Can We Predict When Batsmen Will Fail?

The Great Recession has unearthed a number of flaws in the economics discipline, but none as damning as its relatively primitive ability to forecast future economic conditions. Few experts predicted the onset of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and the Obama Administration has consistently underestimated the severity of the recession, predicting 8% unemployment in a couple of years of post-stimulus conditions. Of course, the future is difficult to divine, but as I was reading the latest literature about our failing economic models, I wondered: Is it possible to predict when batsmen will fail? And why do batsmen’s forms fluctuate, much like the business cycle?

I ask this because Indian cricket fans are now faced with a puzzle as bewildering (if not as remotely important) as the causes of the Great Recession: Why is a batsman of Gautam Gambhir’s obvious talent failing?  Remember that only two years ago, Gambhir’s Second Coming was being hailed as the chief reason behind India’s ascent to the No. 1 Test championship spot; he and an attacking Sehwag gave India a crucial advantage and protected a famed, if occasionally brittle, middle order. In less than two years, he scored a commanding eight centuries, and some of them came in most trying conditions. And yet, now, Gambhir is not that far from an ignominious drop; one or two more failures, and we’ll start to hear chants of Rahane and Rayadu on Twitter.

But do we know exactly why a batsman’s form dips and rises? Let me suggest two rudimentary models:

1) A batsman bursts on the scene and produces a string of excellent innings. Bowlers (and video analysis experts) then respond with a specific tactic meant to expose a particular weakness (for example, an inability to hook a short ball, or a tendency to go after wide deliveries). Batsman then either adapts and adjusts (a sign of greatness), or sticks to what he has learned and done again and again in practice sessions and fails. What happens next depends on a lot — the coach, the captain, etc. Gambhir drifted off to obscurity, rejiggered his game, learned some grit and returned to the top again.

Second model (obviously related to the first): 1) Batsman bursts on the scene. His many centuries start to give him a bit too much confidence. He underestimates certain bowlers, who expose him with moderate-to-good deliveries. Or, he suffers a little bad luck and has a few failures in quick succession. Not used to doing badly, this player then starts to sulk. The press starts to question his place in the side, and this criticism is both strange and frightening. He responds by doing the worst thing a modern athlete can do — he starts to think. But cricket, like all of these games, is a game of seconds and inches, and there’s no time for conscious thought. From confidence and bluster, we see the roots of failure.

A related problem, however, is our perceptions of a batsman’s form, which may be detached from the empirical reality. (This is a known issue in social science; Republicans tend to think the economy is doing worse than it actually is; the reverse is true for Democrats.) A good example here is Darren Sammy, who is not the most talented cricketer, but has shown himself capable of taking one or two crucial wickets in every game he plays. Take another — Shane Watson, a man who is consistently underrated by most (including me). Before the T20 World Cup, I wouldn’t have predicted his success — and yet, there he was, picking up the Player of the Tournament award. There are some players whom I will always expect to fail, even though their record more than justifies their place in a side; conversely, there are certain players — Yuvraj Singh in Tests, for example — whom I will always expect to do well, only to see the opposite.

All this said, though, I still believe that a batsman’s form is a mysterious affair. It’s one thing if you’re a batsman, you get found out, and you disappear. It’s another, however, if you’re like Rahul Dravid, and you do well for years, suffer a year or two of failures, and then reemerge as a Great One. So I guess I have two final questions: Why don’t we see any more 99.94s, and when (and why) will Virat Kohli fail?

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