In the plane on the way to Perth for the Big Bash final, I watched Moneyball, a movie about an American baseball manager who puts together a team capable of mixing it with the big boys on a shoestring budget.
The core principle of the movie is computer analysis and statistics. Baseball games are broken down into component parts and players are selected based on their statistical suitability to each of those parts.
Many people who watch this film will probably walk away thinking that Brad Pitt's character was a genius for having the foresight to embrace this approach; some might walk away thinking he just got lucky by having a better computer nerd than the other Major League Baseball teams. I suspect far too many will see the film and see it as a vindication of all things IT in sport.
Australian cricket has been using computer analysis for more than a decade. Images of John Buchanan sitting in front of a computer screen still wake me up at night in a cold sweat. You probably all think he was looking at detailed breakdowns of players and their scoring zones but, for the most part, he was simply forwarding those tired old chain email jokes. I tried to block his email address but the coach of the Australian team was unblockable.
I played a Test match in Melbourne one year against England and, as happened to me far too often, I was turning the ball plenty without having a great deal of control. We had taken some early wickets and had plenty of runs on the board but England were mounting something that resembled a comeback and all of us were starting to get a little concerned. I was confident, however, that provided I could land the ball in the right place more than once or twice an over there was enough turn and bounce available for me to break the partnership and possibly go on to win the Test.
At the tea interval, John shuffled up to me with a pile of papers in his hand. He said that he had some observations to make about my bowling and the Englishmen's scoring patterns that he had extracted from his laptop.
He said to me that he felt the key to breaking this partnership was by keeping the scoring rate to a minimum. Good point, as both English batsmen were stroke players and not the sort of guys to enjoy or survive too long without hitting the ball over the fence. I started to think that perhaps this one-on-one wouldn't be too painful after all. Unfortunately, he then pulled out the printouts. One of them was a map of where my deliveries had pitched and the other was a corresponding document showing how many runs had been scored from each of those deliveries.
John excitedly told me that whenever I pitched the ball on off stump, the batsman wasn't scoring. He generally took half an hour to make a point and, considering the tea break at a Test match is only 20 minutes, we were already walking back onto the field at the time.
I turned to him and replied that the reason they weren't scoring when I bowled that particular delivery was because the ball had been turning half a metre and they couldn't actually reach it.
I thanked him kindly for his input and asked him whether or not he thought I should concentrate instead on getting them out. His blank face indicated that he would have to go back to the laptop before he could respond.
Incidentally, I did start putting them in the right place occasionally, picked up my only five-wicket haul at the MCG and we went on to win the Test. Computers have a huge role to play in cricket, all sport for that matter, but remember the basic principles of the game will always be of paramount importance.
Moneyball is a great film but the stats that matter in cricket are simple. Make more runs than the opposition and bowl them out twice.