We tag along with Brisbane men's coaching staff as they prepare for the international player draft
Heat check: Behind the scenes of the Big Bash draft
On a sunny Thursday morning in late August, in the back of the Matthew Hayden Stand at Allan Border Field, Wade Seccombe and Andy Bichel are firing up their laptops. The clock ticks over to 7am. Charles Evans, their performance data analyst, logs on to the Microsoft Teams call from England. Evans is there for the Heat, scouring talent in The Hundred for the upcoming BBL International Player Draft, but perhaps more importantly, he is making backroom contacts who can help him source the vision and data he needs to do his job as comprehensively as the coaches need him to do it.
As head coach of the Heat and caller of this meeting, Seccombe flags with his colleagues the fact a member of the media is listening in remotely, with the intention of collating a story, he adds with a laugh, "from our you-beaut process of a bunch of old cricketers sitting around talking shop for a while".
As is his way though, the 51-year-old is underselling matters. He moves to a whiteboard, marker in hand, and more formally opens proceedings.
"So Charles," he says, "I just want to spend five minutes on, 'Is there a better way?' And what I mean by that is, we're looking at 'end game players', which is fundamentally where my head's at."
It is intended as a brief opener to this International Player Draft meeting, but it could be the theme for the next 90 minutes. There are all manner of subjects and players and theories that are raised but all of it boils down to nailing these two or three draft acquisitions. And for the Heat, that means recruiting players who can be relied upon to influence a match at its beginning or end.
The cricketing brain power in the room is impressive. Alongside Seccombe and Bichel sits Darren Lehmann. Few, if any, coaching trios in the game boast more first-class wickets, runs and dismissals. Former Bulls player Wade Townsend, now a valued member of the Queensland Cricket high performance team after working for Cricket Tasmania and the Hurricanes for several seasons, rounds out the group. As he peers through his laptop, Evans tries to keep pace with a conversation that twists, turns and disappears down various rabbit holes.
"I still think you're best to have a 10-game player if you can, just for that continuity," says Lehmann. "Worst-case scenario, in a 10-game season, you've gotta be three and three after six."
Seccombe talks of a 'decision tree' which has enabled them to settle on a platinum pick they can all agree on: Colin Munro. The 36-year-old left-hander played a few blazing hands in his eight-match stint with the Heat last summer and the brains trust want to retain him as a senior leadership figure and opening bat.
"Did he open much with Josh Brown last season?" asks Lehmann. "I don't think he did."
He's right. The dynamic pair started just three innings together last summer, including in a rain-affected game in which they added 41 inside three overs. In Perth, they crashed 81 in 7.4 overs.
"They'll go well together," Lehmann says. "If they're there at the end of 24 balls (the Powerplay), you've set up the game."
Seccombe nods along, adds: " Then you've got enough batting, with (Nathan) McSweeney, (Matt) Renshaw, (Sam) Billings."
The last of those three names – Englishman Sam Billings – is another that is surfaced regularly. Like Munro, the Heat have retention rights, which they will use on the inventive right-hander if they must, provided they haven't needed to use their retention pick on Munro.
There are, of course, more questions than answers at this point. Even the draft rules are still being understood, given it is only in its second season and it is an evolving beast.
The Heat know, too, that their Test pair – Marnus Labuschagne and Usman Khawaja – will likely only be available for one or two matches.
"We need runs," says Bichel.
"We do," agrees Lehmann. "Which is why I like Billings and Munro."
Talk turns to the Sixers' veteran Englishman James Vince. There might be an option for the Heat to snatch the top-order right-hander, if the Sydney club opts – or is forced – to use a retention pick on either of his compatriots, Chris Jordan or Tom Curran. It would mean more batting depth.
"Vince is very good," Lehmann says. "He's a winner."
* * *
A couple of weeks before this meeting, Seccombe is talking about unicorns.
"The allrounder," he explains, "that sits at number six and strikes at 180, and then he goes and bowls some death overs as well.
"That's what we're chasing, but I reckon everyone's chasing something similar."
Flash forward a fortnight and he and his colleagues are looking over colourful and comprehensive documents drawn up by Evans, a mechanical engineer by trade and a cricket snuff at heart who insists with a grin that he's "not afraid of a spreadsheet".
They're no ordinary spreadsheets, but the product of Evans' passion for the project and willingness to toil. He screws his nose up at the term 'AI' (artificial intelligence), but it is clear the work he has produced is cutting edge.
"It's really just an optimisation problem," he says of the task for which he has utilised a form of machine learning. "Think about Google Maps. It's like that, in a way. We're trying to find the fastest route from A to B, but 'B' might be anything from how many games we want to win in a year, or we might run it over our fixtures list to try and really target which venues give us the best opportunities.
"We'll run decision-making models that produce probabilities, which might be on team scores (based) on projected performances from certain players. And there's some really robust statistical models.
"Machine learning is going, 'Right, there's lots of scenarios, let's run them and see what comes out. And what's the difference between each of those scenarios?
"By doing that, I can supervise the learning and basically fact check whether or not the predictions are as expected.
"I've run it retrospectively, to try and see what (factors) 'won games', and is there an alternative way to view the game that can better predict shifts in momentum, and then the end result?
"It's not like I need a server rack in my office running algorithms all day and night – it is quite rudimentary – but it gave some real clarity to us, particularly around strategy.
"We even started trialling how to apply in-game strategy towards the back half of last year – really being specific on what would move the needle for performance – and it's been cool to see that momentum carry into this year when we're looking at player retention."
Which brings us back to Heat HQ. And the search for a unicorn.
Evans asks the coaches what data they want to look at for death bowlers. It gets very specific. They're talking a 19th and 20th over job. At the Gabba. Short end, and long end. All of it matters. Even the selected pitch on the wicket square.
"Economy rate," Seccombe says.
"Pitch map," adds Bichel.
Evans clicks his mouse a few times. A list appears of players who check the right boxes. Runs per over. Can land a yorker, or hit full and wide, or short of a length, into the hip.
He runs through each one, name by name. These are the gold band draft options. Only one name really jumps out from the pack. It's Curran, who they universally admire. The likelihood, of course, is he will end up back at the Sixers.
Seccombe thinks picking up this unicorn – or as near as they can find to one – in the silver band might be the Heat's best option. He starts writing on the whiteboard again. Evans continues talking. Wide lines. Bowlers who can hit 140kph consistently. They go around and around. Plenty of English names pop up. They zero in on Jamie Overton and Jordan Thompson. Lehmann likes the pair of them. Says Overton is "quicker than you think" and was impressed by Thompson's 83no from 30 balls for Manchester Originals against Northern Superchargers on August 13.
"From number six," he says, "he bats like an axe murderer."
Evans digs deeper into the numbers, and doesn't love what he sees in Overton's bowling. There are issues with dot-ball to boundary percentages – a crucial figure in the closing stages of an innings. There's silence for a few seconds as they ponder. Then Bichel flips the script.
"Forget all those allrounders – that'll stuff us up," he says. "We've got allrounders. (Michael) Neser, (Xavier) Bartlett, 'Presto' (Will Prestwidge) … they're all better than those, so why are we trying to buy someone who will either push them out of the team, or sit on the pine?"
It is taken as food for thought.
* * *
One of Evans' models, which he calls his 'bowling impact ratio', singles out the bowling group and requires it to reach the magic figure of 50 per cent. Find an attack that hits 50 per cent, he insists, and it'll win you most T20 games in Australia.
Lehmann must be thinking back to the formative days of the Bash, and the way he relied on little more than his own instincts to recruit a title-winning group of players. Now, if he asks Evans, there is probably a data set for 'gut feel'. The game is light years ahead of where it was a decade ago, and the role of the analyst – and the influence and accessibility of American sports, particularly – has been pivotal in that quantum leap. Evans refers to Bill James, the 'godfather of sabermetrics'. He is a Moneyball disciple and has borrowed what he can from the major US sporting leagues and the way they learn from the bottomless pits of data they mine. But there are limits to what is comparable.
"Part of the key is actually to not be too specific," Evans says. "We don't play anywhere near as many games as a (Major League) Baseball season, for example, where you can really say, 'this pitcher to this hitter (means this)', and lay out a game plan. And their set-ups are just so sophisticated – at the end of a game, they'll probably have almost a terabyte of just pure ball-tracking data … and then you extrapolate that over 160…
"We have to be a bit more targeted. We try to find a decent sample size on certain things, and then work out what's comparable.
"Our skills coaches have played and coached all around the world, so when we have conversations about where to get the data from, they know what competitions are comparable, or what venues have similar conditions, similar dimensions, all those sorts of things.
"When we're talking about comparing the Vitality Blast to The Hundred, for example, The Hundred is played at all the Test venues, so it's a different dynamic to some of the Blast, and some of the variability you might get in the Blast results. So we try and take that into account."
Evans can talk for days about this kind of stuff, so here's a whittled-down snapshot on player comparisons, and the way in which he needs to drill down, and down, and down.
"We might say, 'Well, these people seem to have similar attributes', and we start looking at archetypes," he explains. "So yes, not all left-arm quicks are the same, but how do you find out who actually looks a lot alike? Neil Wagner and Mitchell Starc don't bowl anything alike, but they're both left armers, so if you do a comparison, you can lead yourself down the garden path a bit.
"Baseball have done a really good job of holding that distinction. So they're prepared to go, 'This pitcher might struggle to left-handed hitters', but they know there's a nuance to it – maybe left-handed hitters who hit predominantly to right field.
"We try and keep, I guess, the 40,000-foot view and the right-zoomed-in view at the same time, and just hold that tension. My role then is to try and break down what's statistically significant."
Which brings us back to the spreadsheet, and the 50 per cent target. It means the Heat have a problem. The current contingent is a few points shy of that.
"This bowling attack will (concede) a boundary every two dots," Evans says. "At the moment we're looking like we can't defend 170."
He throws Curran into the formula and the number on the spreadsheet rises to 48 per cent. Nearly there. Lehmann is hot on the Englishman. He thinks Curran, in the right circumstances ("against a lot of left-handers, when you've got one big boundary") might eliminate the need for a second spinner, which has been the Heat's go-to policy of recent seasons. The problem there is neither Matt Kuhnemann nor Mitch Swepson offer consistent firepower in the lower order. They file it away as another question to answer, but temper the hypothetical with the knowledge that their access to Curran remains highly unlikely.
The coaches are concerned what an injury – or national selection – to Neser and/or left-arm quick Spencer Johnson might mean. Another fast bowler, they agree, would be ideal. Seccombe drops Shaheen Shah Afridi's name a couple of times but the difficult question of availability looms over the conversation always. Bichel asks Evans about the young Pakistani pace brigade. That wellspring of never-ending raw fast-bowling talent. The veteran coach would love to get his hands on one or two of them, hone their skills. The data on these guys is minimal, because it is a challenge to obtain much data from some countries, and because they haven't played much cricket.
"I might ring Misbah(-ul-Haq, Pakistan chairman of selectors)," Bichel says. "See what he can tell me."
* * *
Four days before the draft, on a cool Wednesday morning in the final days of winter, Cricket Australia holds an International Player Drafts launch event in Richmond, not far from the MCG. Dozens of CA staff mill around, finalising details, sipping coffee, and at least one player from each Big Bash team – decked out in their respective tracksuits – chat mostly to one another as a handful of media await their chance for an interview.
In Brisbane, Seccombe is back on the phone to his analyst, Evans, in the UK. The two are mulling over options D, E and F, just in case their best-laid plans go awry, when Evans raises a name that has sprung up in recent weeks on his spreadsheets: Paul Walter, a 29-year-old Englishman dubbed 'Tall Paul' because he stands at 203cm. A hard-swinging left-handed bat and left-arm medium pacer with good changes of pace, Walter was particularly impressive in last year's Hundred tournament, taking wickets and belting sixes and helping Manchester Originals to the pointy end of the competition. His height on the hard-bouncing Gabba pitches might make him a handful, they surmise.
In a world where Curran and Overton might prove out of reach, he looms as a handy back-up. Seccombe jots his name down, and resolves to watch some footage.
* * *
On the third day of September, within the walls of a concrete-floored studio on a quiet street in Melbourne's Southbank, the Big Bash Show is about to begin. Twenty years on from the birth of the format, more than a decade into the competition's existence, this is the skin the BBL appears somewhat comfortable in: an entertainment-first cricketing brand which sits very much adjacent to the traditional following of the national men's side.
The women roll in first, a smorgasbord of the country's best talent, Ellyse Perry and Beth Mooney and Phoebe Litchfield among them, and Alyssa Healy propped up in the broadcast box as one of three presenters.
A thousand lights shine down from the ceiling, a rainbow of colours spilling garishly across the warehouse-sized room. With each squad kitted out in their equally bright training gear, staring at one another from across the room, it is hard not to picture the 2004 Ben Stiller movie Dodgeball, and when Nicole Bolton is spotted doing her best White Goodman impersonation, it is clear that others are thinking the same thing.
A voice on a microphone announces the pre-record will begin in 15 minutes. Studio host Mel Jones moves from desk to desk, putting coaches and players at ease. The clock counts down and when the moment arrives, the room falls silent. Fox Sports presenter Megan Barnard tells us we are in for a "fascinating evening of wheeling and dealing".
And so it goes for the next couple of hours. Decisive moments, strategic passes, and a lot of padding time. The women wrap at 5pm and more than one player or coach makes the point that it all could have been over in about half the time, which is doubtless true, which also raises the question as to the motive behind the draft. This made-for-TV product seems as much a marketing device as a source of player recruitment; a means of attracting – or distracting – out-of-season eyeballs, of adding some pizzazz and hype to a process that might otherwise go wholly unnoticed. And why not? Cricket Australia, like every other sporting body in the country, is working in an increasingly competitive environment. The challenge of drawing fans to cricket has never been greater. By putting the brains behind their squads on show, by asking them to make snap decisions on live TV that represent their past few months of work, they are trying a novel way to meet that challenge.
Local boys Nic Maddinson and Peter Siddle, both in Renegades red, are the first of the men to arrive, and a steady stream of playing and coaching talent trickles through the doors across the next hour. Everyone seems to know everyone. James Hopes (Hurricanes) talks to Bichel. Cameron White (Sixers) talks to Siddle. Everyone seems to have a chat with Jason Gillespie (Strikers), who might just be the friendliest man in the room. Glenn Maxwell, Scott Boland (both Stars) and Neser are the lone Australian players, though interim white-ball skipper Mitch Marsh (Scorchers) will later be interviewed live from South Africa.
From his front right seat on the front right desk, Bichel fiddles with the AirPods he will use when the Draft begins, so the Heat have access to Evans from the UK should they need him.
"Everyone is a bit more comfortable this time around," the champion quick observes. "Last year, there was plenty of chat and then the cameras turned on, and we all kind of froze."
At the Heat desk beside Bichel, front and centre, sits Neser, and to his left is Seccombe, who will be the man to converse on the mic with host Mark 'Howie' Howard when the moment comes. In the back row sit Queensland Fire legend and Queensland Cricket deputy chair Kirsten Pike, and the great Ian Healy. It is a formidable, but friendly, quintet.
Players and coaches check phones, fold arms, consult notepads, sip water, and unfold arms. The masses get restless for the action to begin.
'Howie' walks into the spotlight. He nails his intro at first attempt on pre-record, and a short time later, they use it to begin part two of the broadcast, which is now live to air.
Away from the floor, Lehmann – Heat cap (partly) removed – is presenting with Mike Hussey.
The Heat have pick seven in the Draft but, as they knew would happen, their 'unicorn', Curran, is snapped up by the Sixers, who need to use a retention pick to get their man after the Hurricanes, with Ricky Ponting on their desk, make a play for the Englishman.
The process works its way around to the Heat, and Seccombe announces, to the surprise of no-one, that they have picked Munro.
"Oh, I'm happy with that," Lehmann says to Hussey. "Fantastic player and a great guy around the group."
They get through the first round, and Munro appears on the screen from Barbados, where it's not yet 5am.
"The people, from the management through to the players," he says, in terms of what appealed to him about returning to the Heat.
He praises Lehmann, and says he is expecting to bat anywhere in top four, depending on how the Heat's remaining Draft picks shake out.
Which brings us to the second round. The Strikers pounce on big-hitting English allrounder Overton with pick 10. It is a blow for the Heat but one they would reasonably have seen coming, and thus prepared for.
From the very next pick, the Hurricanes select the former Gold Coaster Hain. Seccombe moves his finger towards the 'retain' button but pulls it away, attempting to add some drama to proceedings. He knows the retention of Hain could well have resulted in the selection elsewhere of Billings, who remains a priority for the Heat.
Howie notices the finger movement and quizzes the coach.
"We loved 'Hainy' last year," Seccombe says, "but we can't pick everyone".
Sure enough, when it rolls back around to the Heat, they select Billings. It is a neat one-two punch for the men in teal, but the real surprise is to come after the order of selections is reversed and the ball is quickly back in the Heat's court. With pick 18, Seccombe says, they have recruited Walter. Heads turn around the studio. Keyboards quietly clatter.
"He's 'Tall Paul'," grins Lehmann in the broadcast box. "Andy Bichel will be happy with that, because he gives them some variety (in their bowling attack). You've got Spencer Johnson, (but) is he going to be available, or is he going to be away playing for Australia? You've got another left-armer there, so it's another good option.
"He hits a big ball, too, so looking at the allrounder, you look at Curran and Overton as your first options, but when you've got Munro, Billings and Walter, I think they're pretty happy there."
And just like that, the Heat have their three picks sorted. Months of work have been whittled down to three names, and one in particular, with Seccombe hopeful Walter can fire in his first Bash experience.
"We stumbled on him," he says afterwards. "We looked at the analytics … saw what he could do, and then we looked at the footage and saw how he was used through The Hundred.
"So we're very happy having secured him, and we're going to get him for the whole tournament, including finals. The more we looked at him, the more we realised he could play a really good role for us, particularly in Brisbane – I think he'll be well suited to our wicket there."
As with the women's event, the show fizzles out with a couple of late passes, as clubs opt to instead take advantage of an option that allows them to sign players outside the Draft, much closer to the beginning of the tournament. It is another factor that causes brows to furrow in the studio, just as they do at the eye-watering sums these international players are being paid for their work.
As the broadcast ends, all of that and more is digested over beers and pizza. Players and coaches again mingle, a kaleidoscope of colours strewn throughout the studio. At one point, the Heat quintet come together for a brief postmortem. They seem quietly content with their work. The reality TV show is over. It's time to pause and take stock, before the cricket begins.