ILT20: Moneyball at centre of Desert Vipers strategy as UAE gets cricket league of its own

Manchester United owner Avram Glazer has added a cricket franchise to his company's portfolio, and the team is taking a data-driven approach ahead of the inaugural season

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When Avram Glazer belatedly made his first foray into cricket, his starting point for building a team was not obvious. The canvas was entirely blank, and, for all his years of involvement in sport, his understanding of this particular one was unclear.

At the end of 2021, the American businessman acquired one of the six franchises for a planned T20 cricket tournament in the UAE, via his company, Lancer Capital. It was the latest sporting asset for a family who have significant other interests in American football and England’s Premier League.

Glazer had tried before to get a foothold in cricket. When the Indian Premier League expanded from eight to 10 teams ahead of the 2022 season, Lancer Capital made a bid for one of the new franchises, only to fall way short of the mark.

Their attention shifted swiftly from cricket’s most lucrative and important league to an entirely new one, in a country that does not even officially rank among the sport’s mainstream nations.

So how to go about constructing a team to compete in the DP World International League T20, which begins in Dubai on Friday?

What about a celebrity, headline signing? Maybe something along the lines of recruiting Tom Brady for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Or re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United?

The genesis of the Desert Vipers could scarcely have been more low-key, as they sought out the expertise of a data-analysis company instead.

“When the franchise was purchased, they got in touch with me in my capacity with CricViz, and they discussed data analysis,” said Phil Oliver, the Desert Vipers' chief executive. “That, for me, was very reassuring.”

CricViz, as the company’s website describes it, has been “setting the agenda in cricket analytics” for the best part of a decade now.

It was started by Aidan Cooney, a British businessman who had previously run Opta, a similarly market-leading statistics company in football.

Cooney and some colleagues had been watching a gripping Ashes Test match in London when his wife asked: “Who is winning?”

That partly motivated Cooney’s plan to demystify and retell cricket, via data analysis. To help his quest, he recruited one of his Opta analysts, Oliver, who became CricViz’s managing director, and now the CEO of a new cricket team in the UAE desert.

It goes without saying that putting together the Vipers player squad for the first season of the ILT20 has been founded on a mine of data.

That has even included statistical analysis of UAE domestic cricket, which is largely unstructured and uncharted in comparison to that of other leading cricket nations.

ILT20 competition rules dictate that each team must have four UAE-qualified players in their squads, with two places guaranteed in the starting XI.

The depth of data is better than it ever has been before. The team have worked very hard to help us recruit and scout players by doing the data analysis
Phil Oliver, Desert Vipers chief executive

The Vipers have opted for Rohan Mustafa and Sheraz Ahmed, each of whom have played franchise cricket at senior level, and young prospects Ali Naseer and Ronak Panoly.

“The depth of data is better than it ever has been before,” Oliver said. “Our analyst [Kieran Parmley] arrived this week. The team behind the scenes have worked very hard to help us recruit and scout those players by doing the data analysis.

“Even for the D20 event that happened [in the UAE] last week, they were able to do some data analysis on that event, including video.”

If Glazer is a cricket novice, his understanding of the value of analytics in sport might stem from Moneyball, either the movie starring Brad Pitt, or the Michael Lewis book on which it is based.

That charts the advance of the Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball team under the stewardship of Billy Beane, a former player whose faith in data-analysis has seen most leading sports – not just baseball – revise accepted beliefs about best practice.

“I think everyone realises it is a team effort,” Oliver said of the clash between old and new thinking. “None of the pieces, be it instinct, coach expertise, or numbers and analysis, is the answer in themselves. It is about how you fit those things together.

“The CricViz guys are very good at making sure they pass the message on in the right way. Coaches and players, especially the new crop of players, are very accepting, so long as you pass the message on in the right way.”

Tom Moody, a two-time World Cup winning allrounder for Australia turned coach, is the Vipers' director of cricket.

“We have a good network of expertise behind the scenes in terms of coaching staff, but also we use CricViz, which is a world-leading analysis company to help us define our search,” Moody said.

“That has helped us find players we believe will be important for us, players who not only are available but also balance our side, and have performed in this environment in the UAE before.

“There’s many different processes in place. Obviously, you are dictated by international schedules, which is challenging.

“When it comes to our first game [against Sharjah Warriors in Dubai] on January 15, we are very confident we have 20 players, any one of whom could find themselves in the playing XI.”

It is not just about this tournament, it is about creating something for this place, too
Desert Vipers captain Colin Munro

Moody’s enthusiasm for the task is uplifting, given the difficulties facing a tournament which has been a long time in gestation.

The UAE tried once before to launch a T20 league involving many of the world’s best-known players, but it did not come to pass. A month before the scheduled start of UAE T20x, just two of its five franchises had been sold.

This time around, it has a more solid footing, but its launch is coinciding with major tournaments going on in each of Bangladesh, Australia and South Africa.

Three of the teams in the UAE event are offshoots of established IPL franchises. Two of the others are owned by Indian businessmen of notable standing. And the other is backed by Lancer Capital.

UAE has been no stranger to high-profile T20 leagues in the past. The ill-fated Masters Champions League and the Pakistan Super League launched almost simultaneously in Dubai in 2016. The IPL has been played in the UAE on three separate occasions.

Each of those, though, felt imported. For the first time, the country has a league of its own.

“It is not just about this tournament, it is about creating something for this place, too,” said Colin Munro, the New Zealand batter who will captain the Vipers.

“We have seen the UAE play in World Cups, and some of the local talent, but for them to get on the world stage and really showcase their skills, this tournament really gives them a good platform for it. Hopefully it last for a very long time.”

Naseer, the 18-year-old student from Dubai who will be rubbing shoulders with the stars in the Vipers dressing room, cannot wait for his shot at stardom.

“I am looking forward to trying to make an impact in the league and try and make a name for myself,” Naseer said.

“Not just to make myself proud but also my family and the UAE cricket fraternity, because I think all of us aim to prove to the world that the UAE can play cricket. That is my main aspiration.”

Each of the franchises have 10-year licences to play in the league, and Oliver reckons each feels a long-term commitment.

“We are here to stay,” Oliver said. “We are the only non-Indian owned team. That international flavour that we can bring is very important to the ILT20.

“We have a long-term plan, and I know the other teams are committed on that basis. We are here to stay, and we hope the league is as well.”

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:00 PM