The Odds are Even

The Odds are Even

Cricket’s glorious uncertainties are rendered somewhat predictable through some unorthodox data crunching.

Book: Criconomics
Authors: Surjit S Bhalla, Ankur Choudhary
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 232
Price: Rs 295

As a schoolboy, if you had been to some of India’s famous cricket grounds — Chepauk in Chennai, Eden Gardens in Kolkata, the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, and Brabourne, or later the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, a powerful memory would not just be the dashing strokeplay or a great spell of spin or seam bowling. You would also recall the collective assault in the form of mind-numbing statistics after nearly every ball inflicted by hordes of cricket-obsessed fans around you.

It may be difficult to spot that breed of the knowledgeable Indian fan in the melee of post-liberalisation cricket maniacs, who wear their patriotism on their sleeves. Try telling them to soak in the moment at the prettiest grounds in the world or at the county grounds in England, and you will be marched off. Yet, over the last decade or more, especially with the dominance of one-day cricket and its televised spread and the big money involved, there has been far more data-crunching and minute-to-minute analysis of the game. We now have data analysts travelling with teams and players acknowledging their contribution.

Cricket is, perhaps, one of the few sporting disciplines which lends itself to stats and comparative judgements of all kinds. Prime ministers and central bank governors number among diehard cricket fans. Former Bank of England chief Mervyn King described cricket as the ultimate game that crosses boundaries. After leaving Threadneedle Street, he made a trip to Mumbai to see the Brabourne Stadium. He has good company in Indian central bank governor Raghuram Rajan and sundry other Indian netas. Little surprise, then, if those who are into economic research and analysis or public finance also have a yen for applying statistical modelling to cricket, as Surjit S Bhalla and his young co-contributor Ankur Choudhary have done.


With the World Cup underway, the two have constructed models or, as they call it, an analytical framework to not only judge some of the greatest all-time players — bowlers, batsmen and captains — but they have also used econometric models and other forms of rocket science to predict the outcome of games based on the batting and bowling strengths of teams.

So if you reckoned that Vivian Richards was the greatest ODI batsman of all time, or Virender Sehwag was a bigger match-winner than AB De Villiers of South Africa or the flamboyant Kevin Pietersen of England, does their new model capture it? It fairly does, when it comes to assessing the greatest captains and, interestingly, the best of those who perform under pressure.

But using statistical models to predict outcomes can be fraught. Going by one of the indices used, the authors fancied England as a leading team in this edition of the World Cup. But the Pommies have been booted out. We can’t quibble, as they state in the book that their accuracy ratio is 65 per cent or so.

For an enlightened cricket lover, an endorsement of their judgement of a player through these models may be heartening. The predictability model should also be of interest, perhaps, to geeks and the big boys who are now pouring money into the game by buying league teams. But the average shrieking Joe, with patriotic tattoos, may not be able to plough through regression analysis and Kalman filters. It would have been wonderful to have had the thoughts of some of the more erudite players on these models. But that’s for another day.

The book is an interesting offering by a contrarian and provocative writer. But as CP Snow wrote in a foreword to GH Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, technique, tactics and formal beauty were the deepest attractions of the game for him (Hardy). They are incommunicable unless one knows the language, Snow wrote. At the end of the day, what lingers in the mind is formal beauty.