Deep Backward Point

Blog against the machine.

Category: Column

Couch Talk and the Weird Pleasures of Writing Online

I was re-listening to the Sambit Bal episode of Subash’s excellent Couch Talk podcast, where they have this exchange:

Subash– Another issue that has been raised–
Sambit– Raised by whom?
Subash– By a lot of fans on social media is that there are various articles that are published on the cricinfo with byline as ESPNcricinfo Staff.
Sambit Bal– I think it is a very small group of people raising the issue, very small among the millions of readers.
Subash– Let’s say there was one person who raised the issue. If it is a valid issue, it doesn’t matter how many people have raised it. Under that by-line, if it is strictly news story for 3 or 4 paragraphs, it is perfectly alright. But, there have been instances where opinion has slipped into these stories. How do you keep a track of these things?

In my fantasy, they are talking about me. I am that one person.

The Internet is a great place for cultivating an ego through inconsequential events. I’ve been mentioned twice before on Couch Talk in two separate episodes with Jarrod Kimber. Once indirectly for something I wrote and once directly for something I tweeted.

And while I criticize Cricinfo often, one of the high points of this blog’s short life was being mentioned on Cricinfo’s Surfer.

These mentions made me feel good. And then it made me feel a little dirty– why does it make me feel good to be mentioned by uber-bloggers for inconsequential things?

We live in an echo chamber. It may be a good idea to step outside once in a while.

VVS: Working Class Superhero

Clark Kent: Superman :: VVS: Laxman

Clark Kent: Superman :: VVS: Laxman

And So it Goes

Five months ago, when Dravid retired, I wrote an article called And So it Begins:

I left India in 2001, the year of the Kolkata Test. The Australian team from that match has one player left in the team– Ricky Ponting.

India have five– Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan.

That is remarkable.

And now only three remain.

I don’t write much about VVS. I find him dependable, reliable and necessary, but I don’t find him exciting. It’s unfortunate, I know. Like a rocket scientist, he’s worth a lot of money but I wouldn’t pay money to watch him at work.

I suppose this is what people mean when they say he’s underrated, but I don’t think underrated is the right word.

VVS is infrastructure. You can’t get anything done without it, but it’s not the most exciting part of a system.

Goodbye, VVS. You will be missed, because India, as we all know, lacks infrastructure.

Why Indian Fans are on KP’s Side

On Twitter, Indian cricket fans (and fans of Indian cricket) are largely on Kevin Pietersen’s side in his battle against the ECB. Here is my theory why.

I want to preface this by saying:

  1. This is a theory.
  2. Since it is a theory, and it might hit close to home for many people, I don’t expect everyone to accept this theory as explaining their feelings on this matter. Even if the theory is true. Instinctively– and perhaps reflexively– we may discount this theory purely because it says some uncomfortable things about how our minds work. Having said that, I accept that the theory may be wrong.

In the summer of 2011, England comprehensively beat India over the course of four Test matches and a handful of limited overs engagements. India was significantly disadvantaged through injuries and the unavailability of players, but to be fair, they were also outplayed.

The combination of the English press and the English Cricket Board, however, continued to make the point that the English system for producing a cricket team was, in fact, inherently superior.

Now this may have been true– the truth is, we will never know for sure. However, this was not a message palatable to Indian fans at the time. Especially since the much-maligned Indian system had until recently produced a world-beating team in Tests and One Day Internationals.

In addition, this message was coupled with the common attacks about too much cricket, IPL as devil-incarnate, the lack of preparation for “transitioning” the senior players, your players are fat, with unmanaged injuries and on the other hand–

–Look at the professional, perfectly managed English team that Andy Flower rules with an iron fist and a heart of gold. Marvel at our perfection, for we will be the new dynasty in Australia’s place.

Indian fans did not take kindly to this message. And Indian fans took note of the members of the press most stridently pushing the all-hail-andy-flower-ecb-is-singularity message.

This summer, the ECB is locked in a battle for its relevance against Kevin Pietersen. And the English press has largely fallen in line with the ECB, serving as their mouthpiece, dropping leaked tidbits when requested. You scratch my back, I scratch yours, KP was a Saffer anyways.

Schadenfreude time.

The English establishment– and specifically certain characters we remember well from last summer– has continuously upheld and sold the English system as perfect and “professional”.

In the KP story, we see how and where this is not true. We see how and where the narrative of a perfect English system breaks down.

And we enjoy it.

At the same time, Kevin Pietersen alone among all English Test cricketers plays a brand of cricket that is (sometimes abhorrent-ly) referred to as a “subcontinental” brand of cricket. I say this with no disrespect to English batsmen, but KP is the least English of English batsmen.

His style of play would not stand out so much among say an Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan line-up. But among the English, he is positively alien.

And we appreciate this.

Also, KP is an iconoclast. India is a country of one billion iconoclasts. In fact, India as a country is united by one thing and one thing alone– to rail against the man. KP is an honorary Indian.

Sorry, make that Delhi Daredevil.

The Open Cricket Manifesto

Here is what I want

1. A regularly updated free, open database of cricket statistics. Let’s unpack that.

  • Free: Free as in free beer. No cost.
  • Free: Free as in freedom. No strings attached.
  • Open: Open as in open source, open standards.

2. An open data format for the interchange of cricket statistical data among fans, companies, software and web services.

3. A set of software tools to help create awesome visualizations of the data, and powerful search interfaces in to the data.

What statistics would this contain?

Insofar as they are available, such a resource would have:

  • The outcome of every ball of every international match ever played.
  • In aggregate, this would provide the career statistics and match records of every international match ever played.

Why?

Cricket statistics are not legally owned by media companies, but this is effectively the situation we find ourselves in today. Sure there is Cricinfo’s StatsGuru. And there are independent purveyors of statistical databases (built in MS Access, don’t get me started). But if we ever want to jump-start an academic, amateur or fandom analysis of the game, we need better data and better tools (see retrosheet).

With that in mind, I hereby announce the Open Cricket Project. Details to follow. If you would like to contribute, post a comment below, on twitter, or email deepbackwardpoint@galaxyfaraway.com.

Prior Art

Conservation of Outrage

Cricket-writers, tweeters and general fanatic fans of the world:

I propose a conservation of OUTRAGE. Some day something truly outrageous will happen. It likely won’t be a spirited lecture, or a deadline-driven editorial, or an off-hand tweet. It will be something that threatens to change the very nature of the game that you love.

And nobody will take you seriously, because you’re default mode is outrage. “You know the twitterati,” they’ll say. “Those rabid bloggers, always outraged about everything. Pay no attention.”

Amitabh Bachchan played Azaad in Main Azaad Hoon, the Hindi adaptation of Capra’s Meet John Doe. He gives a speech as the mysterious Azaad to much applause. And then he doesn’t want to give any more speeches, or play the made-up character of Azaad. And a journalist tells him, “How could you walk away? Didn’t you hear the applause?”

Taaliyon ka kya hai, ai? Taaliyan to log sadak par bandar ke khel par bhi bajaate hain,” says Azaad.

Translation: What’s the big deal with applause? People even clap for monkey side-shows on the street.

What’s the big deal with internet outrage?” they’ll say.

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

Prior Art:

My Team

I wanted to tell you about my team. I have two of them.

Maybe you have a team too. In fact, I’m pretty sure you do.

I’m not talking about the team you follow. Sure “India” is my team, but this is not what I mean. “India”, as a cricket team, is an amorphous concept stretched across time and space1.

When I say my team, I mean a specific team, from a specific point in time that will always be my team.

Like I said, I have two.

During the 2003 World Cup, it seemed like destiny that India would win. That they should win. Of course, we hadn’t considered the competing destiny of the Australians, but at the time, if there was ever an Indian team that could have won a World Cup, this was it.

The batting lineup: Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ganguly, Dravid and Yuvraj.

The bowling lineup: Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, and Srinath.

This was a championship team. Unfortunately, so was Australia.

This was also my team. And it wasn’t my team because they were good. It was my team because I had watched this team grow up, as I grew up. Every player on the team debuted after I started following cricket. This really was my team. Nine years later, my fondest cricket memories are of this group.

And one other.

I’ve written about this before briefly, but in the early ’80s, as a kid growing up in Chicago, I didn’t know much about cricket. What I did know was that my father and his friends would talk politics on Sunday, and then suit up for a friendly game of cricket. And then we’d all go for Indian food.

That was before Gavaskar came to town. Some time around the year 1985, a team of Indian international players fresh off their World Cup win, came to Chicago to play an exhibition game. That evening, there was a meet-and-greet with the players over dinner. My father told me about Sunil Gavaskar, the greatest that had ever played the game. And then I met him.

In late 1985, we moved to India. I spent eight months watching cricket and playing cricket before I started school. This is, literally, all I did. My cousins were Shastri devotees. Yes, kids. In 1985, much of India was devoted to Shastri. With good reason.

The 1986 Indian tour of England is my earliest memory of international cricket, and it mostly stems from a poster from Sportstar magazine of Vengsarkar at Lord’s2. Vengsarkar was my new favorite player in the world, replacing Gavaskar3.

That batting lineup had Gavaskar, Srikkanth (Anirudha’s father), Amarnath, Azhar, Vengsarkar, Kapil, Shastri.

The bowling lineup had… err.. Kapil, Amarnath, Maninder, Chetan Sharma, Binny (Stuart’s father), Madan Lal and Shastri.

Ok, so the bowling wasn’t one for the ages, but we beat England 2-0, so there.

In any case, this was my first team in any sport, ever.

And 2003 may have been my last team.

Sure I love the current Indian team but these kids will always be… kids.

Some day, I’ll tell my kid about Tendulkar. And we’ll start all over again with her.

1I’d argue India as a country is also an amorphous concept stretched across time and space. But that’s a topic for another time, and another blog.^^
2SportStar was better than SportsWorld, because SportsWorld wrote too much about non-cricket sports, and SportStar had better posters. But in a pinch, either would do.^^
3In the pre-Tendulkar era, my favorite cricketer would change every few months. Some players who have been on the list: Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma, Azharudin, Srikkanth, Shastri.^^

Ballsiness

Of all the popular numbers, miles per gallon is a bit of a liar. It doesn’t say what many people think says.

Take three cars. The Honda CR-V gets 20mpg, the Honda Civic 30 mpg and the Insight gets 40mpg. So the Insight is 10 better than the Civic. The Civic is 10 better than the CR-V. Simple, right?

Wrong. Let’s flip the number around to gallons consumed per 100 miles. Now the CR-V costs 5 gallons to get to 100 miles, the Civic 3.3 and the Insight 2.5.

The Insight is still better than the rest, but not by as much. When judging about cost-effectiveness, the gallons/100 miles is a better number.

What you hold constant at 100 matters. Holding the number of miles constant at 100 is a better way of understanding performance, because it maps well with reality– your commute distance, the distance to the mall and the number of miles you will drive in a year are largely constant. So what you really want to know is how many gallons of gasoline will it take you to get there?

Of course, car companies want you to dream about where you can go on a tank of gas

Now let’s take the Strike Rate in cricket. It tells us how many runs a batsman would score if he faced 100 balls.

This is a very useful number. It tells me that if I had a team full of Sehwags (ODI SR: 105), then we would make 315 per 300-ball ODI. And since Sehwag averages 35, a team full of Sehwags would get to about 315 for 9 in 50 overs.

In T20 Internationals, a team full of Sehwags (T20I SR: 152) would make about 183 per 120-ball match. And since Sehwag averages 23, it would be 183 for 8 in 20 overs.

This is a useful number because the number of balls is a constant in limited overs cricket. This makes comparisons proportional. A team full of 70SR would get to 210 in an ODI, 60SR would get to 180 and 80SR would get to 240.

Of course, we could flip this around, the way we flipped the miles per gallon.

The new flipped number would be the number of balls it would take for a batsman to get to 100. Let’s call this new stat ballsiness.

As in, how ballsy is Sehwag? For Sehwag in ODIs, the number of balls he takes per 100 runs is 95.23. So the answer is, very ballsy

In general, this is useless. There is no purpose in holding the number of runs to be scored as constant, because the overarching reality of limited overs cricket is limited overs.

But a few recent tournaments have turned this assumption on its head. The catalyst? The bonus point.

To recap, in the recent CB Series in Australia and the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, a team could get a bonus point by scoring at a run-rate that was 1.25 times their opponent. So if Australia bat first and score 200 in 50 overs (RR: 4), then India would have to chase it down in about 38 overs (RR: 5.25) to get the bonus point.

Now we have a situation where the number of runs to get is a constant and you are trying to minimize the number of deliveries taken to get there. So our new flipped number– balls per 100 runs, ballsiness— becomes useful.

Now, (a team of) Sehwags would chase 201 runs in about 31.5 overs.

Virat Kohli (ODI SR: 85) has a ballsiness of 117. So a Kohli XI would chase the same target of 201 in about 39.1 overs.

Jonathon Trott (ODI SR: 78) has a ballsiness of 128, so a Trott team would chase the same target in about 43 overs.

*

So what’s the meaning of all of this? Not much really, except to stimulate some thought. People talk about Moneyball all the time, but fans can’t understand many of the newly invented statistics. Like the Duckworth-Lewis method, these new-fangled statistics add barriers between the fans and their game. My idea is to think about ways to think about numbers that improve our understanding and our discourse.

My other idea was to force you to imagine a team full of Trotts.

A Weighty Issue: Two English Journalists Talk About Samit Patel

All this talk about Samit Patel. I can’t stomach it.

It is a weighty issue.

Is he hungry.. for success?

Yes, at the highest level. But sometimes I feel he is being waisted.

Ah but the weight of expectation is pretty high now.

That’s food for thought.

He is a player worth his weight in gold.

That’s a lot of gold. But does he really measure up when compared with the competition?

There’s a growing body of research that shows he can make it at the highest level.

It’s just a matter of mind over platter, you know.

True. He just needs to quit cold turkey.

A trip to the paint store is in order. He just needs to get a little thinner.

Fat chance. All this talk is wearing him thin.

I get the feeling this might all just be wishful shrinking.

If he succeeds, he can enjoy a heavy bottom-line.

A waist is a terrible thing to mind.

Dravid

For sixteen years, Tendulkar could afford to be Tendulkar, Ganguly could afford to be Ganguly, Sehwag could afford to be Sehwag and Dhoni could afford to be Dhoni, because Dravid was always Dravid.

Ganguly and Dravid making their debut at Lord’s will long be remembered as a Test match that changed cricket for the better.

Rahul Dravid, take a break. Then come back, and we’ll talk. There’s a lot of work to be done in Indian cricket.

Dravid at Eden Gardens, 2001

Dravid at Eden Gardens, 2001: the match that changed what was possible.

Previously on DeepBackwardPoint: