Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shakib Al Hasan Needs To Move To Another Country

Shakib Al Hasan, Bangladesh’s former captain, has a problem — let’s call it ‘Dan Vettori Syndrome.’ He is, without a doubt, the best player in his squad. And he clearly knows it; he has made it a habit of routinely stepping up to the crease with bat and ball when his fellow players do not. Take a look at the stats: in Tests, he averages in the low 30s with the ball and the bat (and he has seven five-wicket hauls); in ODIs, he scores 35 on average, and takes wickets at 28. (And he’s only 24!)

But like Dan Vettori, Hasan’s efforts usually don’t earn results. That’s because their teams are largely mediocre. So the issue is this: what do you do when you have a singular talent in the midst of mediocrity? Someone like Chris Gayle reacted to this problem by shrugging his shoulders and dispensing his talent only when he saw fit. (This attitude — which included giving the middle finger to his board of cricket — only makes sense now that lucrative T20 contracts are available.) Others, like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, tried to hold up the entire team on their shoulders, either to stall the inevitable (Lara’s case), or to wait until better talent arrived (Tendulkar’s).

The problem for Hasan and Vettori is that they are all-rounders. Now this may be a completely unscientific prejudice on my part, but if you have a star player, wouldn’t you want him to be a star batsman (or bowler)? All-rounders are great; they inspire and rescue your team from trouble, but I don’t see them building squads or getting results. By the time Shakib comes to bat, for example, the most he can do is try to put on a respectable score; he can’t do the top order’s job of dominating the game. In other words, I’d rather have a 50-average batsman, or a strike bowler of Dale Steyn or Zaheer Khan quality, rather than a 30-and-30 all-rounder. [Feel free to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments.]

So what should Hasan or Vettori do? Vettori can’t wait until better talent to emerge, because New Zealand’s small pool may not deliver. Both can make more money through the IPL and elsewhere, but Hasan could imagine a scenario wherein Bangladesh become a threatening squad in another 10 years (and by that time, at 34, he’d be ideally placed to lead). Perhaps he could do what Tendulkar did — inspire the Rainas, Kohlis and Sharmas — and stick around long enough to see his team lift the World Cup trophy.


Hugh Laurie Really Likes Cricket

I just did some more digging for my previous post on the mysterious cricket ball in (American medical drama) House. Apparently, I’m not a devoted enough fan because there have been multiple cricket-sightings on the show. E.g. 1: A question from the book House, M.D.: The Official Guide to the Hit Medical Drama:

“QUESTION: Where did you get House’s cricket ball?”

[Art Department dude] MIKE CASEY: “I think I got it from India. I wanted to get a legitimate one. If it’s not any good, Hugh is going to bust me for it. He has a Magic 8 ball, tennis balls, a lawn bowling mall…”

E.g. 2: Hugh Laurie Gives ‘House’ Crew Members Lessons in Cricket Bowling, Hello! Magazine

After a break in filming occasioned by the writer’s strike, Hugh Laurie is back in character as House‘s maverick medic. And while his ability to portray an American character has earned him plaudits, the British star was proving he’s in no way forgotten his English roots this week as he explained to crew members the difference between the bowling technique used in cricket and that of baseball.

E.g. 3: The character House also has a cricket ball in his apartment. Which is a real commitment.

E.g. 4: This video:

Hugh Laurie (and House) Likes Cricket

Just a quick note on an unexpected cricket sighting: if you watch the latest House episode (“Charity Case”), you’ll catch a glimpse of House throwing around a cricket ball in his hand during a conversation with his underlings. (It’s a brand new cherry, too.)

I wonder if Hugh Laurie (the British comedian/singer/awesome guy who plays House) thought it’d be a great inside joke, or if he thinks his character House is actually an Anglophile, or if he’s behind a massive conspiracy to subliminally get Americans to enjoy the gentleman’s game.

Test Cricket Death Talk

It’s not unusual for cricket fans to indulge dire outlooks for Test cricket; I think serious historians have shown such concerns have been around since at least, say, 1745. But All Out Cricket, heeding Andrew Strauss’ recent call to protect the slow format, does find some worrying signs in the tea leaves:

[The] recent announcement of England’s summer schedule in 2012 is another punch in the stomach to those that believe Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game and should thus receive primacy. England are scheduled to host West Indies for three Tests, three one-day internationals and a Twenty20 before Australia arrive for a five-match one-day series prior to three Tests, five one-dayers and three Twenty20 games against South Africa. That’s 13 one-day internationals. Yes, THIRTEEN.

For my part, I don’t think there’s any lack of passion for 5-day cricket. But silly pitches designed for five days’ play (a sop to television broadcasters) needs to stop; I’d rather have a low-scoring thriller than a five-day draw/batting orgy. And I think we could save Test cricket by exporting its culture to the other formats; Gideon Haigh, for example, has suggested removing fielder/bowler restrictions in ODIs. Good stuff. (Doubt it will happen anytime soon though, alas.)

Picking the Best Cricketers

I finally watched Moneyball last night (I blogged about the movie here and here). While I agree with Russ that the movie’s message — statistics yields better sporting insights — has only limited relevance for cricket, it still got me thinking: do we know how to identify the best cricketers?

In the movie’s early scenes, a group of team scouts throw out potential athletes and say things like “He looks good”; “He has an ugly girlfriend [i.e., he lacks confidence]”; “He has a nice swing.” Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s character — Billy Beane, the general manager (I suppose chief selector would be the cricket variant) — just zones it all out. He’s reaching the conclusion that a math wizard will articulate in the next scene: baseball scouts don’t know very much about how to choose teams or players.

Still with me? Here’s my question: What outmoded ways does cricket rely on to choose its cricketers? For a long time, Australia seemed to have the best selection process in place — in part because it has such a great first-class system. (That, of course, all fell apart over the last couple of years.) India, on the other hand, seems to rely more on gut instinct — how else to explain selecting young ‘ins who have very, very limited experience at the domestic level? For now, England seems to be the closest to choosing teams the Moneyball way — that is, not relying exclusively on statistics, but taking a good hard look at what each player is good at and how to slot that player into the overall team method. (A recurring conflict in the movie involves a player who can’t throw, can’t field, but knows how to get “on base”; Beane thinks that’s all that matters, while his head coach thinks it’s a waste to include a player for such a limited role.)

I think we need to have a better discussion about selection strategy. (Anyone who witnessed the last Ashes series, and all that Australian mistakes in tow, knows this is an area ripe for further study.) Looking at the Indian team, I see the idea — let’s draw young blood and let the team develop. But that has meant as many failures as successes; for every Kohli and (maybe) Raina, we’ve seen plenty of Uthappas, Parthiv Patels, Rohit Sharmas. Can we better predict the intangible quality that turns a domestic cricket player into an international star?

UPDATE: This is what Russ said on a previous post on this matte. Wise words:

2. Value means a market-place for mid-range players; because cricket is international it generally includes the best players available. Within nations, the non-best players don’t have a comparable statistical database of scores that might allow improved selection; notwithstanding the possibility that we don’t understand the game at all.

Is There No Fast-Bowling Indian Gene?

Zaheer Khan doesn’t think Indians can bowl fast ‘naturally’:

“It’s not a natural thing,” Zaheer told Times of India. “Indian bodies are not designed to bowl fast but that said, it’s not very different from bowling outside India. Basically you have to spend a lot of time understanding yourself, your art, and then find out what works for you and what doesn’t. It also involves a lot of hard work.”

If I were charitable, I would interpret Khan as saying that fast bowling itself isn’t natural; it’s a fine art that can only be perfected through practice. Anyone who has seen a slow-mo replay of a fast bowler’s action understands the enormous strains involved. See, also, “Broken backs, fast bowlers.”

But if I were simply reading the text, I’d conclude Khan thinks there’s something wrong with the Indian gene pool. The problem with this argument is that it’s based — or related to — a post-colonial pathology: many South Asians (particularly right-wing Hindus) believe that Indian men aren’t masculine enough, and the British took advantage of their femininity.

On the other hand, there may be reasonable nature-nurture arguments to explain India’s lack of fast bowling talent. For example, experts looking at Kenyan runners — a group that routinely dominates international competitions — have argued that high elevation, a culture that relies on running and walking, and possible genetic advantages all conspired to produce lethal running machines. Is there any reason to believe Indians are susceptible to cultural/genetic factors, or maybe other incentives, that drives talent away from bowling fast? Ideas anyone?


Nita Ambani Gets Results for Mumbai Indians

I’ve written about Nita Ambani’s role in the Mumbai Indians before, but now that she’s the owner of a winning team, I thought I’d post this little piece of dialogue from a recent interview with Times of India:

You were not at all excited about the Mumbai Indians team but you took it up.
(Sighs) That’s another story! Mukesh bought the team, and for two years we finished at the bottom of the list. My knowledge of cricket was zero, and I had no interest in the game. We did so badly. Then I decided to take it up seriously. For one year, I was breathing cricket 365 days. I would watch all matches – county, club, whatever came on TV. My intention was to learn.

At what point did it become a passion?
During IPL2, when I went to South Africa. We were playing the Rajasthan Royals and it was impossible to lose. We had to make 9 runs in 6 balls. I thought we’d win, but we lost! So I said to myself, ‘I have to learn this game.’ Then I started travelling with the team, holding camps, meeting the team, and the passion ignited.

And, of course, the team started doing better.

A Beloved Cricket Umpire Dies in New York

I meant to blog this touching New York Times story when it appeared last weekend:

A patriarch of the New York City cricket world, Uncle Jerry — Jerry Kishun, 67 — was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Sept. 15. Mr. Kishun dedicated his life to fair play and adherence to rules on the cricket pitch. So to his friends and large family, the way his life ended seemed even more senseless. He was struck by a passing car on the Grand Central Parkway as he stepped out of his vehicle to check for damage after a fender bender.

The service for this man who had spent his weekdays loading trucks in a warehouse in Astoria seemed more like a state funeral. Mr. Kishun was laid out in an open coffin wearing his umpire’s hat, broad-brimmed and made of stiff white canvas that bore the insignia of the United States of America Cricket Umpires’ Association.

Moneyball Moments: Tiger Pataudi

Sorry, I wanted to add one more thing about Moneyball: the book isn’t just about quants and numbers; it’s also — I’m told — about challenging conventional wisdom.

So, let’s talk about cricket Moneyball moments. One off the top of my head: Tiger Pataudi, realizing he can’t intimidate other teams with pace, decides he’ll just use spin, over and over again. Who says you can’t waste the new ball?

Spin quartet, voila (from BBC):

Former bowling stars Bishen Singh Bedi and EAS Prasanna credited Pataudi with forging India’s devastating spin bowling attack in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

“His faith in the spinners was absolute and we all prospered under his captaincy .. We won’t find the likes of him in a long, long time. His voice cannot be filled. A great, great chapter of Indian cricket has come to a close,” Bedi said.

Prasanna said Pataudi was “primarily responsible for developing India’s spin quartet in an aggressive role similar to what the West Indians had later in form of the pace quartet”.

You have any? (Moneyball moments, I mean.)

Moneyball and Cricket: Picking the Right Players

Do you have Moneyball fever? Non-American readers, let me explain: Once, there was a baseball team. It had little money. (Unlike in the IPL, where salary caps limit what teams can spend on talent, the MLB lets rich teams outbid for prize athletes.) So, the team’s manager uses statistical analysis and finds a new way to predict a player’s value. In doing so, he finds all sorts of hidden gems that carry the team to the top.

Why do I, a non-baseball fan, care? Two questions: 1) Are conventional ways of evaluating cricketers all wrong? 2) Is cricket ready for a similar statistics revolution?

1) I have long argued, for example, that good fielding is overrated. Once you cover the basic stuff — catch well, throw well, run well — I don’t think a good fielder adds that much. I’d rather have a good batsman with Munaf Patel energy than an average batsman with excellent fielding skills. But there’s a broader question at stake: do we know how to predict a good cricketer? For example, is a batsman who rotates strike often better than one who drops anchor and tires the bowlers out with a solid defense?  Is an economical bowler better than a strike one? Or take T20: would you rather have Jacques Kallis, or, say, 4 players who can hit 30 runs off 15 balls?

2) Can statistics really work in cricket? Baseball seems more one-dimensional; in a cricket line-up, you need a variety of characters. The openers have to be solid in defense; the lower-middle needs to be able to ramp up the pace, etc. Then again, I once had a math-minded professor who liked to try and predict what a batsman would do with each successive ball, and more often than not, he’d get it right. I’m sure the betting types are basing their values on some sort of modeling, yes? But has anyone read of a team that uses statistical analysis to try and a) value particular athletes; b) predict particular outcomes; and c) base strategy around the numbers?

UPDATE: Of course, the English are on it. Via The Old Batsman:

Ever since Lewis’s book, every sport has tried to find its version of Moneyball. Andy Flower found Nathan Leamon, a mathematician from Cambridge University who was also a qualified coach, and provided a well-funded black-ops stats department at the ECB for him to use [it’s easy to imagine A-Flo wrapping an arm around Nathan’s shoulders and telling him to ‘think the unthinkable…’]…

[Leamon’s] gone to town and then some. England’s enthusiasm for Hawkeye extends way beyond the DRS – they’ve used to it log and analyse every ball delivered in Test match cricket around the world in the last five years.

With access to such vast data they now run simulations of every Test match they play, taking into account venue, conditions, selection and pitch. Leamon reckons that such ‘games’, when he checks them against the actual matches, ‘are accurate to within four or five percent’.

Other work has been in breaking down pitches in areas for bowlers to aim at: Leamon claims England’s palpable success against Sachin Tendulkar was due in part to statistical analysis that showed Sachin made the bulk of his runs on the leg side until he reached fifty.