CRICKET: MAKING FRIENDS WITH DATA

October 27, 2019

Email

Sri Lanka’s B team celebrating the fall of Umar Akmal’s wicket during the second T20 in Lahore
Sri Lanka’s B team celebrating the fall of Umar Akmal’s wicket during the second T20 in Lahore

Irrespective of winning and losing, one established fact about Pakistan cricket is its unpredictability. With the recent T20 debacle against Sri Lanka’s B team, the Pakistani squad again showed shocking inconsistency. If we look at the Pakistan team’s performance after the World Cup, overall we did better than what our current One-Day International (ODI) ranking indicates. However, our two worst performances came against the two worst-placed teams in the tournament.

Against the West Indies in the World Cup, we dug a big hole for ourselves which eventually cost us a place in the semi-finals. Against Afghanistan, Pakistan should have won the game easily. Instead, we were hardly able to squeeze through a win.  On the other hand, Pakistan was the only non-qualifying team that had defeated both finalists. This is the inconsistency everyone talks about.

In ODI and Test rankings, Pakistan has been in the mid-tier for decades. We all wish the team consistently plays good cricket and stays competitive with top tier teams, but the question is: why are we not there? Is this a coincidence? My answer to that question is no, you cannot be consistently inconsistent for decades just by coincidence.

‘Inconsistent’ is the adjective that has most often been attached to Pakistan’s cricket teams over the years. It’s about time Pakistan cricket move into the modern age and take data-driven decisions

With the huge influx of money nowadays, cricket has become an industry, and like any other industry, if your growth is stalled, you should seriously look at your operational methods and processes to find the real root cause. You can’t run affairs the same way and expect results which are associated with better performing competitors. Similar to how you can’t get the same performance from a 20-year-old car compared to a brand new car, you can’t get similar results against teams that have been employing modern management techniques. To successfully run an industry, you need experienced management.

Similarly, cricket in Pakistan also needs a highly experienced multi-skill professional management team. A majority of well-run organisations all over the world employ the Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control (DMAIC) technique or some other techniques to understand the real issues.

So what is DMAIC? This technique could be used to identify and improve any type of operational issues. The DMAIC process is generally led by an independent, well-trained professional or group of professionals whose job is to purely rely on data and to provide the feedback to relevant stakeholders in order to take data-driven actions and continue doing so until the agreed goals are met. Once you meet the goals, then a control needs to be placed for sustained performance so that you don’t fall back to the previous state. This is an ongoing process which helps organisations steadily improve performance by starting a new cycle of improvement. For that reason, the process is often called the ‘continuous improvement’ process.

This whole process is a science. In an industrial set-up it is called ‘operation excellence’ which is led by a subject matter expert. That expert must have experience in performing methodical root cause analysis and come up with a corrective action plan for short term and long term improvement in each area of concern. 

One of the first tasks of that operation excellence team would be to benchmark the current performance in various areas of cricketing operations. This you may want to call the current state. The next step would be to decide where you want to be in the next one, three, five and 10 years. This you may want to call ‘future state’. Based on that, the operation excellence team will perform gap analysis, and the next step would be to create a road map or action plan to close the gap with monthly or bi-monthly targets to track and gauge the progress.

This process could be deployed to get targeted performance improvements of the entire cricketing organisation, from top level Pakistan Cricket Board planning and operation to the individual players. Since every part of the organisation has actions to act on to support the progress, the operations excellence group works directly under the head of the operations such as a general manager and chief operating officer, as an independent entity to effectively drive the actions for successful completion.

The main job of the operation excellence team would be to establish processes and procedures to take subjectivity out of the equation as much as possible for coaching, training and selection decisions of the team. Instead, they would provide objective data to the coaching staff to help make individualised training plans for each player and then track their improvements. Ultimately,

this data will be available to the selection committee and the rest of the organisation, including players. This will help selectors to select a team which has a statistically better chance to perform consistently better.

Against the West Indies in the World Cup, we dug a big hole for ourselves which eventually cost us a place in the semi-finals. Against Afghanistan, Pakistan should have won the game easily. Instead, we were hardly able to squeeze through a win.

A large number of players have natural talent but they may be weak in certain skill sets. Most of the time, they know it themselves but during their selection the weaker skills are either not considered seriously or masked by their better skills. Also, most of the time, they don’t work hard on improving those weaker skills. In other words, they don’t come out of their comfort zone. With proper training, coaching, and individual hard work, skills can certainly be improved. It is a matter of installing a system which allows data to be constructively presented to the players with their individual improvement plan, to ensure their current state and improvement target for each month/ quarter are available to the players and the coaches.

The positive thing about this system would be that each player would know what the performance measurement yardstick is going to be used for the selection, so that they can focus on their preparation. For selectors, this will give them a gauge to reward players who are working hard to improve their skills, and it will promote merit-based selection culture to minimise subjectivity. Players need to know that they can’t remain lousy fielders despite being good batsmen or bowlers to be selected in the team. They have to demonstrate that they are continuously improving their skills in all areas. Once the players know that this is what is needed of them, they will focus on their weaknesses, even if they are not in the training camp. 

 When young players get selected to represent the country, they get exposed to a high pressure situation, while in general kids of that age have a protected life in our culture.

It is generally observed that some kids perform better than others under high pressure situations. It is imperative that, besides cricketing skills, they are provided need professional support in improving and honing their leadership and behavioral skills as well as their mental strength to cope with high pressure situations. This would allow them to stay focused on the game in all situations. This is possibly another factor which causes poor judgement and mistakes in critical moments and adds inconsistency in the performance of the team. The professional counselling team should be part of the support staff on a full time basis so that players have access to them in real time.

Cricket brings joy to millions of people in the country. If our performance is good it also brings a sense of pride to all of us. A multi-pronged approach is needed to elevate the performance of our team. We need to have a short, medium and long term plan to ensure our cricket stays relevant in world cricket in the coming years and decades.

The writer holds an engineering position with an aerospace company in the USA

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019