Chasing Dhoni

Former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a mixed record when it comes to chasing in limited overs games (ODIs and T20s). He initially built up his reputation as an expert chaser, who knew exactly how to pace an innings and accelerate at the right moment to deliver victory.

Of late, though, his chasing has been going wrong, the latest example being Chennai Super Kings’ loss at Kings XI Punjab over the weekend. Dhoni no doubt played excellently – 79 off 44 is a brilliant innings in most contexts. Where he possibly fell short was in the way he paced the innings.

And the algorithm I’ve built to represent (and potentially evaluate) a cricket match seems to have done a remarkable job in identifying this problem in the KXIP-CSK game. Now, apart from displaying how the game “flowed” from start to finish, the algorithm is also designed to pick out key moments or periods in the game.

One kind of “key period” that the algorithm tries to pick is a batsman’s innings – periods of play where a batsman made a significant contribution (either positive or negative) to his team’s chances of winning. And notice how nicely it has identified two distinct periods in Dhoni’s batting:

The first period is one where Dhoni settled down, and batted rather slowly – he hit only 21 runs in 22 balls in that period, which is incredibly slow for a 10 runs per over game. Notice how this period of Dhoni’s batting coincides with a period when the game decisively swung KXIP’s way.

And then Dhoni went for it, hitting 36 runs in 11 balls (which is great going even for a 10-runs-per-over game), including 19 off the penultimate over bowled by Andrew Tye. While this brought CSK back into the game (to right where the game stood prior to Dhoni’s slow period of batting), it was a little too late as KXIP managed to hold on.

Now I understand I’m making an argument using one data point here, but this problem with Dhoni, where he first slows down and then goes for it with only a few overs to go, has been discussed widely. What’s interesting is how neatly my algorithm has picked out these periods!

Betting by other means

In India, officially, sports betting is illegal. Of course, there are lots of “underground” betting networks which we will not go into here. This post, instead, is about a different kind of “betting” on sports.

I’ve long maintained that Mahendra Singh Dhoni is grossly overrated as a cricket captain. While he did win that ICC World T20 in 2007 (back then his captaincy was pretty good), since then he’s shown himself to be too conservative as a captain. In that sense, I’m glad he retired from Tests (thus relinquishing captaincy as well) in 2014, paving the way for the more aggressive Virat Kohli to lead.

Even in limited overs games, I’ve maintained that while in the past he’s been instrumental in orchestrating chases, that ability is now on the wane, with last night’s choke being the latest example of him botching a chase. Earlier this year as well, he choked a chase in Zimbabwe. There are more such examples from the IPL as well.

Given last night’s fuck-up, I think it’s a great time to replace him as captain for limited overs games. I’m not hopeful of this happening, though, and this is in part due to the “betting at another level” that happens in elite sport.

Back in 2011 or 2012, a hashtag called #SachinRetire started making the rounds on Twitter. The context was that with the 2011 world cup having been won, it was a great opportunity for Sachin Tendulkar to retire on a high note. He continued playing on, though, in the hope of hitting “100 100s in international cricket”, the result of which was mostly mediocre cricket on his part.

Tendulkar’s 100th 100 finally came a year after his 99th, in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh. He scored at a strike rate of 78, in a match India lost. A lot of the blame for the loss can be put on his slow rate of scoring, and consequently, on the 100th 100 hype.

It was another good opportunity to retire, but he continued playing, until a special Test series was organised in 2013 so that he could retire “at home”.

The dope in sports circles in those days was that while Tendulkar himself was keen to go, there were plenty of endorsements he was involved in, and those sponsors would have had to take a loss if he retired. Thus, the grapevine went, he had to take his sponsors into confidence and “prepare them” in order to choose an opportune time to retire.

Endorsements and sponsorships are the “other kind of betting” I mentioned earlier in the post. As soon as a sportsperson “makes it”, there is a clutch of brands who wants to cash in on his popularity by asking him to endorse them. The money involved makes it a good deal for the sportsperson as well.

By choosing to sponsor a sportsperson and getting him to endorse their brand, sponsors are effectively taking a bet on the player’s career – the better the player’s career goes, the greater the benefit for the brand from the sponsorship deal. In case the player’s career stalls, or he is caught in a scandal, the brand also suffers by association (think Tiger Woods or Maria Sharapova).

The concern with betting on sports in India is that bettors might try to influence the results of matches they’ve bet on, by possibly fixing them. This, along with “protecting the poor punter” are reasons why betting on sports is banned in India.

The problem, however, is that with this “other kind of betting” (sponsorships), the size and influence of the bettors (sponsors) means that there is a greater chance of the bettors seeking to influence the results of their investments.

A sponsor, for example, will not be happy if their “sponsee” is left out of his team, for whatever reason. Any negative impact on the sponsee’s career, from being dropped, to being demoted from captaincy to being sold to a “lesser club” negatively affects the brand value of the sponsor (by association).

And so, in cases where it’s possible (I can’t imagine a sponsor trying to influence Jose Mourinho’s decision, for example), the sponsor will try to influence selection decisions where it might benefit them. So Tendulkar’s sponsors will lobby with selectors to keep him in the team. Dhoni’s sponsors will lobby to keep him as captain. And so forth.

I’m not advocating that some kind of regulation be brought in to curb sponsors’ influence – any such regulation can only be counterproductive. All I’m saying is that betting already exists in Indian cricket, except that rather than betting on matches, bettors are betting on players! And so there is no real argument to ban “real” sports betting in India.

At least in that case, sponsors will be able to hedge their investments in the market rather than seeking to influence the powers behind the sport!

 

On cricket writing

This piece where Suveen Sinha of the Hindustan Times calls out Dhoni’s “joke” with respect to retirement has an interesting tailpiece:

When Dhoni was bantering with the Australian, the other journalists in the hall were laughing. They would, no sports journalist would want to be anything but nice to the formidable Indian captain. That’s why this piece had to be written by someone whose day job is to write on business and economy.

Looking at the reports of the incidents from both Sinha and EspnCricinfo’s standpoints, it is clear to me that Sinha’s view is more logical. That Dhoni’s calling of the journalist to the press conference table and cross-questioning him was unprofessional on the one hand and showed his lack of defences on the other.

Yet, the ending to Sinha’s piece also explains why other sports journalists have taken to lauding Dhoni’s view rather than critisicing him – for them, access to the Indian limited overs captain is important, and they wouldn’t like to damage that by taking an Australian colleague’s side.

The problem with a lot of sports journalism in general, and Indian cricket journalism in particular, is that jingoism and support for one’s team trumps objective reporting and analysis. One example of this was coverage from Indian and Australian newspapers of the Monkeygate scandal in 2007-08 (when Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symonds a monkey).

More recently, there was the controversy about India losing games because of the tendency of Rohit Sharma (and Indian batsmen in general) to slow down in their 90s. Again, commentary about that took jingoistic tones, with the Indian sports media coming out strongly in favour of Sharma. There were reports defending his “commitment” and “grit” and all such flowery language sports journalists love, and that Glenn Maxwell’s comment was entirely unwarranted. Maxwell even backed down on his comments.

Data, however, showed that Maxwell need not have backed down on his comments. Some analysis based on ball-by-ball data that I published in Mint showed clearly that Indian batsmen do slow down in their 90s, and of all recent players, Sharma was the biggest culprit.

Indian batsmen slowing down in their 90s. My analysis for Mint
Rohit Sharma is among the biggest culprits in terms of slowing down in the 90s

The piece was a hit and was widely shared on social media. What was more interesting, however, was the patterns in which it was shared. For one, the editors at Mint loved it and shared it widely. It was also shared widely by mango people and people with a general interest in cricket.

The class of people which was conspicuous by its absence of commentary on my piece was sports journalists. While it could be reasoned that they didn’t see the piece (appearing as it did in a business publication, though I did send emails to some of them), my reasoning is that this piece didn’t gain much traction among them because it didn’t fit their priors, and didn’t fit the jingoistic narrative they had been building.

It is not necessary, though, that someone only shares pieces that they completely agree with – it is a fairly common practice to share (and abuse) pieces which you vehemently disagree with. The commentary I found about this piece was broadly positive – few people who had shared the piece disagreed with it.

My (untested) hypothesis on this is that this analysis flew in the face of all that mainstream sports journalists had been defending over the previous few days – that Maxwell’s comments were simply not true, or that Sharma was a committed cricketer, and all such hyperbole. With data being harder to refute (only option being to poke holes in the analysis, but this analysis was rather straightforward), they chose to not give it further publicity.

Of course, I might be taking too much credit here, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a problem with sports (and more specifically, cricket) writing. Oh, and as for the ultra-flowery language, I’ll save my comments for another day and another post.

 

 

Sachin’s 100th

In the end it was quite appropriate. That the needlessly hyped “false statistic” of Sachin’s 100 100s came about in a match against a supposed minnow, in an inconsequential tournament, which didn’t even help India win the game. The hype surrounding this statistic had become unbearable, both for normal cricket fans and also for Sachin, perhaps. And that could be seen in his batting over the last one year, in England and in Australia. There was a distinct feeling that every time he just kept playing for his century, and not for the team cause, and the only upshot of his “100th 100” is that the monkey is finally off his back and hopefully Sachin can go back to playing normal cricket.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of other milestones round the corner. He now has 49 ODI 100s, so now people will hype up his 50th. And as someone pointed out on facebook yesterday, he has 199 international wickets! Hopefully that means he starts turning his arm over once again, with his lethal spinning leg-breaks and long hops.

The thing with Sachin is that he has always seemed to be statistically minded (irrespective of what he says in his interviews). The mind goes back to Cuttack during World Cup 1996, when he played out two maiden overs against Asif Karim while trying to get to his 100 (against Kenya). Even in recent times, including in 2007 when he got out in the 90s a large number of times, it is noticeable how he suddenly slows down the innings once he gets into the 90s. He gets nervous, starts thinking only about the score, and not about batting normally.

In that sense, it is appropriate that this meaningless statistic of a hundredth hundred came about in a game that India lost, to a supposed minnow. It was a “batting pitch”. As Raina and Dhoni showed in the latter stages of the innings, shotmaking wasn’t particularly tough. And yet, what did Sachin do? Plod at a strike rate of 75 for most of the innings, including in the crucial batting powerplay just so that he could get to his 100. I don’t fault his batting for the first 35 overs. He did what was required to set up a solid foundation, in Kohli’s company. But in the batting powerplay, instead of going for it, the only thing on his mind was the century. Quite unfortunate. And appropriate, as I’ve said a number off times earlier.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m NOT an anti-Sachintard. I’ve quite enjoyed his batting in the past, and there is no question that he is one of the all-time great cricketers. I’m only against meaningless stat-tardness. And it was this retardation about a meaningless stat that prevented Sachin from giving his best for the last one year.