Wednesday 30 January 2013

Warne's manifesto and the managerial dream

If you ignore the grammar, 90s nostalgia and traffic-driving promotion in the Shane Warne manifesto, there is actually some wisdom in what he writes. Over the last 20 years cricket's drive for “professionalism” has merged consultants of the business world with coaches from the sporting world, and left a game dominated by the ideals of management.

Australia may have been Warne's target but all countries are caught up in the trend. Dressing rooms now strive to be “businesslike” which seems to entail employing an army of technocrats to help control and prepare players. Alongside the head coach, there are specialists for each cricket skill, statistical analysts, fitness bods and self-help gurus.

Undoubtedly some coaches provide essential help. Matt Prior, for example, readily credits his improved wicketkeeping to the work he's done with Bruce French. But the infiltration of corporate ideals into the running of cricket teams has also had more questionable effects.

South Africa, for example, employ Paddy Upton as a "performance director". In his own words, Upton's brief is to help cricketers move “out of the shadows of the ego and into the light of awareness.” It isn't just the appointments that seem spurious. Business lexicon has also infected the way people discuss the game. “Informed player management” is an especially jarring example, but obfuscating corporate speak is a staple of most press conferences.

It is difficult to question the abundance of managers without sounding like a Boycottian luddite. The professionalism of Kerry Packer and World Series Cricket forced a focus among some players who had previously lacked it. Now, with the financial stakes raised further still, perhaps it is inevitable that teams should seek other avenues of improvement.

Yet it is debatable whether the management drive has really achieved success. In the corporate world, the only industry that management consultants have really transformed is their own. Similarly in men's cricket at least, it is difficult to claim that anything other than fielding has really revolutionised.

Injuries, especially among pacemen, seem as frequent as ever, and for all the praise Nathan Leamon gets, statistical wizardry has not dramatically altered team strategy. Instead, professionalism's most telling effect has been to deepen the layers of management into the game.

Cricketers can expect their food, drink, sleep, hobbies, and public interactions to be carefully surveyed and controlled. In England, cricketers are hauled out of adolescence and brought into "the setup" so that they too can familiarise themselves with what is expected of a "professional".

In some senses this is a good thing. Joe Root is a perfect ECB specimen having played age-group cricket with England since Under-16s and been part of their Lions and Academy setups. At 22 he has had experience of conditions from all around the world which has left him well prepared to join the international fold.

These cricketing skills are the first level of management input. The second is the moneyball-style numbers analysis. The final is the kind of personality management Upton deals in. Though covering different areas, these are all part of management science's broad aim: shifting focus from outcome to process with the underlying belief that success is a simple matter of the correct planning.

Jeremy Snape, once an England limited-over offspinner, is now a consultant business and sport psychologist. He writes that “to deliver our goals of wickets or runs we will need to have divisional goals for fitness, concentration and technical skills. These become our daily focus, not the gold medal.” Who could argue with that? It is not without reason you have cliches about playing each ball on its merits and take each day as it comes.

But the obsession with planning has created an entire industry to support the idea. Statisticians devise metrics that hold cricketers accountable to process, and sports psychologists design formulas to help them “stay in the moment”.

Management science began in army barracks before expanding to factories and boardrooms. It is, at base, less about performance than it is about control. You needn't have watched The Wire to recognise the feeling that sometimes work seems more about following the right protocol than doing the right job.

The belief that there exists a process to control every outcome implies that egotists like Kevin Pietersen or worriers like Morne Morkel can be coached into perfect sporting drones; that injury-prone quicks can be conditioned into unbreakable cyborgs. The practice is more tricky. No amount of self-help psychology has solved a riddle like Ravi Bopara, for example.

Cricketers and cricket teams aren't machines. Some will succeed at the highest level and most will not. This human unpredictability may make cricket fascinating but it is at odds with the managerial dream.