would be easy to assume that optimism from head coach Paul Nixon would be in short supply. However, this is not the case.
"This is the start of the journey," Nixon says. "And the journey's from the bottom to the top, it really is. Yes, we've lost a few tight games but, over time, our philosophy is going to be a good philosophy."
Philosophy is often driven by necessity and the same is true here. With purse strings tighter than anywhere else in the country, the simple fact is that for Leicestershire to be able to compete, they need a greater return on investment for every pound they spend than anyone else. Something that can't be achieved by following the status quo.
In order to break the mould from the rest of the country, Leicestershire have brought in Dan Weston, a gambler turned data whizz, as player recruitment and strategy analyst. Of course, using data in order to aid recruitment isn't unique to the Foxes. However, where other counties employ analysts to provide tactical analysis first and recruitment advice second, Weston's role flips those priorities. And that is unique.
The result is a no-stone-unturned recruitment policy that's headlined by the additions of Josh Inglis, Naveen-ul-Haq and Louis Kimber - signed respectively from the mysterious, far-off lands of Australia, Afghanistan and Lincolnshire.
Three players with very different cricketing backgrounds, whose signings all started from the same place: gap analysis.
Take Inglis. Well known as one of the most exciting T20 batters on the domestic circuit, it will be no surprise if, or when, he plays for Australia. For this reason, I had wrongly assumed that such a deal would have occurred by Inglis becoming available and Leicestershire doing their best to play it cool and not say yes too quickly.
In fact, Inglis had been identified months ago, for one key reason. A non-negotiable for Leicestershire was that the batter they were after had to be effective against the ball moving away from the right-hander. Inglis is rare in that he averages more against the ball spinning away from him than he does against the ball spinning in. In fact, CricViz's Freddie Wilde has suggested that Inglis owns the best "inside out drive against legspin on the planet". Which, to the cricket tragic, is an accolade pretty much equivalent to winning People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive award.
Similarly, contrast the signings of Naveen, who has dotted around leagues in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the West Indies, and the Kimber, who earned his deal through weight of runs in Minor Counties cricket before taking his chance in Leicestershire's 2nd XI. It is further evidence that with progression of technology, someone is always watching. As Nixon says, "That's the simple side of it now, seeing people."
However, to focus on the individuals is also to miss the point somewhat. Nixon explained that his aim is to create the hardest-working, most-caring environment in cricket. One where young players who have been passed up on elsewhere have the chance to reach the potential that Nixon and Weston see in them, which perhaps others hadn't. Nixon speaks warmly of Ed Barnes, Scott Steel and in particular Rishi Patel (who Nixon believes could well play for England within the next four years) as exactly the type of cricketers, and more importantly people, that the club want to build around for the future.
And while immediate results may not be as desired in the shortest format of the game, Nixon is resolute in his belief that his diamonds in the rough are still punching above their weight, pointing to their narrow defeat against a star-studded Yorkshire side in a 460-run shootout as a prime example of the potential within the young squad.
"We've got a strategy at Leicestershire, of the academy of cricket," he says. "We want to make sure that we give opportunities to younger players, to grow those players together and, in footballing terms, create our own 'Class of 92'."
The Class of 92. Tell you who'd have been a good signing for that lot…
Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby