Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
My buddy Deepak Shenoy has a Yahoo! column up today that expresses a complaint I’ve had about many Indian sports journalists for a while now: they are innumerate, and draw conclusions on the basis of inadequate data. The example Deepak provides is the following fact, trumped “on Twitter, TV and ... the internet when Mahela Jayawardene scored his hundred” in the World Cup final, as if it had great statistical or predictive significance:
“No century-scorer has ever been on the losing side of a World Cup final.”
As Deepak points out, there have been only five World Cup finals before this in which a batsman scored a century. Just five. There is no way that is a sample size large enough to draw a meaningful conclusion from.
Cricket journalism is littered with such conclusions, though, using stats with unjustifiable authority. Consider the following widespread belief among cricket lovers:
South Africa are chokers.
I heard this a lot after they crashed out of this World Cup, but what’s the basis for this, really? Cricinfo’s Statsguru reveals that out of 27 ODI tournament finals, they have won 16. On the bigger stage, though, at the World Cup, they have lost at the knock-out stage five times.
Now, much as 0 out of 5 seems revealing, that’s still way too small a sample size to draw conclusions—especially when those five times stretch across generations. When we say South Africa are chokers, are we talking about Kepler Wessels’s squad in 1992, Hansie Cronje’s side in 1999, or Graeme Smith’s boys this year? Is there a new science of Sports Genetics that explains how such qualities can be passed on across generations?
Through the World Cup, reporters fed old narratives or built new ones on the basis of such nonsense data. For example, MS Dhoni got savaged for promoting Yusuf Pathan up the batting order, where it seems he was a proven failure—on the basis of 11 ODIs (out of a total of 51), in which he batted between 3 and 5. More importantly, Pathan batted at 3 or 4 in just two games in this World Cup, and failed in both—but two is not a remotely meaningful number.
In such cases, I’d always defer to the captain and team management’s judgement, who are closer to the action and the players, rather than the ranting of reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between an arm-ball and a doosra, but feel the need to criticize from their perch on high, using numbers with all the finesse of monkeys using calculators.
The judgments the media arrives at, you will note, are passed in hindsight, after the outcome is known. MS Dhoni got applause for leading us to the T20 World Cup, but would have been slammed for his decision to bring on Joginder Sharma for that last over in the final had Misbah-ul-Haq played one shot slightly differently. All our experts criticized him for picking Ashish Nehra over R Ashwin in the recent semi-final, and praised him afterwards for his prescience. Had Dhoni gotten a bad decision or an unplayable ball in the final, and India had lost, he would have been chastised for promoting himself up the order—but we won, so hey, it’s a masterstroke.
One of the lessons I’ve learnt as a poker player—and it applies generally to life as well—is that the quality of your decisions should not be judged by their outcomes. In the short term, too many variables determine the outcome of any action, beyond just the action itself. The quality of a player’s captaincy, for example, can only be judged over a long period of time—and even then, the other variables at play make that very difficult. For example, the question of whether Dhoni or Saurav Ganguly were greater captains than Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar are difficult ones precisely because the latter two led lousy teams in difficult times, and they couldn’t possibly have gotten the results Dhoni and Ganguly (and also Dravid, for that matter) did. So our evaluation of their captaincy cannot be based on results alone, and there is a subjective element to it.
In my subjective opinion, Dhoni is the best captain we’ve ever had—but my basis for this opinion is not just his results, but the manner in which he goes about his job. He had the cojones to promote himself up the order in the final and take the responsibility upon himself in that ultra-high-pressure situation. Even if he’d been out for a duck, and India had lost, he’d still have my eternal respect for that.
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