The paradox of captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Is passionate excess all there is to the criticism that the Indian cricket captain faces today?

Written by Ankur Choudhary , Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: September 7, 2014 1:34 pm
Numerous Indian captains must have suffered bad streaks or is Dhoni really the worst Test captain ever to travel on an Indian passport? (Source: AP) Numerous Indian captains must have suffered bad streaks or is Dhoni really the worst Test captain ever to travel on an Indian passport? (Source: AP)

Is passionate excess all there is to the criticism that the Indian cricket captain faces today? By Surjit S Bhalla and Ankur Choudhary

Passion cuts both ways. One has to look no further than India’s relationship with cricket. It is said, in cricket playing countries, that the captain of the national cricket team has the second most important job (after  that of the Prime Minister). In India, often,  it is the most important job. Win a series, much less the World Cup, and even the most hard-nosed old troll of a man will coo like a teenager in love.
Lose one and the entire pantheon of Indian gods cannot protect you from the wrath of even a toddler. The pendulum swings in both directions and often excessively so.  But is passionate excess all there is to the criticism that engulfs Dhoni today?

After Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni is arguably the most highlighted Indian cricketer and understandably so. He captained India to victory in the World Twenty20 in 2007. He assumed Test captaincy in April 2008 and by the end of 2009, had led Team India to the numero uno status in Test cricket on the back of resounding victories at home. In April 2011, a billion plus dreams were fulfilled as India lifted the World Cup  under Dhoni’s captaincy. He was ‘the Boy who Won’ and the media could not get enough of him. In 2013, India also won the ICC Champions Trophy making Dhoni the only captain in the world to have won all major ICC trophies. Not surprisingly, he became the highest paid cricketer in the world (and is still so). The fanfare in media and outside continued unabated —until now.

Today, barely a year later, the same genuflecting fans and sports analysts are baying for his blood. What changed? India’s heady ascent to the pinnacle of Test rankings has been followed by an equally precipitous decline. Today, it ranks a lowly fifth,  below all worthy rivals. On their present tour of England after having won a Test at Lord’s for the first time in 28 years, India promptly lost three in a row. Not just lost but got destroyed — in particular the last loss by an innings and 244 runs is the worst  suffered by India since 1974!

But surely, numerous Indian captains must have suffered bad streaks or is Dhoni really the worst Test captain ever to travel on an Indian passport? It is a momentous question at least for several hundred million Indian cricket fans and experts — are we a mob of neurotic spectators whose affections turn at the drop of a match or ardent but ultimately rational lovers of the game (even if just this once).
India’s possibly worst Test series has just ended and before smart alecks raise questions about ODI matches, we thought that it best to rigorously examine the record of all Test captains. But before we compare them, we must answer how to compare.

Wins and losses come in all shapes and sizes — from humiliating innings defeats to did-we-really-win-by-a-couple-of-runs and from narrow one wicket victories to thumping 10-wicket landslides. We need to reduce the margins of wins and losses to a common measure, a level-comparing field if you will. This requires that an  equivalence be obtained for the different versions of wins (and losses) i.e.  an equivalence between won by innings, won by runs, and won by wickets.

Is this apples to oranges equivalence even possible? Well, where there is a will (read data), there is a way. We looked at the average scores teams make in the third and the fourth innings. This comes out to be close to 200. Also, 200 is the magic number in Test cricket to enforce a follow-on, so it seems to be a good estimate of an equivalence between  innings (defeat) and runs, especially for the latter half of the Test. So, a margin of 1 innings or 10 wickets is equal to a margin of 200 runs. An innings and 100 run win would mean a victory by 300 runs.

But what about a margin of 6 wickets etc.? For this, we looked at the distribution of runs contributed by each successive wicket in the final innings and used that to apportion runs for wickets remaining. For example, we found that, on average, about 50% of the runs are contributed by the first 4 wickets; and as we noted earlier the average 3rd and 4th inning score is 200 runs. Hence, a 6 wicket margin can be considered to be equivalent to a margin of 100 runs. The same principle can be applied to any wicket margin to convert it to an equivalent run margin. Once equivalent runs margin for all wins (and losses) are obtained, all results are comparable and the performances of Test captains can be analyzed by aggregating the margins across matches.  So here it is —  our Net Margin per Match (NMM) formula computed for each captain and given by:   Net Margin per Match (NMM) = (Total equivalent runs margin in wins) — (Total equivalent runs margin in losses)/(Total number of matches played)

This can also be interpreted as the historical expected value of the result margin whenever a captain sets out to play a Test match. Cricket fans will not fail to  note the similarity with the popular Net Run Rate measure in ODIs – a comparison which further validates our formulation.

Minnows excluded

What do the numbers say?  There are 18 contemporary Test cricket captains who have led their teams in at least 30 matches; those with less than 30 Test matches as captain are excluded from the analysis. The second exclusion pertains to matches played against two consistently weak teams in Test cricket — Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. This exclusion helps to filter out non-representative performances. For  example:  9 out of 21 Test wins of Ganguly are against the aforementioned minnows. The NMM for these 18 captains (after excluding matches played against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) are presented in decreasing order (best comes first) in Table 1.

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Australia dominates by claiming the first 3 spots. And numero uno Steve Waugh leaves behind all competition in the dust with an NMM of 128 runs. This means that every time Waugh put on the captain’s cap, he could be expected to win by 128 runs.

The runner up, Ponting, is far behind at 83 putting Waugh in a league of his own. Mark Taylor, AJ Strauss and Hansie Cronje make up the rest of the top 5. Not surprisingly, Lara holds the ignominious last spot. In a total of 43 matches, he has just 8 wins and  26 losses. His NMM is a minus 88 i.e. under his captaincy, West Indies were expected to lose a match by 88 (“equivalent”) runs.

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Ranatunga follows Lara with an NMM of -54. The other three of the worst 5 are Mike Atherton, Inzamam-ul-Haq and N Hussain. The Indians — Ganguly (-6), Dhoni (13), and Azharuddin (22) are huddled around the middle. So, while Dhoni’s record is definitely nothing to swoon over, it is also far from the worst that the world or India has seen. Does this mean a charter of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dhoni is in order?

May be but not yet, for there is home, sweet home. The one universal law across all sports is the home team advantage. Batsmen, bowlers and even slip fielders, all perform better in the oh-so familiar conditions of home grounds. At home, the pitches, crowds and even the food conspires to make the home country win. No self-respecting analysts (which we are) would choose to ignore the not so marginal differences in performances at home and abroad. Hence, we present the important home and away stats for all the 18 captains below. (All of them have played at least 14 matches abroad so there are no small sample quirks.)

The most important finding is the high consistency in the rankings for both home and away matches. The best captains remain the best, and the bad captains remain bad. There is one exception, however —  and his name is M S Dhoni. His overall mediocre record cleanly splits to the extremes – he is 4th best at home (and close to being second)  and actually the 2nd worst in away matches across history!

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Amongst all the times that he has stepped out to captain India abroad, he has averaged a loss of more than a 100 runs. The only captain with a worse run equivalence ranking abroad  is Brian Lara — an NMM loss of 177 runs (and that too when he has won 0 matches abroad).

Further, Dhoni has by far the worst away record amongst all Indian captains. Now, there will be little doubt in any cricket follower’s mind that between home and away, it is the away record that is the real touchstone of performance (especially given the consistency at the extremes). Achievements on a foreign soil separate the pretenders from the maestros and the lucky from the good.  Clearly, the flak Dhoni is getting is not unwarranted. Winter has come for Captain Cool.

Surjit S Bhalla is a Contributing Editor at Indian Express and Ankur Choudhary is the co-founder of a data analytics startup.

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