A psychologist explains why people criticise Sachin Tendulkar - Part 2 of 3

Sachin Tendulkar with the World Cup after India’s famous win in April 2011 © Getty Images


Why is it that India abounds with people who turn their collective backs to data, statistics, logic and facts while embarking on single-minded bashing of the greatest modern cricketer? Arunabha Sengupta poses these questions to Dr. Suprakash Roycognitive psychologist and researcher in Leiden Medisch Centrum who provides a scientific basis for all the hideous mutilation of facts.


Both of us loved the night life of Amsterdam, the mellow yellow light of the warm bars, the endless excitement of the city, the cohabitation of physical and chemical sin with the quiet erudite introspection of the Dutchmen. However, for this meeting, Dr. Roy suggested Amstelveen, inside the green expanse of Amsterdamse Bos, in front of the VRA Ground which had hosted a handful of World Cup cricket matches in 1999.


As we began our discussion, the embarrassingly academic looking Dr. Roy wiped his glasses and looked at me with an accusing eye.


“I am disappointed with you, Senantix.”


As co-writers for Scroll, we have been meeting each other off and on during the last year, but I could not remember what I had done to cause his dismay.


Cognitive Illusions


“I understand that before a cricket writer, you are a cricket lover – I can excuse you for that. What I cannot excuse is that you continue to expect too much from your fellow men even when you have a statistical education. To cap it all, you are a novelist. You of all people should know how the human mind works.”


I politely reminded him that it was his job to know how the human mind worked.


“Ah … it is my job, true, but in this case, what I am going to explain could have come from you as well. Tell me, Senantix, you really expect people to be data aware? To understand probability?”


I said that there are criticisms that are baseless. At one point of his career, Tendulkar was criticised heavily for supposed failures in second innings. He went on to save a Test match with a second innings of 176 at the Eden, he won with a 103 in Chennai chasing down a steep target in the fourth innings … on numerous other occasions he performed as the best batsman in the world should, statistics pointed to that and yet …


Dr. Roy smiled and looked at me.


“You want people to have your memory for cricket matches? You remember the occasion when we were watching the highlights of the 1986 Lord’s Test in which Dilip Vengsarkar scored his third hundred and you went on blurting out the exact words of the commentator.”


“I saw the same highlights capsule in 1986 and I remembered …”


“Twenty five years later? Do you think it’s natural? You expect the others to remember every cricketing and statistical detail?” he laughed. “You see, Senantix, when people criticise, they seldom do it with data to back them up. It is not that they are malicious or have a hidden agenda – in some cases they do, but often they don’t. It is just the way human mind is fashioned.”


I frowned at Dr. Roy’s smile. He just kept smiling.


“I see that you take slights to Sachin’s name personally.”


“You bet I do. I would do the same if people peed on the Taj Mahal.”


“Ah, but this is different. They know not that they pee. Let us look at the problem at hand. The assertion is that Sachin fails if there is pressure. This induces a conjunction based judgement. Sachin’s failure will have to be considered in conjunction with India’s crisis situation. Human beings in general suck at such assessments.”


“You are kidding, right?”


Dr. Roy turned serious. “I am talking of Cognitive Bias, Senantix. I cannot be more serious. It is part of my research. In 1974, a pair of scientists, Daniel Kanheman and Amos Tversky proved the assertion through a series of experiments. You know, I wish we could talk in hyperlinks. That’s what the internet makes of us. Wish you could click a link and see what I mean.


“However, the most common demonstration of this is the Linda paradox, followed by the Taxicab problem. Look them up sometime. But I will give you a more sporting example. Lean back and think of 1980. Wimbledon. What do you remember?”


“Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.”


“Excellent. And you remember that before 1980, Borg had already won the Wimbledon four times in succession. So, he was a favourite. A group of people were asked three questions. One – what is the probability that Borg would end up winning? Two – what is the probability that Borg would lose the first set? Three – what is the probability that Borg would lose the first set and still win?”




“The people in general concluded a high probability for Borg’s win, a low one for his losing the first set. But the funny part was that almost all put the probability of Borg winning after losing the first set in the middle.”


“Ah … hang on …”


“Right. If a trained mathematician thinks about it, he sees the fallacy. The third is an ‘and’ condition on events one and two, and so it should have a lower probability than both event one and event two. But, not many normal human beings think that way. People recalled all the recent Wimbledon wins and mentally computed a high probability of his winning. Winning in spite of losing the first set was also a relatively high probability outcome, but Borg the champion losing the first set? That is very improbable. This is known as conjunction fallacy. This experiment was conducted by Kahnheman and Tversky and documented in 1983. In fact, according to studies, the proportion of people liable to make this sort of fallacy error is as high as 90%.


“So, if you now conduct an experiment with a sample of Indian cricket fans before an innings and ask them the respective probabilities of Sachin failing, India facing crisis in an innings and Sachin failing with India facing a crisis, I can tell you what the results will be. Sachin, being the No 1 batsman of the world, will end up with a low estimated probability of failure. India, with the current anchoring heuristic of the English tour, will be given a high probability of facing crisis. But, Sachin failing and Indian crisis will have a high probability – defeating the probability rules altogether.”


He paused as I tried to reflect on this.


“But why is this firm-wired into the thought process that Sachin fails in a crisis situation, whereas throughout his career he has been playing in crisis situations? He has 18 centuries and 26 fifties coming in when the scores were little more than nothing for two or more. None of the demi-gods of Indian cricket, barring the two other greats Rahul Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar, even have 18 centuries.  ”


The doctor smiled patiently.


“I was coming to that. Tversky and Kahneman tried to explain it by the representative heuristic. And they did a fairly good job. They normally did good jobs, especially if you consider that Kahneman got a Nobel Prize in 2003.


Inversion Fallacy 


“The fact is that human beings are not Bayesian. I am not talking about a walking talking encyclopaedia of cricket such as you. Ordinary fans do not remember scores with that degree of accuracy. And when it comes to computing a probability of failure of Sachin given crisis, they mess it up. The expansion of the Bayesian is pretty complicated to the human mind.”


He wrote it down : P(Sachin fails| crisis) = [P(crisis|Sachin fails) x P(Sachin fails)]/[P(crisis|Sachin fails)xP(Sachin fails)+P(crisis|Sachin does not fail)xP(Sachin does not fail)]


“Most men lose it when it comes to prior probabilities. In fact, in 1993, Dawes, Mirels, Gold and Donahue explicitly tested and confirmed that P(A|B) is most often approximated by the common human mind by P(B |A)”




“Right,” the doctor smiled. “I will explain with this specific example. This is called Inverse Fallacy. Suppose a normal fan is asked to estimate the probability of Sachin failing in a crisis situation. Will he go by data? No, he will go by recall and representativeness. He will try to remember all the occasions of crisis.


“Now, when Sachin plays well, most often the crisis is averted very quickly. After an hour of Tendulkar at the wicket, there is no longer a crisis that seemed to threaten India. Now, with his modified style, maybe it takes a while longer. Most of the 18 centuries and 26 fifties that you speak of belong to this category. People without the sufficient degree of interest and attention to detail will seldom remember when Sachin came in, and will not jot it down mentally as a crisis. The 214 he scored coming in at 38 for two, chasing 478. If I have done my homework correctly, India ended up scoring 495. That will not register as a crisis situation.


“However, when Sachin fails, very frequently Indians do enter a crisis period. Very natural, given he has been the mainstay of Indian batting for 22 years. And these register as a conjunction of Sachin failing and crisis. Hence, you see what happens to the estimated probability? Probability Sachin fails given crisis is replaced with probability of crisis given Sachin fails. It is the representative heuristic. Normal fallacy of the human mind.”


He wrote P(Sachin fails |crisis) ≈ P(Crisis|Sachin fails). Cognitive illusion.


I was digesting this eagerly. At long last there was a scientific basis for all the hideous mutilation of facts I had been experiencing for a decade and a half. Amazingly it made sense.


The third and concluding part will be published on Friday, October 7, 2011


Click here for Part 1


Click here for Part 3


(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)