In the third T20I between England and South Africa last week, England's analyst Nathan Leamon trialled a signal system for communicating with players, by propping up pairs of placards bearing a letter and a number each on the balcony. It was done, England explained afterwards, with permission from match officials but almost immediately, a broader question arose. Does this kind of real-time support from the coaching staff represent an evolution, or does it constitute too much tinkering with the game?
Cape Town wasn't the first instance (England actually used it through the series). Earlier this year Leamon and his team at the Multan Sultans used a similar signal strategy. More controversially, during the 1999 World Cup, Bob Woolmer communicated with Hansie Cronje on-field through an earpiece.
Information has traditionally been passed from coaches to players on the field during designated drinks breaks, strategic time outs, or when bats or gloves are sent out to the field. In some cases, the 12th man or the coach talk to the captain boundary side. All of that still happens but what England did could spark a change in how this is done, eventually bringing it up to the level of such sports as the NFL or the NBA. Of course, one of the fundamental differences between those sports and cricket is that the manager or coach are the primary decision-makers there, while in cricket the captain is. As a result, historically, the involvement of coaches and support staff in real-time decision making has been limited in cricket.
Cricket has predominantly been played out on skills and technique. But T20 has allowed data-based strategy and tactics to come to the forefront. For example, data-based decisions can lead to your weakest bowler bowling the first over of an innings, knowing that the particular opening batsman up against them takes some time to settle; or not sending out your best batsman in his usual position because he has a below-par average against legspin. You would never see this happen in the longer format.
Thanks to franchise cricket around the world, there is also a greater amount of data to work with in T20, compared to Tests and ODIs, for which teams tour a country once every three or four years - so much can change in that period that it leaves a fair amount of data irrelevant.
Most cricketers have grown up without data, though, so the ability to understand, filter and use it correctly needs time, education and experience. That is why the relationship between the captain and the analyst is crucial. Both need to understand that data-based decisions should not be judged on outcome alone. What data does is help provide logical justification for decision-making, and in many cases validates the instincts of the captain.
The format is still young enough to have teams at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to use of data. At one end you have MS Dhoni and the Chennai Super Kings making the IPL playoffs ten years out of 11 using instincts and experience, and at the other are Rohit Sharma and the Mumbai Indians winning five titles with data underpinning heavy research and meticulous planning. But as the format evolves and grows, it will be important for captains to adapt and remain open to tools and techniques that can give them an advantage over their peers.
At the moment most of the use of data in T20s is to do with match-ups and venue-related information. Neither of these really requires signals from off the field. Venue details are easy to understand, while a captain can easily remember match-ups, since it is just six to seven batsmen to plan for. And anyway, you have time outs and water breaks to send the message across if needed.
However, signals could be useful to remind the captain of plans if bowlers drift away from them. For example, if the strategy is to bowl wide yorkers to Hardik Pandya at the death and the first two balls of an over are short and hit for six, it makes sense for a signal to be sent out immediately to correct course. You might think this is something captain and bowler should be able to do by themselves on the field but you'd be surprised how many still don't orchestrate execution to such a specific degree. Waiting for an over to finish might make it too late. An alphanumeric code grid used to communicate details of line and length can be a simple and powerful way to minimise damage and remind a captain of plans.
Another potential instance where signals could help is to make sure not only that the right field is set, but that the right fielders are in the right positions.
Think about the possibilities that open up if wearable technologies such as RFID chips or smart watches are allowed, which can provide real-time data on performance and movements in the field. Once these technologies trickle in, we could see involvement from specialised coaches and analysts in real time, leading to strategic field changes in the middle of an over. If there are real-time stats tracking player fatigue, informed decisions can be made whether they can continue or be taken out of the attack, if they are a bowler; or whether to hit out and get out, or retire out, if they are a batsman. Potentially, you could change a game as a coach on the back of a finding in real time.
Although there is a lot of noise and interest around data analytics in T20 at the moment, its use is at a nascent stage. Compared to sports like football and basketball, where thousands of data points are collected, cricket is still far behind. The first step towards catching up is to capture as much data as possible: more data on fielding, on tracking player movements through the day, on real-time health parameters, on players' speeds. None of this is collected currently, let alone organised coherently.
Cricket needs more investment, but also regulatory support from the ICC in allowing wearable technologies, or in-stadia cameras to capture relevant data. As data collection evolves and league cricket flourishes, such signals will add new dimensions not only in the aspect of high performance but also for broadcasting and fan engagement. For instance, after an IPL season or a Test series, a team could potentially release recordings of the interactions that the support staff and captain had during the season to fans. We're still far from that, but for now England have started something. It is only a matter of time before others get better at it.