IPL: The corporatisation may lead to a more scientific approach to selection and strategy

All teams are now equipped with support staff analysing numerical data, combining them with minute details of video feed, optimising selection, strategy, tactics and combination. Never has the science of numbers been implemented with such vigour. The cold corporation is not swayed by sentiments © Getty Images

The corporatisation and vulgar commercialisation of cricket in IPL may have some far reaching benefits as well. Arunabha Sengupta believes that there are chances that the best practices of IPL may lead to more scientific method of selection and strategies for Team India.

A year ago, as a Test cricket romantic gasping in the acrid fumes emitted by the commercial engine of Indian Premier League (IPL), I had written rather vehemently about all the evils of the bashball extravaganza.

One of the pet peeves I had voiced had been: “Can anything be more demeaning than players themselves being auctioned, put up for sale, much like the ancient slaves who were made to fight as gladiators, with the Coliseum madly baying for bets and blood?”

Yet, 13 months down the line, I detect some silver lining sneaking past the gloom in this very act of commoditising players.

Of course, just like the one-day game provided undeniable impetus to traditional cricket in terms of stroke-play, result orientation, fielding, player benefits and so on, the shortest and most pungent version can enhance the game in its own way. It is already leaving its recognisable traces on Test cricket by bolstering batsmen with weapons of destruction and bowlers with powers of deception as never before.  If we just consider just the IPL, it provides exposure, financial security and spotlight to an unprecedented pool of junior players.

However, I do see some far reaching benefits in one aspect of the game that has been ignored for long, especially in India.

Stats: The truth about bikini and Ignorance

Cricket as a sport leaves the richest deposits of data. Perhaps only baseball comes close to the numerical riches.

There are diligent fans who are intrigued by the volumes of statistics available from Wisden or cricket websites. However, making intelligent decisions with scientific insight based on the huge database of numbers is still rather rudimentary when one looks at matters of selection and strategy at the level of the national team.

I believe there are positive changes in this regard that can be influenced by IPL. The processes already followed by most of the teams have the potential to spill into the world of ODIs and Test matches — making decisions, strategies and selection more scientific rather than the wills and whims of a few men.

For way too long, ex-cricketers have remained cocooned in the comfortable assertion that their experience has the power to override anything suggested by numbers. We find it underlined by Navjot Singh Sidhu going ballistic with: “Statistics are like bikini; they reveal the obvious and hide the essential.” The statement carries with it the delicious luxury of not having to invest thought, attractive decibel level perennially associated with Sidhu and the irresistible sexual flavour. Hence, it enjoys enormous popularity among cricketing fandom who revel in borrowed cliché, and also has potential influence on important stakeholders who in turn influence selection.

However, let me assert here that Navjot Sidhu is no statistician. He doesn’t have any idea of what statistics can and cannot do. Even his quote is borrowed from the late Aaron Levenstein, a professor at Brauch College — in fact a large proportion of the Sidhu’s idiomatic expressions are flagrantly lifted.

As a full-fledged subject, statistics is not limited to putting the greater than or less than sign between two batting averages — one learns to do that in junior school. While to a lay person numbers can indeed be similar to a bikini, a statistician worth his salt can look under the covers to discover the essential vital statistics.

Let us take the metaphor a step further. Even as a lay person, ignoring the bikini and trying to perceive the situation beneath five layers of Victorian clothing of perceptions and prejudices is meaningless. I would prefer the bikini any day.

To respond to the idiom-loving Sidhu, let me just add that proverbs and clichés have their limitations, otherwise doctors would have been extinct and hospitals would have been full of apple carts for people to have one a day.

There are numerous analytical techniques — Hypothesis Testing, Analysis of Variance, Time Series Analysis to name a few — which can answer the most debated questions, if only one knows how to apply them. From whether Sachin Tendulkar is a match winner to choosing between a right hander and a left hander as a middle order batsman to tour South Africa, statistics, properly applied, can provide very robust and scientific answers. This can be invaluable in used in tandem with cricketing experience.

Limits of cricketing experience

Yet, for ages, Indian selection committees and important cricketing decision makers have worked based on gut feel.

While experience of past cricketers should never be discounted, they are prone to very human errors, biases, prejudices, perceptions and enormous amounts of extrapolation.

Examples of statistically abominable comments are rampant — such as Mohinder Amarnath’s assertion that MS Dhoni does not deserve a place in the Test side. Thankfully the errors of perceptions and prejudice did not stand in the way of the Dhoni double hundred and the eventual 4-0 triumph over Australia.

With all due respect, no one’s experience is all encompassing. A Sandeep Patil may be the best man for the job, but he has not really played Test cricket in South Africa. What worked in specific instances in the days of the wise men may not hold true for every situation. It is here that numbers, properly used, can help the selectors and other important decision makers to gauge whether their ideas are robust with rigorous scientific tests.

IPL can actually help in this regard.

The tale of Oakland A

The resistance to such thinking has always been there in the sporting community.  ”You cannot win with calculators” is a standard response. One of the major reasons is that not every sportsman is good with numbers and are prone to view them with suspicion.

In 2001, when Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane tried to implement sabermetrics with the help of Yale economics graduate Paul DePodesta, the experienced baseball scouts threw quite a tantrum. “This isn’t how you run a ball club, with a computer. You know that. There are intangibles that only a scout can see in a player that you’re not going to pick up with just numbers, with someone who doesn’t play the game, who knows nothing about the game but how to feed numbers into a computer.”

These rants, so very common in the cricketing world as well, were finally proven to be ridiculously inaccurate.

Faced with budget restrictions imposed by the new owners of Oakland, Beane had set out to build a team of under-priced players who could hold their own against the most expensive of clubs, such as The Texas Rangers. With the statistical acumen of DePodesta to augment his baseball knowledge, Beane fell back on sabermetrics — measures created in 1977 by the visionary baseball statistician Bill James. The old method of recruiting based on the baseball-gut-feel of the scouts was disregarded. “You don’t have a crystal ball,” as Beane put it plainly to a disgruntled old timer complaining about the new methods.

Players were chosen by optimising their purchase cost and the match winning value computed by new measures. Sabermetrics redefined the standard statistics popular in Baseball. Measurements such as On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage and fielder capability became more important than traditional Batting Average and Runs Batted In. And in the face of excessive scepticism, Oakland A went on an unprecedented winning streak.

In the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Oakland Athletics emerged as one of the best teams in the league, winning over 100 games each year despite having the second-lowest payroll. In 2001, Oakland finished second in the American League West, winning 103 and losing 59 games.

2001 standings American League West (top four)

Team Wins Losses Payroll
Seattle Mariners 116 46 $86,084,710
Oakland Athletics 103 59 $41,942,665
Anaheim Angels 75 87 $62,757,041
Texas Rangers 73 90 $106,915,180

Looking at the table, it is obvious that Oakland optimised their meagre purchasing power through some superb use of numbers to constitute a winning team.

In 2002 they did even better and topped the league.

In the Hollywood depiction of the Oakland story, Moneyball, Peter Brand, the screen version of DePodesta played by Jonah Hill, talks about his analysis to Beane, played by Brad Pitt. Hill says, “Baseball thinking is medieval. It’s stuck in the Dark Ages. There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what’s really happening. And it leads people who run major league teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams. They’re still asking the wrong questions. People who run baseball teams still think in terms of buying players. The goal shouldn’t be to buy players, what you want to buy is wins. To buy wins, you buy runs.”

The IPL Parallel

With the auction of players, and the enormous number of matches constituting a statistically significant sample size, the problem of winning games for an IPL team is quite similar. It is an optimisation problem of having to spend their money wisely to recruit players with maximum likelihood of constituting a win.
And with corporate organisations owning the teams, the proprietors want to see return of investment of all that is spent in the auctions and team maintenance. They are not patrons, but businessmen. Winning matters more dearly to them than it ever did to Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

The teams have woken up to it. Player selections are based on number crunching rather than perception and sentiments. This explains the immensely unpopular but genuinely justified departure of Sourav Ganguly from Kolkata Knight Riders in 2011. Led by Joy Bhattacharya, the analysts had worked with numbers and arrived at the correct decision. It was perhaps sacrilegious for the fans, but proved to be optimal for the team.

All the teams are now equipped with support staff analysing numerical data, combining them with minute details of video feed, optimising selection, strategy, tactics and combination. Analysis has sometimes touched Indian cricket earlier, in small spurts, but never has the science of numbers been implemented with such vigour. The cold corporation is not swayed by sentiments. The runs and wickets simply add up to bottom-line. This invokes analytics like never before.

It is true the game cannot be won by the computer alone, but it does add artillery to one’s arsenal that may prove to be the winning edge.

One does hope that with time and acquired expertise, some of this numerical ammunition will filter through into the methods of Team India as well.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)