Depression and playing out the overs

There are two ways to bat – you can either seek to score runs or you can seek to play out the overs. Some puritan fans of Test cricket argue that the latter is the more important skill – that you are not a good Test player unless you can play out the overs when required. However, cricket matches are won only when you score more runs than the other team, and so while playing out the overs is important at certain times in the match, the value of run-scoring ability should not be ignored.

Sometimes, however, especially say when you are chasing a big fourth innings target on a nebulous wicket, you could decide to eschew any thoughts on run scoring and instead focus on hanging in there. You decide to devote all your energies to just “staying alive”, and just playing out the overs. In that sense, yes, playing out the overs without necessarily scoring runs can sometimes be a valid strategy.

However, you should notice that it remains a valid strategy only until the end of that particular Test match! Once the stumps are drawn at the end of the fifth day, with you hopefully still unbeaten and your team escaping with a draw, things are reset to zero! The next Test match is a whole new game, and you start off from zero, and you cannot afford to start that Test match batting the same way you did while you were trying to save the earlier match! You need to realize that you should include some run-scoring in your objective function, too!

Sometimes in life, when you are going through a tough phase for whatever reason, you might make a decision to “simply hang in there”. At these points in time, you don’t care whether you really achieve something in that time period – all you seek to do is to prevent further damage to yourself – this is similar to trying to play out the overs in a Test match.

I argue that this can be a viable strategy if and only if you decide to “play out the overs” until a fixed point in time! The difference between game and life is that game has a specified end-point. At four thirty on the final day, if you are still batting, the game is a draw, irrespective of whether you were one down or nine down! The next Test starts on a clean slate. This, however, doesn’t apply to life.

Life doesn’t have clear breakpoints like cricket does. And sometimes when you get yourself “nine down and far behind in terms of runs”, you find that you begin the “next Test match” (if you can divide life into discrete units called Test matches) at a disadvantage, and soon find yourself far behind and unable to cope.

Given that life doesn’t play out the same way as a game of cricket, you should use the strategy of “playing out the overs” only sparingly, and only when you see a clear “gamechanger moment” after which your equation is reset to zero! If you choose to overplay this strategy, however, not much good is going to come out of it.

So, what does depression have to do with all this? I’ve found depression to be a state of mind where you want to play out the overs even in situations where it is not the right thing to do (think, for example, of India’s third Test against the West Indies in Dominica in 2011). And soon you get into the state of mind of just playing out the overs that you lose all ambitions and hopes and desires for run-scoring. And soon you find yourself in a rut. And you decide to “play out” the rut by continuing to dig in. And that makes you sink deeper. It becomes harder to “play out” but now you know no other strategy, and soon get into a bad downward spiral.

If you find yourself “playing out the overs” way too often, it is an indication of trouble. It means that you are possibly exposing yourself to a downward spiral. And it is possible that you need help. The next time you get the desire of wanting to “play out the overs”, check if there is going to be an end to it, and implement the strategy if and only if you see a clear end.

Fighter Batsmen and Stud Bowlers

Insight of the day: Batting is inherently fighter and bowling is inherently stud. Of course there are severral stud batsmen (eg. Sehwag) and fighter bowlers (eg. Giles) but if you look at it broadly – a batsman needs to get it right every ball, while a bowler needs only one ball to succeed.

The fundamental idea is that bowling success can be more lumpy than batting success – for example the maximum that a batsman can do if he has one great over is to score 36 runs – whcih in the context of the average game won’t amount to much. However, if a bowler has one great over and picks up six wickets, the impact is tremendous.

The bowler can afford to be much more inconsistent than the batsman. He might get a few balls wrong, but he can suddenly make an impact on the game. For a batsman to have a significant impact, however, he should be able to carry it on for a significant amount of time. An “impulse”  (a large force acting for a small time period) will do the batting team no good, while it can be a tremendous boost for the bowling team. On the other hand, steady unimaginative play by the batsman is good enough, while a bowler needs to necessarily show patches of spectacularity to have an impact.

Hence, batting is fighter and bowling is stud.

However, what the advent of one day cricket has done is to invert this. By limiting the number of overs, and creating conditions where a team need not be bowled out, it has turned things upside down. Of course, a stud performance by a bowler (say a hat-trick) can have a significant impact on the game, but inconsistent and wayward bowling is likely to cost the bowling team significantly more than it does in Test cricket.

Similarly, with the game getting shorter, an impulse by the batsman (say a quick 40 by Sehwag) has a much larger impact on the game than it does in Test cricket. And on the other hand, dour batting  – which is so useful in Tests – may actually be a liability in ODIs. Similarly the mantra for bowlers has become containment, and thus fighterness in bowlers has a greater impact – and so people now do respect bowlers who can bowl long spells without taking wickets, but just containing.

Remember that even now, to succeed in Test cricket, you need to have the correct characteristic – Sehwag’s batting might appear stud and risky, but he has the ability to play really long innings which is why he is a really good Test batsman. If he didn’t have the “longevity gene”, he would’ve still remained a one-day wonder. Yes – now teams do pick a fourth bowler to do the “holding role” – keeping one end tight while others attack. Still, the holding guy needs to have some ability to pick up wickets by himself.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

The Aftermath

Baada collaborated on the research leading up to his post. I hereby acknowledge his contribution and condemn his laziness for not blogging it himself.

One of the major problems of the financial crisis that has been happening for about two years now is that investment bankers, as a profession, stand discredited. Before this, they used to claim to be on the top of the intellectual ladder. And now, thanks to a handful (more than a handful; but still a small proportion) of phenomenally stupid investment bankers, the entire community stands discredited. Not just that, they have left the community of quants, of people who can be good at structuring, of finance people, of statisticians, all discredited. You say “all you need to do is to get a few ibankers into these jobs” and you’ll have people come at you like a pack of hounds, waving Mint and saying “look at the damage these buggers have caused, and you think they can solve this problem”.

So Baada and I were talking about cricket the other day. About how thanks to the demands of television, flat pitches are being prepared everywhere. Which is leading to tame and boring draws. Which has led to domestic cricket being effectively reduced to a one-innings game. Which has led to massive fourth innings run chases. Which has led to bowlers break down once every couple of seasons. And so forth.

The argument put forth in favour of flat pitches is that in order to maximise television revenues, you need the game to last five days. Excellent argument, and Baada and I agreed to it. But the friggin’ point is that if you have  a boring game, no one is going to watch it. If you have a game that is most likely to end up as a draw, it will have no audience. Advertisers would be paying through their nose for near-zilch viewership.

In the medium term, things should even out. Advertisers will realize that due to the boring nature of Test cricket, no one will watch it anyway, and will back away. Ad rates will fall. And TV rights bids will fall consequently. And the boards will understand their folly and take steps to make cricket interetsing again. (there is also the danger that boards will use this to say that no one watches Test cricket anymore and scraps it altogether). However, advertisers should not be so passive and wait for things to even out.

Given a large number of statistics, playing conditions, day of week seasonality and all such stuff, it shouldn’t be hard for the smart advertiser to figure out which are going to be his most profitable slots. And bid specifically for those. If one smart advertiser does that, then that advertiser stands to gain against other advertisers who will end up paying more money for less profitable slots. And so all advertisers will become smart. Now, the channels will stop seeing uniform demand patterns for their various advertising slots. They will now need to acquire smartness in order to combat the smart advertisers. This way, smartness will prevail in the system.

I’m sure that once something like this happens, natural balance will get restored. It will take much less time for TV channels to realize that three-day Tests on bowling pitches can get them greater revenues compared to runfests played over five days. And they won’t take much time to communicate the same to the boards who will then restore Test cricket back to glory.

The problem with a lot of advertising people is that they see themselves as “creative people” because of which they assume they don’t need to know and use maths. And they don’t do the smart calculations I described earlier. As for the brand managers, it is likely that a lot of them decided to pursue marketing because they either didn’t like quant or found themselves weak at quant. Apart from a few simple excel models, they too are likely to shun the kind of smartness required here.

So where are the white knights who can save the version of the gentleman’s game played in whites? Not currently in the ad agencies. Most likely not in the marketing departments. They are all out there. A few months ago, they were employed. Earning very good salaries, and grand bonuses. Earning amounts of money unaffordable to most advertising and marketing companies. Thanks to the financial meltdown, they are available now. Looking for a fresh challenge.

This is the best time for you to infuse quant to your business. You won’t get the kind of quant supply in the market that you are seeing now. Even if the financial industry doesn’t recover (in any case it will never go back to 2007 levels), supply side factors should ensure lower supply. Do that little experiment now. Acknowledge that numbers can do a lot of good for your business. Understand what structuring is all about, and estimate the kind of impact a good structurer can have on your revenues. Make that little bit effort and I’m sure you’ll get convinced. Go make that offer. An offer these ex-ibankers can’t refuse in the current circumstances at least.

PS: When I refer to investment banking, I also include the “outside-the-wall” side of the business (called “markets”; “sales and trading”; “securities” and various other names). In fact, I mostly talk about the outside-the-wall business, not having had any exposure inside the wall.