Fathoming the art and science of data analysis with Manpreet Sidhu

Cricket has embraced technology after early skepticism. It was late to the party as compared to other sports in harnessing the power of big data, with the advent of T20s necessitating the push towards analytics as teams and individuals strived for that extra edge. Premeditation became a buzzword and players sought information about behavioural patterns and weaknesses to outfox each other. The supplier of these revolutionary insights, the video analyst has gained permanence in every serious-minded dressing room.

To fathom the art and science behind professional data analysis, Guerilla Cricket spoke at length to Manpreet Sidhu, a veteran number-cruncher and BCCI Level-A qualified coach. The globe-trotting Sidhu has rendered his services in ICC-approved franchise tournaments like Lanka Premier League, GT20 Canada and Bangladesh Premier League besides overseeing many skill enhancement programmes in the Indian domestic circuit.

Why are data insights of paramount importance in the modern game?

Data analysis is very important in today’s day and age. Cricket was slow to come to terms with it but there’s been some good progress in the last few years. It is a scientifically proven fact that humans respond to and process visual data better than any other type of data. For example, if I say that Shivam Dubey is strong off his pads, you may or may not believe me because there is no data to back up the statement. Instead, if I show you clips of him flicking the ball nicely everytime bowlers drift onto the leg-stump you will find it hard to refute the claim. Visual evidence is trustworthy.

Teams are more inclined to use data nowadays because it has provided results. Through it you can identify the strong suits and shortcomings of the opponent beforehand and strategize accordingly. It has helped teams stay ahead of the curve by enabling better decision-making.

What is the level of awareness in players with respect to big data?

At present, cricketers are well aware of data and the advantages it can provide. Batters are keen to know how they should start their innings and which phases of the match they are vulnerable in or are lagging behind in terms of scoring rate. They chalk out their plans after analyzing the opposition’s resources, what type of fields are being set, which bowlers can they target and what shots can be employed to exploit the ground dimensions.

Similarly, bowlers watch footages to ascertain a batter’s scoring zones, their deficiencies against certain types of deliveries and pitch conditions and try and apply that learning in the middle. It is essential to do your homework and keep reinventing yourself as a player otherwise you’ll be found out by the opposition.

Is introducing data at youth- and academy-level cricket key to ensuring players grow up with a fundamental understanding of how data can help develop both their skills and smarts?

That’s a very good question. The focus at the academy level, by and large, is squarely on the fundamentals – the technical aspects of cricket. There’s a huge role data can play at the grassroots. If a club cricketer’s body posture and alignment while cover driving is not ideal, we can immediately show them a video of a state-level player and get it rectified then and there.

An off-spinner can learn the art of using the crease by looking at R Ashwin and a pacer will gain awareness about release points if you show them split-screen images of Lasith Malinga, Mitchell Johnson and Mohammed Shami in their delivery stride. Exposing junior cricketers to data is vital so that their game sense is as sharp as their skills.

You need to purchase the data from outsourcing companies and have the requisite software in which it will be fed before the videos and statistics can be presented in front of the players and coaches. The expenditure is not that much and kids are tech-savvy, but the lack of vision is to blame for the negligible use of data at lower levels. However, BCCI has acknowledged the value of data and credit goes to the board and state associations for making sure each state side from U-16 (boys) onwards is armed with a performance analyst to guide the up-and-coming cricketers.

Is there a yawning gap between the international and domestic/associate teams when it comes to access to data and the quality of it, given not all local games are televised?

The videos collected from international cricket, premier domestic championships like the Ranji Trophy, Vitality Blast and major T20 leagues like IPL are, of course, crystal clear. But there are platforms which track down the data of teams like the USA, Namibia, Papua New Guinea and Bhutan too. The quality might be inferior but the videos are decipherable, nonetheless. YouTube videos and the content uploaded by streaming services like Fancode also come in handy.

I was working with Cricket Canada recently as we built up to the T20 World Cup Qualifier in Oman. Although they couldn’t qualify as Ireland and the UAE made it through, we had access to the data of whichever teams we played against during the tournament. There was footage of even those who warmed the bench. It was essential to have that material as our pre-match meetings were based on the reports that emerged after condensing the data.

The treadmill of world cricket means there’s an abundance of data coming up in the form of wagon wheels, dismissal patterns, match-up permutations, beehives, furnaces, bowling trajectories, venue dimensions and pitch conditions etc. As an analyst, it must be a herculean task to cull this barrage of information and make it digestible for a player or coach?

Looking at the most recent videos is crucial for planning and plotting purposes. For instance, ahead of India’s first T20I against South Africa, the home team’s analyst would have gone through the latest data to figure out how Dwayne Pretorious bowled in the PowerPlay, what were Kagiso Rabada’s lengths at the death, at what stage of his innings does David Miller look to accelerate. They would scan the IPL 2022 data to glean as much information about the Proteas as possible. Even though the player’s roles differ in the franchise and national set-ups, the skillsets remain the same. Having this knowledge beforehand gives you a fair idea of how you need to design your own gameplan.

The coach and the captain have to be receptive enough for the data analyst to be able to make an impact because messages are relayed from the top down. We can’t bombard players with complex information because they do get irritated. And it’s not like data is the be-all and end-all when it comes to tactics. But the little tweaks and nudges that can be made in every aspect of the game after interpreting the chunk of data lead to greater efficiency and cohesiveness on the park.

Of late, there has been a lot of emphasis on destigmatizing risk. David Miller for Gujarat Titans, Rishabh Pant for India in Tests, Jos Buttler for England and Virender Sehwag formerly under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy are prime examples of how batters realize their potential when the fear of failure is removed? How important is it to create an environment of trust so that players feel belonged and express themselves without worrying about the what-ifs?

It is very important to back match-winners because they can finish games single-handedly when on song. Our five fingers are different to each other, right. As a coach you have to determine the style and character of each individual in the squad and cater to their needs. The majority of the high-performance coaches I’ve worked with encourage players to play a fearless brand of cricket, because when the performance pressure is reduced athletes enjoy the game a lot more and naturally tend to do better. For coaches, more carrot and less stick is the way to go in the times we’re living in. Instill your players with confidence and look at them flourish.

As you can see international cricketers are getting longer ropes to showcase their talent, but the club cricketer often doesn’t have that privilege. The margin for error is slightly higher for them as they get only a handful of selection matches across the year in most cases. A lot is riding on those games given the competition in India. There’s the pressure of expectations and at a tender age you’re not equipped to deal with all that. That’s how fear of failure sets in. It’s detrimental to a player’s chances of success as you’re too concerned about how not to fail rather than being the best version of yourself on the field.

Mental conditioning done through visualization sessions can help eliminate that apprehension and enable players to just go out there, have fun and give it their best shot without fretting over the uncontrollables. The appointment of sports psychologists at the junior level is the need of the hour because cricket coaches might not always have the people skills to understand and empathize with what’s going on in a youngster’s mind. In fact, I have never seen a psychologist travel with the Ranji teams and the Indian Women’s team has only just added Dr Mugdha Bavare to the support staff. So there’s a lot of scope for progress on the mental health front, in cricket and in general.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to preparation. Prithvi Shaw likes to refrain from hitting the nets when out of form whereas Michael Clarke batted all day to find his rhythm. Different things work for different people. How do you as a coach deal with players having such polar opposite training regimes?

The coaches have to work within the comfort zone of the player. The workload decides to what extent a player is willing to push themselves. But sometimes a batter feels on the match eve that the practice wicket is dissimilar to the one that is likely to be expected on game day. So they refrain from having a go in the nets because the way the training surface behaves might put second thoughts into the brain and thereby disturb the mindset. They will instead do underarm drills or face throwdowns.

On the contrary, some batters require sessions that are big on volume. They keep at it until they enter that zone and discover that feel. The same goes for bowlers, as Andre Russell stresses upon fitness drills and stretching and then bowls four overs at full tilt before winding up. On the other hand, Lungi Ngidi needs miles under his legs in order to feel match-ready. And this disparity is not limited to batting or bowling as a few players demand parallel, high and cordon catches even after the 20-minute team fielding session is done and dusted. So it’s up to the coaches to be conscious of what makes a player tick and being a good observer and listener is thus pivotal.

Gaurav Sundaraman, one of India’s premier data analysts, shared an anecdote on a podcast where MS Dhoni was shown clips of English batters getting out to short-pitched bowling in the 2013 Ashes and he employed the strategy post Lunch via Ishant Sharma, who returned a seven-wicket haul at Lord’s to give India a historic win. Have there been any such incidents in your career where something you’ve suggested worked well for the team?

Yes, there have been many such incidents during my career as a video analyst. The one I remember vividly involves Ravi Bopara who represents Kandy Warriors in the Lanka Premier League. He used to experiment a lot in the nets and bowl all kinds of variations but had not yet bowled a single ball in any match during the 2022 campaign. The pitches had been ideal for batting, however, in Colombo, the ball was holding up in the surface and gripping a bit due to the rain. Having kept a close eye on Ravi during the practice sessions, I suggested to coach Lalchand Rajput that the team can benefit from his change-ups on this two-paced track. Things went to plan and Ravi was difficult to get away with as he bowled economically and even picked up wickets. Impressed with his bowling, captain Angelo Perera called on Ravi frequently in the remaining games and he bowled his full quota on most occasions.

Is fielding under-analysed in cricket? Players do wear the smart training vests and the information it provides is vital from a workload management standpoint and for assigning top athletes to fielding hotspots, but how else can data contribute to making teams field better?

Not really, fielding is analysed adequately. Everything related to groundwork is tracked extensively- drops, misfields, runs conceded, runs saved, fumbles, half-chances, direct hits and missed shies. As you mentioned, acceleration patterns are assessed to station the agile movers and safe catchers to the key positions. The fielding coach is in constant communication with the analyst and the drills are remodeled accordingly. Tactics-wise, if the captain has been briefed about Kane Williamson’s modus operandi to promptly get off strike by dabbing the ball towards third man, he will place a gun fielder who throws left-handed to cut those cheeky singles. It is through such small suggestions data can help you gain an upper hand over the opposition.

During the pandemic, life had been hectic for cricketers and coaching personnel alike. Many complained of bubble fatigue and poor mental health. Being a globe-trotting analyst, how did you navigate those challenges and did they affect you at some point?

It wasn’t easy at all. When you spend one and a half months at a stretch in a hotel, you are bound to feel claustrophobic. Most of the domestic or franchise-based competitions where I was engaged had a 14-day quarantine policy. Eating food from packets, the regular swab tests..it was a very hectic life. But having said that, as a professional you need to focus on your job. I worked on old data sets, kept fit by exercising and tried my level best to help players in whatever way I could on the assignments.

Also, it is my personal opinion that the lack of cricket during the pandemic gave way to an overarching zeal to perform. Getting matches to play became a luxury rather than a norm. You see, Sarfaraz Khan played the best red-ball cricket of his life to be the highest run-scorer in the last two Ranji editions, a less-fancied team like Himachal Pradesh won their maiden title in Indian domestic cricket by lifting the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Gujarat Titans stunned everyone in their inaugural season.

Players were forced to take a break because of the lockdown and came refreshed, desperate to deliver. The idleness meant they could sit down and introspect their game, something they might not have been able to do otherwise given the packed calendar. It was a tough time, for sure, but there was a silver lining to the cloud nonetheless.

Big data has ushered in sweeping changes to cricket, but do you think there’s still a long way to go? What does the future hold?

The usage of data in top-flight cricket has increased manifold over the years and it has made the sport intellectually intense and fiercely competitive. It has been instrumental in England bringing about a paradigm shift to their white-ball cricket. The IPL is super mechanized, with data’s influence running the gamut from auction strategy to toss calls to in-match manoeuvres like promoting a floater up the order to tackle the leggie.

Domestically, I reckon it still needs to trickle down and reach the bottom tier. Coaches at the junior level must inform themselves and their wards of the statistical and technological advancements happening in cricket and make good use of data to further player development in a more holistic sense.

Enhanced video qualities and upgrades to tracking methods will open up many more avenues for analysts. Although it’s certainly true that big data in cricket is a growing phenomenon, I feel we’re only just getting started.

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