This is the third installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 15, 2018.
Every time India loses a Test series abroad, the doomed relationship between the Indian Cricket Fan and the Indian Cricket Player comes into focus. The Player usually disappoints the Fan; and when the Fan is delighted, it is often for the wrong reason. This is because the Player and the Fan look at the game in completely different ways. So different, in fact, that we might be talking about different sports here.
The crux of this difference: the Indian Cricket Fan is results-oriented.
There have been many loud judgements made by Fans in the course of this series against England, all expressed with great passion and conviction. Hardik Pandya should not have played the first two Tests. Virat Kohli was right to pick Hardik for the third Test; redemption! Kohli was wrong to pick Hardik for the fourth, and he must be dropped. (I have heard these three come from the same person, though they are absurd together.) KL Rahul should be not be in the side. After the fifth Test, wait, oops.
What these judgements, and so many others through the series, have in common is that they are based on results. Consider the different types of judgements Fans tend to pass.
Judgements around selection. So-and-so should not be picked instead of you-and-yo. Example: picking Rohit Sharma instead of Ajinkya Rahane at the start of the Test series in South Africa.
Judgements around events. What a horrible shot Rishabh Pant played to get out in the fifth Test. Bad boy!
Judgements around a side’s approach. Why were Rahul and Pant so aggressive after tea on the fifth day in the fifth Test? Maybe we could have gotten a draw if they had tried to play the day out.
Judgements around, well, results. We lost 4-1. We are a horrible side!
I’m not taking a position on these specific judgements, but on the basis on which they are made. At this point, you would be justified in asking me, WTF columnist bro, if we don’t make judgements based on results, what do we base them on? Don’t players look at the game the same way? Shouldn’t they?
Well, no. All elite sportspeople think about the game probabilistically, and aren’t results-oriented. They value process more than results. That is the only route to success in anything – and I learnt it, viscerally, when I shifted from being a Fan to a Player.
Not a cricket player, don’t worry. After about a decade in cricket journalism, I chucked it around eight years ago, and spent five years as a professional poker player. Poker is a game of skill, but has a higher quantum of luck than other sports – in fact, it has been said that the key skill in poker is the management of luck. This might well be true to any other sport, and of life itself.
One of the early lessons I learnt in poker was that one cannot be results-oriented. I won’t bore you with poker talk, so let me give my favourite illustration of this. (I promise this is relevant to cricket and Kohli and 4-1, so bear with me!)
Let’s say you have an evenly weighted coin, that will fall heads or tails 50% of the time each – over the long run. A friend offers you a deal. You will flip that coin an unspecified number of times. Every time it hands on heads, he will give you Rs 51. Every time it lands on tails, you give him Rs 49.
It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why this is profitable. You calculate the Expected Value (EV) of a single flip to be Rs 1. (If you flip it 100 times, you get 51×50 and lose 49×50 to gain 100 rupees. Divide by 100.) The more you flip, the more money you make. It is clearly right to accept the bet and start spinning that coin.
But here’s the thing: thinking probabilistically tells you that the decision to flip the coin is always profitable (to the tune of one rupee), but the actual result is always a harsh binary. You either win 51 bucks or lose 49. Let’s say you flip the coin once, it lands on tails, and your friend takes the money and walks off. Does that make it a bad decision?
Maybe he sees your downcast face and spins it again. Tails again. Now? Hell, he could even get ten tails in a row – unlikely as that seems, ten tails in a row is actually inevitable at some point if you spin the coin enough, and you just got unlucky here. (To get a sense of this, do read my old piece, ‘Unlikely is Inevitable’.) So you end up as a big loser – but does this mean your decision-making was flawed?
The key to winning in poker is to keep making the best decision you can, and not worry about the short-term variance of results. This is also the key to winning in life – but I won’t bore you any more on this. (For a deeper explanation involving football and parallel universes, do read my old essay, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’.) My point is that all actions in all sports carry probabilities with them, and have an inherent EV.
For example, when Lionel Messi find the ball at his feet three feet outside the box with two defenders converging to get in his way, he knows the probabilities of a) trying to weave his way through them to score directly, b) drawing them away from the goal and passing into the space his run would have created for his colleague Luis Suarez, c) Suarez scoring from there, d) Messi just going for a direct shot on goal now, e) Messi sprinting into the box and falling, hoping for a penalty. These numbers would be internalised by Messi’s coaches, and the optimal behaviour in such a spot would be second nature to Messi.
The thing is, he could make the optimal move, with a 15% chance of success, and miss. He could do something sub-optimal, with a 5% chance, and succeed, as he will one-twentieth of the time in that situation. The first decision would not be wrong just because he did not score. The second would not be right just because he did. We have no way of knowing – though Messi is in the best position to judge – and we can only tell how good a player’s decision-making is over an extremely long term, when we have good enough sample sizes to draw reliable conclusions.
In cricket, that long term is not possible. Now, consider the many kinds of EV a captain like Virat Kohli has to calculate when he takes the field.
One is of the strategic value of aggression. Should batsmen be aggressive and show ‘intent’ in Test matches? The merit in this: you don’t let bowlers get into a rhythm; you could take the game away in one good session; if it works, the confidence can create a decisive virtuous cycle. The danger: you could lose too many wickets too quickly when it doesn’t work, and lose the game in a session; the players who fail thus could lose confidence; this could create a vicious cycle.
This is a tough decision. Every Test match has uniquely different conditions, and it is impossible to get a large enough sample size to come to any conclusion. I’d need data from tens of thousands of games with and without this approach to have confidence in a judgement. In the absence of such a sample, a captain like Kohli has to go with his gut to form a philosophy around this.
He has chosen aggression, and prefers free-scoring batsmen like KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya to plodders like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (He is no doubt biased by the good results of his own aggression, ignoring the fact that the risk-reward ratio is different for him because he is a superior player to all the guys named above.)
From the EV of a strategy, let’s move to the EV of a specific decision: picking Hardik Pandya in a Test XI in England. I am a fan of Pandya, and I think Kohli’s rationale for playing him would be the same as mine. He is an under-rated batsman, whose aggression can swing a game in a session. Even if he averages five-runs-an-innings lower than a specialist No. 6 batsman, the ten useful overs he can provide in a day, giving rest to the specialist bowlers, is worth those five runs. Playing him instead of a specialist No 6, in my opinion, carries a positive EV.
Now, he was our matchwinner in the third Test, and Kohli’s faith in him seemed vindicated. He flopped in the fourth, and had to be dropped following the public outcry from Fans. But this is indisputable: his EV in the third and fourth Test was identical. The results, though, were very different.
What is that EV? Should he play Tests for us? We can make our own judgements on that. But those two results, which drew such acclaim and derision respectively, are, for all practical purposes, random noise.
At the moment, the results indicate that Kohli is a bad captain, and made mistakes in this series. But are five Tests in England enough to judge, in a season where this batch of the Duke’s ball swung more than normal, tosses were decisive, and England won all the tosses? Could the probabilities have been on his side, but not luck? Are Fans being harsh by judging Kohli on the results of the series? What are the possible counterfactuals?
I don’t want to defend Kohli or take a specific stance here. Nor am I arguing that we should suspend all judgement entirely. But we should be aware that what happens on a cricket field is an inadequate way to evaluate a game, because it is a tiny fraction of what the sport is about. The real drama of cricket, the ebb and flow that matters, lies in the possibilities and probabilities of what can happen, not in the boring binaries of what does. Watching the game would be a richer experience for us if we focussed, as the players do, on the journey and not the destination.