January 27, 2017

The summer I rocked with the Big Bash

Our correspondent tells us what he learned about the tournament through the weeks he spent on the road covering the games
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No grown-ups here, please © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

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.

I have covered cricket for a long time, all around the world. I have never talked to a player on the ground within 12 minutes of the close of play

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.

The Big Bash League: an entertaining way to spend a summer's day © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

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.

Errors seem 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 mistakes brought about, as some say, by rubbish cricket

While we talk, Strikers' slow-starting middle order stuff up a chase Dunk had already smashed, and Mark Steketee defends 16 off the last over to win the game.

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.

We haven't scratched the surface of the data that can be mined from T20s, let alone the rest of cricket © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

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.

The young vibe continued even in the press box, where people talked in endless distal synergy speak: how many eyeballs they had on their last 'gram, or what their strategy was for optimisation of their Snapchat

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.

To become a great Australian sporting league, the Big Bash has to become more professional, less exhibition-like © Getty Images

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 the train home, I hear two young guys discussing their fantasy teams. They explain the whole league with incredible detail. You can't help but think these kinds of fans are being left behind by the Big Bash

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • kishore on January 29, 2017, 6:53 GMT

    The contrast (angst?) with the IPL is obvious for Jarrod. "But this is a tournament that doesn't have a draft": capitalism (IPL) vs central planning (BBL) "where teams don't know how to trade players": capitalism (IPL) vs central planning (BBL) "where the commentators are on the boards of the teams they talk about," :capitalism (IPL) vs central planning (BBL) "where there are only four home games a year, and eight games per team in total." too much central planning.

  • David on January 28, 2017, 12:51 GMT

    (Cont'd) ... In soccer, one of the key skills is a player's ability to work with his team mates (accurate passing, anticipating plays, etc.). That is, soccer is a team game in every sense, and the best players are those who make their team mates play better.

    But cricket is a game of combined individual performances. In fact, the better an individual performs, often the worse his team mates look in comparison. So a player's impact on the performance of the team as a whole in cricket most often comes in non-cricket-skill areas - their commitment to training and contribution to dressing room culture, etc.

    Therefore the usual metrics applied to player trades in the EPL cannot apply the same in cricket leagues.

  • David on January 28, 2017, 12:40 GMT

    Jarrod, re the player trade "a proper sporting league" would never have made, perhaps it's the "proper sporting leagues" that need to rethink some of their assumptions surrounding trades. What was the final result of the changed player rosters for the Strikers and Hurricanes from BBL05 to BBL06? The Strikers, who apparently got the deal of the century, went from top of the table to equal bottom, while the Hurricanes, who apparently made the most foolish trade in the history of sport, marginally (in terms of NRR) improved their performance.

    Why have the Scorchers been the most successful of the BBL franchises by a country mile? It's not because they have the biggest names, but because Justin Langer puts a premium on character and the players' suitability to the team culture. In the IPL, RCB's serial failure to achieve the big prize shows up the weaknesses in traditional models of player valuation.

    You also need to recognise the big difference between cricket and soccer. (Cont'd)

  • sam on January 28, 2017, 5:54 GMT

    Aussies in addition to being the undisputed numero uno in ODIs,and looking red hot in tests to get back to their no.1 spot ,could v well be after their upcoming tour here in Ind ,by beating the hosts-and current no.1-in the series,now have the most successful,watched and breathtaking t20 league in the world-the blockbuster Big,Bash! Truely ,on top of the cricketing world!!

  • rob on January 27, 2017, 22:26 GMT

    As far as Oz being a serial under performer at T20i level, I must admit I agree. We have played in one final (which we lost to the Poms, damn it) but other than that we have really been missing at the T20 wc. A lot has been said about us not really taking the format seriously, and no word of a lie, there's a fair bit of truth in that. It's not that we are dismissive of it, it's more that we simply haven't swung all our guns to bear down on it. That's about to change I think. CA have put Langer, Ponting and Gillespie in charge of our next T20i series. Lots of top players will be in India at the time but I think they aim to have a red hot shot at it regardless. It's no guarantee of success but I feel a lot better about our attitude towards the game now. We'll see how it goes.

  • rob on January 27, 2017, 22:15 GMT

    @ HADESLOGIC: I'm glad that is was you, being an Indian, that mentioned the BCCI ban on Indian players in the other leagues. I was going to mention it but it sounds much better coming from a long time s/c poster like yourself. I think I can sum it up by saying we would love to see some Indian players in the BBL but alas it just cannot be at the moment. .. I think each team is limited to 2 overseas players on their roster. Mark Waugh said that one avenue of expansion is to increase that to 3 or 4 in the next few years. If that happens we will probably see more top players throw their hat into the BBL ring. I'm not sure what sort of money is on offer though. Not huge at this stage I'd guess. The BBL doesn't have corporate involvement (beyond sponsorship) like the IPL does. Maybe one day. At the moment we're sussing that out carefully from the safety of the bushes.

  • Terry on January 27, 2017, 18:53 GMT

    I think what Australia have done well is separate Big Bash and Test cricket so that their Test players are otherwise occupied. They could have sidelined the Sheffield Shield even more and we would have had the likes of Warner and Steve Smith making Big Bash runs. Instead the Big Bash has become a place where younger Australian players can experience playing under pressure in front of big crowds in an environment where the games and results aren't life and death. It has meant that players like Head, Lynn & now Swepson & Heazlett have graduated into the Australian squad for other formats and others have had more exposure. The crowds have been exceptional and to be honest the Test stars like Warner, Smith and Starc haven't been missed.

  • Ron on January 27, 2017, 17:54 GMT

    @SURYA and @THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, how is the success of the leagues related to performance on the international scene? Look at football, EPL is one of the most competitive and moneyed leagues of any sport in the world yet what has Eng football achieved? Plus, the format of the game involves a lot of luck and sledgehammer batting. Further, the structure of leagues in cricket actually enables other teams to get better. Players from WI, SA and Aus play in most leagues across the world and get the sort of on ground experience that is not available to an Ind player who is not even allowed in ANY league beyond the IPL. So while Kohli may be the most marketable Ind cricketer who can walk into any T20 team, he only plays for Ind and RCB in any year and has limited exposure compared to say even Brad Hodge.

  • arunku6043409 on January 27, 2017, 17:04 GMT

    @SURYA Never said that they haven't done well. Just that, given their massive potential, they haven't been able to lord over the other teams like, say, the West Indies have done, to some extent, in this format.

  • Surya on January 27, 2017, 15:58 GMT

    THE NORTHERN LIGHTS: I didn't agree with your statement that India didn't do well in T20 international matches. In last two editions of World T20, India reached one final and other semifinal.. so it's not bad either. Secondly, you can't compare Big Bash with IPL. It's like I'm comparing Ricky Ponting with Voges. Ricky Ponting is a legend where as Voges got better strike rate at initial matches played at home. Big Bash is a T20 league where their own best T20 players or TOP international players don't participate rather busy playing international matches, leave alone TOP international T20 players (hardly anyone is participating except few WI players), where as in IPL all TOP players from all over world (except Pakistan players due political reasons and few England players,which now many are going to play in 2017 edition) playing this tournament.

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