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England's fielding revolution

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Averages, wickets taken, wagon wheels, strike and economy rates - the statistics cricket fans are often bombarded with throughout every single televised match in the modern era.

In fact, so much emphasis is put on batting and bowling, the data behind the sport's third discipline generally goes under the radar.

Fielding remains a crucial part of the game and yet we don't actually hear that much about it unless there has been a piece of magic at square leg or a horror show at mid-off, of course.

But that doesn't mean teams aren't trying to use the plethora of data at their fingertips to turn the game in their favour further away from the crease.

Particularly in the shorter formats of the game, when one mistake in the field can have a hugely significant impact on the final result.

The problem with analysing fielding data has always been determining the exact value of a dropped catch or a missed run out opportunity. That is, until now.

Much has been made of England's remarkable revival in the One-Day format since that disastrous showing in the 2015 World Cup.

Yes, their less data-driven approach to batting has worked wonders, with scores of 300+ being reached with apparent ease over the last 18 months.

However, data has continued to play a very important role in how England have emerged as one of the most efficient fielding units in the world.

England and South Africa Net Sessions

It has been all about developing a deeper understanding of how the quality of fielding is measured and Nathan Leamon is the mathematician behind the madness.

After logging data from thousands and thousands of matches down the years, England's chief analyst Leamon has come up with a revolutionary, number crunching system to determine the effect fielding can have on the outcome of a match.

It requires a formula not overly dissimilar to that used to calculate the Duckworth-Lewis method but does possess an element of subjectivity on judging how difficult a chance is.

An article by the Telegraph earlier this year used the example of Jake Ball dropping Virat Kohli when India 61 for two in the 13th over of the third ODI to work out that missed opportunity had just cost England 23 runs. Ouch.

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And it works exactly the same way with run-outs.

For some players, finding out how much that wasted chance has hurt their team can add even more pressure and therefore lead to more mistakes in the future.

But as long as cricket is played by humans, mistakes will happen. It is only natural.

What that knowledge has done, however, is make England even more stringent in their training before matches - making human error a rare, rather than regular, occurrence.

They can also use that information to put fielders in their most effective positions to have an influence on proceedings at any given time.

England v South Africa - Royal London ODI

For someone like Ben Stokes, statistically the best fielder at the World Twenty20 tournament in 2016, putting him in a position where a particular batsman is most likely mistime a shot can genuinely prove the difference between winning and losing. The margins are that small.

Even during the recent Test series against South Africa, there was a visible gap in fielding quality between England and the Proteas. Across four matches lasting nearly 20 days, those small margins all add up.

Fielding data remains light years behind cricket's other major disciplines but it is certainly one of the sport's most exciting areas for growth.

You have got to assume it will not be long before other teams start to value fielding quite as much as England do. Once that happens, it might finally lose the unfortunate label of being cricket's 'forgotten discipline'.

At the end of the day, catches still win matches...

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Topics:
Cricket
Kevin Pietersen
Joe Root
ODI World Cup
England cricket
T20 World Cup

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