A fine example in last week’s L.A. – Dallas game courtesy former coach Jeff Van Gundy:

With six seconds left in the fourth quarter Sunday, the Lakers led, 91-90, with Lamar Odom at the foul line.

“I don’t like Brandon Bass being matched up against Kobe on the offensive rebound,” Van Gundy said. “Kobe Bryant is a terrific offensive rebounder.”

Bryant promptly rebounded Odom’s miss, was fouled and made two free throws.

Breen, who had never heard an analyst disapprove of a matchup along the free-throw lane, was so surprised that he patted Van Gundy on the back and lauded the prediction.

“He didn’t predict it,” Jackson said after Breen’s comment. “It’s coaching. It’s knowing what you’re talking about.”

(from the NYT)

You have to know the game to appreciate the obscurity and criticality of the point made. But the larger point is that this is the reason former players/coaches are hired as commentators. Cricket would do well to learn.

Watch from the 4:32 mark

[Youtube= http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpbT2Hcljtw%5D

Bring on the Quant revolution

February 27, 2008

This is the second in a series of posts on the IPL.

In those interminable Tendulkar vs Lara debates, wouldn’t it be great if we had a way to measure who has been the better batsman in all possible conditions. Rahul has been a tireless advocate of the use of advanced statistics and in general more sophisticated metrics to measure player effectiveness (than just averages and strike rates) in cricket. On the face of it I am just as hopeful and excited that private enterprises such as IPL franchises will bring about this long needed revolution even as I am disappointed that private individuals (cricket loving geeky really) haven’t already made a start with the data currently available. The Americans have already ushered in this quant revolution starting with Moneyball and since taken forward by sports loving geeks, some of whom have been employed by teams including one who has risen to GM of a franchise.

There are inherent problems with using advanced metrics in a cricketing context: the pitch and weather are critical factors that can render many comparisons across different conditions less than meaningful. But we should not fall victim to the perfect solution fallacy. Here are some ideas to consider.

Analytics

Cricket’s basic metrics (runs, wickets, catches) are much fewer in number than say basketball (points, FG%, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers). So if you want to devise a composite measure of player effectiveness, you have very few ingredients to play with. (Of course you could argue that a player has an influence on the game only through one of these three modes. But we know the truth is more complicated than that.) Here are possible ways to get to the elusive composite measure.

  • Weight each innings by two factors: the average runs/wicket scored in the match and the average runs/wicket scored in all matches in that ground in the last 4 years. This ensures that a 100 scored when most batsmen have not done as well is obviously more valuable than a 100 in a match where both teams have declared for 500+ scores. Similarly a 100 scored in a ground unconducive to batting like Durban is better than a 100 at the Oval.
  • The weighting can similarly be done for every bowling performance by using strike rate (balls/wicket) both in the match and historically.
  • Running between the wickets is another “intangible” quality that has not been quantified. How about adding a running weight to a batsman’s overall rating by factoring in the percentage of run runs (1s/2s/3s) in all partnerships involving him or the number of run runs per 100 balls in a partnership involving him. This is a far from perfect measure as it may punish the boundary hitters. But over a large enough sample size, it will separate the better runners from the poor ones and more importantly provide a servicable quantitative input into an overall composite measure.
  • Ground fielding is a tough nut to crack and I haven’t been able to come up with an acceptable metric. I’d love to hear suggestions.

Of course none of this is perfect and I hardly have the statistical expertise to give weights and incorporate them into a composite measure. I’m just trying to set the debate rolling so that we can ultimately get better ways to measure effectiveness. And every proposed measure can be tested for by checking if teams that have players rated better (by the measure) on average win more often than not. Cricinfo has a made a promising start with their tackily named It Figures blog – they seem to have used standard deviations to measure consistency and a variation of a moving average I have suggested. But there’s ways to go yet.

Measurement and mapping

It’s great that the wagonwheel and bowler’s pitchmap have become common tools of analyses. But it’s time to free this data from the TV production companies and release this information to the public as the NBA has. Won’t it be great if we can compare Tendulkar’s cumulative wagonwheel from 2003 and 2007 to see if he’s playing any differently. Or the wagonwheel for all runs scored in Perth over the last 3 years to see if horizontal bat shots are still the way to score runs there.

But I have a slightly more radical suggestion. How about mapping every ball bowled from start to finish and annotating it. For example, you start with recording the bowler’s line and length, the height to which the ball bounced, the shot played by the batsman, the result (runs or wicket), the fielder involved and if possible even the field positioning at the time. It should then be possible to digitally retrieve say every ball bowled to Ganguly short of good length just outside off stump in the last 4 series and see if there’s a pattern to his shots. It sure does sound like a lot of work, but the Indian team’s analyst is on record as saying that they’re already doing some version of this. Of course a team would like such data on every match played by every team. So what’s the solution? Trust the Americans to find a viable one. There is a company that does precisely this for basketball; every play is mapped in every game right down to the tee. Of course this data is expensive to record and will therefore be only available for a hefty fee. With rich IPL franchises, there is an incentive to use every possible means to get ahead and so there will most certainly be demand for this service. And it sure beats having your own analyst do an inadequate job.

(This started as a response to this post and related comments. Posting it separately in the interest of readability.)

Quoting Srivaths: “20-20 at its best has enough skill, athletic excellence & pressure packed competition to attract a critical mass of serious fans.”

Essentially, this is the crux of the whole Twenty20 debate. If this is true, the ramifications are immense. Some, in increasing order of significance, are that the IPL will be a success, cricket will be able to reach out to a much larger and global fan base that it has little hope of tapping into with longer forms, the game will have a healthy future and existing cricket fans much happier for it.

The first Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa was a great success. It was a true sporting spectacle with enough skills, athleticism and competition on display. However, I think we must be careful in drawing definitive and general conclusions about the format based on just the World Cup. I see three main reasons why the WC was such a great success:

    • The pitches were bowler-friendly. Sreesanth and RP Singh got swing and that added greatly to the Ind-Aus and Ind-SA contests. This served to tilt the balance back in favour of the bowlers somewhat. Otherwise, the marginalization of bowling (of the wicket-taking sort I mean; I don’t have much patience for the Gavin Larsen/Chris Harris/Kumar Dharmasena genre of bowling) is a real risk. On pitches that are more batsman-friendly, the format runs a greater risk of becoming one-dimensional. To combat this danger, I propose a reduction in the number of wickets in hand for the batting side from 10 to 5. This would allow the overs-wickets ratio to be maintained with the result that wicket-taking/preservation of wickets would remain equally important. And potentially serious fans who don’t have the time for the longer versions can still follow a game that allows a real contest between bat and ball.
      • The games were played with great passion and intensity from the players. A big reason for this is that the games were part of something as big as a World Cup. Also, spectators and players haven’t been overfed on these games yet. Once we have a slew of Twenty20 games, we will not see the same intensity. This is where maintaining balance between different forms of the game is critical. I don’t trust administrators, especially the BCCI, here.
        • The games were played on a player skill base developed over years of Test and ODI cricket. If Twenty20 does indeed marginalize some cricket skills then that impact is not visible yet and will be seen only in the future. We do have the example of one-day cricket and it can be argued that it has had an adverse effect on the standards of fast bowling, opening batting, and spin bowling. Of course, this is a different debate which is far from settled. On the other hand, one-day cricket has definitely added some skills that have positively impacted Test cricket as well (running, fielding, aggressive batting). Twenty20 might have a similar effect. For this, it is difficult to theorize and only time will tell. Again, balance is critical here.

          Thus, in answer to the original question regarding the richness of Twenty20 cricket, I think the World Cup proved that Twenty20 matches can have enough skills to attract fans who are serious about the game. However, the conditions were just right. These conditions will not exist all the time. Twenty20 must work for the serious fans even when it is not “at its best”.

          Why we watch sport

          February 22, 2008

          This is the first in a series of posts I hope to do on the IPL and 20-20.

          It’s time to dispel the notion that cricket fans are too inured to seeing matches between national teams to appreciate a franchise based arrangement. To do this I will resort to making the somewhat nebulous dichotomy between the serious and casual fan (some of this is obvious but bear with me for a bit). The serious fan primarily watches sport for the athletic excellence, skill, performance under pressure and close competition; nationalist pride would be much lower down in the pecking order although he almost always would support his country. This explains why more people in India watch an India-Australia ODI than say an India-Lebanon football game and also why, as a 11 year old, I started watching basketball played in a far away land by men I had no reason to identify with. The casual fan is by definition fickle; his sport watching is dictated by popular opinion or typically whatever the spouse/friend forces on him. I contend that no sport can survive without a considerable base of serious fans: you need to attract people with the skill and athletic brilliance on display for it is these fans who will stick with the sport even when their favoured team performs poorly. But having said that, it is the casual fans who bring in the money through gate receipts and TV ratings for a sport to achieve the sort of financial success the IPL is aiming for. But this separation does not exist in a static equilibrium: the really successful sporting enterprises will achieve a healthy rate of converting casual fans into serious fans.

          And that in essence is my pocket sized model. Hopefully, it proves that if the cricket on display is absorbing enough, we will watch irrespective of how the teams are organized. But of course, contests between national teams will never lose their relevance – nobody wants to get rid of the World Cup in football or the European Championships. The question is if cricket has room enough for both the club and nation based models to coexist. I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Just look around the cricket world. Every form of cricket is being played at a faster pace than ever before and yet half the teams are unwatchable. Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand, and West Indies are facing a severe talent crunch. Pakistan and South Africa possess enough talent to put together decent teams but do not have players of outstanding skill or ability who can capture an audience. It is only Australia, India, Sri Lanka and England that tick both the talent and watchability checkboxes and any series that does not involve these teams needs a dose of artificial stimulation. So the IPL will only serve to get rid of the clutter that the FTP has spawned – only contests that can bring in the crowds and justify being on TV will remain (the SuperSeries was but a subtle acknowledgement of this). More importantly, it will deliver the ultimate threat to cricket administrators the world over: get your act together or perish.

          More: For the three of you that got this far, Rahul Bhatia has related thoughts here and here. Rahul is right on top of the IPL goings-on with his incisive commentary – do visit the Green channel. Update: Not to mention Prem Panicker.

           

          On Tradition Nazis

          February 20, 2008

          This blog is bored (and pissed about having to come up with a dissertation topic). So it will indulge in some stereotyping and name calling. Yes, we’re looking at all you true blue cricket fans who prattle on endlessly about the charms of cricket. We know you are steeped in the history and mores of the game but do you have to let your love for tradition spoil it for the rest of us who wish to see the game move forward.

          You look at technology as if it were the second coming of Satan; tell me, do cricket’s charms really lie in umpire after umpire making howler after howler on international television? You rightly call out the ICC for its ineptitude but did you really have to raise such a stink about the 15 degree chucking rule, one of the most progressive and sensible decisions taken by the ICC? Yes the Australia – Rest of the World Superseries was undoubtedly disappointing but were you really so turned off by the prospect of seeing Lara and Tendulkar bat together that you managed to show such scorn for the idea? And let’s not even talk about Supersubs – another poorly implemented idea but potentially a lifesaver for 50 over games.

          We have had enough and this blog has decided that it’s time to break your stranglehold on cricket debate. Yes, we will call out all you Tradition Nazis every time you raise your sodden voice. You should be quaking in your boots.

          No Englishman in the IPL?!?

          February 20, 2008

          I guess they’re continuing the grand British tradition of inventing the damn thing and getting left behind.

          It is more or less clear that potential brand image has trumped cricketing ability in the bidding but even that cannot possibly explain Michael Hussey going for $350,000 while his brother David goes for $675,000.

          P.s.: Dravid was reportedly advising the Bangalore team on player selection. On the evidence here, let’s just say that he won’t be an improvement on Vengsarkar as selector. And no, picking Steyn for cheap does not absolve him.

          Two types of swing

          February 18, 2008

          This is a fascinating video about two different ways of bowling outswing.

          It seems to me that you might lose some pace if you swing it with your wrist in the way that Pathan does in the video. However, I was chatting with a friend about it and he said that Steyn does it in the Pathan manner. And Steyn is one of the quickest around at the moment.

          I wonder if we can classify other swing bowlers into one of these two categories and see if there is a correlation with pace. I’d be most interested in knowing what Lee does, for instance. Also, is there more than one way to bowl inswing too?

          P.S. This is why Akram is one of the most interesting commentators to listen to. Most of the ESPN-Star/Channel 9 commentators are batsmen. Only Akram and Greig seem to give interesting insights into pace bowling.

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