x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The secret is out: dossiers are useless

Technology has made the dossiers strategy in cricket obsolete, so maybe someone should tell the Australians.

The old fashioned method of creating a dossier on opponents has become redundant in the wake of modern technology.
The old fashioned method of creating a dossier on opponents has become redundant in the wake of modern technology.

Slipped under my door last week was a dossier. It is a dossier for sure because it weighs much more than your average strategy document or team vision paper.

I am not sure but I can only imagine it was recovered from some kind of time capsule, from somewhere in the cricket-playing world.

It is from the mid-1980s and it is not important to reveal the side that compiled the dossier and the opponent it is detailing.

It goes without saying that we cannot be sure who exactly from the team set-up would have been responsible, there not being any coaches or support staff around that time.

Still, it is a hefty document and after all these years, it scorches the mind, as if it had captured and contained the heat of its vision and acumen all these years, just waiting to be released. Just sample some of this stuff.

In examining the opposition batting order, it begins with the openers and immediately reveals a sharp eye for technical nuance and lateral thinking.

"A weakness noted in X [player's name not revealed] over the last three seasons is that when he missed the ball and the ball hits the stumps, he always gets out. Therefore, the best way of dismissing him is to hit his stumps."

Another in the middle-order, a real grinder, is dissected like biology students opening up a frog.

"Often Y hits a shot uppishly and when he does and a fielder is there to catch it, that method of dismissal has brought considerable success. So, if he does play a shot in the air and one of our fielders does catch it, that can guarantee us results."

An optimum strategy, it tells the bowlers, would be to "try to take wickets, preferably 20 of them".

A similar precision to detail is applied to their own batting. One bowler, the dossier concludes, will bowl a poor delivery "every now and again". So, "if we can hit these for four, that is a good way of getting some runs". Otherwise the side should always "try to keep the scoreboard ticking".

But where the dossier really earns its keep - and in hindsight now, looking back at the team's record in that time, it becomes obvious how critical such planning was to their success - is in its clear (but unstated) employment of a mathematician.

Through this a formula is applied that all but ensures Test wins, its greatness lying in its ability to translate into any contest anywhere, any time, between any sides.

When batting first, for example, "if we take X to be our first innings score and Y to be the second innings score (and use A and B for the opposition's corresponding innings), then so long as the sum of X and Y is greater than that of A and B - given that B occurs with a sub-condition C, stipulating the number of second innings wickets to be 10 - all within five days, then victory is ours". The formula is adaptable so can be tweaked if batting second.

Radically, reams of pages are devoted to matters beyond the contest of bat and ball and in this it is truly forward-looking.

It suggests, for instance, that some batsmen can be distracted if you engage in "banter" with them, while others are not so easily distracted by it (presaging the arrival of the revolutionary mental disintegration tactics Australian teams would use in the 2000s). High-fiving each other when you take wickets and celebrating outwardly is also "good for team spirit". So comprehensive is its scope that even umpires are accounted for, a long passage book ended by this advice: "Remember, they're ours." With neutral umpires in place now, this may no longer apply strictly, but sides today have clearly taken in the level of preparation; in one recent dossier, the India coach told his players before the 2011 world cup semi-final that "we should utilise [the Decision Review System] smartly".

About the only place where it goes wrong is at the end, in a reflective section in which the author evaluates the relevance of his work before eventually foreseeing its death, at least in the physical form.

"Eventually a day will come when, with modern technological trends being what they are, this kind of dossier might come to mean nothing and cease to exist.

"With greater amounts of cricket, there will be a time when the top players face each other so often that there won't be any secrets between their techniques; weaknesses and strengths will be ingrained into the memories of players. Such dossiers will become needless at best, empty and distractive at worst.

"We're already looking at using video analysis more and this should also hasten the end (it may also lead to an expensive cottage industry). But at the very least advances in communication in future will probably allow us to pass these kinds of documents on to players electronically, without ever needing to use paper. That will make it more secure and prevent it from getting into the wrong hands."


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