The Case for a Longer (or Shorter) IPL

by Devanshu Mehta

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.