To those who’re unfamiliar with the term, the Moneyball strategy is a tactic whereby a statistical analysis determines a bunch of undervalued team members that are usually subjected to oversight by the franchises.
This tactic was innovated by a legendary baseball extraordinaire and coach, Billy Beane. This strategy was originally intended to ensure financial fortification of the team, following the principles of economic efficiency.
The unconventional strategy helped Coach Beane gain an astronomical amount of success. The strategy became so revered that every major team in the Major League Baseball started employing it, making the competition fiercer and the games more of a spectacle.
Cricket had been a fairly straight forward sport for a long time, right up till the T20 leagues started happening and changed everything. This implied that the franchise with the most resources would pick the best players from across the globe, leaving others without a fighting chance.
But this new trend also opened up the gateway to new opportunities. In the recent development, it was discovered that ‘Islamabad United’, a franchise in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), had been working with the aforementioned ‘Moneyball strategy’ which has done wonders for the team.
People have been buzzing about Islamabad United’s success lately, and so, ProPakistani decided to take a deep dive into the matter. In a conversation with Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi, owner of one of the most successful PSL teams, we asked the following questions to have a better understanding of the unorthodox move adapted by the franchise:
Was the ‘moneyball’ strategy a continuation of the legendary Baseball coach, Billy Beane?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: While the idea of using data in sports to make policy decisions was first relied on by Oakland Athletics under Billy Beane, that is also due in part to the natural evolution of the sport. In the two decades since then, we’ve seen those strategies applied elsewhere, from the NFL to European football and basketball.
Even though ‘Moneyball’ was being done in Cricket in general, there was a lack of it in Pakistan Cricket. We’ve always believed in the virtue of data and its importance in every sphere of life, so it was natural that we applied ‘Moneyball’ once we bought Islamabad United.
How does it work? What metrics are used to decide on players?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: I won’t talk about the specifics as every data analysis team has its own methodology, but in general one looks at past performance, the conditions on the ground, and predictive models.
Ian Bell was a fascinating pick as was Phil Salt. Was this due to the analytical strategy? What about Luke Ronchi?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: With Ronchi, his numbers were overwhelming. Even if he hadn’t been a great international player, his numbers showed that his peak was late in his career. In the case of Ian Bell, similarly, he really expanded his game in his 30s. It was just unfortunate that in his only season with us he got injured in his first game.
Mohammad Sami’s career was rejuvenated by Islamabad United. What was the thought process?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: As with the guys I mentioned before, Sami’s domestic numbers showed a very different player to what his perception in Pakistan was at the time (end 2015). So again, we believed in hard facts over biases and he really delivered for us.
How does Islamabad United see the PSL progressing? How does the analytical approach tie into long term continuity?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: I think the next challenge for us, as we saw in PSL-5, is to wrestle with the fact that what worked in the UAE may not necessarily work in Pakistan. We struggled in PSL-5 with that transition. So our next logical goal is to make us as successful in Pakistan as we were in the PSL seasons before. And to be able to diagnose and evolve from that we have to rely on our numbers and see where we can find advantages.
Do you guys feel the future of cricket is analytical? Or is an eye test equally as important?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: I don’t think it matters what we feel or not, the reality is in front of us. We’ve seen both franchise and national teams realize the importance of analytics in the past five years. Now when the Ashes takes place you see both teams talk about their reliance on data, as was the case with many teams in last year’s world cup. Analytics are the future.
Of course, you can’t ignore the eye test or the culture of the dressing room. Those two facets are as important as analytics. But too often in Pakistan Cricket, we put the eye test way above data. We want equity between these variables.
What role does the team coach play in this strategy? Does he have an active role in the player selection or is it based primarily on data?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: The recommendations of the coach and the captain are taken into consideration, but the squad selection comes down more to models. Once the tournament starts, though, then the coach’s and captain’s roles go up. Once you have the resources in place then getting the best out of them requires a different role than the acquisition of those resources.
Who is the mastermind behind this approach? What technology is used to aid the process?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: It’s no one person in particular but rather a team approach. We have a team led by Hassan and Rehan, in coordination with global data companies. This combined committee develops the analytical strategy and makes these decisions.
Do other franchise clubs internationally use this approach? How does ISLU’s technology stack up to the competition?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: A number of IPL teams that rely heavily on data. It’s also used by teams in the Big Bash and the Blast in England. The number of T20 leagues around the world, and the amount of finances poured into them, means that efficiency and maximizing of resources have become priorities. We saw other teams within PSL follow our formula this year. So, we’re happy that this is becoming the norm in Pakistan Cricket too.
Could the PCB adopt this strategy to help with International cricket as well? If so, how?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: That’s a decision for the PCB to make, but I think you just have to look at the Big Three of Cricket to see how they operate. We, as a nation, need to adopt the best international practices to evolve, whether that is in Cricket or elsewhere.
How much money have you saved using this approach?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: I think it is not about saving money (player spend PSL is predetermined) but rather about getting a ‘higher return’ from the same investments. Our two titles show that the ‘return’ on our strategy has been very high.
Islamabad United has been making major changes to management during the past couple of years. Waqar Younis was brought in last year, but he was let go along with Head Coach Dean Jones, and Misbah was brought despite controversies surrounding him. What’s the thought process behind these major changes?
Mr. Ali Raza Naqvi: Originally we had an Aussie heavy coaching team and they helped build a strong team culture. With the league permanently moving back to Pakistan, we wanted to shift towards promoting from within and putting people in positions of responsibility that have more knowledge of local conditions and grounds.
The strategy has been mentioned in high regard the world over by the sports enthusiasts and is being dubbed one of the finest successful case studies for the businesses to study. PSL has been a fantastic initiative on many fronts for Pakistan, doing well not only for the economy, but also for offering great exposure to the positive, hospitable and enterprising side of our country.