England analyst Nathan Leamon watches the team train
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Talking Cricket

'Analysis is easy. The trick is turning it into info players can use'

Nathan Leamon, England's white-ball team analyst and head of research and innovation, talks about using data to get ahead

Interview by Jarrod Kimber  |  

In John Nyren's The Young Cricketer's Tutor, published in 1833, he mentions batting averages while writing of the dawn of organised cricket at Hambledon in the late 1700s. We've talked stats in cricket before most modern-day sports were invented, but we haven't always used them properly, or consistently, or often to help improve the game. There are databases on extras going back generations, but not on dropped catches. No one knows if Bradman was better against off or legspin.

"Moneyball" is the term used about baseball's move to data, but that is just the title of a book; the actual movement, sabermetrics, was started 20 years earlier by Bill James. Cricket has had no one change it like James did baseball. Krishna Tunga was an early pioneer with the Australian team in the early 2000s using his homemade metrics. But cricket's first big jump into the Moneyball era was not by Tunga but the English team who used Hawk-Eye data to find a blueprint for England winning. Nathan Leamon, analyst, and now novelist - his first book, The Test came out last year - set that up.

Today, you were involved in an English selection meeting.
Yes, for my sins.

Is it weird for someone of your background to be sitting in selection meetings with professional coaches, and former players and legends, while they choose who plays for England?
Absolutely, and this is my second stint. The first one was very weird, back in Andy Flower's day. I turned up to do the job, and I'm opinionated, and I can normally put together a decent argument. Andy likes that, so he used to drag me into these meetings. My first season I was sitting in meetings about "whither English batting", with [Graham] Thorpe and [Mark] Ramprakash, these guys who were heroes to me. So that was very strange.

And then you get used to it and it becomes normal. I actually reflected today walking in to it, it's strange that it's no longer strange. In the room I have Ed Smith, who is an old friend of mine, and whose dad was my mentor when I first started teaching. Andy, who was my first boss, and the guy who got me into this whole thing. Mo Bobat, who was an ex-teacher like me, and a very smart guy. James Taylor, who I've known since he was (gestures very low) - well, he still is that high, but I've known him since he was 14.

When I first got the job, there was an ODI at Trent Bridge [in 2009], and I went in to just spend a day in the dressing room and meet everyone. But the moment that got me was going for tea between the innings and across the room there's [Ricky] Ponting and Brett Lee. [Andrew] Strauss and KP were intimidating enough, but suddenly seeing those blokes across the room was, wow, this is different.

Play 04:26

Leamon busts five modern cricket myths

How do you prepare for a job that hasn't really existed before?
My job was performance analyst, which was a job that had existed in cricket for a while - I was just trying to do it a different way. The job was also split up. Initially Gemma Broad did the white-ball stuff and I did the Tests. I've never done all the fixtures, which is more usual - most of the analysts are either on the road or resting. So they don't get very much time to prep for the next series. Whereas I got months at a time away from the team, to think about what we were doing and take it forward.

I have noticed with normal analysts - they spent most of their day coding video, recording all kinds of information about deliveries and shots played, and then sorting it after play, which doesn't leave much time for anything else. That means that at the end of the day, they're also fried. So for you, having that time off must have been quite handy.
Absolutely - we couldn't possibly have made the progress we did in those early years if I'd been with the team the whole time.

There's a couple of advantages to logging the game. One is you know you've watched every ball. Even if you can't remember it, you have seen every ball, you have logged it. And after a while, coding is like driving, it requires about the same level of concentration. I can do a bit of work on the next computer and log while I am going. And you get to the end of the Test and you're often the only guy in the dressing room who has watched every ball. If you are watching well and coding well, you are a valuable voice. Telling the next [batsman] that it's just started to go [reverse], that's a worthwhile contribution. You might answer 50 to 100 questions in a 50-over game, and I couldn't do that if I wasn't coding.

To the outside world, you're probably seen less as a dressing-room presence and more as England's Moneyball instigator.
My view of analysis is that its job is to show you things that you can't see with your eyes. That might be with slow motion, or by collating 12 months of events into one piece of information. You can't physically do that with your brain because that's not how our brains work. Some of the most valuable stuff we do is showing head-on footage of bowlers' variations. I'm quite utilitarian. It's about helping to win cricket matches. If that's simple and uninteresting, that's fine.

The difference between what you are doing in cricket and what an NBA or NFL team is doing is that there are heaps of backroom staff crunching each bit of analysis. At an MLB team you'd be head of analytics, but in cricket you are combining a few of these roles together.
Yes, that is definitely right. The first significant move away from what everyone else had done as an analyst was just realising that the Hawk-Eye data we had was an absolute goldmine. It's like you have half a million independent experiments recorded with results: this is what happens when x and y and z [events happen], these are the outcomes. So you can go into an awful lot of detail about the opposition, but you can also just understand the game better. If you start asking really interesting questions, you have the means to answer them in a way that is quite unusual in sport in general.

There is no equivalent in football, for example. If you wanted to answer these questions in football you'd have to start by collecting the data, or designing an experiment that would allow you to, whereas in cricket, Hawk-Eye does it for us.

Have players come to regard cricket stats with less distrust, now that data analysis is commonplace?

Have players come to regard cricket stats with less distrust, now that data analysis is commonplace? © Getty Images

When did you first start using Hawk-Eye?
On the first trip, to South Africa, 2009. At the time I was building the first of those Hawk-Eye based tools while I was out there, and I finished it in Bangladesh just after that. That's where I built the first Monte Carlo simulator used in cricket as well. It always depresses me what I achieved in the first six months when I compare it to my current rate of productivity.

The Monte Carlo Method is a technique used to visualise all possible outcomes of decisions and assess the impact of risk, allowing for better-decision making under uncertainty

Those two things were a huge jump. It took the rest of the game a couple of years to work out what you were doing. You look at betting agencies, cricket data companies, they all have these Monte Carlo simulators now. There are Hawk-Eye-based companies popping up everywhere, including CricViz [which Leamon co-founded].
It was the first big leap. I think we are now at the start of the next big surge of what is possible in cricket. And that's going to be driven by the fact everyone has the same data, so everyone can do what I was doing five years ago. And it becomes about how well you use the data.

That, coupled with pretty cheaply available cloud-based AI, machine learning, etc, I think you're now going to see between five and ten years from now, every significant cricket outfit, major nation, decent-size franchise, will either have an in-house data-analytics team - I mean serious maths grads, developers, like you see in baseball, and they'll be doing proper data science - or they'll be buying it in from outside. That level of analytics will become de rigueur.

Did you play cricket?
Yes, I played through to university and a little bit of club cricket after that. I gave a presentation for a guy from university recently and he introduced me as having the knack of making myself look a lot better than I was. Which is probably about right.

I played for Cambridge, when I was there; I wasn't ever close to being a professional. But I was a very keen cricketer, as was my dad. He still turns out, age 70, so every weekend of the summer when I was a kid was at the cricket ground. I was raised on cricket.

After university you went into teaching.
I started at Tonbridge School, in Kent. A prestigious school, and a very good cricket school. The Cowdreys came through, Ed Smith, Zak Crawley, Richard Ellison, so there's a rich cricket history there. And I ran cricket there for six years, coaching the 1st XI. Then I took over the rugby, did that for four years.

How did you end up with England?
So I went via Eton College, as director of coaching, in charge of all their elite sports. I did that for three years. Then there was Andy Whittall, the former Zimbabwean cricketer, who I worked with at Tonbridge, and who followed me as coach of the 1st XI there. We were talking at the Eton-Tonbridge match on the boundary. He said Andy's [Flower] looking for a guy to come in and help with analysis. Peter Moores had given him Moneyball, and he'd read it.

Baseball, like cricket, is well suited to analysis, because game play is split into discrete units

Baseball, like cricket, is well suited to analysis, because game play is split into discrete units © Getty Images

He was looking for someone to change the way they did their analysis and take a much more data-driven approach. I said, well I'll give it a go if you like, and that was that.

It's interesting that it started that way, because there would have been analysts in counties at that time, trying things. Sussex had looked at where a bowler could follow-through to make running twos tougher in the early 2000s. There were little Moneyball moments, little flare-ups, and some counties had people at least flirting with this.
I was lucky in that I was at the right place at the right time, and I happened to have a strange set of overlapping skills. I am not a brilliant mathematician, but I was good. I was a pretty good coach, and I'd done it for 15 years, so I understood the mentality, and I was a massive cricket fan. Those three things don't overlap in many people, so I was lucky that I wandered into the job where those skills made me quite unusual.

Outside of international cricket, we have had Northants' success, there has been Islamabad United as well, but we haven't had one big moment like three-point shooting in basketball. That is a really obvious thing that even a non-data person will have to look at and go, "The game has changed". And it was because of spreadsheets.
I agree. I think part of it is that there is a continuum. So on one end you have baseball, which is perfectly designed to be analysed, 140 games a season, lovely, interlocking probabilities about where you are in the count, things almost impossible to calculate in your head but easy to do in a spreadsheet. They have their version of Hawk-Eye. They also have mountains of data, 100 years of historical data, in which the game hasn't really changed. The scoring levels have remained remarkably stable. You could argue it is the richest data set in the world, in any sphere of life.

Baseball is perfect, football is at the other end of the continuum - it's really hard because there are no discrete units to work with. There are very few patterns that digitise. It's fluid and hard. And in the middle you have cricket and rugby, where you have some nice discrete units, but the big thing in cricket that tips us from science towards art is the pitch. The pitch is always different.

When I was with St Lucia as analyst, we played a block of games at home. It was a great pitch, and after two games I put together a chart of what the strike rates were for different balls, so the players could get an idea of what was and wasn't working. I said to them: "I don't know if the pitch is going to do the same, but this is what it has been doing." A couple of local players said it would do the same. After two games of over 200, we got rolled for less than 100. I don't think the pitch had changed that much, but I think our players went at it exactly the same, and it had changed enough. But I think, you and I know, there is no way we can tell the future of anything, let alone with a living organism like a pitch.
I assume there are baseball clubs where they say to a guy: you are going to pitch this way - either to this area or this kind of sequence. And even if one is belted out of the ground early, you say, no, no, the plan is right, stick with it. Whereas almost every time you walk out in cricket, you adjust the plan after five or six overs due to how the pitch is playing. You want to attack someone a certain way, but the pitch won't let you, so you have to adjust and switch tactics.

That is going to be very hard for cricket to completely overcome. But because it is so stop-starty, and there are so many data points, there is still so much we can find out. But when your team had that success, did you hope that was a big boom and cricket was going to move forward, or were you hoping no one noticed, so you could keep doing stuff?
Probably the latter. It was all super-secret at the start. We were quite anti-press, quite insular. Mooresy was very good on this. He says every team is an island. You need that insularity, but you've got to keep a link to the mainland. Once you lose that - and you see that in Australia recently - your groupthink drifts too far away from what the world thinks.

We were quite secretive. We didn't want to show our hand.

The brains trust: (from left) Leamon, Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and bowling coach David Saker put their heads together in Melbourne during the 2010-11 Ashes

The brains trust: (from left) Leamon, Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and bowling coach David Saker put their heads together in Melbourne during the 2010-11 Ashes © PA Photos/Getty Images

Part of cricket's problem is that there are so few people doing this. We probably have less people looking at this now than baseball had in the '80s, around the birth of the sabermetrics movement.
Yes, if teams keep it to themselves, they miss out on the wisdom of crowds. But I think the way the world works in cricket has changed; it is significantly different to how it was ten years ago. There's always three of your blokes who have sat next to someone in the opposition in a franchise somewhere. Everything is more communal, so things get out anyway.

So what is your current job?
I am now the lead for research and innovation for the ECB. As of two years ago I stepped a little bit away from the team. I am still the analyst for the white-ball set-up. And I'm still keen to keep that role in the dressing room, because a lot of the projects I am working with are aimed at the World Cup. And to be honest, if you don't have a link to players and they don't know who you are, there is no way of ever having an effect on what happens on the pitch.

How far behind baseball and basketball are we?
We're quite a long way behind baseball in most regards. I think basketball is a difficult comparison because it's such a different sport. Things like using Hawk-Eye to look at the game, because of our lovely little discrete units, we are quite a long way ahead of basketball's starting point. We probably have the scope to do more in cricket than basketball, just because of the structure of the game, and I think the same of football - football is just really, really hard, because of the structure of the game.

The sport is well set up, but the resources aren't allocated in cricket. You're probably not the right person to speak to about that, but when I turned up at St Lucia we had no data at all, no video. And that's not a CPL thing - there are a lot of big franchises like that, and international teams with not much more.
I think the era of the fully professional cricket coach, I mean in the non-literal sense, is quite new. It's not that long ago that the coach was the guy who picked up the balls at the end of practice, who was a loveable old bloke who told stories about 30 years ago.

There is a story from when Athers [Mike Atherton] captained a tour to South Africa in the '90s. Ray Illingworth was the coach. They also had a batting coach and bowling coach. The first day of practice, the players went to the nets and the coaches went to play golf. It wasn't their job to run the practice. That's where cricket coaching was in the '90s.

Mohammad Khan, general manager for Jamaica Tallawahs, recently put up a post saying that we can do all this analysis and use objective thinking, but because of the captain's power in cricket, it's an extra layer of complication, especially as you can't talk to them during a game.
What we have with cricket is this weird fifty-fifty split. If you look at the team games, the coach is in charge. In football or rugby, the coach hires and fires the players. But if you look at tennis and golf, the player is in charge and he hires and fires the coach. And then you have cricket. The coach and the captain are both there, and depending on the personalities, sometimes one is the dominant character, but it basically splits fifty-fifty in terms of authority and decision-making. It's an individual sport dressed up as a team sport.

That gives the players more autonomy. It doesn't quite have that inbuilt team ethic of rugby, which is all about sacrifice and the team first. So cricketers watch Living with Lions [the documentary on the British Lions rugby team] and they see this incredibly emotive speech by Sir Ian McGeechan, and they go, "Why is he crying?" They don't get it, because that is not how their sport works.

My running joke is that most coaches still use Hotmail. They're not the most tech-savvy people in the world.
Yes, and many of them have only worked in cricket. So, although their experience of cricket is incredible, they are very cricket-centric in their skillsets.

Northamptonshire have been poster boys for data-driven success in cricket

Northamptonshire have been poster boys for data-driven success in cricket © Getty Images

I find it really interesting, how you pass information to a person who often never went to university, doesn't read books, or had to pay that much attention in school. Or does all those things but has lost all those skills after years of playing cricket. In some of these cases these players have played their entire career without really having to listen to anyone but a coach. Now they are in a room with an analyst and they are thinking, "Wait, you haven't played, you are the analyst, you're supposed to be off in a corner with your laptop, not speaking to anyone." And many analysts are shy young people who only whisper what they believe, unlike you or me, who say it loud, so that doesn't always go down well.
Ha, yes. But I'm a little bit more subversive than that, so I show them video. But I try to show them the right video. My process always started with me in a room going through all the data, watching all the video, and then pulling out the bits that are indicative. These days there are a team of three of us alternating with the senior side, so much of that prep work is done by Rupert Lewis, who was the New Zealand analyst before he came to the ECB. We will then take that to Morgs [Eoin Morgan] and Spoons [Chris Silverwood, the bowling coach]. Trevor [Bayliss] is often involved. We come up with a plan. I then go and put together footage of the opposition players, so if we want to bowl top of fifth stump to someone, then we're going to show nine clips of him nicking off to a ball on the top of fifth stump.

Then again, often the best source is to ask the players who have played with them in the IPL or some other league. That's more valuable than me looking at someone's Ranji Trophy stats and saying, "He gets dismissed lbw a lot."

My big thing after some chats with some really smart players who questioned what we do is that these players know all this stuff. Batsmen read bowlers for a living, and vice versa. Some of these guys play against hundreds of cricketers a year. But there is no system to interview them on all these players, to get the information that they have onto paper. So a lot of what I do is trying to get information out of senior players. Junior players feel the pressure of the room a lot of times. Not to mention, what they say might be completely wrong. So in most cases it's not a natural thing for a player to speak up.
We're lucky at the moment our change room is full of people like Morgan, [Jos] Buttler, [Ben] Stokes, who are very good at that sort of thing. They speak at the right times, they say the right things, and they set a really good tone in that regard. To be honest, the analysis is the easy bit; the trick and skill of the job is turning it into something that a bowler can use when he is standing at the top of his mark. So if it's not of any use to him at that point, then it's just a nice story.

There are players that didn't always warm to what you did. I was talking about this with another player from that era, and he was very dismissive of what you did in general. Now anyone who comes in and does things to disrupt an industry is going to get this. How did that affect you?
It happened very rarely to my face, the guy at the time who was most critical was Swanny [Graeme Swann] but I never minded that, because it was always intelligent criticism. And his basic point was that the pitch is always different: so you can't tell me about anything that is going to happen tomorrow. And there's a lot of truth in that, so I didn't have an issue with that. And we found some ways of being useful to him. Equally, if you average 30 with the bat, 20 with the ball and catch flies in the slips, and I'm not adding to that, brilliant.

Particularly in the early days, very little of what I did went to the players. It was mostly for the captain and coaches.

But there must have been other guys who thought you were an idiot who didn't play, and you were just trying to justify your job.
Yes, I had all of the above at some point. I was lucky that I was in a dressing room which was consciously trying to push the boundaries in a lot of areas. Flower was very much, "We will work harder, work smarter, and look for ways to improve."

Andrew Strauss -

Andrew Strauss - "the brightest bloke" Leamon briefed in cricket - talks to analyst Gemma Broad in 2010, when she was in charge of the team's white-ball cricket © PA Photos/Getty Images

My first briefing from him was: "Your job is to look at what we do, analyse what we do, and challenge us on anything where we can get better." So that is like the dream portfolio. And we were winning, so winning covers a multitude of sins. People only really start to grumble and create issues either when you lose or when you have won for long enough for people to have forgotten what it is like to lose. And also, Strauss is a very bright bloke, probably still the brightest bloke I've briefed in cricket. You can tell when the next question coming back is the right one.

It is easy for me, I've thought about this for a week. You're getting ten minutes and having to think on your feet. Not many people ask the right question in those circumstances. But Strauss did. He saw to the heart of what you were saying and came back with the right counterpoint.

So to answer the original question, I got a lot less static and pushback than I ever expected, partly because I had guys like Strauss and Flower running interference for me. And then you get through it and once you are there, you become part of the furniture. There is a big difference between guys who were there when you arrived, and guys who came in when you were part of the dressing room.

I also found with the younger players that if you're wearing the official shirt and you're having coffee with the coach or manager, there's a certain level where they just accept who you are. Where the older players are a bit more like, "Who is this guy?" And of course, you came from coaching. I had players in St Lucia's team that I had written about as a journalist. But I did feel that the younger players accepted that this was how it was done.
Yes, they've also grown up in a time where all of this is a bit more normal. The old guys played the game and did it well before you were around. You're new-fangled to them.

Let's look at where new ideas are next. Brisbane Heat are using batting cages. The idea is that you get a chance, moments before you hit the middle, to see the ball in the same light, and swing through it, feeling the contact. Nets are usually away from the ground, in different light, and you can't make it back in time, so having the batting cage right next to the playing surface is the idea.
I think there is benefit, although I think it is limited. You can't pick up the pace of the wicket. But you're warming up the eyes and arms, it's certainly no worse than sitting still and waiting. At first, do no harm.

I suspect it will become a bit like ice baths - it will be a matter of individual choices. If that makes you feel better, then it is, by definition, worth doing. If it doesn't, then it probably isn't going to work.

Next one is spatial tracking for fielding. When it comes to fielding, cricket has never really taken notice. The fielding-errors metric in baseball, which is a flawed system, is light years ahead of cricket. The bowler delivers a great ball and the batsmen get four overthrows, and they go against the bowler and no one else.
The two areas of the game with the biggest room for improvement are fielding itself and our analysis of fielding. As soon as you've got camera-based automatic tracking of fielders, it opens up a whole new level of stats.

What impact did that save have? Fielding is an area that is still under-analysed in cricket

What impact did that save have? Fielding is an area that is still under-analysed in cricket © Getty Images

When we talk about stats, you have selection over here, and then who do you bowl to who, where do you bowl, and where do you put the field. And at the moment we have nothing on the last one.

We have wagon wheels.
But they tell you where the fielders aren't.

Yes. You can give players a wagon wheel to look at, but the patterns are almost always dependent on where the fielders were.
Or where they bowled.

Exactly. We know he likes to hit through cover, but maybe that's because teams know how strong he is through point, so they lock that section off.
Yes. Certainly in Test cricket, we don't know the relative values of a third slip and third man. Ridiculous. It's 2018, how can we not know that information?

Bat sensors?
Yes, we have used them. I think we will probably go down a camera-based tracking system. You'll have marker-less biomechanical tracking - very much like the old biomechanical tracking, but instead of having to do it in a studio wearing a suit with dots on it, we can get that information in real time, from each ball. The advantage of bat sensors is that you get good information about the contact itself.

When IBM suggested bat sensors, I thought it was a bit of a step sideways. I can see how it would help, but surely spatial tracking or marker-less biomechanical could tell us much more.
I think the bat sensors will be more useful at the lower levels. Like, in tennis I have this thing that goes at the end of my racquet that bluetooths to my phone and tells me everything. And I can collect the data that the big boys get automatically. But at the top level, we have that already.

What's next?
Well, from the marker-less biomechanics, you'll have automated machine-learning systems that look at someone's action and tell you when it changes. I am not sure they are doing it in baseball, but those things are just starting to be available. Baseball is ahead of us in many ways, but they don't have better technology. They couldn't do this five years ago because the technology didn't exist then.

If you can do that off normal footage, you can build systems that analyse that. So we have a system that works from the accelerometers from Catapult [the trackers that make players like look they're wearing sports bras] to track where our players are, and their heart rates. Phil Scott the strength and conditioning coach with the team and Hannah Jowett back at Loughborough use the system to analyse the data and turn it into information about the bowlers. Their ground force, their approach speed, and lots of different metrics about how they are bowling. And that's an important tool now for bringing guys back online when they're injured.

You could use that in a game too, no? If Stuart Broad is bowling 130kph, can you look at that in an interval and say, "Your approach speed is way down"?
Yes, although they don't tend to analyse it in real time. So that probably wouldn't happen, but I imagine it is technically possible.

"Between five and ten years from now, every significant cricket outfit, major nation, decent-size franchise, will either have an in-house data-analytics team or they'll be buying it in from outside" © Getty Images

As I understand it, it's very good at telling us where someone is in their recovery. They can look at the information and say he's operating at 90% of his normal level, so they're not just dependent on self-reporting, they can actually see what level they are training at. And that can be used to inform the physio, strength and conditioning, and the programme for bringing them back.

So you could use Catapult data then for selection? The bowler could say he is ready, and the physio could agree with him, so you could then look at it and say, well actually he's still only bowling at 90% capacity.
Yes, so it wouldn't be selection from a performance point of view, but "Are we likely to injure him again?"

One reason I ask is because NBA players don't allow teams to collect the kind of data that Catapult does. Because they don't want that information to go back and affect their contracts. And we haven't had that in cricket so far. All the data we collect on players - we hold their future earnings in our laptops. Skinfolds, heart rates, etc, and it could be used against the players. Do the players understand what they are giving? We haven't really thought about that in cricket as a whole yet.
No, although (laughs) I remember the first time they had this system up and running. They did a trial with it. The guy who was organising it called in one of our senior fast bowlers and said, "Look at what we can show you - all this stuff, we can track run-up speed, intensity of effort." And the bowler just looked at him and said, "F*** me, there's nowhere to hide, is there?"

What's a time where you just got it wrong?
I got Strauss out in the Ashes.

Well you have one Test wicket, if nothing else.
He's written about it in his book.

Dougie Bollinger was playing in Adelaide. We had a brilliant first day. Start of the second day, Strauss asks if we have any footage of Bollinger. So I pull out some footage of Bollinger bowling in England versus Pakistan, and he was hooping it.

But by the time he had gotten to Adelaide, his body had given way, and he wasn't swinging it as much.
Yes, exactly, so I showed him footage of Bollinger bowling these hooping awayswingers. Straussy goes out, first ball starts on the line of off, he leaves the ball, and it goes straight and takes the off bail. So we're 0 for 1. Strauss comes back in, sits next to me. Luckily we then watch [Alastair] Cook and [Jonathan] Trott bat for an hour. When we were doing all right, I said, "Can't help feeling I got you out there, skip." "Yes, I wouldn't disagree with that Nathan."

You're like the ageing county pro of this now. Entrenched in the game, you've seen it all. But you obviously still care about the results.
I do, and I like winning and hate losing. But I've just found it psychologically easier to teach myself to look out at the stands and see how happy the opposition fans are and think, okay, it's a good day for them, and we'll be here again tomorrow.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber