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During the fourth innings of the Lord’s Test match, the commentators – especially Michael Holding – had been adamant that the seamers should be bowling from the Nursery End. And in the face of scathing criticism, Ishant Sharma ran in from the Pavilion End, capturing seven wickets on the trot, winning the game for India. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the ways former cricketers err in believing their ideas and opinions to be infallible.
Great cricketers find themselves in the commentary box for several reasons. The insights into the game can be invaluable to the lay viewer, and even the keen student of the game. The experience which lends its lustre to the voices make for excellent education. At the same time, there is another very valid reason for them being in the box – they are not in the middle.
The ex-cricketer is not out there making the moves, running in to bowl, plotting the dismissal of batsmen or feeling the recoil as the ball hits the middle of the bat. Hence, what they make of the situation, is often an extrapolation of their experiences and their reading of the situation. With every amount of immense respect deservingly due to them, they are not really in the best place to gauge what is going on in the match. That vantage position is occupied by the 22 who are out there playing the game.
Hence, when there are delusions of absolute ability to pronounce gospel, it renders the expert – high be his title, proud be his name – susceptible to embarrassing bouts of prophecies and didactic rants gone wrong.
During the Lord’s Test, there were plenty of men in the commentary box who had their uncomprehending knives unsheathed and gnashing for MS Dhoni. The Indian captain’s tactic of standing back to Ravindra Jadeja was considered ridiculous, he was supposedly bowling Jadeja too much when seamers were the prescribed saviours of the day, that too from the end where seamers should have been put on. Additionally, Ishant Sharma was bowling from the wrong end, and for that crucial period before and after lunch on the final day, he was pitching way too short. All these were supposed and MS Dhoni kept on missing tricks which more fertile brains would have implemented, and so on and on went the many voices before the wickets started tumbling to the same Ishant Sharma bowling from the same Pavilion End.
After the match, while explaining his reasons for standing back to Jadeja– perfectly reasonable and impressively innovative ones – Dhoni even joked that had a batsman stepped out and missed during that period of play, the commentators would have had a field day talking about the blunder. It is perhaps a blessing for the Indian team that the captain can brush off criticism with a chuckle rather than bristle. It just underlines that while most of the commentators can perhaps walk into various halls of fame, they cannot very well be there in the mind of Dhoni as he stands behind the stumps. There is a reason because of which captains do certain things, and there is never one way prescribed by one man which is the chosen track of the cricketing gods.
Case in point — Michael Holding. One of the most graceful fast bowlers ever, who never sacrificed any of his lethal weaponry for the ethereal beauty of his run up, he knows more about fast bowling than just about anyone on the planet. However, that day when he kept harping about the wrong end from which Ishant was bowling, it was largely based on rigid opinions and expertise he did not quite possess.
Holding based his reason and scepticism not on his deep reservoir of knowledge, but on the fallacious interpretation of ratio and proportions. There had been a great percentage of wickets that had fallen to seamers from the Nursery End. These had led him to detect uneven bounce on the pitch as the batsman stood to bat at the pavilion end. It was a typical example of spurious correlation, the results leading one to decipher causes when there are none.
Holding based his conclusions on his assumption that many more dismissals at one particular end denoted significant irregularity, and it gave insights into the playing conditions. In other words, Holding was playing a probabilist, which he is not. The errors he made were very basic ones of not accounting for small samples, spurious correlation implying causation and ignorance about the actual probability of ‘unusual’ streaks. Several wickets falling from one end is not really an indicator that something unusual is going on. The Jamaican legend’s mistake was akin to the inexperienced student who fudges data of an unperformed experiment of tossing coins, stopping every unbroken streak of ‘Heads’ at two or three. Filling up results without actually tossing the coin, the student falls prey to his ignorance of the fact that a succession of five or more ‘Heads’ have lower probabilities but are by no means extraordinarily irregular. Similarly, the great Holding assumed that a huge proportion of wickets from the Nursery End meant something special. It did not. And it was aptly demonstrated when Ishant picked up seven wickets, all the while running in from the Pavilion End, the very end so succinctly pronounced wrong by Holding and many of his colleagues in the commentary box.
A microphone gives one a far reaching voice enriched with wisdom, but seldom lends divine intonation to it. No cricketer in their own day had been infallible, and neither does experience render one unerring and flawless. Experience comes with a caveat – the great game has infinite possibilities, and even hundreds of matches cannot exhaust every possibility that there can be. There can still be many scenarios that the most experienced campaigner has never encountered, and always the possibility that he might be mistaken. And especially, if one ventures away from cricket and ventures into the domain of probability, such egg in the face becomes increasingly likely.
One understands that insights and predictions are part of the job description of a commentator and one may be expected to throw around opinions and speculations in their attempt to do the job. But, reining in such opinions and the realisation that even expert verdicts can be wrong are some of the most important skills of commentators.
Yet, most in the job have a penchant for relentless criticism, airing suggestions that cannot be proven wrong while voiced from theair-conditioned antiseptic environment of the commentary box. One wishes there were more men like Rahul Dravid behind the microphone — reluctant to pronounce judgement, admitting that the alternatives suggested can go wrong as quickly as the on-field tactics.
(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)
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