If Nathan Leamon, the English whiteball analyst, were to build a cricketer with limited overs from scratch, he would go for a wrist spinner for the left arm.
This isn’t a hunch: it’s the product of the data he collects in a sport that he believes is on the cusp of a statistical revolution.
The logic, backed up by the numbers, is simple enough. Wrist spinners cause the cue ball to deflect more and more regularly than any other type of bowler. They can spin it either way, so batsmen should be wary. And if the wrist spinner is a left armer, there is a scarcity.
Analyst Nathan Leamon predicts statistics will become increasingly important in cricket in
“It’s hard to find them, so most of the left arm rotation you face as a professional batsman is in match conditions,” Leamon tells Sportsmail. “You don’t have time to figure things out.”
In Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works, together with CricViz analyst Ben Jones, Leamon finds a nice distillation. Wrist spinners, he writes, “take more wickets than fast bowlers and concede fewer limits than finger spinners.” Again, it’s all in the data.
Not long after joining the English club in 2009, Leamon was nicknamed ‘Numbers’. And this book is full of it.
“You couldn’t have written it ten years ago because it’s based on data that we didn’t have then,” he says. “So it was the chance to do something completely new.
“The sport is almost splitting in two. You have a traditional half who thinks that test cricket is king, and who loves the sport for its romance and history. Then you have the other half, who think the T20 is king, and who are forward-looking and innovative.
Leamon says the sport is split between those who prefer Test cricket and those who prefer T20
“I suspect we are at the beginning of a data wave that will be powerful in certain areas of the sport.”
English cricket’s relationship with statistics has not always been smooth. When England were knocked out of the 2015 World Cup, coach Peter Moores called for ridicule for apparently suggesting that he would ‘look at the data’.
In fact, he said ‘check it out later’, but the truth was already halfway through the internet: England failed because of a geeky over-reliance on numbers at the expense of common sense.
Still, no one complained when Leamon’s analysis of a rule change after that tournament helped change England’s approach to one-day percussion. By allowing an extra fielder—five instead of four—outside the inner ring for the last 10 overs, the ICC made it harder for teams to accelerate on death.
Leamon’s response, based on “complex, mathematical models of games played under the new rules,” was to suggest that the batting team spread their risk over an innings. Under Eoin Morgan, this essentially meant hell for leather for 50 overs. A philosophy was born; four years later, England won their first one-day World Cup.
Leamon’s analysis of a rule change helped England win the 2019 Cricket World Cup
Not that Lemon takes the credit. “The game is decided by batsmen and bowlers,” he says. “Analysis doesn’t tell you what to do. It only makes the invisible visible.’ That may be why some felt uncomfortable when he held up coded cards at a T20 international in Cape Town in December to help Morgan make decisions – although this was approved with the match referee.
Leamon believes the outcry was contrived, although it also said something about cricket’s continued mistrust of data. “There is no rule against imports from outside the border,” he says. “We had a system that Morgs wanted to work with. I’ve done it in twenty games, but it only happened once – ironically as we walked through the houses.’
England went 50 overs for leather under Eoin Morgan and were eventually rewarded
What does Leamon consider to be cricket’s biggest myth, based on a career of number-crunching? “They are all perfectly logical, correct representations of red ball cricket, and to a lesser extent of over-50s cricket, which people carry with them into T20,” he says.
‘And they forget to check if they still apply. People are still clapping in the 1950s. They still value the total, rather than the impact on the game.
“An example I like is the guy who, every time he walks to the crease, hits three sixes and pulls out the fourth ball. So his highest score is 18, his average is 18, and he’s the most valuable T20 cricketer in the world because he adds 10 extra runs to your total (on average).’
In a game of received wisdom, teams looking to embrace the counter-intuitive can increasingly have an edge.