By Jaideep Varma and Jatin Thakkar
That the conventional statistical system in cricket of averages and aggregates is skewed is widely agreed. It has been so for years, decades even. However, in the five-day version, because of the nature of the format, the players who normally went up the averages list were usually the best ones, so no one fretted too much. One-Day-Internationals changed that a bit – not outs skewed things considerably but other measures (like tallies of centuries and wickets) were usually summoned up to differentiate between players.
The T20 format has comprehensively queered the pitch. All the skews are wildly magnified. No one knows what the standard measures are anymore. Centuries are a rarity as are four or five wicket hauls. Regular not outs render averages way-off-centre. Strike rates mean nothing by themselves, nor do economy rates. The result is that no one knows who the best T20 players in the world are, in internationals or in domestics, not in a sustained or statistical way.
Ironically, the format of the game most popularly associated with innovation is actually the most backward. When it comes to individual player analysis over multiple matches, anarchy reigns. Man-of-the-match awards are hit-and-miss affairs like never before. Tournament awards go to the wrong candidate…sometimes embarrassingly off-the-mark.
There are a few evolving systems that can actually identify some of these and we use ours to bring some of these anomalies to light. (Impact Index measures the impact a player makes on a match - and the series/tournament - relative to the other 21 players in the same match, therefore it is able to factor in context, hitherto immeasurable.)
In IPL 2010, for example, Pragyan Ojha won the Purple Cap for taking the maximum wickets (21) in 16 matches. His economy rate was 7.29. The award should rightfully have gone to Muralitharan who took 15 wickets in 12 matches at an economy rate of 6.85 (his impact was 14% higher). Similarly, Tendulkar got the Orange Cap that year for scoring 618 runs at an average of 48 and strike rate of 133 in 15 matches. However, Raina, with 520 runs (avg 47; SR 143) in 16 matches, with a tournament-defining performance in the final, should have got it (his impact was 9% higher). The nature of T20 demands scientific ways of combining various parameters – which the conventional systems of evaluation cannot do.
Most crucially, a great deal of team selection becomes lottery. International players with averages that hide their true T20 potential are picked by franchises for a sum that could accommodate two, maybe three, superior players in the format for the same money. Reliable and consistent domestic players who have played crucial roles for their teams are passed over for flash-in-the-pan players whom the averages system typically seems to glorify in T20. Players who have special qualities – like absorbing pressure with the bat in a sustained way or the ability to break partnerships with the ball – or the knack of performing consistently in big matches - these guys never get identified for these talents.
Coaches with conventional mindsets go more on the averages/aggregates system and their own gut feel about a player’s ability. Neither is reliable because at the end of the day, what a player does over a larger sample size of matches in the context of each match is the truest picture (for example, a strike rate of 150 in a match where the pitch conditions were such that everybody scored quickly and the match strike rate was 140 - that will not be as creditable as a strike rate of 100 where the match standard was 60 – even though the first example’s strike rate will lift the player’s career strike rate higher). As far as gut evaluations go, it is commonplace that unrealized potential is far more frequent in sport than fully exploited ability.
We use Impact Index here to reveal some information which is particularly relevant before the IPL Players’ Auction on February 4th. There are careers at stake here and it is disturbing to see the more deserving candidates getting sidestepped due to sheer ignorance.
But first, the bargains. Amongst the listed players – Daniel Harris is one of the five highest impact batsmen in all of T20 cricket ever (despite domestic cricket having a lower weightage than international) – but he is surprisingly in the lower category of $50,000 whereas 12 batsmen with a lower impact start at a higher reserve price than him in the auction including the likes of very low impact T20 players like Laxman, Sarwan, Ganga and Maynard. Sachithra Senanayake (Sri Lankan bowler) is even a more bizarre case. He is the highest impact bowler currently in T20 cricket – he comes in the $20,000 category – one of the best bargains in this year’s auction. Stunningly, 45 bowlers are listed with a higher reserve price than him. Other such players are Hamilton Masakadza and bowler Devendra Bishoo who are amongst the highest impact T20 players in the world, yet they are listed in a low category.
Now, the omissions. Dean Elgar (South African all-rounder) is one of the best big match players in T20 cricket and was part of the preliminary list sent to teams in the $20,000 category. Based on recommendation from the teams, he is now omitted from the final auction list. As is the case with wicket-keeping all-rounder Adam Crosthwaite - he is now out of the auction list whereas Denesh Ramdin, who has a considerably lower impact in T20 cricket, is in the $100,000 category.
High impact T20 players like Cliffe Deacon, Gerrie Snyman, Naeem Islam, Ryan Hinds and Isuru Udana (tipped by many to be the next Chaminda Vaas) are not even listed while players with a lower impact than them - like Ian Bell, Rikki Clarke, Simon Jones and Tom Maynard are included in the Auction list (the first two in the $200,000 category, the last two in the $100,000 category). This goes beyond even the traditional bias of international players in other formats commanding a higher price even if they are not great in the T20 format (like Peter Siddle, in the $200,000 category), simply because they are “known”. There appears to be considerable arbitrariness in the preparation of the list.
Players who are consistent in specific parameters, and who could be of huge utility to different franchises, are not listed. No one picks out Raymond van Schoor (Namibia) and Niranjan Behera (Orissa) for their ability to bat under pressure. Or the chasing ability of Shreyas Khanolkar (Railways) and Brad Wilson (New Zealand). The partnership-breaking abilities of Md Nabi (Afghanistan) and Amit Yadav (Goa) are ignored. The low failure rate of batsmen Gerrie Snyman (Namibia) and Sagun Kamat (Goa) and bowlers Hamid Hassan (Afghanistan) and Chaminda Vidanapathirana (Sri Lanka) are not in the mix at all.
The saddest omissions in an IPL context are high impact Indian domestic T20 players who get overlooked due to the inability of those supposed to be identifying them. These are also the most disappointing omissions in an Indian context as their selection could bring talented fresh young players into the fore, which would eventually enrich the national pool of players. The franchises would get them very cheap too, so everybody stands to gain from this. And yet…
High impact players like Rohit Motwani from Maharashtra (one of the highest impact T20 wicket-keeping batsmen in the world), Niranjan Behera (Orissa) and Abhinav Bali (HP) may not be picked because they don’t stand out on the basis of their conventional averages/aggregates stats (all of them are all-rounders, so conventional stats would be even more inefficient to get them noticed). Whereas a bowler like L Ablish gets picked by Punjab perhaps precisely because his conventional stats (Bowling Avg 14; Econ: 6.5) are ostensibly impressive; his impact with the ball has not been that exceptional yet. However, credit is due to Pune and Hyderabad for picking high impact players Ganesh Gaikwad and Anand Rajan without necessarily looking at their conventional figures (which do not reveal their outstanding impact) – it is up to these franchises to utilise their talents by giving them enough opportunities.
In the end, it is a strange kind of meritocracy that IPL is fostering. By bolstering “known” players (like Laxman, Siddle and Anderson) with high reserve prices based on their success in other formats (and ignoring their low impact in the T20 format), they are actually preventing fresh new talent who are likely to contribute to their teams more from getting the opportunities that they deserve. Moreover, by not picking the best domestic players, they are setting up a situation where franchises will eventually not show interest in picking “mediocre domestic talent” – so the “known” players will continue to thrive and the struggling, and often more deserving candidates, will gradually fade away after frustrating attempts to get through the selection door. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer here too, as it were.
If a lot of the concerns in this article remind you of Moneyball (both the film and the book), it’s a valid parallel. In fact, a lot of the people working at the franchises are fond of quoting from the book. That’s a bit bizarre though, because if you bring up the part in Moneyball where writer Michael Lewis reveals that Sabermetrics was offered to every baseball club free of charge and they still did not use it in the 1980s (much to their collective embarrassment later), some of these franchise marketing custodians grin and nod, as if emulating that trajectory is actually the point. Marketing people in India are not exactly known for their soft spot for innovation; deliberations about such ideas invariably result in the classic furious ccing of emails – decision-making expertly delegated, accountability skilfully obfuscated. The best answer Impact Index got to hear during its attempts to convince a franchise to use it was – “Very interesting, great idea, we’d be delighted to be the second people to use it, but not the first.”
It is also a pity that authorities running the sport do not realise how it would gain from the additional dimension of simplified and more accurate player evaluations. The T20 consumer (as opposed to fan), despite the accent on spectacle, is not immune to the confusion of garbled communication on the subject of player evaluations. They do care about who the best players are – to underestimate their desire for clarity is to insult their intelligence. That is often the most serious mistake marketers make, and sometimes it’s a fatal one, even when it takes time to pan out.
For more information, please go to www.impactindexcricket.com