Opinion polls and betting

So for a change the opinion polls seem to have got it right. I’m talking about the just-concluded elections in the UK here, which has returned a hung parliament. The Tories have fallen just sort of a majority (in Kannada we’d call it “AJM“). It’ll be interesting to see how a government will be formed now.

Now, the thing is that the opinion polls got it right. While the Tories had started off with a big lead at the time the elections were announced, opinion polls over time showed that the race was getting a lot tighter. I’d piggybacked on the opinion polls to conduct my own analysis which got published in Mint.

Having shown off that I’d made the prediction correctly, let me get to my hypothesis of why the opinion polls got it right.¬†Opinion polls in the UK have a greater chance of being right because because betting is legal here.

I was walking around Central London yesterday when I saw this poster outside a betting shop.

Because betting is legal in the UK, betting houses take bets on just about anything, including the results of elections. The way betting works is that the betting houses make markets. They present odds for each side of the deal (in this case, let’s say Tory win, Labour win and hung parliament), and whenever a punter walks into the shop and places a bet, it’s the house that’s taking the opposite side of the bet.

What this implies is that the house better get the odds right, otherwise the difference in their odds and the actual results can wipe out the shop. And how does the betting house know where to set the odds? For something like an election, they rely on the opinion polls.

If the opinion polls get it wrong, the betting houses can end up losing a lot of money (like they evidently did last year during the Brexit vote which most pollsters got horribly wrong). So there is a legal entity which has real skin in the game in opinion polls being right.

I’m not sure of the ownership of the opinion polling companies here in the UK, but I won’t be surprised if they make plenty of money by selling their results to betting shops (at a more granular level than what they make public). And given the intense competition among pollsters here in the UK (at least 15 different agencies conducted opinion polls ahead of yesterday’s elections), there is a real incentive for a pollster to get it right – get it wrong and the betting houses might take their business elsewhere.

In case betting wasn’t legal (such as in India), polling agencies wouldn’t be able to legally sell their results to betting houses and punters, and their markets would be limited to media houses. Media houses don’t have that much of a skin in the game in the polls – their profits don’t depend on getting polls right as much as the profits of betting houses. And pollsters would have less incentive to get the polls right.

Now, howzzat?

 

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!

 

Was the RR-CSK match on 12 May 2013 fixed?

The Justice Mudgal committee which looked into possible corruption in the Indian Premier League has mentioned that the game between Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings played in Jaipur on the 12th of May 2013 was possibly fixed. CSK, batting first, were 83 without loss in 11 overs, at which point their “mascot” (let’s call him that since his official status is unclear) Gurunath Meiyappan allegedly said that the team was unlikely to score over 140 (refer to the video with Gaurav Kalra and Sharda Ugra on Cricinfo). The team finished on 141, with Dwayne Bravo finishing with a quick 23 in 11 balls.

I have an algorithm similar to the WASP algorithm used in the recent New Zealand-India ODI series which I use to evaluate player performances in each game. For this particular game, the following table shows the batting ratings (according to this algorithm) for various players.

rrcsk1

You can notice that apart from Dwayne Bravo, all batsmen from Chennai Super Kings (look at the batting column) had a negative rating. The two players with the most negative batting ratings, you can see, are Ravindra Jadeja and M Vijay. The question is which of these two was more culpable for the innings slowdown in the latter half.

Our algorithm allows us to analyze performances in parts of innings, so let us break down the innings into two – before Mike Hussey got out (on 11.3 overs) and after. When did Vijay collect his -10 score?

mvijay

Vijay started slowly, getting to a cumulative -5.3 after four overs. Then, starting in the sixth over he started hitting out. By the time Hussey got out in the twelfth over, he was at 10.17. Raina and Dhoni both perished in the 13th over. At the end of that, Vijay was at a still respectable 8.49 (the wickets falling having evidently slowed him down). And then Ravindra Jadeja walked in.

For the next four overs, when Vijay was at the crease, he diminished his team’s chances of winning by 8%, 4.5%, 5.6% and 1% respectively (total of 19%). He then got out, and Bravo came in to make amends and take the team to 141. What of Jadeja?

rajadeja

It is interesting to note that Jadeja held steady while Vijay was slowing things down (overs 13 to 17), but once Vijay got out, he had two massively horrible 18th and 20th overs (he didn’t get to bat in the 19th, when Bravo took all the strike!).

Was it the handiwork of some particular bowler that Jadeja was quietened in overs 18 and 20? No! The following graph shows the over-wise performance of Chennai Super Kings (a negative number means Rajasthan Royals got the upper hand in that over). Colour of the bars vary by bowler. No one bowler did superlatively well for RR.

rrcsk2

The negatives in the 12th and 13th overs are on accounts of wickets falling. And then there is a series of negatives, with Vijay and Jadeja batting. Then Bravo comes in, gets himself a positive, but Jadeja continues to get really negative. And it’s not really one bowler who bowled superlatively well.

Draw your own conclusions.