'Tech brought in more southpaws into cricket' | Book Review

'Tech brought in more southpaws into cricket, intelligent systems will push the game'.
'Hitting Against the Spin -How Cricket Really Works' by Nathan Leamon (in picture) and Ben Jones tells how technology helped understand the game better. Photo: IANS/Representative image

New Delhi: Technology has brought in more left-handers into cricket as umpiring standards improved and along the way, "intelligent systems that understand the game better than we do will be augmenting selection and tactics, adapting to conditions faster than we can and guiding everything from field placings to bowling changes, leading cricket thinkers Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones write in "Hitting Against the Spin -How Cricket Really Works".

"If that sounds like science fiction, then take a walk behind the scenes of a Formula 1 team and you will see that it is already a reality. There are more human elements in cricket and more things we don't yet understand. But where F1 goes today, cricket will follow tomorrow (once we've worked out how to calculate the tyre wear on a fast bowler anyway)," the authors write.

In the early 1990s, 25 per cent of top-order batsmen in Test cricket were left-handed and the home team supplied both umpires. The International Panel of Umpires was then introduced and over the next 25 years, the standard of umpiring in Test matches rose.

"First with the introduction of one neutral umpire, then two. Then the advent of Hawk-Eye helped refine umpires' understanding of LBWs and their decision-making improved again.

"Finally, the introduction of the Decision Review System and increasingly professional training of the best umpires in the world pushed standards higher still.

"As the accuracy of umpiring decisions rose, simultaneously and of its own accord, the proportion of left-handers started to rise too. As the umpiring improved left-handed openers became more and more common, until they comfortably outnumbered the right-handers," Leamon and Jones write.

This was no coincidence. The increased success of left-handed batsmen was a direct, unforeseen consequence of better umpiring.

"Left-handed openers have always had an advantage under the LBW law, but pre-1990, inconsistent umpiring was too blunt an instrument to reveal that advantage. Protection in law against the ball pitching outside your leg stump is of little use to you if the umpire gives you out anyway.

"But as the accuracy of decision-making grew the value of that protection grew too, and so did the performance of left-handers at the top of the order.

"This was, of course, just one of the many ways in which improving the umpires changed the patterns and trends of Test cricket. It also pushed the finger-spinners round the wicket, changed the way batsmen defended against the turning ball, and stretched the batting averages further away from those of lesser players," the authors write in the book, which has been published by Constable/Hachette.

This is just one of the many gems in the book, revolutionary in its insights, that takes you on a fascinating whistle-stop tour of modern cricket and sports analytics, bringing cricket firmly into the 21st century by revealing its long-kept secrets.

It lifts the lid on international cricket and explains its hidden workings and dynamics. It looks at forces that shape cricket and, in turn, the cricketers who play it. It uncovers the unseen hands that determine which players succeed and which fail, which tactics work and which don't, which teams win and which lose.

It uncovers the hidden hands that have shaped the game and those who play it.

"Hopefully, we will solve some puzzles you have pondered for years and introduce you may have never considered. It will be a little complicated in places, and it will be as geeky as you choose to make it. But it will be fun, and you won't look at cricket in the same way afterwards," the authors write.

It discovers why the ball swings, swerves and dips in the air, how batsmen use it to their advantage, and how batsmen counter it - and, of course, hitting against the spin.

In the autumn of 2012, England would fly out to India to play a four-Test series against a team captained by M.S. Dhoni that was determined to avenge their 0-4 humbling in England. And Indian team, moreover, were the proud possessors of the best home team record in Test cricket. They had lost only one series at home this century.

England, on the other hand, had won just four Tests India in the last 40 years, making the country a graveyard for English Test Teams. But Head Coach Andy Flower's England team was nothing if not methodical.

"And so, six months prior to boarding the plane to India the planning started in earnest. Players, coaches and analysts set to work examining their shortcomings, identifying the changes that needed to be made and modelling the methods of those who had already been successful.

"Fortunately for them, England had been given two object lessons on how to bat against spin. In 2011, when India toured England, their most successful batsman was Rahul Dravid, who scored 461 in the four-match series. The following year, South Africa toured, and Jacques Kallis scored 262 runs in their three matches. At that time, Kallis and Dravid were the two players who had faced the most balls of spin in the history of Test cricket. In those two series, they scored 223 runs between them against spin, for the loss of just one wicket.

"Dravid, in particular, had already started to influence the England players and coaches' thinking around the best method against spin. And in their preparation for the tour of India, this focus was redoubled.

"All batsmen know that footwork is key when playing against spin. But in analysing a master craftsman such as Dravid, it became clear just how much difference this aspect of the art of batting could make," Leamon and Jones write.

In the 2011 series against England, when he averaged 158 against spin, Dravid played a mere nine per cent of deliveries in the danger zone midway between where the ball bounces - and there has not been time for any sideways deviation to have much effect - and where it travels far enough for the batsman to be able to react to any movement and adjust his shot. He attacked less than one per cent of such balls.

Now compare this to the English batsmen in the same series who played 27 per cent of their deliveries from spin in that area and attacked 15 per cent, 20 times as many as Dravid.

Thus, for spinners, it is not necessarily the amount of turn that defeats the batsman, it is the inconsistency in the amount of turn. It is the fact that the batsman doesn't know exactly how much the ball will deviate when it pitches.

The outcome?

A 2-1 series win for England, their first in India since 1984-85 that former captain Michael Vaughan has termed bigger than the 2010-11 Ashes victory against Australia and "probably their biggest achievement in many, many years".

Even so, "for all our advances in understanding, cricket will always keep her secrets, there will always be a level of mystery she won't let us penetrate. We will never know it all," Leamon and Jones conclude.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.