This is the first of a series of posts on how ‘Moneyball’ tactics are slowly infiltrating the way cricket is played.
I am writing this post on the hangover of my first T20 Finals Day, which as a lifelong Worcestershire fan was quite something. The winning team consisted of 7 homegrown players[i], a number which has only been repeated by Somerset in 2005 (see table below), and as a supporter was a joy to behold. As impressive was the average age of these homegrown players, 25, showing plenty of promise for Worcestershire’s future, provided that they can hold on to these players.
The recent emergence of the T20 format over the past 15 years means that there are fewer traditions embedded than the longer form of the game, with a culture of risk taking that is inherent to the ‘go hard or go home’ style of play. Finals Day was no exception to this with Ben Cox, in particular, striking the ball 360 degrees with shots that didn’t have a name 20 years ago and the impressive Pat Brown delivering knuckle-ball after knuckle-ball with freakish accuracy.
So, for a county with a smaller budget than many, how did they get to get to this position of T20 success? George Dobell, made a fantastic point on Worcestershire success (before Finals Day) during the fourth day lunch interval of the Worcestershire vs. Surrey county championship winning game for Surrey, to which I hope to add my own insight. To paraphrase, Dobell suggested the club hit a low during the financial difficulties associated with the 2007 flood of the ground. This created a nothing-to-lose mindset among the leadership (largely Steve Rhodes) at New Road, which meant a creativity and defying of convention was needed for the club to remain competitive amid their financial constraints. The creativity flourished in
- A long-term recruitment plan that invested in the county’s own, giving a chance to the promising youngsters emerging through the academy.
- The game time given to these home-grown players, as well as sticking with them for several seasons, seems now to have paid dividends to Worcestershire’s patient following.
Of course, it may just be that Worcestershire have got lucky with a glut of young players coming through the catchment simultaneously. However, having played in the Worcestershire junior teams for a few years at a similar time to a few of those now on the books of the club, I would suggest that luck has very little to do with it. Instead, I believe that an intelligent recruitment and training strategy of youth, in partnership with the resources on offer in the county, namely private schools with excellent facilities and sporting reputations to uphold, laid the foundations for a squad of homegrown players.
A year after the 2007 floods, Worcestershire relocated their indoor school to Malvern College’s new multi-million-pound facility and with it formed a partnership with the school. By making use of the school’s boarding, the county was able to widen their catchment, offering promising youngsters from across the country scholarships to come and play cricket for the school and county in exchange for a high-class education. This seems to have proved fruitful, with (to my knowledge) at least three players to have represented the county, as a direct result of this partnership, and a few more potentially in the pipeline.
In addition to this wise recruitment, it would also appear that coaching and training has played a strong role in the development of these home-grown champions, right the way from school-level through to the first team. As well as the strong link with Malvern College, Worcestershire has seen a production line of players emerging from Shrewsbury School and satellite counties, through the club’s academy, up to the second team before then playing for the first team. Of the current Worcs squad, 3 players are from Shrewsbury School.
From my time teaching, I am a firm subscriber to what is known as a ‘Growth Mindset’[ii] to learning, something expounded by Matthew Syed’s wonderful book ‘Bounce’. Worcestershire have also invested in this theory, whether this was conscious or just good ‘sense’ is up for debate. They have committed serious hours of ‘smart’ practice, through training as well as crucial game time, to their youth players giving them a chance to develop their match skills to a competition winning standard. The now head coach, Kevin Sharp, appears to know what he’s doing with coaching, having nurtured many of the current first team’s players through the second eleven and even playing a crucial role in the development of Joe Root as a junior[iii].
Of course, other counties also have fantastic coaches and no doubt excellent facilities and coaching techniques, but what really stands out here is the commitment that Worcester have shown to their youth ranks in terms of game time in the first team; giving the players years to sculpt what they have learned off the pitch into deliverable in game performances, to a point defying tradition and going beyond other counties. To use a common saying it seems “there’s nothing like game time.” I believe that Matthew Syed would back this strategy of ‘smart practice’ through game time in overcoming any learning plateaus to reap high marginal gains in performance at first team level.
This is a brave strategy. Short-term results through following the convention of recruitment and nurturing of youth players would have been the easy option for Worcestershire. It is easy to criticise new strategies that don’t pay off. Yet they decided to defy convention and employ a long-term strategy that has now paid off. I would also commend the Worcester faithful, who have stuck with the team through this period of transition, although supporting youth is often a popular strategy and watching home-grown players turn out for the county (for myself at least) is a real treat.
By going against the grain in their recruitment strategy the success of Worcester hints of that success reaped by Oakland Althletics baseball team in their pioneering ‘Moneyball’ style strategy. I will be writing more about my thoughts on this in cricket over my next few posts.
In addition to this the influence of “the beard to be feared” in Moeen Ali shouldn’t be underestimated. Now though, I’m basking in the glory of the Rapid’s win and reminiscing on a wise pre-tournament bet (33/1), my first ever (dropped) crowd catch (see picture below of the ball not in my hands) and the potential of what may still be to come from this exciting homegrown squad.
By Rory Mathews
[i] I’m defining ‘homegrown’ as having made their professional debut for the county they are playing for