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How the Aussies prepare for unseen rivals

The moment that 16-year-old Naseem Shah stands atop his run-up and prepares to launch into his first spell as a Test match bowler, curiosity will course through the Gabba and across a worldwide viewing audience.

But while that interest will focus on precisely what the precociously talented teen is able to unleash, nothing that comes out of his right hand is likely to  surprise the rival batters in the middle, nor their Australia squad mates looking on from their elevated, ringside viewing room.

 
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That's because, even before the much-hyped young quick and his fellow pacemen arrived from Pakistan last month, Australia men's team performance analyst Dene Hills has been forensically studying Naseem's bowling repertoire.

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And not only the fast-bowling prodigy who emerged out of the Islamic republic's north-west provinces to have his remarkable natural talent honed at a private cricket academy in Lahore.

Through the services of an India-based data capture company, Cricket21, Hills has sourced, studied and interpreted footage of those Pakistan players who, like Naseem, have been previously unseen by Australia's men's team and made that information available to Justin Langer, his coaches and players.

 
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"One of our team rules is we don't want to be surprised by anything that comes at us out on the field," Hills told cricket.com.au today.

"Very rarely are we surprised by someone, or have reason to say 'oh wow, we haven't seen this bloke before'.

"At the very least, we get enough data on an opposition player to paint a broad picture, and then once we get a closer look – whether it's in a warm-up game, or something similar – that information cements itself.

"It's only every now and then that we see a player do something that we weren't aware of beforehand – they might have developed a different shot or a new type of delivery – and then we just say 'okay, we have to come up with a way to deal with this'."

One such instance arose during Australia's 2016 Test tour to Sri Lanka when the home team plucked left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan for his debut match, and Hills could find only low-quality footage of the 25-year-old bowling in a domestic T20 match to brief his players.

 
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Sandakan claimed seven wickets in Sri Lanka's 106-run win in that match at Pallekele, and proved a potent force in their 3-0 Test series clean sweep.

But Hills noted it had become increasingly rare for a player to arrive at international level without having been filmed in matches or training with an under-age team, domestic side or in a tour game of some sort.

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"If a young fast bowler, even if he's 16, has been filmed and posted on the internet, or if it's been beamed in from a local cricket match somewhere, the Cricket21 guys can grab it," Hills said.

"If it's been published or broadcast, they'll grab it and send it to us so we'll at least have some initial vision to look at.

In Naseem's case, despite having not played at international level in any format, Cricket21 provided vision captured recently as the fast bowler turned out for Pakistan under-19s on a visit to South Africa, and a handful of appearances as a 15-year-old in Pakistan's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy first-class competition.

 
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That provided Hills with an early glimpse of the teen's action and variations, but he was able to significantly bolster his dossier when Naseem bowled in the second innings of Pakistan's three-day warm-up match against Australia A earlier this month.

No sooner had Naseem sent down the final ball of his eight overs against Australia A than Hills was pouring over the footage, and breaking down information on where the teen lands the ball, how often he drops short and pitches full, and how his action subtly changes in producing various deliveries.

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"For a pace bowler, you want to see his speeds, whether he's moving the ball and how they achieve that, as well as all the basic statistics like whether he leaks a lot of runs, and if he's accurate like (experienced Pakistan seamer) Mohammad Abbas or can he be expensive," Hills said.

"What type of slower balls he may have, how he might hold the ball.

"If it's a spin bowler, I definitely want to look at front-on footage to study his variations, and to see if there's any subtleties to that.

"Everyone we provide that information to, whether it's coaches or players, looks at the detail slightly differently, but the bottom line is we don't want to be surprised by anything."

 
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Hills has witnessed an exponential growth in the volume and intricacy of performance data since his days as a solid, occasionally stolid, opener for Tasmania across a decade from 1991 to 2002.

In those days, most of the valuable insights resided within players' memories, and their capacity to recall and apply that knowledge was enhanced by the comparative uniformity of rivals they encountered.

"The thing with playing Sheffield Shield cricket was that you had pretty much the same opponents year after year, so you were naturally building up that research in your own mind," said Hills, who scored 7894 runs at 40.07 in 112 first-class matches.

"So when you came to face a bowler at the Gabba or wherever, you knew how they were going to try and get you out.

"But now, with the amount of cricket that's played and information we have at our fingertips, players don't want to leave it to chance.

"They want to know everything they can about who they are playing against, and so we provide that information as best we can."

When Hills retired from first-class cricket – a year before Naseem Shah was born – he took on a role as assistant coach with Tasmania, before being appointed batting coach with the national men's team and then a stint in that role with the England and Wales Cricket Board.

It was as the data revolution, which had first been embraced by former Australia men's team coach John Buchanan, was taken up by Buchanan's successors Tim Nielsen and then Darren Lehmann that Hills evolved into an analytical specialist.

His work is now supplemented by Thomas Body, a performance data scientist employed by Cricket Australia in Brisbane, and is increasingly fundamental to the intricate planning that goes into every Test and limited-overs match and series.

 
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In addition to the characteristics and habits of individual opponents, data sets extend to the vagaries of various playing venues and information as granular as how often rivals are dismissed by slips catches taken low to the ground or at waist/chest height.

While it's left to individual players as to how closely or how much of the statistical detail and footage of opponents they consume, there are some who explore its potential more deeply than others.

And there is also a non-negotiable expectation that coaches and the team's leadership group will immerse themselves in the statistical detail prior to every game.

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"Certainly the players, more and more, are getting better at exploring and applying this material," Hills said.

"Pat Cummins is one that comes to immediately to mind, he's asked some really good questions about how this might be used, and so has Nathan Lyon.

"A lot of the guys will ask good question, but every now and then we have to say 'look, this is really, really important for this Test series, or limited-overs series – this is our plan and these are the numbers that support the plan, or support the coaching idea to improve your game'.

"Certainly when the leadership group gets together, and the coaching group get together, I want to be completely over all the finer details of what each opposition player can and can't do."

 
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Hills believes that while the industry of data analysis and interpretation has flourished almost beyond belief in T20 franchise competitions around the world, the secret to its successful implementation is to employ the information judiciously rather than simply use it because it's available.

Central to that view is ensuring the data is current, because tactics and individual strategies develop so quickly that out-of-date footage might prove more detrimental than insightful.

Australia men's team coach Justin Langer refers to the vital elements of the seemingly endless data streams as "golden nuggets" because he sees their use sparingly but insightfully as crucial to the team's success.

Hills also sees areas of untapped potential for closer data scrutiny, particularly in the development of fielding and field placings in a similar manner to which football codes devise strategies to create 'zones' as they plot and execute game plans.

But as the Domain Test Series gets underway at the Gabba tomorrow, the most tangible benefit delivered by Hills's research and its dissemination to coaches and players will be seen when Naseem Shah takes the ball for the first time in international cricket.

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On match eve, Australia captain Tim Paine was confident that work would ensure neither he nor his team would be confronted by anything unforeseen, from Naseem or any of his Pakistan teammates.

"We've prepared for all of them," Paine said.

"That's the thing with Pakistan, they've got a lot of different options, a lot of skill and, by the looks of it, a fair bit of pace.

"We've made sure that when we go out there tomorrow, we've had a good look at as much possible footage as we can.

 
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"Because what we don't want is to go out there and be surprised by something we see, whether that's their spinner, their quicks or their batsmen.

"Some of them are unknown, but it's professional sport and guys have got to prepare accordingly.

"We've done our work on all of them."

Domain Test Series v Pakistan

Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner

Pakistan squad: Azhar Ali (c), Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Imam-ul-Haq, Imran Khan Snr, Iftikhar Ahmed, Kashif Bhatti, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Musa Khan, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shan Masood, Yasir Shah.

Warm-up match: Australia A v Pakistan, match drawn

Warm-up match: v Cricket Australia XI, November 15-16, WACA Ground

First Test: November 21-25, Gabba (Seven, Fox & Kayo)

Second Test: November 29 – December 3, Adelaide (d/n) (Seven, Fox & Kayo)

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