In the Critics this week

Ed Smith on Shane Warne, Orhan Pamuk interviewed and Helen Lewis on video games.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.” Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs. “In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in ‘civilian’ life becomes ever more elusive… All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, about his latest novel to be translated into English, Silent House. The book was originally published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. “There was some nostalgia in revisiting it,” Pamuk says. “I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.” The novel is written in the first person. “I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular,” Pamuk tells Derbyshire. “The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.”

Also in Books: leading American critic Adam Kirsch writes about a new edition of Paul Goodman’s Sixties countercultural classic Growing Up Absurd (“This long essay or tract,” Kirsch writes, “was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake”); Stephen Smith, culture correspondent of the BBC's Newsnight, reviews Danny Baker’s biography, Going to Sea in a Sieve (“In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse …”); Olivia Laing reviews Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Simon Heffer reviews Jonathan Dimbleby’s book about the North African campaign in the Second World War (“Was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was.”); the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson examines Dear Life, the latest collection from the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro; and Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, reviews Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, Anthony Clavane’s history of Jewish involvement in English football.

This week’s Critic at large is NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, who surveys the state of video games journalism. “There’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre,” Lewis writes. “Perhaps [the] revolution in games criticism will never happen.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Thomas Calvocoressi visits three photography exhibitions in London – Seduced by Art at the National Gallery, and Tate Modern’s parallel retrospectives of William Klein and Daido Moriyama; Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour; Yo Zushi writes about Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse; Rachel Cooke watches the BBC interrogate itself over the Newsnight imbroglio; and Antonia Quirke finds consolation in the ghost stories of E Nesbit on Radio 4 Extra.

PLUS: “Pavlopetri”, a poem by Olivia Byard and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in September 2009 (Photograph: Getty Images)
OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism