Cricket selection | Putting the human back in the machine
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Cricket literature is rich in the specific crafts of the game: batting, bowling, captaincy, wicket-keeping. It is not so well-served in a crucial aspect: team selection.

February 22, 2023 12:30 am | Updated February 23, 2023 09:57 am IST

India’s K.L. Rahul and Shubman Gill at a practice session for Team India during the Test series against Australia. Selectors are wondering what to do with the talented and in-form Gill or the talented and out-of-form Rahul

India’s K.L. Rahul and Shubman Gill at a practice session for Team India during the Test series against Australia. Selectors are wondering what to do with the talented and in-form Gill or the talented and out-of-form Rahul | Photo Credit: AFP

Selectors have been in the news of late, which may not be ideal. Actually, they should neither be seen nor heard; or perhaps just seen at matches so we know they are doing their job.

Australia came to India for the current series carrying injured players who were unlikely to play the first couple of Tests, and India have already retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. India, meanwhile, are wondering what to do with the talented and in-form Shubman Gill or indeed the talented and out-of-form K.L. Rahul.

And then there is the Chetan Sharma fiasco. The chairman of selectors has resigned over his remarks on senior players. It was foolish, whatever trickery was used to get him to lower his guard and shoot his mouth off. Can someone with such poor judgement choose a national team?

Cricket literature is rich in the specific crafts of the game: batting, bowling, captaincy, wicket-keeping. It is not so well-served in a crucial aspect: team selection. Which is why former England selector Ed Smith’s Making Decisions: Putting the human back in the machine is a welcome addition to the library. Some of it is plain common sense, as when Smith quotes a director of a football club saying, “You need to spot talent that whispers, not just talent that shouts.”

Some of it comes from Smith’s three years as England selector and his philosophy of selection. Smith, a former England player still in his forties, has written some of the more interesting books on sport; his references here are wide-ranging, from the philosopher Emerson to Daniel Kahnemann the behavioural economist.

Maximise the output

“The point of selection,” he says, “is to maximise the output of the whole, not just to promote, employ or select ‘deserving’ individuals.” Does that solve the Rahul versus Gill problem? It may or may not, but it deals with the question in a practical way. That is the strength of the book — the questions are as important as the answers, especially when the answers are not written in stone; nothing to do with human judgement or instinct is.

There is data on every player today, and if that were all that mattered, any computer could pick a team; often selectors think that is sufficient, to act as the evangelists of that data. But of course data need interpretation, and that is where the selector comes in, and needs to come in. As Smith says, “The usefulness of data relies on the strength, not the weakness of the human dimension.”

Selectors may be conservative (“If you always wait till you have sufficiently robust data, then the moment of the decision may well have passed. We often have to make do, operating with the double challenge of imperfect information and real-time pressure.”) or radical, rushing in players too early. There are enough successes and failures in both systems.

Five months after making his first class debut for Karnataka, Anil Kumble was playing for India. He was 19, and there could not have been a whole deal of data on him. Yet he finished with over a thousand first class wickets, 619 of them in Tests. Selectors have to back their instincts too, and pick players as much on potential as on performance. And not shy away from what appears like an unconventional selection. This is a point Smith makes, pointing out from his experience that “The more conventional the team selection, the less England win.”

When ideas don’t succeed, they stick in everyone’s memories. But when they succeed, they become self-evident. This is the selector’s lot.

‘Processes’

Selectors are fond of speaking about “processes”, rather like captains are. “For every good process, you also need a good anti-process,” says Smith, describing how a typical selection meeting went in his time. It was important to be disruptive (in ideas, that is), original and imaginative. “What decision would you make if you were the only decision-maker?” he liked to ask to provoke just such a response.

There is often a “bureaucratic inertia”, leading selectors to take the beaten path, to play safe and begin with compromises in mind.

Smith’s is not a perfect system, and he makes no such claims. But it is an approach to selection that expands the possibilities if such inertia is recognised and eliminated. Smith’s left-field choices (Jos Buttler, Adil Rashid, Sam Curran) weren’t plucked out of thin air. How those selections came about is explained in the readable, knowledgeable, detailed style that is associated with Ed Smith’s writing.

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