Friday, 13 March 2015

Column 5, 2015 – stats and creativity

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 108, Friday March 13, 2015.
[Full text below]

99.94. If you’re interested in cricket, you’ll know that figure, and the extraordinary achievement it represents. The batting average of Sir Donald Bradman is statistical royalty, up there in gold lettering on the metaphorical all-time honours board with Sachin Tendulkar’s hundred international hundreds.

Cricket loves stats. Tournament sixes, batting average, bowling average, economy rate, strike rate, run rate, highest this, fastest that. We love it all.

Barely a week passes without more statty fun. Last weekend Glenn Maxwell missed Kevin O’Brien’s fastest World Cup 100 by two balls, and Kumar Sangakara became only the second man in history to pass 14,000 ODI runs.

Cricket is just so measurable, it’s always been stat obsessed. The stats tell us what’s normal, what’s exceptional, what to aspire to.

Recently, much has been made of England’s turn towards data’s dark side. Under Moores and Flower, England put 100% of their eggs in the algorithmic basket.

When he was his boss the first time around, Moores gave Flower a copy of the 2003 book ‘Moneyball’, the story of Oakland Athletics baseball team and its manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in the Hollywood version) who used rigorous statistical examination of in-game plays and situations in order to base decisions on predictive data extrapolated from the computer analysis of historical likelihoods.

Did you enjoy that last paragraph? Welcome to the England dressing room.

After initial success, the long-term problem with this approach is that it stifles creativity. Modern cricket is increasingly creative and inventive. International batsmen must score quickly and powerfully all round the ground, bowlers need an armoury of unpredictable variations. The gameplans of De Villiers, Maxwell, Faulkner and Boult are not based on statistical analyses of the past – they’re inventing the new paradigm.

Try for a moment, just for fun, to imagine it’s your job to convince McCullum not to be aggressive between overs 10 and 35, because that’s when the MOST important thing is not losing wickets. Well, that’s what the stats say, Brendon.

In advertising, creativity is often steamrollered by research. If you let it, inoffensive banality will always trump inventiveness in the quest for the sale. It’s all about sales, that’s the measure. Be safe, do what works, trust the numbers. Apply that to cricket: do what works, what you must to win. Trust the numbers. Forget everything else. Winning is how we’re measured. Nothing else matters.

In both instances, the thinking is poisonous. If you look beyond the numbers at how the best really succeed, the answers are there. Flair, style, chutzpah, flexibility, the courage of your convictions – simple bottle. Get that happening, and the results will come.

Fun is a prerequisite for creativity. An ad-land pioneer once famously said that advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I would happily apply that adage to cricket. But England this winter didn’t look like they were having much fun. And, let’s be honest, 99.94% of the time, watching them hasn’t been either.

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