Hitting Against the Spin Review: 5 Powerful Insights from the Book That Changed My Perspective Towards Cricket

by Aug 10, 2022Article Index, Cricket Movie and Book Reviews0 comments

Hitting Against the Spin Cover, Moneyball Movie Cover, Eoin Morgan Lifting the World Cup Image

Hitting Against the Spin Review Time!

Let’s great straight to it.

Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works Review: Skip It or Read It?

Definitely read this one. If you are a cricket fan who loves stats and number crunching, this is a must read. But even if statistics are not your thing, read Hitting Against the Spin for the stories and a commentary on the evolution of the game.

Ben Jones, an analyst at Cricviz, and Nathan Leamon, England’s analyst with a math degree from Cambridge. put together this revolutionary book. In their own words, “Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball: The Art of the Winning”, book about the data revolution at Oakland A’s. It’s one of the most influential books ever written about sport, and sparked a wave of change that left very few sports in the world untouched.” (316).

Does this book have such an influence?

Only time will tell. Although it is far too early to gauge the impact of Hitting Against the Spin, it will definitely change perspectives. Match-ups and flexible batting orders are already a part of modern day T20 cricket, but this book may offer an insight into other untapped areas of cricket.

Hopefully, this is just a start in data usage & cricket research.

Read It For

The stories, insights, graphics (variety of tables, graphs, & Hawkeye/ball-tracking visualizations), and references. The writers have done an excellent job intertwining themes and anecdotes from Poker, game theory, the Iliad & Odyssey, Ryanair, theoretical physicist—Richard Feynman, rackets (racquetball), tennis, golf, American football, soccer, baseball, and of course, Moneyball (the book & movie).

Don’t Read It For

Traditional Reading. This book is divided in two parts: Mechanics of the Game & T20—Changing the Game. Although each chapter carries themes from earlier references in the book, it is not necessarily to read this book straight through. If you want to read about swing bowling or leg spin, you can directly jump to those chapters. I personally jumped back and forth and was lot more fun that way.

Rating: 4.5/5

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Hitting Against the Spin Cover

Hitting Against the Spin Book Details, Authors, and Where to Purchase?

Release Date: June 10, 2021

Where to Purchase: (Amazon Prime Link)

Title Name: Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works

Publisher Summary: “How valuable is winning the toss? And how should captains use it to their advantage? Why does a cricket ball swing? Why don’t Indians bat left-handed? What is a good length and why? A fascinating whistle-stop tour of modern cricket and sports analytics, bringing cricket firmly into the twenty-first century.

Authors: Nathan Leamon, Ben Jones, with a foreword from Eoin Morgan

Length: 400 pages

Language: English

Publisher: Constable

Chapters:

  • Part One: Mechanics of the Game
    • Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart – How to Win a World Cup
    • Playing Your Natural Game
    • Zen and the Art of Fast Bowling
    • Why Don’t Indians Bat Left-Handed?
    • Sachin’s Helping Hand
    • Oppenheimer and Duality
    • The Cat That Turned into a Fence
    • Why the Ball Swings – A Tale of Two Rivers
    • Hitting Against the Spin – England in India
  • Part Two: T20 – Changing the Game
    • Shortening the Game
    • Leg-spin and the Right to Feel Good
    • Technicolour Cricket
    • Moneyball 2.0
    • The Sultan’s of Spin – Multan Sultans in the PSL

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5 Powerful Insights from Hitting Against the Spin – In Their Own Words

Here are some quotes from the book that changed the way I viewed cricket (along with corresponding page numbers).

*Spoiler Alert Note: The quotes below are directly from the book in case you are planning to read the book first.

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1. Tethered Cats and Chesterton’s Fence

What it is?

1. Tethered Cat

“There are many Tethered Cats in cricket, habitual actions that have outlived the conditions that created them. It is the case in most sports, but cricket seem to be particularly well-resourced in that regard (4).

2. Chesterton’s Fence

“Chesterton used the story to illustrate his principle that you should not be allowed to remove a rule or a tradition unless and until you fully understand the reasons why it was first put in place, and all the effects that its presence has (5).

3. Application to Cricket:

“This is the problem with Tethered Cats. Sometimes, a perfectly reasonable response to current circumstances becomes a habit, then a tradition, then an article of faith that outlives the circumstances that created it. We rarely question what we know to be self-evidently true, particularly when everyone else is doing the same thing. And so, the bias towards batting first seems to have outlived the circumstances that created it by several decades (175).

Context

One of the long-running themes in the book is the dichotomy between ‘Tethered Cats’ and ‘Chesterton’s Fence’ and how they apply to cricket. In a book about data, strategies, and analytics, I found it deeply insightful that several cricketing decisions are still based on tradition without reason. The best discussion about these philosophies is when analyzing why captains still choose to bat first regardless of what the modern data tells them.

Further Reading/Videos: Chesterton’s Fence, Tethered Cat

2. Risk, Game Theory, and Decision Making in Cricket

What Is It?

Game Theory is a branch of mathematics and economics where behavioral strategies impact decision making. This can be best understood by the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Nash Equilibrium (scene from A Beautiful Mind).

Quotes

We are all loss averse, genetically programmed to be, and straying from the accepted path carries a twofold risk, firstly the increased failure rate of the innovation, and secondly the increased criticism and loss of standing that will accompany any failure (72). – Shooting 3 points, running on 4th down, reverse sweep.”

“Indeed, planning for a draft is a fascinating exercise in managing uncertainty.” (353)

“Whenever a batsman plays a defensive shot near the line of the stumps, he is weighing two competing risks – one is that the ball will seam aways from him and he will edge it, the other is that it will nip back into him and he will be bowled or LBW. Without the same threat from LBWs, left-handers are free to set themselves up so as to reduce the risk of edging the ball.” (119).

Context

Sport is a reflection of life and one of the key aspects of life is managing risks. The evolution of cricket has revolved around the idea of risk and decision making. Whether that is the advent of the reverse sweep, mystery bowlers in Sri Lankan cricket, or playing more aggressively in the modern T20 cricket, the team that optimizes the outcome of risk and anticipates the opposition usually has better odds of winning.

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3. The Actual Analysis

So far, we have talked about the philosophical background in Hitting Against the Spin, but the actual analysis is quite brilliant as well. These are just three of the many examples.

Example 1: How Did England Win the 2019 World Cup?

After the 2015 debacle, Nathan Leamon and co were brought in to revolutionize England’s white-ball side. England were able to build a side through extensive analysis—batting strength and run rate, winning record prior to the World Cup, team experience as well as accidental changes—ODI regulations, England’s list A cricketers (like Roy, Buttler) trained in 40-over domestic tournaments. Once the players were picked, they were provided a long rope to play freely and even fail on the odd occasion.

Example 2: Innovation

In the current era, there are several 360-degree players—Suryakumar Yadav, Glenn Maxwell, and AB De Villiers earlier. This sort of play is now an expectation in T20 cricket today. It wasn’t the case when Kevin Pietersen brought out the switch hit against Muttiah Muralitharan. The authors describe the three stages of innovation as follows: Status Quo -> Honing and Perfection -> Competition -> Back to Status Quo.

The circle of life.

Example 3: T20 vs Test Cricket

T20 cricket is really changing how we view cricket. Averages, strike rates, etc. and the level of impact differ from format to format. Hence, the way we analyze cricket and pick players should have different metrics.

“The relative value of runs and wickets changes throughout a T20 match; in a Test match, they largely do not (302)”

4. Evolution of Cricket

What is It?

“Cricket, like much of life, is ever-evolving. The moment one problem is resolved, another emerges (Eoin Morgan xii, Dec 2020)

Examples

“The introduction of DRS was possibly the single most revolutionary moment in the history of Test cricket (166).”

“Swing changes the way the ball moves through the air, and as a result changes the balance of power in the match. The most elusive element of the game, it is also arguably the most important. Without swing, cricket would be a totally different game.” (217).

“The increased success of left-handed batsmen was a direct, unforseen consequence of better umpiring” (363).

Context

The Butterfly Effect dictates that one small change can have an immense impact around the world. In Hitting Against the Spin, there are several instances where a small change in the rules and regulations changed how cricket was played.

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5. Impact of Data and Moneyball in Cricket & Other Sports

Context

One of the key commentaries in the book is about the warnings of data. Statistics and data are only useful if analyzed from an unbiased point of view. If it is used to prove a personal point or win an argument, then it is of no use. The authors also distinguish Simplicity vs Complexity and how both perspectives are necessary to properly embed data into the context of the game.

Quotes

“Data democratizes truth. It makes us all, perhaps not equal, but closer to equal in the validity of our thoughts. It allows to tell right from wrong, insightful from mistaken…The data is never enough on its own. But expert insight buttressed by objective fact has a far better chance of being truth than myth and story.” (365)

“Balance and nuance must remain legitimate tools for useful understanding of many areas of the game to emerge….But once the exercise becomes about winning the argument, rather than discovering the truth, it is incredibly unlikely that you will achieve the latter.

“If data analysis can be used correctly, to help aid the growth of the language around the game, that will be a contribution to the sport far greater than it has made to any single bowling attack or batting order...If we can succeed in identifying and giving name to the macro-patterns and strategies that already exist and shape T20 teams, then we can start to understand and describe them (315).”

Humility, doubt, nuance, opening ourselves to the challenge, admitting the paradox of duality, these are necessary tools (171).

Impact of Moneyball and the Misconception

“I have nothing at all against Moneyball, the book by Michael Lewis. Firstly, it’s a great book. If you haven’t read it, then do; it’s a lovely way to spend a couple of days (and the film is fun too). And secondly, it got me a job. Ultimately, it was Andy Flower reading Moneyball that led to him recruiting me to work with the England cricket team and launched a whole new career for me. It is the term ‘Moneyball’ I find problematic. Because like all such zeigeisty words (think synergy, paradigm shift, etc.), it ends up being used to mean something slightly different by everyone who uses it, and so ends up not meaning anything at all. Moneyball was and is a story. It is not a technique, not a well-defined concept, and not a philosophy (339).

Bonus Content

Here are some other quotes that were quite revealing, but to understand the true context, you should read the book.

Where Did the Title Come From?

“In the era when home advantage feels, at times, like it is becoming insurmountable, the rare success against high class opposition with armour-plated home records are worth looking at in detail. The sides who manage to buck the trend, such as England in 2012 or India in Australia in the winter of 2018-1, are welcome reminders that through diligence and attention to detail it is possible to learn the skills required to plan and win in alien conditions, even against those who are native to those surfaces and styles of play. Overcoming the innate structure in your upbringings and cricketing culture is possible, to overturn what is expected – to Hit Against the Spin (252).

Impact of Rahul Dravid on England’s Test Success

Dravid in particular had already started to influence the England players and coaches’ thinking around the best method against spin. And in the preparations for the tour of India, this focus was redoubled (223).

On Ben Stokes’ 2018 Auction Purchase by Rajasthan Royals

“Zubin Barucha, ‘and so they’re playing game theory too, and trying to push you up. So the strategy going into the auction was very simple – we have to spend ninety percent of our money on eleven players and then just wing it from there (334). – On Ben Stokes RR 2018 auction

Individuals vs a Role-Defined Team

“In the words of Johan Cruff: Choose the best player for every position, and you’ll end up not with a strong XI, but with strong 1s (301).”

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About Nitesh Mathur
I dreamt of being a No. 3 batsman saving test matches and hitting winning runs. Well, that did not exactly go to plan, but I have since become an avid follower of the game. As long as there is a live cricket, you can guarantee that I will be checking the scorecards, watching the game live on TV, and certainly, discussing the game and statistics with family and friends.

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