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About Amit Varma

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.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Recent entries

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21 April, 2016

National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting)

Before this IPL started, a friend of mine, who shall go unnamed, called me up.

Friend: Amit, you have such understanding of cricket, do you have any gyaan about this IPL? I want to place a few bets.

Me: Um, don’t do cricket betting, bro, you’re bound to lose in the long run. But if you absolutely have to, because the dopamine craving is unbearable, and you really hate your money, then do one thing: make a bet, at the toss of every game, on the side batting second. Ignore everything else.

F: What are you saying? Team composition, past records, pitch, weather, my gut feel—ignore all that?

M: Yes. Ignore it all. And don’t even watch the game, your blood pressure is a problem, isn’t it? Just place that one bet and forget about it.

*

Four days later, I Whatsapp him.

M: Bro, how’s it going? Have you noticed that the team batting second won three out of the four games so far? :)

F: Amit, it’s all fucked up, man. The matches are fixed. Just see yesterday, bro, X was at 40 paisa when I bet, and suddenly the game turned around and I lost so much. Such an unlikely turnaround! It has to be a fix!

M: Um, unlikely things are actually inevitable. Why didn’t you just bet on the side batting second like I told you to?

F: Arre, yaar, that is so simplistic. I have been betting on cricket for 20 years. Main apni analysis karta hoon, bhai!

M: Oh.

F: But these bloody games are fixed!

M: Well, just keep in mind what I told you.

*

I call him after eight games.

M: Champ, this IPL is crazy, isn’t it? Seven out of eight matches so far won by the side batting second. When are you throwing a party?

F: Arre, forget party, I will have to sell one of my flats soon. I bet heavily on X yesterday, and Y won! It was fixed!

M: Er, not likely bro, very hard to fix entire games. Only spot-fixing is realistic, and even that…

F: No no no, it was fixed! See, X had a sure win! And the bookies gave odds of 84 paise. Why would they give such great odds? To lure the money in! And then Y wins! Fixed!

M: Are you saying the bookies fixed it?

F: No bro, the game has evolved beyond that. Bookies and punters don’t fix matches anymore. The BCCI fixed it!

M: Bro, that’s a wild conspiracy theory. Firstly, it’s almost impossible to fix actual results. Secondly, the BCCI makes a lot of money anyway, and their incentives are aligned towards keeping the game clean. I think you’re just rationalising…

F: Arre, stop this rational talk. Nothing good can come out of it.

M: Well, I did tell you about the team batting second…

*

And now, two weeks later, I speak to him again.

M: Dude, it’s 13 out of 14 wins now for the side batting second. What did I tell you at the start of the tournament?

F: Arre, forget all that, you won’t believe how hard I’m getting banged. My ass should be renamed National Highway 420. I’m telling you, it’s all fixed. I should never have bet a single paisa!

M: Er, well, look, I did tell you…

F: I hate cricket. I’m going to Bangkok for some decleansing. I need to get some detoxing done.

M: Er, actually all this detox talk is pseudo-science, dude, you see…

F: Amit, shut up! You know nothing!

*

So there it is. My friend will never wake up and see the light, but the weird thing is that many pundits and cricket managements aren’t doing that either. It is a fact that 13 out of 14 games have been won by the side batting second. Not just that, they have been won easily, in an average of 17.2 overs and with an average 6.6 wickets an hand. Why is this happening?

I have speculated on this in an earlier post, but forget all speculation, there is one obvious conclusion to be drawn: teams batting first are consistently underestimating the par score.

In my column before the IPL, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, I had pointed out that many sides do not understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. Basically, they need to be more aggressive in order to utilise the 20 overs optimally, and attack the bowling from the get go. (Read the piece for the full argument.) Now, some teams get this, and do actually frontload, but many don’t. And they often adjust sub-optimally when wickets fall.

For example, consider this: A team begins their innings aggressively, but then drops wickets. They drift to 44 for 3 after eight overs, with the bowlers bowling exceptionally well. Here’s what happens: if they’re batting first, they’ll reset the par score in their heads, and aim for something conservative like 165 at 10 an over. If they’re batting second, they’ll aim for whatever the target is, even if it’s 190. They don’t have a choice.

Now, it is my belief that many teams underestimate the ‘expected value’ of aggression. The risk-to-reward ratio for aggressive batting is vastly different in T20s as compared to ODIs because the relationship between the two kinds of resources available to a team (players and time) has changed. And because they underestimate the payoffs, teams are not aggressive enough while batting first. While batting second, though, they often don’t have a choice but to be appropriately aggressive.

This is not the only factor in play, of course—the strength of a side’s bowling attack matters, as do local conditions on any given day. But all of those are largely toss-agnostic. This mindset is not.

Despite my explanation, this streak is an outlier, and I don’t see it continuing: I will be very surprised if 13 of the next 14 games are won by the side batting second. However, I do see this trend continuing. Sides batting second should win more than sides batting first. And when sides batting first do win, it will be because they frontloaded, as RCB did in game 4, and Gujarat Lions try in every game.

Please don’t put your money on it, though. Anyone who bets on cricket is a long-term loser. I’m serious.

Posted by Amit Varma in Economics | Sport

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