Zimbabwean tobacco growers and merchants inspect tobacco at the start of the annual selling season in Harare, 2010. Photo: Getty
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My tobacco of choice is “rich and mature” – which is more than you can say about me

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

I like to think that it takes a lot to unsettle me but actually that’s rubbish: it takes very little to turn my world upside down. The other month, I wheezed up to the counter of the local fags-and-mags shop for my twice-weekly packet of Cutters Choice, the roll-up tobacco smoked by connoisseurs.

There’s something different about its packaging, I thought as I took it. I discovered what it was soon enough: it had been wrapped in an extra layer of plastic. This plastic was in the familiar design but beneath it – the tobacco packet proper, as it were – was an entirely new one, depicting a field of tobacco plants in rows (or, more strictly speaking, files) and behind them a row of misty hills. A bit shit, in other words, qua design but a) it was nice of the company to prepare its customers for the redesign by phasing it in like that; and b) it was still the same stuff inside.

This is important. One afternoon, about a decade ago, when I’d decided that Cutters Choice was the stuff for me, I rang the customer services number on the packet. “I have a question,” I said. “Why is your tobacco so good?”

I hasten to add that I was completely sober but I was also completely bored. The person on the other end, who had clearly not been expecting this question, shunted me around a few departments until someone said something about the moisturising agents in the tobacco, or some such, and I thanked him and hung up, hardly able to believe I had done what I had just done.

Anyway, boredom and smoking going together like cheese and crackers, I found myself scrutinising the new packet at some length. I noticed that the blend was established in 1856, almost exactly 140 years before I had ever heard of it; that it is “rounded”, whatever that means; and that this is the brand’s “smooth blend”. This, like the “fresh” in “fresh-cut sandwiches”, is entirely phatic, given that one has yet to see a tobacco company describe its product as rough or jagged, although I have smoked some Kenyan cigarettes that felt as though someone had thrown a lighted firecracker into my lungs.

There’s a lot more text now, perhaps to forestall the kind of inquiry I made that wasted half an hour of the company’s time ten years ago. Before we open the pack, we are invited: “If you would like to share your perfect rolling experience with us, email us at . . .”

Hmm. I am trying to imagine my perfect rolling experience. I suppose high on the list would be one in which the paper doesn’t tear and the tobacco doesn’t conceal knots and tangles that make smoking the damn thing like trying to suck a marble through a straw; and, taking the longer view, one that doesn’t give you cancer, emphysema or heart disease.

Opening the pack, you see more guff about “what makes the perfect roll” and the misty hills now have three shadowy figures in the front, none of them apparently smoking or rolling. “Is it the anticipation, the mood, or the moment shared?” Search me, squire. We learn that the tobacco is grown in Zimbabwe and there is a diagram like something out of The Day Today, telling us the tobacco is, among other things, “rich and mature”, which, I reflect, is more than I am.

It is while I chuckle about this – the wheezy, gurgling chuckle of the smoker – that I remember something I noticed on the back and check it again. There’s a box just above the “UK duty paid” rubric, echoing it in shape, but empty. And above that, the words “This pack belongs to” – and then, as if to scramble our minds completely, in small capitals, “for adult use only”.

At which point I find myself utterly discomfited. For what use only? The packet, you see, recalls in its dimensions the last thing I saw with a space declaring “This belongs to” – a schoolchild’s pencil case. For a dizzy moment, I imagine myself writing, tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth in concentration, “NICK L” in Biro in this box, defending it from school bullies in break or in the dinner queue. “Look. It says here. It’s MINE. In MY WRITING. Get your own.”

The manufacturers may be many things but they are not fools, so if they’ve accepted the advice of a marketing guru to do this, who am I to say they shouldn’t have? There’s only one fool here and that, dear reader, is me. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times