friday-rant
Statistical Data Analysis

Rant: English cricket's 'data-gate' shows the weakness of numbers versus common sense

As an excuse, it wasn’t among the very best. When England cricket coach Peter Moores was asked about his team’s defeat to the minnows of Bangladesh that meant an end to World Cup hopes, he answered weakly that “We’ve got to look at the data.” There were plenty of unpaid critics on social media to point out the key data: Played 5, Won 1, Lost 4.

By chance, I met Moores on the way to a game shortly after his appointment last year when we were both walking towards The Oval stadium in south London. He was a sound wicketkeeper for Sussex when I watched games there many years ago and I liked him a lot on acquaintance. But when he talks publicly he has a less appealing dependence on stock phrases of sports (cod) psychology and his ‘datagate’ statement pointed to the way that even sport has been infected with an unhealthy dependence on numbers to explain everything. A further irony: several days after the statement it turned out that Moores had actually said something like “look at it later” in one of the interviews rather than “look at the data” but by that point Moores, a man seemingly glued to his laptop during games, had already been hung, drawn and quartered in the Supreme Court of Social Media Omniscience.

England’s coaches spend lots of time and money on gathering data and much of this is useful. It’s good for a bowler to know that his outswingers might lure a batter who habitually nibbles outside off-stump, or for a batter to know that a bowler falls to pieces under aggressive down-the-pitch hitting. Or for a captain to know that 63% of times when teams elect to bat first they win at a given venue.

But the data delivered by the armies of experts that modern sport assembles provide/s only a platform for further investigation, a clue to a mystery. I once knew a project manager who obsessed over green lights and key performance indicators. He worked so hard on these that stress built up, he became unhappy and, well, worse things happened. If you’d looked at the executive information system dashboard, things might have looked very good. But the dashboard lacked the data that really mattered: a satisfied mind.

Our data volumes are neutral; they can be a force for good or bad. Companies too often use them as false gods, thinking they provide grade-A customer service because they get callers off support lines in under two minutes, even if that means the solution to a problem has not been provided. I know consultants who say IBM stands for I’ve Been Married because the strains of pursuing customers all over the world have helped to break love matches. Sometimes we are guilty of measuring the wrong things or skewing our findings to suit purposes and hit targets.

Peter Moores doesn’t need to look at the data but he should rely more on some hunches that are built on valuable experience. He needs to pick bowlers who knock over timber and are fresh, batsmen that can manoeuvre the ball but also have power to hit it very long distances. And forget about the data.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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