Criconomics book review: A different ball game

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March 15, 2015 12:15 AM

If you had been to some of India’s famous cricket grounds—Chepauk, now called the MA Chidambaram Stadium...

Surjit S Bhalla & Ankur Choudhary
Pp 180

If you had been to some of India’s famous cricket grounds—Chepauk, now called the MA Chidambaram Stadium; Eden Gardens in Kolkata; the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru; Brabourne or later the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai—in the decade of the 70s, 80s and 90s as a schoolboy, desperate to catch some of your childhood heroes in action on the field, a powerful memory wouldn’t just be the dashing stroke play or a great spell of spin or seam bowling.

High on recall would also be the collective assault in the form of mind-numbing statistics after perhaps every ball by hordes of those cricket-obsessed fans sitting around.

Today, it may be difficult to spot that breed of the ‘knowledgeable Indian fan’ that has given way to the post-liberalisation shrieking variety of cricket maniacs who wear their patriotism on their sleeves. Try telling them to soak in the moment, as many do in some of the prettiest grounds in the world or some of the county grounds in England, and you will be marched off. Yet, over the last decade or more, especially after the dominance of one-day cricket and its wider televised spread and the money involved, there has been far more data crunching or minute-to-minute analysis of the game. You now have data analysts travelling with teams and players acknowledging their contribution—all adding up to the latent demand in line with growing professionalisation of the sport.

Cricket is perhaps one of the few sporting disciplines that lends itself to stats of all kinds and comparative judgments. Among those die-hard cricket fans have been prime ministers and central bank governors such as the former Bank of England chief, Mervyn King, who describes cricket as the ultimate game that reaches across boundaries, and who, after leaving Threadneedle Street, made a trip to Mumbai to see the Brabourne Stadium. He has good company in Indian central bank governor Raghuram Rajan and sundry Indian netas. So little surprise if those who are into economic research and analysis or public finance also have a yen for applying statistical modelling to cricket, as Surjit Bhalla and his young co-contributor.

With the World Cup underway, the two have constructed models, or, as they call it, ‘an analytical framework’, to not only judge some of the greatest all-time players—bowlers, batsmen and captains—they have also used ‘rocket science’ and econometric models to predict the outcome of games based on the batting and bowling strengths of teams.

So if you reckoned that Vivian Richards was the greatest ODI batsman of all time or Virender Sehwag was a bigger match-winner than AB De Villiers of South Africa or the flamboyant Kevin Pietersen of England, does their new model capture it? It fairly does, including when it comes to assessing the greatest captains and, interestingly, the best of those who perform under pressure.

For an enlightened cricket lover, an endorsement of their judgment of a player through these models may be heartening. The predictability model should also interest perhaps the big boys who are now pouring money into the game by buying league teams and geeks, but not the average shrieking Joe with patriotic tattoos who may not be able to plough through the regression analysis and Kalman filter. It would have been wonderful to have had the thoughts of some of the more erudite players on these models alongside in this book, lending it a rich perspective. But that’s for another day.

The book is an interesting offering by a couple of contrarian and provocative writers. But as CP Snow wrote in a foreword on GH Hardy, the famous mathematical thinker, in A Mathematician’s Apology, technique, tactics, formal beauty, those were the deepest attractions of the game for him (Hardy). They are incommunicable unless one knows the language, Snow wrote. At the end of the day, what stays in the mind is that formal beauty.

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