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Legends in the Age of Analytics

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Cricket analytics has been a thing for a while now.

Football, Baseball and a few other sports are a lot more open about how and where they use analytics. Cricket analytics is still pretty much a closed book, discussed within specific circles. We know video analytics helps players get closer to perfection by working on their footwork and bowling actions. We know coaches calculate the reflexes of players - and figure where each player should be fielding. Even a casual viewer of the World Cup knows (thanks to over-simplistic stats) what a batsman’s ‘weak' zone is. All batsmen know that their opponents use such data to attack their wickets. Bowlers know that the batsmen expect them to bowl in a particular manner based on their previous bowling records. Wind, moisture, player form, record against particular opponents - they're all analysed in great detail. It adds to the pressure. Data builds teams, data suggests the need for a Grant Elliott in the Kiwi side.

What is not surprising is that data-driven preparation works. That's why they invest in it. Sports Analytics is here to stay and drive the way the game will be played in the future. Yet, for all the analytics and stats, predictions turn out to be incorrect on so many occasions. Even when the analysts factor in the entire range of a batsman’s shots, the reach and throw accuracy of every fielder and the bounce and carry each bowler is expected to have.

 

What makes people say things like “There will never be another player like the Don again”?

Why do these predictions fall short then? Yes, some stats and analytics are merely poor inferences from the data points at hand. In some cases, the data itself isn’t measured properly. In other cases, writers bend stats to suit their personal opinions. Of course these people predict incorrectly. Just look at the prediction variations for tomorrow’s finals, or for all the matches that went by. But even the most scientific of statisticians get it wrong - not by a whisker (which would be a massive achievement), but by a mile. When the stakes get high enough, the world turns to octopuses and astrologers because they have got as good a shot at predicting results as seasoned analysts. Why?

There is one key stat that even the best analysts aren’t able to measure or predict or even understand yet. A cricketer must be incredibly good at his craft to make it to a tournament like the World Cup. Yet, from time to time, the game plays host to some magicians who make otherwise talented cricketers look like school children. They go about this business effortlessly, like it's no big deal.

MS_Dhoni_India_cricket

What separates these ‘legends’ from the good players? What makes people say things like “There will never be another player like Gary Sobers again” or “There is just the one Sachin”? What makes these players defy the rules of statistics, the laws of probabilities and at times, that of physics? How do they create magic time and again? What makes them the 'outliers’ in the stats reports around the world? What makes their names immortal?

One word. Heart.

Of course, what we refer to as ‘heart’ colloquially is in reality the brain's reactions to a situation at hand. Every big match comes down to this one factor. It already takes a deluded mind with a strong optimism bias to make it to a World Cup squad of a major team. And it takes even greater levels of delusion to be remembered as a legend. Each of them believe that they can change the course of a tournament at will, whether they admit it or not.

 

"If 15 runs are needed off the last 6 balls, pressure is on the bowler and not on MS Dhoni." - Ian Bishop

Technique, practice and tactics form the foundation for any player, but they only go so far when the stakes are this high. Sometimes, matches go beyond statistics. They go so far beyond logic that all the time invested in analytics look like a complete waste. When the world looks at a situation and thinks a win from a particular situation is improbable, the players with the heart of a lion (as idioms go) focus completely on how to get that victory. Heart. These players plan improbabilities and execute them day in and day out. That’s what makes great players. That’s what makes the game great. That’s what keeps you glued to the seat when a Dhoni or a Cairns or an AB deVilliers looks at 20 off the last over. They don't necessarily play by the coaching manual - they contribute to it.

Here’s to the legends whose inspirations come not from logic but from the lack of belief in such nonsense. In another day, the coveted World Cup could go back to the Aussies or find a new home in Kiwi land, but one thing’s for certain. It will be won by the players who play their ‘heart’ out.



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