The summer I rocked with the Big Bash
The plan to change my summer from Tests only to Tests and Big Bash came when I was already in Australia. Once we decided I would do it, it became about how to cover it. The schedule aims itself at TV markets and what night of the week certain crowds will turn up. It isn't set up for journos to cover it. I had four cities in four days in my plans. I would be well and truly on the road with the Big Bash.
But I also had no idea what to write about. The truth of one-day games and T20 has always been that writing about them is tough because once the game finishes, unless it is an incredible game, they are thrown out. So your elegant prose reports on inelegant batting might be accurate, but unless there were three sixes, a run-out and a handled-the-ball incident in the last over, chances are no one will read it. And part of the reason I was covering the tournament was to see if it could be written about in a new way. If we could use data and analytics, and see how seriously you could take a tournament that is there to stop people watching American procedurals and amateur cooking shows. And there was another problem: I didn't follow the Big Bash.
My young nieces have started getting into it, some of my mates back home support their favourite Melbourne team, but when the Big Bash was conceived, I was living in a different country. While I work in cricket, my job is to follow international cricket and work at Test matches. I also try to sleep and see my family, so in my life, I had been to one Big Bash League game and one game before it was a league. I knew a bit about the politics behind the league, but I couldn't tell you who Hurricanes would turn to for the death overs, or who opened the batting for Heat. I found an article on Cricket Australia's website titled "Everything you need to know about the Big Bash", which had 1200 words on the tournament, and over 400 of them were just player names. The best information I found was actually for Fantasy Big Bash players. I was so excited by the fantasy leagues that I joined two of them.
So then I just randomly contacted people I knew on Twitter. I started with Nick Cummins, the general manager of Sydney Thunder. And from there it was Trent Woodhill, the list manager and batting coach of the Melbourne Stars. It was chatting to Woodhill that I realised that even though I try to follow the trends and new ideas in T20, the game is moving so fast you have to really focus on it to see them. Match-ups, big data, and tempo training were part of my crash course. And I realised that if modern cricket coaches were all reading Moneyball, I would have to read Moneyball.
I then signed up for a course on the "Math behind Moneyball". I bought Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong, Chasing Perfection: a Behind-the-scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion, Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking, Soccermatics and also The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis' follow-up to Moneyball. I trawled through every cricket statistician or data website, followed an army of people who tweet out interesting information, and even had a phone call with the founder of the Crickenomics website about their product.
It was Moneyball I was reading on the way to my first Big Bash game, having flown in from the Brisbane Test the night before, I was all ready to get down and dirty with cricket analytics.
But how do you focus on data when you are surrounded by the largest group of kids you have ever seen at a cricket ground? I saw Anthony Everard, the hands-on CEO of the Big Bash, seven dads, four mums, and what seemed like 20,000 kids between the ages of four and 15. Some were wearing both Sixers and Thunders gear, but most had picked a team and were decked out in the official kit. Cricket Australia should be proud of what they have started, but at A$75 for a replica shirt for a kid, also a bit embarrassed.
The young vibe continued even in the press box; there were no old men in checked shirts and sensible beige trousers. Mostly it was people who worked for one of the two teams, young, talking in endless distal synergy speak: how many eyeballs they had on their last 'gram, or what their strategy was for optimisation of their Snapchat. There are what seems to be four actual cricket writers in the box. I think about cricket's current dichotomy - at Test grounds the press box is quite often full, but the grounds are often empty, at T20 games the opposite is true. This box is duller than almost any other I will travel to in the league, but the majority here are on Cricket Australia's payroll. That will be the common theme through most of the tour.
The one difference for Thunder is that they also have independent podcasters, for Ladies who Legspin and the Big Smash, who talk through the entire game like they are in one long podcast chat. Next to them in the commentary box was a broadcast in Hindi that you could listen to on the Cricket Australia app, and then Fairfax Radio beyond them. In a ground full of kids, Fairfax's two commentators, a 57-year-old and a 73-year-old, stood out.
The game is pretty ordinary, catches keep getting dropped. They drop Moises Henriques twice, who then goes on to be Man of the Match, and that leads me to wonder why we don't have better information than scorecards invented centuries ago.
ESPNcricinfo also doesn't have that much data. We are using our ball by ball to supply some, but being that T20 has only just started being taken seriously, it is incomplete. Ball-by-ball data is good, but only a small part of what cricket could produce. On the flight from Sydney to Adelaide, I start reading from the Numbers Game book. And in it, a long-held belief of mine about football - corners are nowhere near as important as some fans think they are - is proved. That gets me thinking about what things in cricket are holding us back: like, do batsmen still slow down near milestones in T20? Should we cheer a batsman who has slowed down on purpose to achieve a personal goal instead of doing everything he can to win the game? I want to learn as much as I can about T20, but also I want to learn from beyond it.
In the Adelaide Oval press box I make a quick call to Phil Oliver, the CEO of CricViz, the cricket data company. Because I need, or at least want, more data. Big data, small data, whatever they have, whatever there is. It turns out that while they have more data than we do at ESPNcricinfo, they also don't have the goldmine I wanted.
During the innings break, I talk to Everard about the plans and hopes of the Big Bash. They know they could move out of the height of summer, put on more teams and games, invest in data for the public, but first, they want to slowly ensure they completely own the summer TV schedule and keep the kids entertained. Everard is a US sports fan, so he knows that this is not yet the amazing sporting experience it could be, but his efforts are still mostly to do with making sure it's the best entertainment it can be. While I have been looking for big data trends, Everard reminds me that each team only plays four home games, and he says that he sees what CA does as more like concert promoters. It rolls in, puts on a show, and rolls out again.
It makes me think of the Ben Dunk trade; a proper sporting league would never have a trade like that. But instead of an auction or draft, the Big Bash is just a semi-pro league looking at the stars. Everard will only look at things that will increase the overall interest in the Big Bash, and while they have nailed this child-friendly rock concert made-for-TV tournament, they haven't quite mastered some of the basics of modern sport.
After the match I send a message to Stevie Gray, Heat's media manager, asking for a phone call, or face to face in the morning, if possible with Steketee about his last over. Two minutes later I get a text telling me it would be okay, and then five minutes after that, one telling me I could speak to him right then. On the ground. I have covered cricket for a long time, all around the world. I have never had a media manager be that helpful straight after the game, and I have never talked to a player on the ground within 12 minutes of the close of play. For international games I wouldn't even be allowed onto the playing surface, and now here I was, talking to the guy who bowled the last over to win the game for his team, for as long as I wanted, with no interference, in the team dugout.
The next morning as I check out of my hotel I notice that there are several stories about the game in the local paper. There is much fun had about the security guard who took a nonchalant catch, another about the upgraded terror preparations at the ground. And the third is under a big headline that suggests the Adelaide crowd still enjoyed themselves despite their team losing. There you have it: in this league it doesn't matter if your team wins or loses, it matters that you had a good time. Rock on, Big Bash.
At a Renegades game I see a Nickelodeon team about to film one of their "Slimes" at the Big Bash segments. On the train home, I hear two young guys discussing what to do with their fantasy teams. They know the prices of the players off the top of their heads, and they explain the whole league with incredible detail, more than you often read in newspapers or hear on the commentary. And you can't help but think it is these kinds of fans who are being left behind by the Big Bash.
When Mitchell Johnson is announced rested from the next Scorchers game, one match after his comeback promoted a headline from Cricket Australia that said Johnson was set to sizzle, no one seems to care, let alone notice. Instead of sizzling after bowling 25 balls in one match, he is rested for the next one. Had Freddie Wilde not tweeted about it, I wouldn't have even known that one of the biggest names in the Big Bash was being rested weirdly after one game.
Wilde is taking T20 far more seriously than almost the entire written press. He follows leagues all over the world, his Twitter account is a one stop for franchise cricket news, and he is also trying to push T20 reporting towards data. Some writers within Australia follow the Big Bash closely, like Jesse Hogan (before his stroke) or the Herald Sun's Sam Landsberger, but most don't. Australian newspapers as I travel the country are full of news and gossip about football codes that are months away from starting back up. International cricket gets some gossip and insider news, with plenty of blowhard opinion. The Big Bash gets the odd "it's not really cricket" piece, but there is little reporting on the league, no real analysis, and even the blowhard opinion pieces about how the coach is getting it wrong don't exist.
When I talk to my dad about the games (he tells people he doesn't watch it, but he does), he is always furious about the tactics of one of the teams. The same way he is always furious at the tactics in international cricket and football matches. But when the games finish, so does any need to critique them, it seems.
On the 29th of December there were three games in the one day in Melbourne. Fewer than five ventured from the MCG press box, via a seven-minute tram ride, down to the Docklands press box.
It's on my flight from Hobart to Brisbane that David Warner makes a hundred in a session in Sydney. As I get off the plane I wonder if missing a Test is worth it. But I still see Matt Renshaw make his hundred. I am in a pub, next to one of his team-mates, as I learn more about spatial spatio-temporal pattern recognition. And that night I see Lynnsanity in real life. Only for a moment, I only had a mild dose, but when he came in, the Gabba shook. When he hit a six, the Gabba got hit for a six. It's like his sixes are better than a mere regular six. I can't imagine what it was like when he hit Shaun Tait out of the Gabba. It gets even more noticeable when Joe Burns comes out. Burns is a Queenslander, like Lynn, he has a Test century on this ground, and yet, when he comes out, there is barely a noise compared to when Lynn did.
Earlier that day I had been emailing John Buchanan about cricket data, and now I watch his son make an unlikely comeback. Watching Nick Buchanan you realise how many stories could be opened up by just having more cricketers and more teams to follow. Buchanan's one six and few decent overs weren't as incredible as what Warner did, but his story is even more amazing than Warner's, and it is a great night to watch his comeback.
By this point my deep dive into cricket's shallow big-data pool hasn't gone spectacularly, but I want to know if there are other metrics, other than the key ones teams already believe in, that can help predict a T20 result. I go for unforced and forced errors. Errors just seem so important in T20 cricket, and also more frequent. The more you watch it, the more you get used to the mistakes as part of the game, not a mistake brought about, as some say, by rubbish cricket, but by a completely different format.
This game is won by a last-ball six from Eoin Morgan. I'm more interested in what my subjective and one-off findings show. When a team starts to make a few errors in a three-over period, there is a direct correlation on the scorecard, even if none of those errors caused runs or wickets. It's like tracking pressure live in a game using numbers.
At one point I look up from my notepad and see that Thunder's home ground has a beach in it. And I realise that while before I would have noticed the motocross, pyrotechnics, dancing guys and girls, mascots and beaches first, now I notice the rhythms of the game first.
Stars lost that game due to poor death bowling, after they lost John Hastings earlier in the tournament. Thunder won it despite poor top-order batting. Like the magic moment in a film where the ingénue works out what it all means, I realise that I get it all now. Between the kids'-rock-concert vibe of the Big Bash at the grounds, and the listening-to-blokes-in-a-pub vibe of the Big Bash on TV, the cricket makes sense to me.
I know that Sam Billings coming in at five (six in one game) is a massive waste of resources from an overseas and in-form player and that Sixers' top order is a mess in general. That Renegades have their opening partnership wrong: it's not that Marcus Harris is a bad player, but he doesn't get Aaron Finch on strike for enough of the time when the field is up, and this season Finch has faced only 40% (his lowest ever) of the Powerplay balls when he was batting.
Heat's biggest problem was injury (Samuel Badree) and Australia duty (Chris Lynn), but they need Swepson to be their strike bowler in the middle, and he's not quite there yet, so instead Brendon McCullum tries to weave magic without a magic wand.
Thunder dropped a lot of catches, never overcame the holes in their list after last year, and don't seem to have a top three at all.
Scorchers are basically their Shield team, but in franchise form (which is a big advantage).
These are the things I wished I had known when putting together my fantasy teams, although after making my teams I never actually looked at them again away.
My fantasy was trying to work out the league itself, and I think I was starting to, so for the last game I brought in a partner to live-check my mind as the game went. The ESPNcricinfo stats team of Shiva, Bharath and their leader, Rajesh, probably hate me for the number of times I contacted them. I would send up to ten quite detailed - yet still hard to comprehend if you're not in my head - requests for information in one game. Some of which they must have wondered what I was asking them for. Others seemed to have no relation with the game I was covering. So it was much easier for the last game when I just had their latest recruit, Gaurav, online with me, and his data analysis of both teams in front of me. What I learned was that he is quite smart, and that while data cannot predict what will happen, it can certainly come close.
What the entire tournament did was leave me with many new things to obsess over. Like how a batsman goes about starting his T20 innings in the middle overs, and why spinners are so successful in opening the bowling in T20. And I am completely fascinated with the idea of batting cages for middle-overs players.
My last game of T20 was my first of the WBBL when I went to the Docklands to see Stars and Renegades. It was the first game I saw with the giant jumbotrons drooping down. It ended up pretty dull, but I was just happy to make it to one game. The schedule of the Big Bash makes it impossible to cover both tournaments correctly, or as I found out, pretty much at all. The WBBL had one glorious weekend on TV, and then pretty much disappeared from view, which at this time when women's cricket is finally going places and needs as much coverage as possible.
On New Year's Day, I watched some of the Melbourne men's derby with my nine-year-old niece, Issy. When the new batsman comes out, his name and that he is right handed comes up on the screen. My niece said, "Why do they tell you there's a right hand batsman? He's about to face up and you'll see it." My niece only got into cricket through the Big Bash.
She wouldn't have noticed anything weird when Lawrie Colliver, the Channel Ten stats guy, was brought into the spotlight for a match last week to make the broadcast a little smarter, and straightaway he did. One piece of data he brought up was kind of trivial but interesting. Shane Watson had been dismissed twice in his last eight balls against Ben Laughlin. Mark Howard, the omnipresent host of the Big Bash, made a joke about sharing that detail with Brad Hodge, who was miked up. And then he did.
Cricket Australia then said it was disappointed at the incident, and that its "integrity unit was looking into the matter". Colliver isn't just the Channel Ten master statistician, he is also the analyst for Strikers - a team getting advice, via a presenter, from a TV man who also happens to work for them. And despite there being a pause between Howard saying he was going to share the information and him sharing the information, no one from Channel Ten or Cricket Australia stopped him from saying it.
And that is because this is a professionally run rock concert, and not a professionally run sporting competition. It is an exhibition league right now. You have a league that owns the teams, you have a commentary team that works for the teams, and you have management structure aimed to maximise the spectacle, not the sport. At times the only people invested in the games are those who dare take the sport seriously. Fans, and often the playing and support staff, are left to fend for themselves.
What did I learn from my summer of the Big Bash? My niece likes it, my dad watches it, T20 is an even more interesting sport once you dedicate yourself to it, and writing about it is still an uphill battle. But this is a tournament that doesn't have a draft, where teams don't know how to trade players, where the commentators are on the boards of the teams they talk about, where there are only four home games a year, and eight games per team in total. There is so much to fix to make it one of the great sporting leagues in Australia, but instead, let's get the show on the road and be the best travelling concert of cricket it can be.
The concert is fun, but beneath it is an intriguing and fast-evolving sport. And it is hard to take something seriously when most of the time it doesn't take itself seriously. So for now, the Big Bash will keep rocking.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber