Those who follow Indian cricket closely will remember how an out of form Mahendra Singh Dhoni promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the 2011 World Cup final and conquered Sri Lanka. The skipper revealed later how he had asked coach Gary Kirsten if could go instead of the in-form left-hander, to counter Muttiah Muralitharan and Suraj Randiv. We also know Kirsten said yes. But when Dhoni asked the question, was it just instinct that prompted the South African to say what he did? Probably not.
What guided the coach is this: Kirsten had been watching data and videos provided by the team’s data analyst and analysed the strengths of the off-spinners. He saw Dhoni could keep the scoreboard ticking without taking risks and that Yuvraj had a problem against spin, especially off-spinners. So he decided Dhoni it should be. Well, this is hypothetical. But one can’t rule out the theory altogether. Yuvraj struggles against spin and Dhoni has an edge over Muralitharan. Who supplies this data and helps develop theories based on facts?
Sometimes, when the TV camera catches the dressing room, this guy can be seen on a laptop. Is his face familiar? No. You probably overlooked him or didn’t realise what he does. They are data analysts or performance analysts. They do this less glamourous job of providing the coach, players the data in footage and other forms. What they provide can be called ‘structural’ or ‘non-structural’. It could be a video or a heat map or a graph or a pitch map or a hawkeye or a wagon wheel or what have become fashion terms, “strong zone” or “weak area.” The data they provide can be based on players of teams they work with and of the opponents.
CKM Dhananjai, or DJ as he is fondly called, was India’s data analyst when the team defeated Sri Lanka four years ago on the night of April 2. Dhananjai, who has been part of the team since the World T20 in 2007, explains his role to Express.
“A data analyst is someone who adds value to the side through data and passes information and statistics to the coaches so that they can take care of the technical aspects. The job is basically to plan for the opposition and also our players before a series starts. We keep monitoring the players, what they do in the match, at the nets, record them and provide the data,” Dhananjai said.
From outside, it may seem as if one person is doing the recording and keeping track of all these. Actually, there is a team for it. While Dhananjai is seated at the Wankhede, it’s not just him providing all the data that the coach and players ask for. There is a team to help Dhananjai, who co-ordinates with the team, and then passed on the data. “A lot of work goes into this. Lots of our people (Sports Mechanics is the firm that manages this for the Indian team and Dhananjai works for them) are keeping the data and all those is turned into intelligence. This is passed to players, coaches. Ideas without execution is nothing. We try to help players the way we can and it helps them in preparing, to measure their execution,” Dhananjai explained.
How does such data reach players? First, there is a dashboard for each player and he just needs to log in to find out what he requires. Say Ravichandran Ashwin wants to find out where he needs to bowl to Steven Smith. All he has to do is log on and get data on the areas where off-spinners have bowled to him and where he has scored most of his runs. Also, what the weak points are of the said batsman.
“Assume Umesh Yadav wants to bowl 80 per cent of his deliveries to Smith on a fuller length because he has limited foot work. We give him the pitch map and areas that has troubled him in the past and how many runs he has scored from a fuller length. We give them data so that they can execute the plan. We are just passing it on, the decision is with the player and coach. This data isn’t confined to old matches. When a match is on, the coach might walk up to us and ask how many slower balls have they used and in what scenarios. When we get them, the coach can pass it on to the next batsman, how to go about the business. Mind you, we also keep record of what the players are eating and the time they eat” he added.
Dhananjai last travelled with Team India for the World T20 in Bangladesh last year. Since then, Sandeep Raj has taken over. Dhananjai still helps the team from Chennai and is gearing up for the upcoming World Cup.
“Last time when it happened, we had a masterplan drawn by Gary. It was a superb experience to win two World Cups and this time, Sandeep will be with the team. Our work has started. We have caught up with the planning staff. We have recorded data from all matches in the last two years and will hand them to the team. Like players, we are also preparing.”
Characteristic to the job he does, Dhananjai signed off with these humble words, “Ninety-nine per cent of the hard work is put in by players. It’s just that one per cent that we handle.”