The triumph of Chennai Super Kings in the IPL comes as the very anterior of the performance metrics and statistics loaded approach of the scientific world of modern sport. The victory pays no compliment to the ‘Moneyball’ way of hiring smart with the Sabermetric method of scouting and analysing players. The CSK chose its players on pure instinct, on familiarity and ‘cricketing’ knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. This is more like the racehorse trainer method of recommending a thoroughbred.
Chennai Super Kings is no Oaklands Athletics baseball team. It has never been cash-strapped in its nine of 11 seasons in the IPL. Where CSK are so different from the Oakland team is in their betting on instinct to pick players they are happy with rather than go the modern way of soaking up the stats and picking the undervalued lot and try to assemble a competitive team at economical pricing.
No Sabermetrics for CSK, only pure old instinct of its wise coach Stpehen Fleming and its wizened skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It appeared they didn’t even have the calendar app to keep track of their players’ birthdays because age was not a factor in their choice of players either. They seemed to believe that the older the cricketer, the brainier his performance in a format that is otherwise thought to be an increasingly young man’s game.
The IPL teams tend to come to the auction tables after a load of research into player analytics like their batsmen’s T-20 strike rates and the economy rates of their bowlers, with the new ball and at the death. While most would like to believe that the cheque books of the owners are always good for the escalating bids on players, there are teams that have made it their business to buy smart, as Kings XI Punjab may have done with Chris Gayle. There was no guarantee he would last the course though.
What makes the CSK approach so different is in pinning faith in an ageing set of players just because they are familiar with them. But, as Dhoni explained, it was their knowledge of the player's fitness levels that was germane to sport and not age. This is unusual thinking in an age in which the computer is the boss, because it can at the touch of a button spew out analytics and statistics on every aspect of a cricketer’s game, much as analytics-obsessed pro sport of USA does in detailing players’ game analyses.
“It is a great dynamic. It is about using the strength of a remarkable captain, with a strong franchise, with a good game plan,” said coach Fleming even as he praised his captain's handling of the ageing battler Shane Watson, who was wrapped in cotton wool, his work as an all-rounder cut and his placement in the inner circle designed to leave all his energies free for smacking the ball out of the park from his slot at the top of the order.
“We always like players who are multi-talented,” Fleming said of the man who singlehandedly made the chase in the final seem so easy. And to think he was considered “a failure” at Royal Challengers, Bangalore where he batted in the middle order. This indicated that man management had done the trick and not a table of averages and strike rates.
International cricket was late in stumbling upon analytics. Even by the late 1980s it had not become fashionable to put a video camera behind the bowler’s arm in the nets to study the bio-mechanics. This prevailed until Dennis Lillee arrived on the scene with his more analytical approach to coaching fast bowlers. Even so, it wasn’t until the new millennium did full scale analytics come into India to support Team India and we have to thank Sourav Ganguly, who as captain saw the light after coach John Wright brought in a video analyst from Chennai named Ramky.
Today, IPL cricket is filled with analytics, with each facet of the game and the cricket of its players dissected to its minutest points in order to enhance the chances of winning. Pitch maps of bowlers’ line, length and pace, exhaustive video analysis, favourite scoring areas of batsmen and much more is dealt with on a daily basis by professional analysts who are virtual coaches.
The X factor in CSK’s cricket was its easy dressing room atmosphere in which Dhoni's Captain Cool avatar is most beneficent. It would be fair to say CSK is a players’ team as much as Dhoni is the cricketer's cricketer and ‘Minimum Management’ has been the mantra of the owners. Maybe, that is one reason why a team with nine men over 30 could win the IPL, that too with a team picked on the captain's instincts rather than a computer program. This is not the way of modern cricket, which is said to suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis’, as one England cricketer put it. But Dhoni’s way has often surprised by being the best and this is just another instance of sporting instinct prevailing.
(R. Mohan is the Resident Editor of the Chennai and Tamil Nadu editions of Deccan Chronicle)