Transcript: Couch Talk with CKM Dhananjai, Indian Team Performance Analyst

Couch Talk 94 (Play)

Guest: CKM Dhananjai, Team India Performance Analyst

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Dhananjai!

CKM Dhananjai (DJ)– Thank you. Thank you, Subash. Thanks for the invitation.

SJ– It is my pleasure having you on.

You are the performance analyst for the Indian cricket team as well as the Mumbai Indians IPL franchise. What are your duties/responsibilities as a performance analyst.

DJ– As a performance analyst, your main role is to create an environment in terms of setting up the right technology and also bringing in the analytics to the table. When I say “analytics”, it has to do with helping teams, players and other stakeholders make better decisions in terms of taking a set of takeaways into the game. Overall, I would say that it is for me to create an environment to enhance performance and can help high performers make better decisions and take crucial insights going into every game, series or season.

SJ– For someone that is not exposed to it, what do you mean by analytics? Can you break it down in more layman terms?

DJ– In layman terms, I would associate it with any other business process that happens in the day to day world. Let us assume that. The performance analyst’s role is not a one dimensional role in a lot of ways. What I am saying is that there is a team that is involved in the whole process. So, right from the preparation towards a team and a player in terms of putting together stuff about the opposition analysis – knowing your opponent, putting together the strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities that are involved and the threats that come off – in layman terms or business terms, it is called SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) nowadays, or is being called SWOT. Doing a  SWOT analysis on the opposition as well as our own team in terms of individuals is a key element in performance analysis as such.

Overall, it is about monitoring, tracking and obviously providing insights to the clients, or players or teams that we work with and help them take that into the game for getting the desired results. In layman’s terms, one of the primary functions of my job is to give the player the best chance of success going into a tournament or a match.

SJ– In what level of detail? Are you putting together video packages of previous matches or last few matches. For example, if India is facing Australia, you put together the packages of the last 5 series? In what level of detail, are we talking about here?

DJ– The level of detail is quite high. It is actually not known to the world in terms of the processes involved because of the fact that it is quite a niche domain that performances analysts come from.

To start with, the fact that preparation as a process is quite new in cricket. It is as new as the last 10 years. Earlier, there was a lot of qualitative assessments and opinions that obviously were around the team when going into the game. Slowly it has changed from to using quantitative methods, or in layman’s terms, ‘data to the table’ approach’ that a current generation cricketer has actual embraced. It is more a necessity than a luxury. If you are playing Australia or any other team, or even an IPL team let’s say. The process that is involved is – going through each and every element of the opposition, every batter or bowler – what he does, what he does best, what are his release shots, and stuff like that.

The entire process about analysing a player, identifying his weakness and strength and working a plan around it and executing that on the field- there are 4 stages that go into that. In that stage, every cricketer learns in a very different way. We have designed delivery models where this information can be digested by different levels of athletes or cricketers at every level. In a big picture, I would say that, preparation as a process sis what we involve ourselves more importantly so we help prepare a team and a player in the best way possible.

SJ– Let us say you are breaking down an opposition. For example, in preparation or a big Test series, would you be putting together the strength and weaknesses of all the Indian players, perhaps based on what the opposition is expected to do and similarly from the opposition based on what India is expected to do, etc? I would like you to give me an actual example so that I can understand this better.

DJ– How it works is – at Sports Mechanics, we have got quite a highly skilled and dedicated team that we have put together that is involved in the information collection across the world. We are involved in tracking about 400-500 cricketer every second, to be honest. What we do is, let us say before a series, me and my team put together the information on the opponent and that involves video footage – which is more of a reference – it involves more data that we have collected about eh player over a period of time. That data, that piece of information that is collected gets converted into intelligence through software platforms that we have built over the year. That gets into the analytics mode where it throws up a lot of insights on every player that we are going to face against. This is taken into the preparatory process of a team and it is delivered by someone like me in the formal fashion that is suited for that individual or team per say, and it becomes a part of their preparation, which means that even when they train, they take these insights into play.

For example, if I am going to play a Morne Morkel, a batter is already given information about what he does, his instances of bowling a bouncer every 3 or 4 balls, and if he is hit for a boundary in a particular ball what is his follow-up ball, and all those stuff. It gives the batter the best chance of success in terms of preparation, going into the game. Whether he does it or not is secondary, but all these insights power their instincts in terms of expecting something that can happen and pre-empt that and give them a competitive edge.

SJ– When you put together these, like the example that you gave about Morne Morkel, where there is a likelihood of something happening – you actually attach value to certain things happening.

DJ– That is right.

SJ– So, before a series – you said you have a team at Sports Mechanics that puts together all these data to tables. How is all the information from there delivered actually to the player or in developing a team plan or at more micro level at individual player vs player thing? How is that data delivered? You are the main liaison between Sports Mechanics and the cricket team. So, how do you deliver that? Do you sit together first with the coaches and discuss? Is there is a long planning session etc, and then piece wise deliver it to the players? How does it work?

DJ– I think you have answered the question quite a bit. Logically, there are quite a lot of meetings that happen in terms of planning and preparation process. Obviously, there is a deck that is taken to the coaches and the coaches obviously take some things along to the player and stuff like that in their training sessions. Now, in terms of the strategy sessions, we do that with the players. We go into the specifics of batters and bowlers. In terms of fielders, we do it in one full team meetings, where some insights about who is bad at running between the wickets, number of instances of a player getting run out, we pick all those stats and keep it in front of them so that when a chance arises then the guys know that they have a chance here. The insights are as intricate as the fact as someone who plays an on-drive in the first five balls.

We also have reports on ‘hit-and-run’ case.  There are many cricketers in the world today who like to hit, and run, and we have analytics on that so you know that if they hit and run, is there an opportunity for a run out. That is the kind of stuff that we put together and take to the players.

With regard to the delivery to the players, today, delivery in terms of data and video are getting better and better. You have smart phones now. People are more mobile. Cricketers are embracing technology nowadays than they used to. They are getting comfortable with it. so, the, delivery in terms of player to player happens directly. It is as good as school progress card. Everybody likes to know how they are progressing, how much they have improved, what they need to do to go to the next level, etc.

So, it is more from a performance management perspective. We have an Athlete Management System that houses all the information and every player is notified if there is any observation or any report on anything that is being given and he can access it as he is on the go. It is quite simple in terms of what we put together, but it is quite a powerful process that is being set over 10 years and deployed. Since 2003, it has only been on the rise. That answers your question? Yes?

SJ– Yes. I want to talk about you specifically, and then we can get back to data analysis part again. How do you become the performance analyst for the Indian team? What are the steps that led you to finally become the performances analysts for the Indian team? Where did you begin and how did you end up here?

DJ– Well, to be really honest, like everybody, I don’t have a superlative story to tell. It is interesting because I share the same passion or intensity or the love for the game that millions of people across the world have for cricket in India. Yes, like your picture on the blog, I can see a picture on the blog – to be honest, I started playing cricket exactly in that same spot. I hail from Chennai, in a place called Besant Nagar. My cricket started on the beach. I was this ridiculously focused cricketer till I was 22. I played a lot of league cricket in Chennai aspiring to play for the state and to play for the country, which most of them would share playing professional cricket. I always thought that I had to attitude in me, but maybe I lacked some skills. It was actually, to be honest, I would like to use the word, “ridiculously” focused staying connected to the game. So, what I decided to do was that I decided to say that “OK, let me not play now. Let me do an MBA.” So, I just went and enrolled myself into a local institute here. That is where it began, that is where my thoughts process began on how I am going to get connected with the sport by being at the back end and things like that.

There were many thoughts – right from a cricket commentator to many things. Obviously, as I went along, I used to work with cricinfo as a management trainee for about 2 years. That was quite a good experience in terms of understanding what is happening. It was an interesting time. It wasn’t ESPNcricinfo then. I used to work with them and did literally what came my way. I was the youngest in the whole office, so it was easy that way. I coupled that with my education. In the mornings I used to attend classes and in the evening I would work with them.

Along the way I did meet Ramky. Ramky was my cricket coach when I was in juniors. Ramky was the analyst of the Indian team. It was a brief meeting, met him after a while. I never looked back since. To joining the Indian team was quite a journey. I was mentored by Ramky for a long time now, for more than 10 years. At some stage, I made myself eligible for this role, if I can use that word. I think that is more important than saying that I am ready for the role. I worked myself into making myself eligible for this role, picking up the required skills that was necessary. Obviously, I had a very strong cricketing domain, but I had to top it up with analytical skills as well as man-management skills.

SJ– I read that you were with the ICC’s high performance programme in 2005 and you worked with the Asian Cricket Council, MRF Pace Foundation and NCA. So, eventually you became the team analyst.

There are some listener questions as well. i hope I can take some of those.

DJ– Yes. Sure.

SJ– There is a question from a listener, Saurabh. He wants to know if you are required to provide real time data, as the match is happening or is it more pre-match preparation role?

DJ– Predominantly, cricket is a sport where today, you can’t control what is happening on the field. That is a clichéd terms that I am using, but that is the truth. Yes, real time feedback happens. It is passed on through the hierarchy, if I can say that. As we have gone along, the real time feedback and decision support systems have become more and more key in a game like T20 where rapid decision making and quick changes are what is required. So, in terms of next generation, let’s say thinking and what can come into the game, yes – real time decision support systems are there. we have developed a lot of predictive tools that can help a team align itself to a score during a T20 game. so, we use a lot of statistical modelling like right from linear programming to the fact that we also use stochastic methods to derive predictive insights that can help team get a competitive advantage in a real time situation. So, real time feedback is becoming big in Tt20 cricket and especially in a tournament like IPL where it is possible to add a lot of value being there in the dugout and actually trying to change the course of the game and getting competitive edge out of it. Let’s say that there are programs and models available where we can predict a lot of things at the end of 6th over and align yourself to the best possible target or reduce the opposition to a score depending on the venue and game based on the strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of things that are being introduced. Yes, it happens. I wouldn’t say that it happens in all the forms that much, but it happens to a reasonable extent in ODIs and Test cricket and happens quite a bit in T20 cricket nowadays.

SJ– Okay.

Another question from listener Kartikeya – you spoke of a lot of match situations. Do you also monitor the nets sessions systematically?

DJ– Well, yes. That is non-negotiable. Where we come in, we come in with a lot of strong processes that we have put in for a lot of  years. It generates a lot of information – be it at practice, at the game at the gym session or be it at even a training session or in a meetings. Documenting and tracking those is of high importance because every information is important. So, what we does in practice is regularly monitored, tracked and documented for the coaches to keep reviewing him and make sure that whatever sudden or small changes that creep into the technique of a batter are identified immediately and corrected as against the cricketer realising after a string of failures and things like that. All these video analysis and performances analysis tools helps your accelerate performance or help you accelerate a particular skill set. If you are working on a drill, let us say 20 years ago, it would take 6-7 days to get on top of it. With the latest technique today, you can accelerate to it in about 24 hours. That is a straight increase in productivity. Everything around a cricketer today is getting smarter and smarter and I think even we are moving in that direction. The whole term of performance management has taken over rather than calling ourselves analysts because we are involved in tracking their entire performance even in terms of tracking their lifestyle changes.

SJ– For example a particular bowler or a batsman having delivered a particular ball or a  shot, are you getting the information based on what is displayed on the TV in terms of HawkEye and stuff or you log it in in your own set of tools?

DJ– We have our own set of tools and processes through which we log in to the extent of which… if you bring in the case of baseball in MLB, you have good analytics like you said to count the number of pitches and the velocity of the throws and things like that. Similarly, in a cricketing environment you can replace them with similar insights. What is shown on HawkEye and the television based analysis, if I can say, is more audience specific, it is more targeted towards the fan and the commentators. The amount of information that is collected by Sports Mechanics is drilling down even very, very deep into that. Obviously, we collect more information that what is required from a fan’s perspective. But, for gaining a competitive advantage over another team or a player, I think our analysis is completely different. We work on those on a daily basis. The fact that stuff like X batsman is uncomfortable against a left arm spinner and the fact that he gets out to a left arm spinner in every 6 balls – those are the stuff that we come up with. Our engines are smart with regard to that.

SJ– There is another one from our listener, Aditya Baliga. He wants to know how players react to these insights. Do they react to the insights better when they are doing well or not doing well? Or vice versa? Or they are neutral to it?

DJ– I think it depends player to player. I think you would appreciate with me that everyone is different we think differently and our thought processes are different . How I would lie to answer this question is, I think our processes are in such a way that it allows a player to analyse success as well as failure. The default mechanism that is involved is everybody in all walks of life I believe that we analyse a lot of failure. Only when something is wrong, we analyse that. What we did is, we flipped the process up and we focus on analysing success, which means that the player become better and better and better in terms of that particular skill or thought in terms of what he can do. So, yes, there is a good equilibrium of players that come by default and analyse failures, and some players who come and build on their success and analyse their success more and more. That is where analytics helps in terms of – every weakness is preceded by about 3 strengths that make a job easier.

SJ– There is a question from listener Ravikiran, who happens to be your cousin. So, in a weird twisted world of twitter, everything seems to be such a small world. have there been, in your experience where you have been with a side for 5-6 years now, players who have been mistrustful of the analytics and they didn’t want to take whatever it says on board?

And Ravikiran says “Hello!”, by the way.

DJ– Ah, OK! Hi!!

Well, interesting question, because I think “mistrustful” is a very harsh word to use. I think we are there, because people trust in us and what we do and what we bring to the table. There is a difference between mistrust and, I would like to use the word resistance here. In terms of resistance, yes. There has been some resistance in taking some of these things on board because of the fact that somebody has been successful doing something for years together and to come and say that you need to do something different is difficult. To take anything new onboard is always faced with resistance. Obviously, we have been persistence enough in education and creating awareness about analytics. Be it amongst the coaches or the players. We have found a lot of success in making turnarounds, in terms of people taking this as a part of their preparation.

What we want to do is strengthen on the process of preparation model that we actually created. It is a very strong indicator of players taking it into their preparation process. I would say, yes, there is always an element where, let’s say, an insight or an analysis has gone wrong here and there. but, in terms of the hit rate and success, it is definitely more than 75% in most cases.

Cricket is a very instinctive game. Cricketers are very instinctive in nature. Or delivery is to make sure that their instincts at a higher level are powered by our insights, if I can say that. It is a strong statement to make, but we have found some success in employing this approach.

SJ– For example, let’s take these two situations where M.S. Dhoni is taking the match in the recent tri-series in the West Indies all the way to the 50th over. Is he just playing on his instincts or is his instincts being augmented by what has been fed through your analytics? Have there been messages saying “Listen, you have better chances of success against so and so.” The decisions that a player makes, he weighs the pros and cons…is a lot of it driven by the knowledge put together by you?

DJ– I think, like I say, I can only power their instincts and they experience it on the field what a bowler does. When a (Lasith) Malinga is bowling, everyone know that Malinga bowls Yorkers at the death, it is up to the players. What we bring to the table is options in terms of how to play him, or how to play him best and how to get the maximum out of playing him. It is, like you said, up to the player as well. M.S. Dhoni’s approach to the game – he has his own options. What I bring to the table, or what we bring to the table is obviously giving him more options in terms of his decision making. If he makes better decisions, I would say that I would have contributed 1% of that, that would have added up to 100. So, unless that 1% is there, that would not have added to 100. So, I would give you that kind of knowledge. It is difficult to claim that I did this. We have seen a lot of success, we have seen a lot of instances where people have recognised the fact that this insight actually helped me make a play. That is up to the player to say that. I don’t think I or we should be telling about it.

SJ– I have seen you take part in a lot of team drills and a lot of games and exercises. Beyond being the performance analyst, what all does your job actually entail?

DJ– In a cricket team, you can’t be stuck to one role because it is a multidimensional thing. You have got to participate in everything that can add value to the team’s preparation. Apart from what I am doing on a daily basis, I have been blessed with some skills regards to the sports. I do, based on the coach’s directive, I engage myself in whatever is helping them in warm ups, in throw downs, in terms of achieving something from a particular drill or so. I am always with my laptop and my camera on the ground. I keep looking for stuff. Everybody is designated a particular role in the team. You play that role to the hilt. It tests your attitude as a person. Sport, by itself is  a llife lesson. Visa viz, you can use it in any walk of life. The learning is unbelievable. You asked about warm-ups, yes, if you have the skills, you are expected to contribute in every form possible. That is a tema game, at the end of the day. I don’t know what more to say!

SJ– In terms of travelling, being away from the family and stuff, the backroom staff is just as much away from the family as the players are. At least the players can switch off after a match. But, someone like you are constantly aware of what is doing on during a match and analysing it constantly after the match is over and putting things together. So, you probably never get a time to switch off. What kind of an effort does it have on your own life? The travel? The not having as much time to switch off from work, and so on, from a personal perspective?

DJ– Well, I think that, for example, roles like these are very unique in nature. Every job is difficult in terms of putting it together. Living out of suitcases is a challenge in itself. I honestly thing that when you are actually living a dream and are blessed to live a dream, I don’t think you have the liberty to complain. I think this, what I am doing on a daily basis, is something very special. I consider it very special. My family member also know how important it is. More that complaining that it is tough, I think that it has helped me become a better individual, and to appreciate the smallest things in life. it is fantastic. It has made me a better person, I would say.

SJ– Perfect!

I will let you go with one last question. This comes from Bharathram. Because you are so glued in, keyed in to what is happening, trying to pay attention to so many things logging in, do you actually get to “enjoy” a particular game of cricket?

DJ– That is an interesting question, and a tough one, actually. As a fan… I don’t think I can ever watch a cricket game as a fan, to be honest. There lies the answer. Even if I am watching something on TV sitting at home, it is very difficult to watch it as a normal fan because of the fact that you have been immersed in this day in and day out for about more than 10 years now. So, I think that I would answer Bharath’s question by saying that… millions would want to be in my place, and it is a pride and an honour to actually be doing what you are doing on a daily basis.

To “enjoy”? i think I enjoy every second of what I do, to be honest. I am not able to differentiate between the enjoyment factor because I really feel happy when any of my mates score a hundred in the same way as anyone else feels. But, the way I watch a game and the way a fan watches a game are completely different and I think that it is just a role thing and I don’t feel otherwise, if I can say that.

SJ– Alright!

On that note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Dhananjai. I hope I can have you on soon and talk a bit more about this.

DJ– Yes. Sure, Subash. Thank you. Thank you very much!

SJ– Thanks a lot!

DJ– Cheers!

SJ– Bye!

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Episode Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabhiraman