Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Sunny Gavaskar has it all figured out, as always

Will someone please tell Sunil Gavaskar to get off his high horse? Over the last couple of seasons he's started going overboard in his commentary, playing the gutsy guy who's not afraid to speak his mind and stand up to the establishment. But that's basically a mixture of bravado and (selective) hindsight, considering that (a) he is still part of the establishment and (b) his outbursts often come out after the fact, summarizing the mood of the cricket-crazy Indian public rather than making any original points. By a circular logic, having someone of his stature appear to agree with them only makes the public hold him in higher regard. Take, for example, this piece from Cricinfo, summarizing his latest column where he slams the Indian cricketers for 'dancing at the launch of their [IPL] franchise' instead of having an extra net session. While this may sound great for a lot of disappointed fans, the fact is that he published this after India had been thrashed by South Africa. The launches were, of course, before the Test started, so if he felt so bad about it, he could well have raised the point then. It begs the question, if India had won the Test, or even drawn it, would he have come out and said the same thing? Drawing that logic out further, would he then have said that this is a great bunch of kids because even though they're out partying and dancing, they know their priorities? I doubt it. While I agree that the players seemed lacklustre (at least in the few snippets I saw on the news; my cable operator decided not to show us Neo Sports), Gavaskar really was in a position to bring it to light in advance, rather than opt to kick them when they're down, yet he chose not to. Just to rub it in further, he warns Gary Kirsten that '[he] better crack the whip, else some of the guys will ride roughshod over him.' Let's not forget that these guys have managed to do fairly well without a proper 'coach' for a really long time now (not to discount the work that Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh have done, but neither of them were deemed to be the upfront coach/manager which is what Kirsten's role is supposed to be; besides, they're still part of the setup supporting Kirsten, so things have not changed much on that front).
Of course, Gavaskar is not the only former cricketer to suffer from a slightly inflated view of himself combined with selective hindsight. Geoffrey Boycott, in his latest 'Bowl at Boycs' podcast claims that today's cricketers, although they are physically fitter, are not 'cricket fit'. As evidence he puts forth the example of Fred Trueman who apparently bowled over 1,000 overs every summer for 5 years (Boycs checked the statistics!). The problem with that assessment of course is that although it may be factually correct, it doesn't really resolve anything. What would help would be a comparison of how other fast bowlers fared in Trueman's time - it may well be that Trueman was naturally athletic and had an exceptionally injury-proof bowling action, which does not necessarily hold true for a lot of bowlers - and also an assessment of how he performed otherwise on the field, diving around and firing in throws from the outfield - consider that a lot of bowlers pick up shoulder injuries that make it more difficult to throw, rather than to bowl. He also goes off on a diatribe against limited-overs cricket when someone asks him on advice on how to play straighter and finishes that off by telling him to try and play straighter, which is not very helpful advice (a solution that presents itself to me would be to change his grip to keep the bat face more open, and concentrate on using the top hand more, rather than forcing the shot with the bottom hand, but then I am just a tennis ball-thrashing slogger, so what do I know).
I guess it's a problem that plagues a lot of sports - having former players talking off the top of their heads. What is surprising is that given how stats-crazy a lot of cricket fans are, there's very little data-supported, common sense-driven analysis that goes on (excepting of course, The List and such-like; too often you see either too little or too much of data, with little common sense).
Maybe with the coming of the IPL, we might see cricket's equivalent of Sabermetrics. Though I guess what would really help there would be allowing legal betting on cricket in India. But that's a topic for another post which I might get around to writing someday.


  1. Was recently telling a friend that cricket had more stats than baseball, but by the looks of it, sabermetrics puts baseball way in the lead.

    I imagine I should get into baseball (Boston is baseball mad, and my department is two minutes from Fenway Park), but it seems to have much less variability than cricket.

  2. Cricket does generate a lot of stats. In fact, a lot of the basic stats that they use in baseball were devised originally by a Brit who based them on cricket stats. The main thing about Sabremetrics is that it is fan-generated for the most part, rather than just officially stated, and that in itself is based on the fact that the stats are easily available. For cricket, on the other hand, it's more of a bureaucratic approach, with the figures being noted down in Wisden and that being the end of it. The cricket teams that do use a lot of data-based analysis end up getting some amount of flak for it (Witness Bob Woolmer being criticized for using a laptop), though that is decreasing now.While Statsguru at Cricinfo does make a lot of that data accessible, what would really drive people to generate a lot more data would be if you have betting - once your money is involved, you have a greater incentive to get your analysis right. There was a guy at my old organisation who used to spend most of his day trading in stocks, who used to also bet on cricket (unofficially, of course). He used to put in the same amount of analysis into his cricket betting as he did in his stock-picking.

    I guess that the greater variability of cricket also makes it tougher to generate a lot of robust analysis - along with golf, it's probably the only ball-based popular sport (that qualification is to exclude stuff like F1 or yachting) that relies on the weather and playing conditions to a large extent. But that's also the charm of the game.

  3. Yeah I've been reading up on baseball and cricket, so I know baseball's first statistician was a cricket fan.

    Betting in India might make things a bit ugly, no? Or will legalizing it be better?

    Wonder was George has to say about all this...

  4. When you say that betting might make things ugly, I'm guessing you mean in terms of match-fixing and whether people will get even more emotional. With regard to match-fixing, legal betting would, ideally, allow for better regulation of the business. Bookmakers would have to be on the up-and-up to be able to grow their business, and there would be the threat of legal action for those who do shady things like trying to fix matches. With illegal betting, punters have no such protection. Betting really is a true 'victim-less crime' when regulated effectively. At worst it would be akin to people buying lottery tickets.

    As for emotion, perhaps it would help people hedge for monetary gains against psychological losses-if you bet against your favourite team, you feel good no matter who wins [8-)] .Besides, it would actually lend more meaning to a lot of otherwise inconsequential matches that go on.

    Of course, my original point was only in the limited sense that legal betting would cause people to think about the game in a more sensible, data-driven way. It was not a discussion of the moral/legal aspects of betting per se...

  5. Haha. I have no moral issues with betting. I think most morality-related law should be lifted -- betting, drugs, suicide, whatever.