None of us take all that much notice of cover-blurb, eh? No matter who writes it?
Oh. Okay, maybe we do – otherwise publishers wouldn’t be sticking it on there – but you know whattamean? Schmaltzy and patently untrue at worst, supportive half-truths more generally.
So when I saw ‘clever and original, but also wise’ (ED SMITH, in bold, red capitals) it barely registered. Now, I could save you all the bother of reading the following missive by just saying again that ‘Hitting Against the Spin’, by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones, is clever and original but also wise… because it really is. Job done. Next?
Next is trying to say something more; something about reservations somewhat assuaged, ribs dug, minds re-opened, inclinations towards lurv, instinct, ‘humanity’ intelligently checked. This book is very skilled at lots of stuff but maybe particularly at making convincing arguments against assumptions. And not all of these arguments are slam-dunks of the Incontrovertible Fact variety. (As someone likely to remain on the David Byrne – “facts are useless in emergencies” – side of history, here, this feels important). One of the great strengths of this book is that it’s not adversarial. It’s too generous, as well as too clever, for that.
I am not an artsy clown but if the question is art or science then I go arts; every time. And as a coach I think of what I do (yup, even at my daft wee level) as driven more by reading the human than reading the trends/stats/’info’, or even, often, the manual for a specific skill. Appreciating what feels right (and saying something appropriate) can be every bit as key as factoring in a mountain of brilliant information. This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t completely accept that (especially at the elite end of the market) stats and analysis aren’t BIG. They are and I have no beef with them getting bigger, in the sense of providing coaches and players with important points of reference. But *in the moment*, confidence and relationships are and will remain AT LEAST AS BIG. And *the environment*, the Team Humour is BIG, too.
Leamon and Jones, whilst repeatedly skilfully shredding received wisdoms around many things, respect the space of the coach and the capacity of what I’m gonna call teaminess to influence, positively – or otherwise. They also deconstruct cuddly but deeply flawed assumptions around (for example) bowling full, whilst appreciating and indeed positing context – ie. venue/bowler/batter/conditions – into the statistical judgement. It is not, therefore, adversarial. It’s persuasive. It’s fair. Again, I congratulate these two gents on that. I, for one, being a softie and a sucker for the poetry in any game, might have been driven further towards romantic delusion should this book have chosen to shout certainties. Hitting Against the Spin is too wise for that.
So (even) I looked hard at the graphs and diagrams. Even I, with my ver-ry limited interest in the IPL and the BBL worked to pick up the inferences from games and leagues that honestly don’t matter much to me. Why? Because the book earns that kind of respect – because it’s good that my/our(?) well-meaning but maybe dumb tribalism be challenged and educated. Because obviously stuff that happens in India/Aus/Pakistan can be both bloody fascinating and revealing of wider themes: we don’t have to be personally invested to be interested, entertained, schooled. (Not unrelated note: the subtitle for this book is ‘How Cricket Really Works’. This is not hollow bluster; the authors’ worldly experience is compellingly instructive around a range of strategies, from short-format drafts, to bowling options).
Go read this book. Maybe particularly if you have concerns about ‘analysis’. Stats and the intuition or brilliance or understanding or generosity or soulfulness (goddammit) of real people are not mutually exclusive. Coaches can and will still change the universe by putting an arm round. Genius will still find a way to thrill and confound us, because though ‘the numbers are there’, events may gloriously subvert them. Data may indeed, as the book says, “democratise truth”, but life and sport will always be wonderfully, stirringly anarchic. Thank god.