‘You’ve got 30 seconds before they tell you to f*** off’: Inside the world of the T20 analyst

The upcoming World Cup will be the most analytics-driven tournament yet with the role of the analyst an ever-changing one, Vithushan Ehantharajah writes

Friday 15 October 2021 15:05
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<p>T20 cricket has embraced analytics </p>

T20 cricket has embraced analytics

“Have you tried being more like Glenn Maxwell?”

It was, all told, a simple piece of advice given to an English batter who approached his analyst wondering how he could be more dynamic outside the Power Play of a Twenty20 innings. Yet with that utterance, the conversation came to an abrupt end.

The idea of being insulted by the suggestion to “be more Maxwell” is odd. But the Australian, it turns out, is as much a polarising talent among the cricket-playing fraternity as he is among fans. Nevertheless, the analyst knew from then to tread differently: Virat Kohli or AB De Villiers would be his go-to’s.

The anecdote highlights the importance of an analyst’s bedside manner, and ahead of a T20 World Cup that will be the most analytics-driven tournament yet, a nod to how their roles have evolved, from numbers to emotions.

There is an argument to be made that 2021’s event, beginning Sunday, is less about data itself and more about communication. It has been well over five years since the previous edition, easily the longest gap between tournaments since the first in 2007. T20 has moved on dramatically since March 2016, the franchise scene dominating the calendar and even shorter forms, like The Hundred and T10, emerging between times too.

Meanwhile, the international game has been an afterthought. The highest-ranked teams seldom pick their best XIs rendering any “trends” redundant, even more so on unfamiliar and worn pitches in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, respectively. Whatever nuggets on form, strengths and weaknesses need to be gleaned domestically and repackaged.

That we are in a golden period of analytics is down to the rise of T20. Studying video was widespread, though only when the shortest format (as it was at the time) created a wealth of ball-by-ball data that finding deeper meaning from them became a priority.

Gaurav Sundararaman was one of those enlisted early on to number-crunch. This year will be his 10th working in cricket, and though he is now on “the other side” for ESPNcricinfo, the majority of the last decade was spent on the tools with professional teams.

An engineer in a previous life, he joined the Indian company Sports Mechanics to work on their wealth of data for the BCCI and IPL franchises Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore. All of his work was behind a desk, until he was enlisted by Barbados Tridents in 2014 for the now-defunct T20 Champions League.

He was starstruck when he met Tridents coach Desmond Haynes, the West Indian great. However, within their first interaction, he had earned his trust - much to Sundararaman’s surprise.

“There was a match in Mohali and the first thing I told him was that the straight boundaries were short and the square boundaries long, so in net practice players needed to work on hitting straight. It was not a particularly enlightening bit of information but he loved it and we hit it off.”

Big-hitting Australian batter Glenn Maxwell

Haynes decided Sundararaman should run team meetings, formally presenting his thoughts to the squad. Back then, all this was new, and especially in foreign conditions, his expertise could mean an edge.

The first presentation did not go to plan. Before Sundararaman had got to the bottom of his first slide, eyes had already turned to phones if not glazed over. For the second, he realised what he needed to do.

“I decided to just customise bits for individuals,” he recalls. “I realised not everything is relevant to everyone. For example, why should a pace bowler waste his time listening to how much an opposition going out to a spinner? It’s of no use to him.

“The fundamental thing is, players don’t need percentages. They don’t care if someone does something 45 per cent of the time. Someone like Ravichandran Ashwin wanted to know two things: does a batter sweep or do they step down the pitch? Essentially, yes or no answers.”

CricViz’s Freddie Wilde, who has worked with Melbourne Renegades and Oval Invincibles, agrees on the need for simplicity: the messaging given to players is therefore succinct and devoid of unnecessary caveats.

“You learn that your windows with players can be small,” he says. “If you’re with a bowler before they go out onto the field to defend a score, you’ve got about 30 seconds to relay your message before they’re like ‘OK, now f*** off’.”

Being privy to those windows, though, relies on the captain and coach – it is their buy-ins that, ultimately, sets the tone for an analyst. Sundararaman, after benefiting from Haynes’ trust, went on to become close with Phil Simmons, who brought him on to work with West Indies during their triumphant World T20 campaign in 2016.

The pair spent an hour every day discussing tactics, but Simmons’ trust ensured a broader culture of being willing to respect Sundararaman’s advice. He remains close to many West Indies players and the knock-on effect from that period is their current captain, Kieron Pollard, wholeheartedly believes in the process and makes it his duty to spitball with analysts before every tactical meeting.

Wilde has no doubt his acceptance into the Invincibles’ dressing room was fast-tracked by coach Tom Moody standing up and telling the squad he had worked with him before and trusted him implicitly. For Hassan Cheema, now head of strategy at Islamabad United having started out as an analyst, his decorated conduits were Australian great Dean Jones and Pakistan legend Wasim Akram.

“Having those two was good for me,” acknowledges Cheema. “I wouldn’t speak directly to the players; I’d go to Deano’s room, we’d sit down and talk about stuff and then he would talk to them individually.”

Over the years, Cheema has taken a more one-to-one approach with players. One observation from dealing with players from around the world is the cultural differences around data.

“Pakistan, as a whole, have been late adopters – a lot of the local guys are not used to having data presented to them – so, you relate more to cricket. With players from other international sides, you don’t really need that.

“The other thing is English is a secondary language to me, so whenever I speak to say English or South African guys, I can talk to them on a basic level. The interesting thing with Pakistani guys is the language of our cricket is alien to the general population; the terminology used is based on 50 or 60 years of these closed environments. So they are not going to come halfway across the bridge – you must come all the way across.”

There is also a generational divide. As one former international active on the franchise circuit put it to The Independent: “I’ve been successful for this long. I’m not sure an analyst can tell me how to get better or that I should be doing things differently. If I’ve got to change, I should probably retire.”

There are exceptions. During Wilde’s time with the Renegades, Dan Christian, the oldest in the squad, was the most engaged. But the majority of those who have enjoyed sustained success are set in their ways.

Wilde tells a story of Sam Billings, captain of the Invincibles, discussing how Sunil Narine would open and face the first ball because the opposition was opening with spin, suiting Narine’s left-handed arc. However, when the openers went to the middle, Jason Roy took the first ball.

“After that point, I knew I wasn’t going to be talking to Roy about match-ups because he just explicitly showed me he doesn’t think it’s worthwhile,” says Wilde. “But that’s kind of what makes him the player he is and makes him as good as he is – because he’s not afraid to take anyone on. You have to be aware of that and respect it.”

‘Not afraid to take anyone on’: England batter Jason Roy

Generally, those who have grown up with technology at their fingertips are all-in: a lot of information, written or video, is sent to them on WhatsApp. To borrow Cheema’s expression, some are happy to make the trip the other way across the bridge.

During the 2021 PSL, Irish opener Paul Stirling, signed by Islamabad as a replacement for New Zealand’s Colin Munro, spent his hotel quarantine watching footage of every bowler in the competition. In his second game, Stirling scored 56 in a six-wicket win over Quetta Gladiators. Correlation or causation? Draw your own conclusion.

Wilde says players, some of whom he’s never met, approach him over Twitter for nuggets on themselves or their opposition. One international batter due to take part in the World Cup relayed that after reading CricViz articles talking up his scoring areas, he felt the need to expand his repertoire so as not to get predictable. Similarly, England quick Tymal Mills didn’t realise how consistently effective he has been as a death bowler until he was tagged into a tweet from the CricViz account.

Some players are even using analysts to overcome mental blocks. One instructive story is of a batter who asked Cheema for his match-up data against left-arm spin that he had struggled against starting out. Cheema discovered he strikes at more than 100 against this type of bowling over the last four years.

“Now, that guy had always assumed because at the start of his career he struggled against left-arm spin. To this day, he believed that was his weakness.

“It turns out for the last three years he was spending half his net sessions against left-arm spin. Through all that process, he had overcome that weakness without realising his practice had been effective.”

It might be that the most tool for a modern analyst is empathy as a breed of athlete cricketers are the most in need of positive reinforcement given the mental tolls of the game. And in a world where outsiders are still kept at arm’s length, people skills are now more important than ever for earning trust.

Rain delays now form a vital part of breaking through, when cricketers are at a loose end and just want to chat for chatting’s sake. Sure, knowing who responds well to criticism and who doesn’t is essential but socialising, too, is a valued asset. “Analysts tend to get a lot of s*** because they’re one nerd in a room full of jocks,” jokes one cricketer. “Banter, taking it and dishing it out, while having a beer – that’s a way of earning respect.”

For someone like Wilde, acceptance was easy to come by in an Invincibles dressing room where his age, 27, was the average. Sundararaman, though, believes analysts should always retain distance. “What tends to happen a lot in cricketing circles is you can get suckered by the glamour and sometimes you tend to just say positive things. So you are not adding any value.”

Cricket is still far behind other sports in terms of data, though with this T20 World Cup and another next year, the international game is expected to catch up. However, there is only so much further the analyst-player relationship can go.

The next step, Wilde believes, will be former players moving into analyst roles in the way they do with coaching. “Then, I think, the dynamic will become a more natural thing,” he says, “and I think that will be good for the industry because players will buy into it more if it comes from an ex-player.”

Even so, the job outright will remain the same: crunch the numbers, find a tactic, relay it to the captain who passes it on to a batter or bowler. They then have to execute that plan in high-pressure situations and hope their opponent fails.

“Fundamentally,” surmises Sundararaman, “an analyst’s job is to communicate as best you can. Then wait, and watch.”

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