In search of cricket on the BBC: shall I rend my garments now, or later?

Howzat! Kerry Packer's War and Horizon: the Truth About Personality.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War;
Horizon: the Truth About Personality
BBC4; BBC2

This column is about misery and happiness. First, the misery. I don’t have Sky and the Ashes series has now begun. Putting aside the glory that is Test Match Special – if you want my opinion, that programme is to the BBC what the ravens are to the Tower of London – when it comes to television, I am going to have to make do with a daily hour of sweaty old Mark Nicholas on Channel 5. So, tell me: shall I rend my garments now or later?

All the BBC appears to have on offer, cricket-wise, is Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (8 and 15 July, 9pm), a somewhat dusty twopart Australian series about Packer’s battle to establish World Series Cricket, starring Lachy Hulme as the somewhat pugnacious media mogul. (The story goes – and I’ve no reason to disbelieve it – that when Packer first asked the Australian Cricket Board if he could buy the rights to televise the sport, his opening gambit was: “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”)

Is it any good? It’s not bad – though it’s unlikely to be the ratings hit here that it was in Oz. Howzat! is strictly one for the nerds, because half of the fun of any biopic lies in goggling at all the remarkable lookalikes and if you don’t know that Mike Procter, the South African fast bowler, resembled a podgy choirboy and that John Snow, the “Abominable Snowman” of Sussex and England, had the hair of a Romantic poet, you will miss out on this particular pleasure.

You probably remember Packer’s charming visage but if for some reason you don’t, all I can say is: picture a really spiteful porpoise in a Brylcreem-ed wig and you’re close. Hulme, who puts in a truly fantastic performance in this series, looks just like him – and you might want to watch him for ten minutes, even if cricket bores you to sobs.

Now for the happiness, which comes via Michael Mosley, the man who brought us the bestseller The Fast Diet, and his latest, potentially life-changing Horizon programme (10 July, 9pm). This time, his film was about personality and how we might adjust it, the better to increase our happiness and health (optimists apparently live up to seven years longer than the rest of us). Mosley claimed to be a catastrophist at heart, always expecting the worst, and the scientists he met agreed with him (though, if you ask me, starving yourself for two days of every week is unlikely to improve anyone’s mood).

Apparently, his “baseline arousal” is higher than many people’s, which sounds saucy but in reality just means that he is prone to anxiety and stress. What to do about this state of affairs? Eschewing what I call “cognitive chocolate modification” – in essence, scoff a bag of Minstrels and you’ll feel much better – Mosley instead plumped for cognitive bias modification (CBM), with a little mindfulness meditation on the side. The CBM involved him clicking his computer mouse on a happy face among a sea of cross faces for ten minutes every day; the meditation required him to close his eyes and breathe deeply. And what do you know? Seven weeks later, he was a good deal cheerier.

If you missed Mosley’s documentary, I recommend you watch it: he is a natural communicator and the science surrounding happiness is interesting, even if one can’t help but fear how some of the latest discoveries might be used against women. (To sum up: baby rats who are not licked often enough by their mothers tend to be more sickly and dysfunctional than some other rodents . . . You can see where this is leading.) But if you want a much less tedious and time-consuming means of improving your mood – I speak from experience, for I, too, am a catastrophist – then why not try the old trick of counting your blessings?

Seriously. At the end of every day, I write down three good things that have happened. Sometimes, I have something quite big to put on the list: some praise from an editor, say, or a wonderful new commission. And sometimes, it’s something small: a delicious cup of coffee I drank, the sun coming out during my walk from the Tube. Either way, it works. It’s almost as cheering as the teatime chunter of the Test Match Special commentary team – the quotidian stuff of life becoming, once you take the trouble to notice it, a weird kind of epiphany.

Field of dreams: Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer (right). Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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