Deep Backward Point

Blog against the machine.

The True Fan

Is it ok to want to watch only when your team is winning?

Is it ok to want to watch only when the watching is easy?

Is there value in being able to watch when your team sucks?

Is there virtue in sticking with it?

Is the goal to be able to watch when it’s hard?

Is the goal to be able to watch when it’s not your team?

Are you still a fan of the sport if you can’t watch a losing team?

Are you still a fan of the sport if the emotion of a loss is too much to carry on a regular basis?

What does it say about you if a loss doesn’t affect you?

What does it say about you if a loss affects you too much?

What does it say about you if a loss makes you less likely to watch the next game?

Should I turn up again if I know it will hurt?

And when it does, is there virtue in putting up with it?

It’s hard to follow a team that loses all of the time, but perhaps it’s harder to follow a team that wins some of the time. Hope-mongering teams, like slot machines that pay out just often enough. Like the boy who gives you just enough attention to think you have a shot.

Should we aspire to fandomnirvana, where a cover drive gives us pleasure regardless of the practitioner? Where a well-played match is more important than the result? And for those that achieve this state, what does it say about them? And for those of us that aspire to but can’t, are we lesser fans for it?

It hurts when my team loses. And when this happens, I find myself walling myself off from the sport. I no longer follow the sport with as much interest, to protect myself from the hurt.

This is me. This is what I do when the Democrats start losing. I’m a political junkie until we start losing. And then it’s too personal, the losses hurt, the setbacks sting.

It wasn’t this way when I was younger. I had a lot more room in my head to carry the emotional baggage of the world. I would feel the pain of far off lands, of sports teams, of leaders and people.

But now I fill up very quickly. There is just so much of my own stuff I carry around inside, and I have a little room left over for the outside, but I have to draw the line.

And so I move back into my shell. I leave the weight of the world where it is. It will be right there when I come back, but it’s not mine to bear.

And as I step away I think to myself, wouldn’t it be better to not care? To not attach so much emotional weight to what is an abstract concept—a team?

But that is not who I am. When I’m here, I’m here for the emotional attachment. When I come back, that’s what I’ll be back for.

I think you have to experience everything before you can let it go—before you become detached— so that you know what you’re letting go of. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I don’t know if I want to.

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The Case for a Longer (or Shorter) IPL

How many matches should there be in an IPL season? Depending on who you ask, the answer to this question could vary between zero and a hundred.

Today, however, I’m interested in the following question: how many matches should each team play in an IPL season to guarantee that most of the results are attributed to skill?

Put another way, how many matches does an IPL team have to play for us to be confident that their ranking in the points table is fair? In baseball, a team plays 162 games “which naturally reduces the presence of outlier performances”, says Neil Paine in his recent piece on this topic in the new FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine:

Using an unbelievably useful methodology from arch-sabermetrician Tom Tango, I calculated the number of games necessary in each sport to regress a team’s record halfway to the mean — meaning, we’d know half of its observed outcomes were due to its own talent (while the other half results from randomness). For pro basketball and football, the numbers are similar: In the NBA, it takes about 12 games; in the NFL, 11 games. But in baseball, it takes a whopping 67 games for half of the variance in observed winning percentages to come from the distribution of talent and half from randomness.

Naturally, I did the math for the IPL. My intuition beforehand was that IPL seasons are way too short to be certain that the results were fair.

I ran Tom Tango’s methodology on the first six seasons, and the results are all over the place. The results of two of the seasons (IPL1 and IPL6) suggest that the season is too long, the relative quality of the teams was clear sooner. However, the results of the remaining four seasons suggest that the IPL is too short.

Way too short.

Number of Games Required in the IPL for Confidence in a Fair Result

While the most recent IPL suggested a 12 game season was sufficient, IPL 4 was so closely fought that only after 126 games could we have been confident that more than half the games were a reflection of skill.

All of this indicates that the sport–and the league–is so young that the difference between teams, and between seasons, is still vast. We have not regressed to a mean, and we don’t know what the mean would look like.

Some IPLs are closely fought, and some are not at all

Some IPLs are closely fought, and some are not at all

 

If the BCCI wants to make a case for a longer IPL, they will have to nurture either or both of the following conditions:

  1. Ensure that IPL teams are more closely matched.
  2. Modify the T20 format so that it’s harder for one team to pull away so dramatically.

#1 will take time, especially because the team ownership and staff seem to still be learning the nuances of the format. From the outside, it appears as though nobody really knows how to reliably win at T20. Having better players may not be enough if you don’t know how to use them. And the format is so young, and played so infrequently, that lessons are hard to come by.

At the same time, there appears to be a resistance to entertaining #2. Many people have suggested changes to the T20 format to balance the contest–not merely between bat and ball, but also to reduced the outsized role of chance and acts of god. Sure certain elements of T20 may be more entertaining and lucrative as a media product, but if the goal is to build a quality sport that can sustain interest across a long season, changes may be required. Of course, this may not be the goal.

Finally, the financial viability of a longer season is outside the scope of my blog, but I will say this: an NFL team reaches a “fair” result after 11 games, but they play 16. The MLB reaches a “fair” result after 67 games, but they play 162. The NBA reaches a “fair” result after 12 games and they play 82. The length of the seasons are vastly different, but they all end well after it has convincingly been established that the points table is an accurate reflection of skill.

The IPL does not, yet.

This is the second piece in my series on the IPL and T20 cricket. Read the previous post, where I set the stage: What we talk about when we talk about the IPL.

What we talk about when we talk about the IPL

What is it we are talking about when we talk about the IPL? We are talking about a new sport, with the language of an old sport.

We are talking about colonialism, and the reaction to colonialism. When you criticize the IPL from outside India, remember that you are doing so with the full weight of past colonial wrongs, even though you did not cause them or intend them through your critique. The colonial past is.

Colonialism is the baggage carried by every Englishman–or anglophile– who criticizes the IPL for being lightweight, or lacking gravitas, or exotic. The IPL is an Indian product, and a signifier of modern Indian power. A criticism of the IPL is often perceived in that context.

There should be a term similar to mansplaining that would mean a white man explaining the nuances of culture–or cricket– to an Indian. I’m sure an Indian Solnit could write a long and painful article titled "White Men Explain Things to Me". I agreed with everything The Economist wrote recently about the Indian election–imploring the Indian electorate to stop Narendra Modi– and yet I hoped they would just shut up.

And so, when you explain the pitfalls of the IPL, know that even though you may not be biased, your readers feel the weight of centuries of condescension.

—•—

What is it we are talking about, when we talk about the IPL? We are talking about class warfare. Even the supporters, the promoters of IPL are excruciatingly classist. How many times have I been told that for the fictional common man and housewife, at the end of a hard day’s work, the IPL is the ideal form of entertainment. Oh the stupid working man, he knows nothing better. The class warfare is even stronger, if less explicit, from the detractors. The IPL has reduced cricket to a tamasha, we are told. The language of describing the Test cricket fan versus the T20 fan is the language of class warfare.

So what is it we are talking about when we talk about the IPL? We are talking about a fear of change.

So dear reader, when you talk about the IPL, know what it is you are really talking about. You may not think you are prejudiced, but we all bring our lenses to the party. You describe the IPL through your lens, and the people you are talking to see you through theirs.

—•—

And yet, and yet, I strongly believe that T20 is a broken format and the IPL is an incomplete tournament. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will describe why. But I know the baggage we all bring to this conversation, and I will do my best to respect that. I do not enjoy T20s or the IPL, but I harbor no illusions about the future of cricket. I am going to enter this minefield with my eyes wide open. See you on the other side.

Permission to Suck

My twitter account has supplanted all else. The immediacy is like crack.

I feel the need to step back. Twitter is ephemeral, which is a good thing, but it is ephemeral, which is tragic. There is scant record of my prolific output save for a tweet count, and a dubious follower count.

So what is the solution. Procrastinator Joe says “I need to write more. If I only had the time.”

But time is a crutch and a well and a mistress and a slave and a master.

The real barrier to production is that we are precious and fragile and an unread, unloved tweet is easy to stomach but an unloved blog post—worst of all unloved by the author himself—is a harsh blow. Could we survive?

But we must. Give ourselves the permission to suck.

The image of this blog in my mind is too lofty to live up to. Let’s tear it down, and suck.

Dear Fan, You Are Complicit

Dear fan,

Are you planning to watch the IPL this year? Cheer for CSK? Wear Royals blue? Howl at the auction and moan about your uncapped wonder?

Congratulations. You, my friend, are complicit in a great con. You are guilty.

The next time a spot is fixed, it’s on you. The next time an owner makes a shady side deal, it’s on you. The next time one of the game’s caretakers takes a gamble that’s not cricket, dear reader, you are responsible.

Every time the powers are asked about the sickness in the sport, they respond that we’re giving the people what they want. The people keep watching. The people want the spectacle and we give it to them.

You are the people. You are bought and sold and sold again. The BCCI sells you for a cent. Star Sports buys your eyeballs for pennies, and sells your soul back to Pepsi for a nickel. You are the decimal point in a spreadsheet.

The fastest way to reforming the IPL–and the BCCI–is empty stadiums and dropping TV ratings. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, then don’t watch. Just this year, at least this year. Don’t watch.

Send a message. Withhold your time and attention. It’s all you have.

I'm Mad as Hell

(Photo credit: duncan)

Cricket’s Labor Market

UFWFor the past week, as I’ve thought and read and written about the ICC F&CA position paper, a voice in my head kept say, “uh oh, Samir’s future is here”.

If you who haven’t read Samir Chopra’s seminal Brave New Pitch, but care deeply about the issues brought up by the ICC position paper, then stop reading my blog and go read Samir’s book.

Done? Good, I’ll take your word on that.

This morning, I remarked on Twitter that it was unfortunate that so little analysis had gone into the impact of the ICC F&CA position paper on the labor market.

What I really meant to say was that Samir had done the analysis in his book, but in the context of the position paper most writers were neglecting the players.

From chapter two of Brave New Pitch, “Patriots or Professionals?“:

Cricket’s modern dispute about sports as entertainment or business, about nation versus franchise, does not mask the fact that the cricket player needs to be paid for his services and treated as a professional, something the cricket world is yet to fully realize, especially when that tired old term of abuse, ‘mercenary’, gets trotted out, and whenever allegiance to the nation is questioned.

There is a widely held belief that a world dominated by franchise cricket is entirely undesirable–for fans, for players and for that amorphous blob, the game.

Well it may be bad for some fans– top quality cricket may disappear from some corners of the world. But really how bad could it be to remove the nationalistic sentiment from most top-level cricket?

Take it away, Samir:

The most positive outcome of cricket’s move away from a nation-based organizational structure to a city-based professional league might be an emotional detachment from the nation-based game. [..] The entrenchment of nationalistic sentiment in cricket is particularly visible when national character, or a particular nation-wide psyche or characteristic, is praised (or blamed) for success (or failure) in cricket[.]

The IPL, and other similar leagues promise the opportunity to appreciate cricket. Just the sport, without the baggage of where you were born, and whose father’s wars you are still fighting.

Not only that, as Samir points out in the book, the BCCI’s battle with the ICL showed that nationalism was a really shaky concept in cricket to begin with–“why a player owed a ‘duty’ to his ‘nation’ when playing cricket for a national board, rather than the more mundane responsibility an employee bore to his employer.”

Also, a franchise-driven sport may be bad for the game, depending on what format of the game you prefer. But I’m not so sure it’s bad for the players.

I don’t know what it is you do for a living, dear reader, but whatever it is, since you are affluent enough to be reading this, I think it’s safe to make the following assumptions about your job (unless you are self-employed, you blessed creature):

  1. In a normal job market, you are free to switch employers. Even across international borders.
  2. At appropriate times, you are free to negotiate better wages.
  3. Alone or together with your colleagues, you are free to negotiate better working conditions.
  4. Collectively, with people of similar occupations across a large region, you are free to form a union that will bargain on your behalf.

Together, these protections and freedoms make you an empowered employee who can often better her situation without fear of retaliation. Sure, some of these freedoms may be weak where you are, and others may be difficult to exercise.

Well, international cricketers often have none of these protections. There is a monopsony employer, who cannot be negotiated with, is often vindictive and will not bargain in good faith. Since the BCCI is the only employer of cricketers in India, then you cannot have a dispute with them.  (really, this is all in Samir’s book. You haven’t read it? What in god’s name are you still doing here?)

This is where franchise-based cricket (potentially) provides players with more leverage. There is an international market for cricket talent, and–as long as there is competition to the IPL–there are prospects of a competitive labor market. In the past, if KP didn’t get along with Flower, his career was over. Now he can prolong it through franchise play. Imagine if you could lose not just your job, but your entire career over a single petulant manager.

Many people read my Cricket in 2025 piece as a doomsday prediction, but I never intended it as such. In fact, the part I hope comes true the most is that players across the world would be free to choose employment based on where their skills were most valued, not on their nationality. Being an Afghan fast bowler is no reason to be poor.

If the ICC meeting this week ends up largely demolishing nation-based cricket, then so be it. I will weep for the loss of Test cricket, but it might not be a bad thing that venal national boards lose control over the sport.

All hail corporations with fair labor practices.

Previously:

(Image Credit: UFW by Wavy1)

The End Game

Risk

Last year, I predicted the future of cricket in a post titled “Cricket in 2025“. The ICC F&CA position paper makes my speculative fiction not only seem more likely, but also optimistic. Big thanks to Freddie Wilde for inspiring much of what follows.

Product

The position paper, drafted by Giles Clarke of England, Wally Edwards of Australia and N. Srinivasan of India, is about one thing . And one thing alone. Creating the most valuable package possible for the next television rights cycle (2015–2023). Everything else is subservient to this goal.

The consolidation of power, the culling of dead weight, the polishing of brass until it appears to perhaps be gold, are all designed to assure the suits at television stations that ICC cricket is a reliable product. It won’t break, you won’t have to return it, it won’t have faulty parts and it won’t lose its shine for eight years. Then you can come back, and we’ll give you a good deal on another one.

Corporations–and indeed all large systems–have external dependencies, and their products are only ever as good as their worst external partner. Microsoft depends on the hardware ecosystem, so every time your piece-of-crap laptop bluescreens, you’ll be swearing at Windows. The product of televised cricket depends on Bangladesh, so each time they put in a dismal performance at a showcase event, the suits at Murdochcorp say maybe we need to move our money to a more reliable product.

The position paper reduces the external dependencies of cricket as a marketable televised product.

Welfare

The seven boards that (ostensibly) suffer as a result of the position paper have effectively been on welfare for some time now. From the point of view of the big three they are leeches on the game with poor money management skills at best and rampant corruption at worst. They take, and they take, and they take, and what do they give back? How much of the money would dry up if some of them just… ahem… went away?

You can only keep a deadbeat on welfare for so long before you have to cut them loose, right?

And so that’s what the position paper does. It puts the remaining seven teams on life support for eight years, hoping they either pull their weight or go away.

There is a weakness in all social welfare programs. It’s hard for marketworshippers to measure the benefits of social good, and some folks will always take advantage of handouts. One option is to remove or reduce all social welfare programs. The other option is to set a higher standard for receiving welfare (“if you want unemployment checks, you are going to have to attend re-education seminars”). This just filters some leeches, but not all. And still, the market will often refuse to recognize the benefits of social uplift.

In the end, you have to weigh the costs against the benefits. What kind of a world do you want to live in? Would you rather punish all the leeches, but also some of the deserving poor? Or would you let some people be leeches, because as a consequence, you are able to help so many who deserve (and need) it?

The ICC has no power to enforce fiscal discipline in the small-seven, and their incompetence is reducing the (perceived) value of the television contracts. And this is why the position paper is what it is. And this is why the position paper appears now, before the next contract cycle.

Part of the reason it’s catastrophic is that there is no escape clause, no democratic process to modify (or abolish) this power structure, and no accommodation of the fact that financial realities of the game may change. Dramatically. Rapidly. And the big three may no longer be the best, or the only, or the main players. The paper assumes the current financial reality is the final reality for cricket.

Another reason it’s catastrophic is that three men in foreign lands hold the fate of cricket in 100+ countries in their hands. If it makes “TV money” sense to drop tours to New Zealand this year– Giles, Wally and Srini have a teleconference, and boom, New Zealand is off the calendar. No appeal, no recourse, cricket dies in New Zealand. And so it goes.

And we haven’t even gotten to Papua New Guinea, or Nepal, or one hundred other teams who have suffered this fate in relative silence long before the position paper existed.

There is a sound reason for why the big-three would want to do this. But if we let the rich distribute wealth based on who they found worthy, we’d live in a very different world.

Or maybe that is the world we live in today.

End Game

But this document is not the end game. It is the opening gambit. We have now seen some of their cards, but by no means all of them.

This document is meant to serve a near-term deadline. If you are imagining the future of cricket based solely on the contents of this paper (Anand Vasu, “it’s not the end of the world“. No shit, sherlock.) you’ve only seen as far as the end of your nose.

In the short-term, the big-three make four main demands:

  1. We want to manage the money.
  2. We want veto powers.
  3. We want a larger share of the money.
  4. We want to scrap the FTP.

Everything else is collateral damage, including the relegation system.

I think the BCCI would happily walk away with a win on 3 and 4, dropping their demand of a veto. For now.

This document is a negotiating tactic, and it does not predict the future, but it does tell us the themes of their future. And the themes are thus:

  1. Defeat: Cricket will never meaningfully grow beyond the countries that currently play it.
  2. Resignation: The only growth that can happen is in the value of the product, not in the size of the market.
  3. Hubris: The cricket world is composed of makers and takers. To increase the value of the product, we need to lose the takers.
  4. Fear: Left to 10 bumbling boards, the money will diminish over time.

We don’t know the end game. In the past we only had hints. The position paper our first big clue.

(Image credit: Stephen Coles)

I’m mad as hell

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s cutting tests or scared of losing their contracts. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; boards are going bust; players keep a gun under the counter; fixers are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the sport is unfit to watch. And we sit watching our TVs while some commentator tells us that today we had fifteen T20s and sixty-three fixes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go the stadiums any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my local team and my remote and my LCD, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Boards, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the coup and the corruption and the broadcasters and the gambling in the street.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a fan, goddammit! My life has value!”

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

Original:

What I Didn’t Write in 2013

In 2013, between this blog and The Teesra, I wrote about 15 blog posts.

Half of my excuse is that I got busy. I had my second kid. This is not a sufficient excuse, since the most fertile period of this blog was a few months after I had my first kid.

The other part of the excuse is something I wrote about a while ago:

Conserve your outrage, dear empowered social media users. By giving it away too freely, you give those in power a reason to ignore you.

This is what I practiced. I made my words count.

I didn’t continuously rail against the failure of mainstream cricket media. I wrote one piece that I am especially proud of: “ESPNCricinfo Understands“.

I didn’t spend the whole year outraging about corruption in the game. I wrote one article that explains my new focus: “Cricket’s Second Problem“.

And there is one 2013 piece that I will cherish forever: Cricket in 2025.

There is one thing I did not write about because I just couldn’t: Sachin Tendulkar. First I didn’t know how I would feel when he would actually retire. And then, once I knew how I felt, I couldn’t write it.

Finally, I played cricket with my (then 2-year old) daughter for the first time in 2013. So nothing else mattered.

20131231-204334.jpg

“ESPNCricinfo understands”

I’m old enough to remember a time when Cricinfo did very little first-hand reporting. Then there was a time when they did a lot of first-hand reporting, but never wrote about a developing story until it was confirmed publicly. These days, we get this:

The BCCI president N Srinivasan and his CSA counterpart Chris Nenzani have “in principle agreed” for India to play three ODIs, a warm-up game and two Tests in South Africa in December, ESPNcricinfo understands. [..] India is likely to start the tour with one-dayers. [..] some progress appears to have been made. [..] It is unclear whether the BCCI and CSA have reached an agreement. [..] There is understood to be a split in the CSA board.

Such tortured language. How do I separate what the author knows, from what the author thinks, from what he heard, from what he…

As a reader, here is what I want to know:

  • What is the author sure about?
  • What is conjecture?
  • What is from a first-hand source?
  • What, among these things, is the first-hand source sure about?
  • And finally, how well-placed is the first-hand source?

What I’m asking here may not be standard-practice in cricket journalism, but it is in high-quality journalism around the world. The last line (“there is understood to be“) is the worst offender– understood by whom? Amol Karhadkar (author), the source, people at the BCCI, people around the Cricinfo offices? Also, sources come in many flavors, with many personal agendas.

From Saturday’s New York Times:

“Self-censorship has become the most effective weapon,” said the editor in chief of a prominent publishing house in Beijing that publishes more than 300 foreign titles a year, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The above passage satisfies each one of my issues: I know enough to decide whether I should trust the source, and it’s a direct quote, so it separates the author’s opinion or conjecture from that of the source. I also understand that sometimes an anonymous source can’t be quoted, but can only be used on deep background. In my opinion, that should be rare and be used only when the author is ~100% confident in its veracity.

To be clear, I’m not against anonymous sources. They’re valuable, and I’m sure that without them, there is little that can be written about the BCCI. However, it’s valuable to remember that everyone at the BCCI has an agenda. Everyone. I’m willing to trust your sources, but treat the reader like an adult.

I don’t mean to pick on Amol Karhadkar in particular, but since most of these loosely sourced articles are about the BCCI, they are usually written by him (and Firdose Moonda).

And I’m not questioning the ethics of Cricinfo. They are stellar. I am asking Cricinfo to revise the style-guide (and policies) on anonymous sources.

Notes:

1. I’ve often been asked why I go after Cricinfo when they’re hardly the worst offender. Well, it’s because I love Cricinfo, they have a very high standard and I hold them to it. I don’t read the worst offenders, they’re not worth my time.

2. I once asked a Cricinfo writer about these things on Twitter , and was told “this is how journalism works”. Thank you.

See also: National Public Radio Anonymous Sourcing Guidelines

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