It’s been a long time since I was able to collect my thoughts and reflect on everything that’s happened since my last blog. In that time, I’ve started working for the England and Wales Cricket Board as a consultant Performance Analyst, working in elite youth cricket helping with squad selection and primary data collection for 14/15/16/17 year olds as they begin their careers in the game. It feels strange to admit that 14 year olds players are being analysed with the same level of scrutiny as cricketers with 14 years of professional experience, even if they don’t know it yet! But it made me think of some very salient points to make:
Firstly, why wouldn’t you analyse elite youth cricketers at a young age? To be able to identify key components of elite youth performance that translate to future elite senior performance is vital in talent identification. Not only does it allow for early identification of players, and thus earlier prescription of strength and conditioning/sport psychology/dietetics/sports medicine regimes etc, it’s intended to (hopefully) provide further knowledge about career progression and longevity. That isn’t to say the positives will happen, it just helps you increase your chances. And there is also a need to understand that career progression/skill acquisition/performance levels – call it what you will – isn’t a linear process either. There will be those that peak at 17/18 years of age, those that peak at 25/26 and those that peak at 29/30 years of age. The perfect example of this is Gareth Batty’s inclusion in the England squad for the tour of Bangladesh at the age of 38, having played a handful of test matches in his preceding years.
Secondly, not all young players relish being analysed and held account for their performances at a young age. Without naming names, there was one player who was playing county 2nd XI cricket (alongside professional players) who turned up to a regional age group tournament (the best 13 players from the North, London & the East, South & West, and the Midlands play each other in a round-robin format before the top two teams contest a final). I don’t need to say any more than ‘this lad can play’. However, in front of England coaches, selectors, and cameras he failed to live up to the hype. This isn’t unusual, and some Premier League footballers are accused of “going missing” when the TV cameras turn up or vice-versa. Others performed to a higher level than expect, while others wanted to know as much as possible, and after showing them how to review their own (and their peers) performance they come and bug you until a break in play to see how they performed.
Part of my remit was to report back to coaches about who had engaged, and who hadn’t. This is because the ECB wants to create self-sufficient athletes, athletes who are willing to engage in critical analysis of themselves, their teammates, and their opponents. On the field, you have to make decisions that will decide the outcome of the game. For batsmen, do you use your feet to this spinner, where is your boundary coming from this over, should I target this scoring area or that scoring area? For bowlers, how am I going to get the batsman out, which delivery am I setting you up for, where should I have my fielders, have climatic conditions changed enough for me to change my approach? All of these are conscious decisions in cricket, the time you have between deliveries to think about your approach is a vital aspect of the game and those who show themselves to be good critical thinkers capable of rationalising their decisions will be hugely valuable as their career progresses.
Thirdly, the world is doomed. Doomed I tell you. This is why: some players went out to bat and played outrageously good, incredibly inventive, shots will the sole purpose of filming themselves playing the shot on their phone from the analysis footage and uploading it to Instagram or some other social network. They genuinely changed how they played the game to make sure they had something to post online and show off with. We’re doomed.
Overall, consulting with the ECB has been great. While I had experience of working with professional cricket players before it was a whole new challenge when it came to working with young players. It’s something I am very proud of, and I hope to be involved for a long time to come. Hopefully some of the players I interacted with will go on to have long and fruitful domestic and international careers.
But life hasn’t stopped there. I have recently started working with the Gibraltar Football Association as Head of Performance Analysis. Gibraltar is a dependency of Great Britain but competes in UEFA and FIFA competitions in its own right. The opportunity came about when I was away with the ECB, and I returned from Loughborough late on a Saturday night and got a flight to Portugal on the Sunday morning. I hadn’t stepped foot in Gibraltar and I was Head of Performance Analysis…
*For context, Gibraltar play their fixtures at Estadio Algarve, in Portugal. The only football pitch in Gibraltar is used by every Gibraltarian school and football team. UEFA and FIFA have said the stadium is not up to international standards.*
I landed and we got straight into our work – the upcoming fixtures? Portugal in Porto (their first international fixture since winning the European Championships), and Gibraltar’s historic first ever World Cup Qualifier against Greece. In four days I had to analyse Portugal’s tendencies in and out of possession, their attacking set-pieces, and how they defend set-pieces. Not only this, I had to film and analyse morning and evening training sessions as well as prep for Greece.
In Porto I met the Swiss FA’s Opposition Analyst who introduced himself – Kevin was his name – and we had a chat about all things performance analysis, what I was expected to do with Gibraltar and what he did with Switzerland. When he realised Gibraltar had an analyst, and GPS units, he was utterly shocked. He’d come across national teams who didn’t have an analyst, didn’t have GPS units, and certainly weren’t approaching international football as professionally as Gibraltar. I had to admit that it is still in its early stages, and I’ll need to help the coaches and players understand where my work can help (and where it can’t), and why it’s important. On the whole, the players enjoyed being held accountable – the video sessions we had were received well and nobody had a problem with accepting responsibility for short comings. I was delighted they saw it that way (especially after my experiences with the young cricketers), and it was refreshing to see.
I can, however, safely say I worked a lot of hours every day, although the day after the Portugal game was a nightmare. The match finished 5-0 to Portugal and it took a long time to get back to the hotel, which was only 200m away (safety guidance and protocols impacted this), we returned to the hotel and had dinner. After dinner I sat in my hotel room and analysed the match in as much detail as possible, and prepared to report back to the manager on the short flight from Porto to Faro. At this point I hadn’t slept all night, and fatigue was setting in. Adhering to flight safety protocol, I put my laptop away for take-off and promptly grabbed a quick 10 minutes of sleep. I then woke up, and started talking to Jeff (the manager) about the game the night before using the video and analysis to frame my points. At times it wasn’t pretty viewing.
This ad-hoc meeting went well and we had a coherent plan for how the post-match meeting would run. I stepped off the aeroplane in the Algarve, greeted by 40-degree heat, and stepped on the bus for the trip back to the hotel – during this time I busily analysed more of Greece’s match footage. Once back at the hotel I dropped off some of the equipment in my room and moved into the lobby to continue working, stopped for the team lunch before finishing off my work in the afternoon. Rather than sleep, and risk being awake all night, I relaxed in the pool for an hour before eating dinner with the team and then having the team meeting. All told, I’d managed 10 minutes sleep in 37/38 hours and I slept incredibly well that night.
To those of you not in the Performance Analysis industry, this is not uncommon. There are much worse stories than mine, but I wanted to share it because it’s one of the reasons backroom staff’s have increased in size at the top end of the modern game – people aren’t willing to work crazy hours for low pay, so clubs arm themselves with opposition analysts, recruitment analysts, goalkeeping analysts, and match analysts (as well as analytics staff). When people complain about expanding staff numbers, and the old “there’s more staff than players” line gets trotted out, have some sympathy – it’s not as simple as it looks!