Sports analysts: Tweaking in the back room

The concept of preparation has changed over the years. Players now use data to prepare in a particular way to have a competitive edge going into a game. That is where the modern era high performance facilitators or sports analysts have come to their rescue.

Subramaniam Ramakrishnan (Ramky), the first video analyst of the Indian team, showing clippings of a match to Sourav Ganguly, Hemang Badani and Parthiv Patel in Chennai in July 2004.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Aarti Nalge, the video analyst of the Indian women's cricket team.   -  V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

National coach John Wright seen with National selector Kiran More in March 2005. Wright was the one who brought in technology in a big way in Indian cricket.   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Since its inception, sport has undergone continuous evolution. From being just a casual contest, we have entered the era where each and every sport is judged by its level of difficulty, popularity and commercial benefits. To achieve continuous success and to stay one step ahead of their opponents, every single player has taken up different mediums to stay well informed and well prepared.

The concept of preparation also has changed over the years. Players now use data to prepare in a particular way to have a competitive edge going into a game. That is where the modern era high performance facilitators or sports analysts have come to their rescue.

So what has been the role of an analyst over the years?

Dhananjay, who was part of the 2011 World Cup-winning staff, breaks the myth around the concept of who an analyst is.

“Data has become a key thing today. Going back a few years down the line, at least in cricket, people did not have access to their own performances or data which was generated on a daily basis. That is when we were able to bring in a structure to that.

“We started to collect information in a more organised way. That involved technology and tools. Thus, an insightful feedback tool was available for players. To not look at what they have done, but also help them deconstruct where they stand, their weakness, what would the opposition do to them, and where they need to improve, etc.”

Subramaniam Ramakrishnan, more popularly known as Ramky, was coaching in schools using his video analysis. His journey started with providing services to the MRF Pace Academy, National Cricket Academy, Bobby Simpson’s academy in Mumbai, etc.

When John Wright became the coach of the Indian team, he decided to set up a full-fledged high performance environment. Word spread about Ramky to Wright, who asked the analyst to make a presentation on visual-based coaching. After spending an entire day together, Wright asked Ramky to join him in the team.

“It is a passion of a billion, so I was straightaway on board. It was not about the money, but sharing the dressing room with the greats, which you can never refuse.”

Dhananjay, who took over the responsibility from Ramky in 2007, explains further the role of high performance facilitators.

“The first thing we do is try to understand the learning sense of the athlete. If you like visual content, and you understand by watching visual content, then the delivery will be visual content. But, if you have the ability to understand by reading from a piece of paper, then you will be given a piece of paper,” Dhananjay states.

“R. Ashwin will come and say, ‘let’s try to break this player down and I want to look at Lahiru Thirimanne. There is a reason why I have got him seven out of 10 times, and let’s try to plan for this game as well’. He would ask me to show him all balls bowled by off-spinners to Lahiru Thirimanne around the wicket because that is the kind of plan he might operate.

“He might ask for some very specific stuff, which I should be able to put together and say, look this what the data says and you can look at the video footage for reference and may be it is a good plan, may be it is something you might have to think of restructuring, or may be have a chat with the coach around what the team’s goals are.

“It is not only about breaking down the opponents’ games but, in some cases breaking down their own performances — how am I approaching my first 10 balls, how am I approaching my middle part of the innings.”

Some of them even use off-beat methods to help a player prepare.

Ramky tells of a method when he had made a video clip of Sachin Tendulkar’s best shots, which the Master Blaster used to watch religiously before going to bed.

Ramky adds, “As performance facilitators we have researched deeply. We also consulted Kumaresh (violinist) of the Ganesh-Kumaresh fame. I asked him whether there are any specific ragas which can help the players prepare or unwind better.

“He replied that there are seven chakras in our body, there are saptaswaras and each sapataswara can be used to manipulate a chakra. So we decided to do a small experiment.”

“We prepared a small clip for Sachin and Rahul Dravid — seven minutes each, differently based on their individual attributes. Kumaresh went on to compose that and we gave it to Sachin and Rahul to hear before they went in to bat. They felt a lot different and Sachin even today has it in his iPod.”

Today Ramky and Dhananjay run one of India’s biggest performance and data analytics companies, Sportsmechanics.

However, their analysis has not been restricted to cricket alone.

“After the hockey team qualified for the Olympics, the Sports Authority of India gave us an opportunity to work with other sports as well.

“Sahana Kumari (the high jumper) was not expected to qualify for the Olympics. She did not know that she was committing a fault, because her coaching was with the naked eye. We turned it into a visual based coaching, found out what the problem was and she was able to remodel herself,” shares Ramky.

 

 

Recently, the Indian women defeated Australia in a T20 series in the latter’s backyard, scripting history. It is possibly due to the assistance of Aarti Nalge, the performance analyst of the Indian women’s team.

Speaking to Sportstar, Aarti said: “It was an exciting, behind the scenes job for me. I used to share all the videos — past and present with the captain and the coach who in turn shared the inputs with the team members. The backgrounder against the Aussies seems to have been very handy for the Indians as all their past videos helped our cricketers know something about themselves and accordingly plan out the strategies.”

Like Ramky and Dhananjay, Aarti also followed her passion by leaving a lucrative job in a software company to pursue her dreams.

Refusing to accept that cricket is a reason for the lack of popularity of other sports, both Ramky and Dhananjay use their analytical and technical acumen to explain why.

“There is a lot of talk about cricket killing other sports. I feel it is totally wrong. One-third of India’s population is under 15 and they are going to get attracted to sports and entertainment. Entertainment is already there, giving Hollywood a run for the money. Where are we in sports? The awareness is not there and the consumption is not there,” explains Ramky.

“It was only from 1983 that cricket started gaining popularity. We needed a win. We had a World Cup win and the wave started there. All that is needed in other sports is a big win,” says Ramky.

Ramky also reveals how Rahul Dravid’s sons — Samit and Anvay — are addicted to kabaddi.

“The other day I was talking to Rahul Dravid and he said that his kids are addicted to kabaddi. His kids study in an international school and play kabaddi there.”

The biggest sporting event in 2016 is the Rio Olympics. The duo feels that one can only expect numerous medals from the multisport event if India has an environment for high performance.

“You cannot expect an output if you do not have an environment for high performance. The medal tally is an outcome. The process will decide your outcome,” says Ramky.

“We know how the Indian cricket team prepares and what is the kind of preparation that goes into a World Cup. Whereas, we are not that sure about the Olympics,” adds Dhananjay.

The game of T20 is very complex. However, with real-time data, analysts have been able to help players.

“There are powerplays. So we try to divide the powerplays into two halves. Then we try to break down the entire game into six halves. Then we apply our models in terms of using past information. We have got a decision support system which is real-time that can help players make decisions,” explains Dhananjay.

While Ramky has worked with John Wright and Greg Chappell, Dhananjay has worked with Venkatesh Prasad, Robin Singh, Gary Kirsten and Duncan Fletcher.

“John was the architect of the renaissance of Indian cricket. He set up a complete high performance team, which laid the foundation of the team as such. He made the team believe that work ethics were required to be a champion. It also had the backing of Sourav Ganguly. Greg was very flamboyant, very high profile, a media delight, a strict headmaster,” Ramky recollects.

Dhananjay recalls: “Gary quickly understood that he had played cricket with most of them and the team was a set team. All he had to do was keep oiling them, on a day-to-day basis. So he had the perfect formula in place. He had a method for Sachin Tendulkar and a completely different one for Virender Sehwag.

“He brought the belief to the team that the environment is more important than your own skill. The environment that you have for success, whatever comes in the way, you have to protect it, you take it forward and you get success.”

Recollecting his early days in the Indian dressing room, Ramky remembers how shocked he was to see the way the team meetings went.

“When I joined and I asked Rahul what kind of team meetings happened, he said it was all informal and casual. They used to assemble in the room and there was Chai, Samosa and French fries, which are banned today. During the last five minutes they would talk about the next day’s game. I was shocked because we discussed more for the club matches.

“When John Wright came, he did all the talking. Half of them did not understand his accent. Then we told John that we had to set the environment for the cricketers to talk. Then he used to start the meetings and the players followed up. There was thus a lot of interaction between the players. That is how the hierarchy in the team was broken down. By nature we don’t talk when the senior players are there. The seniors went out of the way to make sure the juniors felt comfortable.

“Before the 2003-04 series in Australia, I asked Sourav whether he had any insights about his opponent. He said that the team did not collect such information. I then asked him to get me tapes of the Ashes series from ESPN, so that I could prepare a dossier on the Australian players. He was excited and got me the tapes. We travelled to Australia with 25 tapes. During my first week, I did not see the outside world. I was locked inside the room, digitalising the videos.”

Dhananjay says, “Ashwin has a unique learning style. He would want to solve a problem. He would want an answer to it and would want to go deep into the problem.”

“Dhoni could be your easiest guy to deal with because he only wants a particular point that he is looking for. Dhoni is very strategic and he has a very good tactical acumen. Most of his decisions were on field reactions, but for that he had a very good proactive sense of preparation. If he was not sure of something, he used to ask me or used to take the help of data. But, when he was sure he would back his instincts.”

Ramky recalls when Sachin and Virender Sehwag played a prank on him.

“We had the practice session. Viru and Sachin discussed something between themselves. They said, ‘Ramky can you throw us a few balls.’ I said ‘okay’. After some time my shoulders were really paining and they could sense it. But, I did not have the heart to say ‘no’ to them. Viru said, ‘I am done, but Sachin wants to play.’ Both of them took their turn, came back, batted and batted and the throw kept going slower and slower. Finally they burst out laughing.”

Even though analytical and critical thinking has helped players prepare better, the question of too much analysis also persists.

Ramky feels it can lead to paralysis too. At the same time, he wonders whether the percentage of execution would be the same without analysis. According to him, “the player will have to go and execute.”

“We are not making the players robotic. For example, in a T20 situation, the player interprets the situation and plays accordingly. That is how he is tuned and that is how we coach.”