Cricket and Cummings: what Dom could teach the England Test team

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The Cricketer’s Arms, Barnard Castle

I can’t ever imagine going for a pint with Dominic Cummings, the former special adviser to the UK Prime Minister. It’s not that he worked for, and at one time seemed close to, such an awful buffoon (although when you see who’s lining up to take over from Johnson … have Tory Government Ministers always been unspeakable, stupid, or unspeakably stupid in the way the current lot are?). Nor indeed that Cummings was seen as the evil mastermind behind Brexit, a topic which there’s no middle ground on.

No. I’d like to think I could have a pint and find something to talk about with most people – even Boris might be amusing company, if he was on his own and you kept his hands away from any dangerous machinery, like that of government. Our Dom, on the other hand, strikes me as the kind of guy who’s last to the bar to get his round in, doesn’t have any small talk to speak of, and responds to anyone else’s joke by pointedly not laughing and then changing the subject.

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Gratuitous picture of an alpaca. Couldn’t get a shot of me and Dom arm wrestling. You had to be there, really.

Of course, that’s just the impression you get of him through the media, and I’m always a bit suspicious that anyone who can’t be bothered playing nice for the journos will always get a bad rep from them. Maybe he’s kind to dumb animals, as my Dad used to say. Maybe a night in the Cricketer’s Arms, Barnard Castle (see pic, above) would be an uproarious affair, ending at two in the morning with me and Dom locked in a best-of-three arm wrestling competition, with the prize a neighbouring farmer’s alpaca flock. Maybe.

Anyway, one thing the much derided Cummings got right, in my opinion, was when he tried to hire some differently-skilled people to the Governmental machine. In a blog dated 2nd January 2020, he gave a well-reasoned argument as to why they were needed, and listed who he wanted as follows:

‘We want to hire an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work in Downing Street with the best officials, some as spads and perhaps some as officials. If you are already an official and you read this blog and think you fit one of these categories, get in touch.

The categories are roughly:

  • Data scientists and software developers
  • Economists
  • Policy experts
  • Project managers
  • Communication experts
  • Junior researchers one of whom will also be my personal assistant
  • Weirdos and misfits with odd skills

We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant. At the moment I have to make decisions well outside what Charlie Munger calls my ‘circle of competence’ and we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so we can properly serve the public.’

Note that he, unlike many others in such a position, could imagine a time when he hired people so successfully that he was no longer needed. Note also there were quite a few categories he had in mind, and not just the ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills,’ the media seized upon.

However, it’s that category I want to focus on initially, as the most intriguing, obviously. Anyone who’s worked in a big organisation will have come across weirdos and misfits with odd skills, although I have to say in my early days as a Council lawyer, in the 1990s, there seemed to be a lot more of them around, to be honest. I dunno. I have a feeling that they’re just less tolerated now, for all the modern age bangs on about how important diversity is. These days anyone with a hint of oddity would be a candidate for a chat with Inhuman Resources, rather than their boss saying, ‘ach, that’s just Derek. Bit of a character but the best damn conveyancer/planning technician/governmental adviser we’ve got.’

What’s the consequence of these types being filtered out of organisations? Apart from a bleak job landscape for the weirdos and misfits, there’s a tendency to hire people that think the same as their boss. And that’s dangerous. It encourages the rise of groupthink, and organisations that have lost their way.

Which brings me to the much more important topic of the England Test team and its management. As I may have said before, I consider cricket now the only sport worth paying a lot of attention to (following the fortunes of Hibernian FC doesn’t count as it’s more of an atonement for long-forgotten sins, or something) and test match cricket, in particular, the only expression of that sport worth following seriously (I’d watch the versions they play in their pyjamas if it was on, but I’d moan about it).

For those of you not so interested, to summarise the current state of the England Test side, nadir doesn’t quite cover it. They’ve just lost a Test Series to their old foes Australia in record time. Although their captain, Joe Root, has performed creditably with the bat, the rest of them don’t seem to recall which end of the thing they should be holding as the bowler takes his run up. Catches have been dropped. Heads have been held in hands. A record number of ducks (the batter getting out before scoring a single run) has been recorded.

Tooheys New Lager - Tooheys Brewery Australia
Toohey’s. Note: the suggestion that the England cricket team have been tanking the Toohey’s is made for jocular purposes only. Besides, there’s much better Aussie beer than that on offer. Could hardly blame the poor blighters, mind.

That’s not all, gentle reader. The tendency for an English innings to subside faster than the Titanic after it bashed the iceberg in the current Test Series is no one-off brought on by brilliant Australian bowling or the effects of too much Toohey’s the night before. They’ve been bowled out for under 200 thirteen times this year, eight times below 150; and twice now below 100. For the non-cricketers amongst you, that’s shite.

Needless to say, the media inquest into all of this has been swift and brutal, not even waiting for the corpse to stop twitching before starting the dissection. Joe Root, the captain, can’t captain. The coach, Chris Silverwood, can’t coach. None of the batters can bat, obviously, and that’s down to poor technique (lack of proper coaching) lack of match practice (which is certainly true) and the fact they’re all away most of the year making more money in the pyjama versions of short-form cricket, which paradoxically enough a lot of them are very good at (England won the last World Cup in the short form).

There are two Tests still to go in the series, but nobody expects this dejected bunch of sods to do anything other than go out and be hammered twice more. Meantime, the entrail-reading will continue: the absence of longer-form county games in the middle of the English summer, shouldered aside for more lucrative pyjama games, means the batters aren’t used to playing on good, true wickets any more; comprehensive schools have stopped taking cricket seriously as something to be taught to youngsters; the disappearance of Test – or indeed any – cricket from terrestrial TV.

I tend to agree with all of these being factors. However, some of the other criticisms bring me back to my main point, as they surround the overall planning and execution of tours, and a combination of groupthink (the ECB have been accused of this, in particular) and creating single points of failure, e.g. the removal of an independent team selector, concentrating the team picking responsibility on Chris Silverwood alone. And that’s where I think Dominic Cummings could make a difference, if the ECB appointed him as special adviser on a short-term contract.

Let’s look at Dom’s list of who might have been needed in Whitehall, and apply them to English cricket. Economists? Well, maybe they could come up with a business model for the English game that could maximise profit whilst not harming the roots of it. One-day games used to co-exist quite peaceably with county games in the same week: why not now?

Policy experts? Let’s leave them, like the data scientists and software developers I’ve skipped over, to the end. Project managers – indeed: the current tour, which hung in the balance because of Covid and then went ahead with basically no practice games for the team – could well have benefited from a good project manager. Communications experts – absolutely! The ECB to could do with some improved comms, between the team’s dismal performances, and the racism allegations engulfing the game back home.

Junior researchers, including one to be Dom’s personal assistant? Let’s give him one protege, to train up to think differently. Let’s face it, you want Cummings to act as the disruptor and then move him on, don’t you?

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameWhich takes us to weirdos and misfits with odd skills, into which I’ll lump policy experts and, especially, data scientists and software developers. I was very taken recently with Moneyball, the 2004 book about how Billy Beane, the manager of unfancied baseball team Oakland, took them to the top of the leagues by picking players that other clubs didn’t want. He did it by using data science.

The crucial thing is, that Beane wasn’t alone in using stats – every club did. It’s just that he used them in a different way from everyone else. This is where my memory (and indeed knowledge of baseball) gets a bit hazy: but essentially Bean was picking players using much ignored metrics, including unglamorous things like how many times they managed to get to first base, rather than just the number of home runs they hit.

There’s any number of metrics available in cricket now. At the end of a day’s play, they’ll show you – with apparent pin point accuracy – just where the bowler landed the ball every time. Batting stats have long been available: but does a batter’s overall average really tell you the whole thing? That’s where the different thinkers amongst the last category would come in.

It can’t be beyond the wit of a decent software developer to come up with a range of analyses for you that factors in relative strengths of opposition, pitch conditions, and whether an innings was played in a winning or losing cause, for example, and start to really see who cuts the mustard when the chips are down. As everyone who’s ever played the game will tell you, it’s a very different thing coming in at number 6 with a big score on the board and a set of knackered medium-pacers from facing up to the opposition quick, pawing the ground at the end of his run up and thirsty for fresh blood, at 30 for 4.

That was the big take away for me from Moneyball. It’s not that stats don’t lie: it’s more that you need to ask the stats the right question. Even the formulation of that question involves a thought process that takes you out of well-travelled paths. After a year or less, you could put Dominic Cummings out to pasture and let his backroom staff of weirdos and misfits do all the work.

Oh, that, and pay whatever it takes to make Ricky Ponting the new head coach. I can’t see a team of his getting all out for 68 more than once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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