Sachin Tendulkar and his critics: A saga of cognitive illusions

Sachin Tendulkar in action during his innings of 136 against Pakistan at Chennai © AFP

In spite of his incomparable records in both forms of the game, Sachin Tendulkar continues to face criticism in the media and fanspace. Most of the allegations against him can be shown to be wrong and unfair, but the perceptions remain. Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the cognitive illusions and biases that trigger these curious misguided conclusions.
I shudder to think

It was an epiphany of a moment.

India were playing Sri Lanka in Hambantota in July 2012 and had piled up 314 in their innings, buoyed by Virat Kohli’s 106.

In response, Kumar Sangakkara had waged a single handed battle against the Indian bowlers, racing to 133 and keeping the hosts in the race. And then he missed a scoop off Umesh Yadav and had his leg-stump flattened.

As Sri Lanka lost by 21 runs, I could not resist tweeting: “Shudder to think what would have happened if Tendulkar scored a hundred and India failed to chase down the total.”

There was a reason for the tweet. I had already carried out several studies to prove that the moronic myth about India losing when Sachin Tendulkar scores a century was, well, moronic. Yet, the cognitive fallacy was so deep rooted in the psyche of the arm-chair fans that it seemed that it would take nothing less than a nuclear explosion to dispel it.

And soon, I received the reply to my tweet. “This has happened so often that we are used to it. Shudder is #drama.”

If this had come from the normal fan-space that surrounds the Indian cricket arena, it would not really amount to anything other than mild irritation and an exasperated shrug. However, the words had been keyed in and sent into cyber space by one of the more educated people among my contacts. It was quite revealing to see that even he had fallen to the popular illusions.

In some ways it was eye opening. Not in relation to Tendulkar’s record, which is generally always in front of me in several spreadsheets. It actually spoke volumes about the susceptibility of even the supposed intelligentsia for the umpteen myths and fallacies that do rounds in the cricket world.

And again, it hinted at another cognitive quirk I myself had almost fallen prey to. It is called ‘Authority Bias’. There was no reason why I should have expected a balanced and knowledgeable response on cricket from this individual. As far as the game was concerned, he was just another fan. But, since I knew of his educational background and professional accomplishments, I had been erroneously led to believe that his response would contain more reason and logic rather than ignorant fanspeak.

Authority Bias is one of the important Cognitive Heuristics that we do come across in the domain of cricket opinions. But before that, there are several other biases that run amok in the perceptions that people carry about the game. And the critics of Sachin Tendulkar provide a ringside view of a plethora of these.

Does only Tendulkar face unfair criticism because of cognitive errors? No, he does not. Other cricketers benefit or suffer from the positives and the negatives of this phenomenon the same way. At the same time, since Tendulkar has been by far the most popular name in the media — and the media happens to be one of the major reasons for all these biases — much of the misconceptions are directed at him. Someone who comes close today is MS Dhoni.

However, let us look at the cognitive biases. And before that let me explain why the tweet I received in response was way off the mark. Again, this is what I had tweeted. “Shudder to think what would have happened if Tendulkar scored a hundred and India failed to chase down the total.”

And this was the reply that I received: “This has happened so often that we are used to it. Shuddering is #drama.”

Now let us look at the facts behind the statements.

  • Tendulkar scoring a hundred and the team failing to chase down a total has happened on three occasions.

 

  • This is in contrast to a record 14 centuries scored in victorious chases. Incidentally, the next number of centuries in victorious chases is 11 by Virat Kohli. At the time of the exchange of tweets, the second highest was Sanath Jayasuriya with nine.

 

  • While Tendulkar does stand alone at the top of the century list in victorious chases, he does not do so in failed chases. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Aravinda de Silva each have scored three hundreds in failed chases, although their respective numbers of hundreds in victorious pursuits are three, eight and three respectively.

 

  • So, “this has happened so often we are used to it” was an off-the-cuff remark with nothing near to a statistical basis. If anything, hundreds in chases show Tendulkar in excellent light. If we look at the individual centuries scored in defeats it will be clear why:

These are the hundreds scored by Sachin Tendulkar in failed chases. One look at them and we will realise how unfair the remark is. His hundreds are as follows:

  • 143 against Australia in Sharjah 1998 — the first desert storm single-handedly helping India to qualify for the finals.

 

  • 141 against Pakistan in Rawalpindi 2004 — which almost helped India chase down 329.

 

  • 175 against Australia in Hyderabad 2009 — That exceptional innings when he took India to the brink of chasing down 350, was out to a stroke that had not been invented when he started playing the game, and India failed by two runs.

And now, contrast it with the words: “This has happened so often that we are used to it.”

What is alarming is that this ridiculous statement is not only the opinion of the gentleman who sent me this tweet, but plenty of others. Such is the far reaching effect of the cognitive biases that plague the cricket media and fan-space.

What are the cognitive illusions these people suffer from?

Here are some [not exhaustive] examples of the heuristics and biases that are found specifically around the little champion:

Clustering Illusion/False Causality: “The tendency to erroneously perceive small samples from random distributions to have significant streaks or clusters”.  Tendulkar’s three hundreds in lost causes while chasing — which is not even a record — was taken as proof of this ‘phenomenon’, while his record 14 hundreds in winning chases had been blissfully ignored. A lot of this stems from the media, which places an amplifier on the failures, aided by the reluctance to check the records.

Base rate neglect: “When given generic and specific information, the mind tends to ignore the former and focus on the latter.” We can talk about the entire career of 17 hundreds in chases, 14 of which ended in victories. However, the mind, already swayed by what it wants to believe, will zero in on three hundreds scored in chases that ended in defeats.

Social Proof/Groupthink: “If thousands of people say something it has to be true.” Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Especially in a space hugely influenced by media reports and headlines. Most people lack the patience and time to even go beyond the headlines and delve into the articles. So, while “Tendulkar scores a hundred in failed chases” may be repeated by plenty of people, it does not make it any less false than the statistics indicate.

Confirmation Bias: Once we form an opinion, there is a tendency to look for evidence that confirms it while painstakingly ignoring those which disprove it thoroughly. Hence, when we have to conclude that he was no good at chasing, even some of the highlights of Tendulkar’s 5,490 runs at 55.45 at a strike rate of 90.08 with 14 hundreds while chasing in won matches are bypassed. Hence, his efforts in even the more recent CB Series are often forgotten. Similarly, when we want to stick to our illusion of his failures to take India to wins in Test matches, the 103 at Chennai against England in 2009 is casually ignored and the 136 against Pakistan at the same ground a decade earlier is remembered.

Contrast Effect: In January 1999, Sachin Tendulkar came in at six for two against Pakistan at Chennai with 270 to win. He was caught in the covers with the score at 253 for seven, his contribution being a spellbinding 136 against one of the best bowling attacks in the world. The side, which had scored six runs before he had walked in, managed another four after he had gone back. India lost by 12 runs.

A couple of months down the line, Brian Lara scored that 153 not out at Bridgetown to famously clinch it by one wicket against Australia. In the course of that undeniably great innings, Shane Warne put him down at 101, and Ian Healy dropped him with just seven runs remaining — even as Curtly Ambrose stuck around for 89 minutes.

It created the celebrated contrast effect and people, even renowned experts, still believe Lara took West Indies to far more wins in the fourth innings than Tendulkar. After all, the latter is not supposed to be a match winner.

The facts are, however, different. Tendulkar’s 1,693 runs in the fourth innings have come at 36.93 and involves 28 wins, 26 losses and 20 draws. He has three hundreds, one apiece in win, loss and draw.

Lara’s 1,440 runs in the fourth innings have come at an average of 35.12, in 14 wins, 28 losses and 10 draws. He also has a hundred in a win and one in a loss. Yes, that 153 not out was his only fourth innings hundred in a win — but so impactful that we have concluded that there have been many such innings. Many surmised that Lara was a match winner and not Tendulkar because of the two events that followed each other quite rapidly.

The number of times these two contrasting incidents were talked about in the media gave rise to another bias forming effect called the Availability Effect. These innings are at the top of fan memories whereas Brian Lara’s seven blobs in the fourth innings as well as Tendulkar’s three hundreds and 10 fifties are only for those who care to dig out the real statistics.

Media exposure leads to availability effect and plays havoc with our immediate memory and decision making logic. If anyone has any doubts, try this experiment. Think of English words which start with ‘k’. Next try think of English words which has ‘k’ as the third letter. Which set do you think contains more words in the dictionary? It is actually the set with ‘k’ in the third place. Words beginning with ‘k’ are a lot easier to remember, and leads us to believe that there are many more of them. This is the magic of the availability heuristic.

Conjunction Fallacy: That Tendulkar fails in a crisis has been a complaint of many a follower of the game. I did explain this rather laughable misconception in detail. However, this is a good place to revisit the explanation.

Normal fans do not remember scores with a great 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 conditional or Bayesian probability is pretty complicated to the human mind.

Probability (Sachin fails given crisis)

= P(Sachin fails| crisis)

= [P(crisis|Sachin fails) x P(Sachin fails)]/[P(crisis|Sachin fails) x P(Sachin fails) + P(crisis|Sachin does not fail) x P(Sachin does not fail)]

Human beings are not geared to think in Bayesian ways. Most 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)”

This is called Inverse Fallacy — an effect of Conjunction. A normal fan estimating the probability of Tendulkar failing in a crisis situation will not go by data. He will bank on recall and representativeness. He will try to remember all the occasions of crisis that are there on the top of his head.

When Tendulkar played well, most often the crisis was averted very quickly. After an hour of Tendulkar at the wicket, there was hardly ever a situation that seemed to threaten India. There are actually 18 centuries and 26 fifties in Tests scored from situations that can be considered crisis conditions. But, few will ever jot them down as such because by the time Tendulkar got 50, it was smooth enough sailing for India. For example, the 214 he scored against Australia at Bangalore in 2010 was made coming in at 38 for two while chasing 478. However, India ended up scoring 495 and this will not register as a crisis situation in the memory of a normal fan.

However, when Tendulkar failed, very frequently Indians did enter a crisis period. These go down as a conjunction of Tendulkar failing and crisis.

So the 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.

So, we erroneously conclude P(Sachin fails |crisis) = P(Crisis|Sachin fails). This is one of the most remarkable of Cognitive illusions.

Fundamental Attribution Error: The fallacy of attributing cause to personality and not on the situation happens very regularly in cricket. We just have to consider the three hundreds scored by Tendulkar in lost chases to demonstrate this clearly. If anything, those hundreds talk of Tendulkar as a master batsman who battled even when the odds were stacked against him. But, unfortunately, Tendulkar is made into the villain of these chases, something that could have been avoided had he scored a duck in each of the three knocks. The mind of the fan is a curious construct. It can take the events and mould the facts into the shape it is most comfortable with.

Sunk Cost Fallacy: The 194 not out against Pakistan at Multan 2004 — Remembered as India’s first victory in Pakistan and Virender Sehwag’s 309. We also tend to remember Tendulkar’s ‘slow progress’ when approaching double hundred and petulance at declaration. As usual, we like to believe in colourful reports and we are not really keen to look at data. So, it has passed virtually without notice that in the final half an hour, Tendulkar had scored 26 off 33 balls — not breathtakingly fast, but by no means slow, while Yuvraj Singh was going hammer and tongs at the other end, scoring 41 off 36 during the same period.  In any case, 74 runs off the last 11 overs is not exactly snail’s pace.

When I pointed this out, one particular fan who had just branded Tendulkar, “Selfishly slow” moaned, “Your data breaks my heart. It dispels a perfectly good explanation that we had grown to believe in. What do we do now?”

At least this fan was honest. Most will tend to find counter-arguments — even when, as in this case, there are none. Why? Because too much emotional investment has been made to the fiction of a ‘selfishly slow Tendulkar’. All that stands to be negated if the data is looked at. All the costs that we have incurred with our social capital through arguments across discussion forums will be sunk mercilessly.

Authority Bias: So how do we negate the effect of glaring data? We appeal to authority. We have the turbaned form of Navjot Singh Sidhu who says, “Statistics is like a bikini my friend, it hides the essential while revealing the obvious.” We are happy. Here is an expert who has said we don’t need to attach value to numbers.

Unfortunately, Sidhu is not a statistician. He has no idea what he is talking about. He has no idea what numbers can reveal and what they cannot. Even the quote is not his own.

Similarly, Neville Cardus too used to say, “The Scoreboard is an ass.” Yet, he acknowledged that his knowledge of mathematics was limited to basic arithmetic, and he later compiled match reports of games he had not seen with surreptitious glances at the same scoreboard he branded an ass.

It is particularly useful for many to use the idiomatic Sidhu or the verbosity of Cardus to justify their opinions whenever Tendulkar’s figures are brought out to justify his merits.

Yes, we get carried away by the opinions of experts. Both Sidhu and Cardus belong to the category. However, they are not experts of statistics and numbers. Their claims to fame lie elsewhere and their words of expertise should remain limited to their respective domains.

The figures do reveal Tendulkar’s contribution, and do negate most of the criticism that we hear about him.

Hedonic Treadmill: Why is it that the CB Series is not recalled when match-winning is discussed? The Sharjah exploits also fade into oblivion. The Chennai gem against England passes by without notice. Only the 136 against Pakistan remains etched as do some vague recollection of centuries in defeats while chasing, which “has happened so often” …

It is explained by something called the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. The falsification of perceptions that has ruled the mind, as also formed the social well-being in multiple discussion forums, is like a negative life event for the fan. The most common human trait is to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness. Thus excuses can be made to rubbish the reasons or performances that stand in the face of our beliefs, or they can purely be forgotten and ignored.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Plenty of other perception errors, heuristics, biases and cognitive illusions remain in the world of cricket discussions in the media and fan forums.

However, from the above we do get some idea about how our perceptions are coloured and often provide a completely false picture about the actual.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)