This is the second of a series of posts on how ‘Moneyball’ tactics are slowly infiltrating the way cricket is played. Follow the link for Part 1: https://nopicturesinthescorebook.co.uk/2-ways-worcestershire-defied-convention-to-blast-to-t20-victory/ .
County cricket, and particularly the County Championship, is a game steeped in tradition. If you were to take someone to their first game in over 100 years, it is likely they would still be able to understand the tactics of each team, such as the opening batters taking a cautious approach against the new ball or bowlers trying to bowl a similar line and length to get wickets caught-behind or bowled. They might ask you some funny questions, such as what are those strange things being dragged over the wicket when it starts raining? Or, what are those fluorescent strips on the bowler’s boots? But for most goings-on, they would understand what was happening, although it could be about to change.
A ‘Moneyball’ approach is synonymous for a sporting team’s use of statistical analysis to gain an advantage. The term originates from the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis (a very interesting read that I would highly recommend). The book describes the approach taken by Billy Beane as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Oakland were a small team, with small attendances and a smaller budget than most other teams. Beane decided that for a smaller team, like Oakland, to compete with the bigger teams he had to do something different and to break tradition.
The strategy he pursued was to use statistics to make evidence-based decisions. For example, instead of picking a pitcher because he had a ‘nice’ looking technique he looked at the statistical evidence behind a pitcher’s performance and picked purely from this, so although the pitcher did not look as good, in general they would perform better. By following this strategy, Beane was able to exploit a ‘first-mover advantage’, through purchasing players who were undervalued and following tactics that were underused, due to the historical bias of how the game ‘should’ be played.
The book has since been made into a film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane (again I would recommend). Teams across the world and in a multitude of sports have begun taking a Moneyball approach to their decision making. Yet still many teams keep making their decisions based on a traditional perspective of what works, rather than based on the statistical evidence of what actually works.
So what characteristics of the County Championship might create a Moneyball revolution to overturn some of the conventional wisdom that teams currently follow?
1. No relegation from Division 2
For the teams which finish low-down in Division 2, nothing changes. In baseball, there is no threat of relegation: teams like Oakland Athletics are guaranteed their place in the same league the following year. So, what have these teams got to lose? For teams that expect to finish low in Division 2, the worst that could happen if they try something radical is that they finish bottom of Division 2 and revert to their old tactics in the same division the following year. Here, the traditional county cricket structure gives the incumbent teams a stability that could be exploited due to their preserved status.
2. Traditionally weaker teams
In baseball, there are traditionally ‘weaker’ teams, like Oakland, with relatively small attendances and lower budgets than the more well-off teams. The same can be said in the County Championship, where a few of the teams have far lower membership bases and lower budgets than, broadly speaking, the counties which host test cricket. This makes it hard for the smaller counties to compete on the same terms and by following the same strategies as the richer clubs. In order to compete, they typically need to try something a bit different and if it doesn’t work then nothing much is lost, as they were expecting to finish below the bigger teams anyway.
3. The structure of cricket as a game
Cricket is a game rich with statistics around player performance. The structure of the game, starting each ‘phase of play’ with a ball delivered to a batter, within a defined area makes cricket performance far easier to measure than continuous sports, such as football. This set structure and abundance of data makes analysing and quantifying the effectiveness of different strategies and players far easier in cricket than a lot of sports and is very similar to baseball in this regard.
Perhaps next season may see one of the traditionally weaker teams in the Championship take advantage of their ‘no-lose’ position and attempt a radical shift in tactics to upset the apple cart. Indeed, there has certainly been some headway made in the use of Moneyball tactics in cricket recently, but could it stretch the county cricket’s longest and most traditional format? I will be discussing the progress already made in my next post as part of this series.