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How to pick a winning team

Read Simon Kuper's analysis of Ed Smith's selectorship for the Financial Times

11 Dec 2019
Sports

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Cricket
 
A year into Ed Smith's (WH 90-95) selectorship, FT reporter Simon Kuper assesses Smith's talent for improving performance.

The following article was published in the Financial Times in September 2019:

Ed Smith, England’s chief cricket selector, has been irritatingly over-blessed by the gods: brainy, courteous, a former England batsman, admired author and well-dressed man. This morning he strides into a King’s Cross café in sunglasses and a wound scarf that scream Saint-Tropez, 1963. But hang on: today is day four of the fourth Ashes test. Shouldn’t he be in Manchester watching England-Australia? “Ninety-five per cent of the time I’m at the ground. When you’re at the game, you’re at an event, which improves your behaviour. When you’re at home you’re just a middle-aged man shouting at a television.” He speaks like a writer, editing himself into complete sentences.

We talked in the café, a taxi and at the FT Weekend Festival in north London. The next day, Australia beat England to secure the Ashes, Test cricket’s most coveted trophy. (The last Test is currently being played at The Oval, but even if England win it and pull level at 2-2, Australia would keep the Ashes as they entered the series as holders.)

The defeat was an agonising climax to a thrilling summer, coming not two months after England won the one-day World Cup, and following 17 mostly successful months for English cricket under Smith’s selectorship. Normally he’d avoid giving interviews at such a painful moment, but he is honouring a commitment he gave the FT months ago.

Anyway, he has never claimed to have the answers to selecting a winning team. All he tries to do is think hard about questions that torment the growing number of modernising decision makers in all sports. How do you select, manage and drop people? How and when to use the new mountains of data? How to build team spirit? Most basically, how to improve performance?

All these questions have obvious relevance to managers outside sport. As Smith once told me: “Sometimes, when people write about sport, they think it’s more different than it really is. It’s just like everything else, only people are watching.”



After Tonbridge School, Smith got a double First in history at Cambridge. He then spent a decade outscoring everyone in county cricket except Mark Ramprakash. However, his England career ended after just three Tests in 2003, when an umpire wrongly gave him out in his final innings. The misfortune prompted him to start pondering luck — “the most important idea I’d ever confronted”.

By the time he retired from playing in 2008, aged 31, after a horrible ankle injury, he’d published three books. In the next decade, he wrote his book Luck, worked as a journalist and created the University of Buckingham’s Institute of Sports Humanities. Declaration of interest: I have given paid lectures there and also enjoyed conversations with Smith about everything from baseball stats to the Spanish football team’s midfield formation.

Smith seemed to have moved permanently from participant in sport to observer. But in 2016 he became a consultant to Royal Challengers Bangalore, who play in the revolutionary, 20-over, white-ball Indian Premier League. Their team included two great batsmen, Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers. “They were doing things I’d never seen before,” he says. “That excited me about where cricket could go, and it reminded me how much I love being part of a team.” I also suspect that Smith had learnt that his perfectionism unfits him for civilian work, where hardly anyone ever gives 100 per cent.


Above: Ed Smith in his playing days, celebrating a half-century in a Test match in Nottingham in 2003

Last year, unexpectedly, England’s then director of cricket Andrew Strauss asked him to consider being chief selector. Suddenly, with hindsight, Smith saw the purpose of his decade of observation. “From 30 to 40, I think I was actually doing two things: trying to make sense of my 13 years as a player, not through introspection but through inquiry: what actually makes a difference in sport? And secondly asking, ‘Where were people using critical thinking to find an advantage in sport?’ Obviously in American sport, but also in football and tennis. I followed those places that inspired me and often I wrote about them. I never knew then that it would come together in any practical way.”

Smith took office amid a cricketing culture war. Three formats — the razzmatazz Twenty20 game, traditional Tests, and one-day in between — are competing for dominance. The schedule is crammed. How to select a team for five-day Tests when many candidates are playing in the IPL, where matches are typically three hours of big hitting? He says he has found the job so absorbing that, to his surprise, he hasn’t even missed writing.

“When challenged, it’s important that it emerges, naturally and unflashily, that you’ve considered pretty much everything” — Ed Smith on the decision-making process

Smith, a mixture of traditional English conservative and cutting-edge moderniser, has remained neutral in the culture war. Anyway, he can’t dictate his wishes: he works with co-selector James Taylor (a 29-year-old former England captain who retired because of a heart condition), coach Trevor Bayliss and captain Joe Root. Still, the first selection Smith pushed through was to recall Jos Buttler from the IPL to Test cricket — almost like moving somebody from rugby sevens back to 15-a-side.

Smith asks: “How would you go about analysing that decision statistically? How quickly can he adapt?” No data could answer that question. Smith is a keen student of the “Moneyball revolution”, which has spread number-crunching from baseball to most other sports, but he is sensitive to its limits.

In general, he doesn’t bring fixed views to selection. For instance, asked about picking big egos, he replies that it depends how good the player is: if his ego dwarfs his quality, the decision is easy. Smith believes in constantly adapting to changing circumstances. A player might be right for one set of conditions, then dropped (or in Smith’s euphemism, “deselected”) for another. How does he break bad news to players? “I don’t believe in techniques for these things. You should be as authentic as you can be, truthful in each unique conversation.”

He quotes a line from the film La Grande Bellezza: “You wouldn’t want to be too practised,” then adds: “When challenged on the decision by a player, I think it’s important that it emerges, naturally and unflashily, that you’ve considered pretty much everything, and grappled long and hard. Then it’s ultimately a judgment. It’s vital to understand that some decisions don’t have a right answer, and you believe the one you’ve made to be right. There is no guarantee it is going to be successful, nor that another considered person might not reach a slightly different conclusion.”

Smith studies selectors in other sports. He cites the football manager Pep Guardiola, who on arrival at Manchester City dropped the then England goalkeeper Joe Hart, because Hart couldn’t pass like a Guardiolan keeper needs to. “Guardiola perceived that if he was going to do the job to the best of his ability, he had to be true to his principles. So he made the change. Now, what’s interesting about that is not so much the application of ideology, which I don’t think is as relevant to cricket where there are more constraints and no transfer market.



“But it’s the fact that Guardiola would have known there was going to be a backlash, because Joe Hart is widely admired, and English journalists were going to find him very available. Every time the new goalkeeper makes a mistake, it’s going to be a failure of ideology, Guardiola’s mistake. So he’s owning an awful lot of complex noise, and he says, ‘It’s worth doing because I believe in it.’ ”

Then there was the British Lions’ rugby coach Warren Gatland, who in 2013 dropped the legend Brian O’Driscoll for a decisive match. Smith says: “If it goes wrong, there is no doubt what people will say. He wins, and more than survives the storm; the storm becomes a central part of his strength. Studying different sports has shown me that if you’re prepared to watch the game hard enough, it will lead you to an independence in your analysis, and potentially to tolerate a loneliness.”

With England, Smith has frequently tolerated loneliness. On different occasions the selectors and Root have broken with conventional wisdom by fielding three wicketkeepers, three all-rounders or three spin bowlers in a match. Smith says: “The decision to play three spinners in Sri Lanka [last winter], which had never worked until then in the history of England cricket, helped England win that series three-nil, the first time they’d won three-nil in Asia since the early 1960s.” Yet he knows the decision could have gone wrong. 

Smith says: “If you ask, ‘What is selection?’ What are the moments when your judgment diverges from what would have happened anyway? That’s what selection is.”

The temptation for a clever person taking a new job is to assume that all past conventional beliefs in the field were mistaken. Dominic Cummings, adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, embodies this approach. Smith avoids it. He quotes his friend Howard Marks (the American investor, not the late Welsh drugs smuggler): “Just because most people think it’s a bad idea to stand in front of a bus and you’re a contrarian thinker, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to stand in front of a bus.”

Smith adds: “If you rate yourself as someone prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, you also should know the moments when conventional wisdom is right.”

When England have defied conventional wisdom, it’s often because their best players don’t naturally divide into the conventional Test team’s makeup of five specialist batsmen, four bowlers, an all-rounder and a wicketkeeper.

Smith contrasts today’s England with the great Australia of the early 2000s: “They had six very good batsmen, a phenomenal wicketkeeper-batsman, three very good fast bowlers, and the greatest spinner that ever lived [Shane Warne]. So the structure of the team was basically undeviating, and the conversation was usually around, has an outside seam bowler gone past the third seam bowler in the team? The one that isn’t [Glenn] McGrath? Has the seventh or eighth batter gone past the fifth or sixth batter?

“When your talent base fits neatly into conventional piles — the great players you have are batsmen and seam bowlers — selection becomes a ranking order.”

By contrast, he says, England now have many “broadly good cricketers. We have a number of people who are both good batsmen and good bowlers: Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and others beyond. We also have three very good wicketkeeper-batsmen and more behind them. Therefore selection is not only a ranking order but also a puzzle. Now, each puzzle is different under different conditions.” Smith doesn’t mention the deeper problem: England’s squad isn’t prodigiously talented.

To solve the puzzle of beating India last summer, England picked decent bowlers who could bat well enough to score runs at number seven, eight or nine. Smith says: “Lower-order runs made the difference. The solution didn’t derive from statistics. It derived from problem-solving. It was a resources question: what do we have and how can that add up to getting 20 wickets and more runs than them?”

Then there’s team spirit. Smith, who is dismissive of motivational buzz­words, prefers to sit in the stands watching teammates interact. “A bit pretentious, but: ‘Trust the tale, never the teller’ — DH Lawrence. The truth is in the game. Forensically study the game.”

He cites last year’s England-India Test at Edgbaston: “Close chase, fourth innings. Virat Kohli in, playing brilliantly. Looking down on the field, I was very aware of a collective purpose and a collective mind. I remember seeing a series of conversations between Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes — but it’s more than conversation actually, because you can have conversations that have no meaning. It’s engagement.”

Smith was watching in his living room when England clinched that series. His two-year-old daughter walked in, observed his antics and remarked: “Hope Daddy feels a-better soon.”

This summer, England faced two entirely different puzzles in succession: first the one-day World Cup, then the five-day Ashes series.

On July 14, England beat New Zealand in a fantastically close World Cup final because an umpire incorrectly awarded six runs after a fielder’s throw ricocheted off the bat of England’s Ben Stokes to the boundary. The absurd ending practically summarised Smith’s book Luck.



Yet he also describes the victory as “a very rare example in British sport of a proper strategic plan” that worked. Strauss had spent four years preparing for the tournament. He chose a one-day captain, Eoin Morgan, who wasn’t playing Test cricket, appointed white-ball specialist Bayliss as coach and prioritised one-day matches in England’s scheduling.

Smith says: “His ambition was to arrive at the World Cup ranked number one in the world, and then he’s smart enough to realise that there is uncertainty.”

Just 18 days after the World Cup, the Ashes began. Many pundits believe that England’s top-order batsmen have failed against Australia because they couldn’t transition from the big hitting of one-day matches to slower Test cricket. Smith is sceptical. He allows that the “incredibly challenging” schedule may partly explain some batting failures. However, he emphasises another, largely overlooked factor: “The game has changed due to drainage,” he says.

Modern drains, he explains, mean pitches now dry unprecedentedly fast. That raises the risk of excessive dryness over a five-day Test, during which the ground staff aren’t allowed to water. Some ground staff therefore retain moisture in the pitch before the match. So the pitch can start green, which helps bowlers move the ball wickedly off the seam. Then the pitch dries out anyway, and becomes difficult in other ways. The consequence: top-order batting has got harder across five-day matches in England in recent seasons. None of the three men who opened the Australian batting in the first four Ashes Tests has averaged more than 11 this series.

England’s data analysts try to quantify the difficulty of a batsman’s innings by adjusting for the opponents and the context of the match. They calculate each player’s weighted batting average — as opposed to the headline averages that misled some past selectors.

Smith says: “Coming into the fourth Test, Joe Denly had a headline Test average of 24, and his weighted average is 46. That’s how hard it’s been out there.”



England’s highlight of the Ashes was Stokes’ unbeaten 135 that won the third Test. Smith reflects: “I’m a big tennis fan, and I’ve been at a lot of great finals. What you’re in awe of at the end of those Federer-Djokovic, Nadal-Djokovic, Federer-Nadal finals, Murray, is the sense that both players were being taken places that they had never been before. Ben Stokes: that was everything he had converging in one performance. There is a hint of the sublime about days like that. For arguably the greatest one-day game to happen within six weeks of arguably the greatest Test match, and for the protagonist to be the same in both occasions, was very moving.”

Yet it wasn’t enough. Arguably Smith & Co made selectorial errors, such as picking Jason Roy as an opening batsman. But they also faced bad luck, in the shape of Australia’s freakishly talented Steve Smith. His Test batting average of 64.81 is the highest in history after Don Bradman’s. This Ashes series, he was averaging 134.20 after four Tests.

Ed Smith reflects: “The word ‘Bradmanesque’ is to be used very, very carefully, but clearly, he’s approaching that territory in this sequence where there is no discernible weakness that can be consistently exploited. There are mistakes, everyone makes mistakes, but there is no thread to them that any opponent has been able to identify and exploit.”

In sport, you won’t always find the answer. But you can ask good questions.

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