Picking the Best Cricketers

I finally watched Moneyball last night (I blogged about the movie here and here). While I agree with Russ that the movie’s message — statistics yields better sporting insights — has only limited relevance for cricket, it still got me thinking: do we know how to identify the best cricketers?

In the movie’s early scenes, a group of team scouts throw out potential athletes and say things like “He looks good”; “He has an ugly girlfriend [i.e., he lacks confidence]”; “He has a nice swing.” Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s character — Billy Beane, the general manager (I suppose chief selector would be the cricket variant) — just zones it all out. He’s reaching the conclusion that a math wizard will articulate in the next scene: baseball scouts don’t know very much about how to choose teams or players.

Still with me? Here’s my question: What outmoded ways does cricket rely on to choose its cricketers? For a long time, Australia seemed to have the best selection process in place — in part because it has such a great first-class system. (That, of course, all fell apart over the last couple of years.) India, on the other hand, seems to rely more on gut instinct — how else to explain selecting young ‘ins who have very, very limited experience at the domestic level? For now, England seems to be the closest to choosing teams the Moneyball way — that is, not relying exclusively on statistics, but taking a good hard look at what each player is good at and how to slot that player into the overall team method. (A recurring conflict in the movie involves a player who can’t throw, can’t field, but knows how to get “on base”; Beane thinks that’s all that matters, while his head coach thinks it’s a waste to include a player for such a limited role.)

I think we need to have a better discussion about selection strategy. (Anyone who witnessed the last Ashes series, and all that Australian mistakes in tow, knows this is an area ripe for further study.) Looking at the Indian team, I see the idea — let’s draw young blood and let the team develop. But that has meant as many failures as successes; for every Kohli and (maybe) Raina, we’ve seen plenty of Uthappas, Parthiv Patels, Rohit Sharmas. Can we better predict the intangible quality that turns a domestic cricket player into an international star?

UPDATE: This is what Russ said on a previous post on this matte. Wise words:

2. Value means a market-place for mid-range players; because cricket is international it generally includes the best players available. Within nations, the non-best players don’t have a comparable statistical database of scores that might allow improved selection; notwithstanding the possibility that we don’t understand the game at all.

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One thought on “Picking the Best Cricketers

  1. chrisps says:

    Moneyball (the book) had an interesting slant on statistics: it’s not the conventional numerical measures that show a player’s worth. The ‘on base’ percentage you mention that was used by Beane wasn’t tracked by baseball fans in the way batting average, runs batted in, home runs, slugging percentage, etc were. I’m intrigued (but sceptical) whether there are any equivalent underlying figures for cricket.

    Since Duncan Fletcher’s time there has seemed to be a trail of players selected for England who didn’t have outstanding first-class records, but were assessed perceptively as having ‘the right stuff’: Vaughan, Trescothick, Strauss, Collingwood, Simon Jones of the ’05 class; Trott, Finn, Swann, Bresnan, Morgan of the current crop. They have turned out to be the anti-Ramps, Hick, Gatting – underachievers of the previous generation. It may simply be that all contenders are better known to the selectors through Lions tours and training camps and so less guess-work or reliance on the proxy measure of cricketing class: county championship runs and wickets.

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