Monday, August 20, 2012

Applying Moneyball To Cricket

What if a cricket team gets two batsmen to replace Sachin Tendulkar and still collectively get 100 runs out of them or have two not-so-great bowlers to replace Shane Warne and still get the other side out? If an eventual goal is to score, say 300+ runs in an ODI match does it matter how the runs are scored? What if you could find four players scoring 50 runs each instead of counting on Sehwag and Tendulkar types to score a century and lose miserably when they don't?

This is not how people think when it comes to cricket. That's also not how people used to think when it came to baseball until Billy Beane applied radical thinking to baseball, sabermetrics, now popularly known as Moneyball. On Base Percentage (OBP) became one of the most important metrics since then.

As yet another provocative aspect of Moneyball suggests, only thing that matters is whether a hitter puts a ball in play or not. Once the ball is in play the hitter does not control the outcome of that play. In cricket, when a fielder drops a catch could it be because the ball came too quickly to him, he was at the wrong position, or he was just too lame to catch it. Is there a difference between a batsman getting caught near the boundary as opposed to getting bowled? Currently, none. But, based on Moneyball, if a batsman gets caught, at least that batsman put the "ball in play." A little more practice and precision and that could have been a four or a six.

I want the cricket team selectors and captains (an equivalent of baseball general managers) to apply some of the Moneyball concepts to cricket, a sport older and more popular than baseball. In cricket, even though it's a team that wins or loses, there's typically more emphasis on the ability of an individual as opposed to measuring individuals in the capacity of how they help the team.

Bowling and batting powerplays are relatively a new concept in cricket. Skippers on either side don't have access to deep analysis of current situation and performance of opposite players in deciding when to take a powerplay. They make such crucial decisions based on their gut feeling and opinion of key players on the field. This is where data can do wonders. In baseball, managers keep a tab on an extensive set of data to make dynamic decisions such as which bullpen pitcher has a better track record against the current hitter, success of a hitter to get walks as opposed to hits etc. Most recent example is of Tampa Bay Rays aggressively using field shifting against powerful lefties, a practice that most baseball franchises still don't use or approve of.

In cricket, right handed bowlers switch from over the wicket to round the wicket mostly when whatever they are trying is not working. These decisions are not necessarily based on any historic data. In this case, it could be as simple as gathering and analyzing data about which batsmen have poor performance when bowled round the wicket as opposed to over the wicket. In baseball, using a left-handed pitcher against a left-handed hitter and using a right-handed pitcher against a right-handed hitter have proven to work well in most cases (with some exceptions). That's why there are switch hitters in baseball to take this advantage away from a pitcher. Why are there no switch hitters in cricket?

Why can't there be a dedicated bowler to finish the last over of the cricket match just like a closer in baseball? Imagine a precision bowler — a batsman who is trained as a "closer" — whose job is to throw six deliveries, accurately at a spot, fast or slow.  The regular bowlers are trained to bowl up to 10 overs, 6-8 at once, with a variety of deliveries (pitches) and a mission to stop batsmen from scoring runs and getting them out. A closer would only have one goal: stop batsmen from scoring. Historically, there have been a very few good all-rounders in cricket. It's incredibly difficult to be a great batsman as well as a great bowler, but there's a middle ground - to be a a great batsman and a closer. Some batsmen such as Sachin Tendulkar have been good at bowling off and on when the regular bowlers get in trouble (an equivalent of a reliever in baseball), but invariably their task becomes getting a wicket to break the partnership. Even if wickets are important, in most cases, it's the ability to stop the opposite team from scoring in the last couple of overs brings team a victory.

There is just one baseball, but there's no one cricket. The game of cricket differs so much from a test match to one day international (ODI) to Twenty20. But, a fresh look at data and analysis on what really matters and courage to implement those changes could do wonders.

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