Saturday, April 9, 2011

Was Sachin right in praising Dhoni? - A Statistical Analysis

In the late nineteenth century, English artist Frank Barraud inherited a lovable fox terrier called Nipper from his late brother Mark. This dog, now immortal through the painting made by his new master, started and heart wrenchingly moved towards the newly invented gramophone whenever Mark’s voice rang out of it. After Frank committed this touching scene on canvas, it became the logo of The Gramophone Company, and the popularity of the image made them change the company’s name to His Master’s Voice.

 Times have changed. In a pathetic, pitiable parallel following the World Cup, The Master voiced an opinion in public and all the modern nippers – the media mongrels –turned their stink-whiffing noses and poison tipped pens in his direction.

The statement was simple enough. Sachin Tendulkar went on record saying that Dhoni was the best captain he had played under.  About someone who has led India to triumph in the limited overs World Cup, the Twenty-twenty World Cup and to the top of the World Test ranking, the pronouncement should not be very debatable.

But, India is a different type of nation altogether. With a billion eyeballs on the sport, there are a million opinions about everything. A view aired by someone respected the world over as a statesman of the game is sure to be splashed on tabloids and comedy shows masquerading as sports channels and analysed with the most grotesque arguments ever. 

The reaction was predictable, with every major, minor and insignificant personality in obscurest connection with the game voicing his opinion about it. The most ridiculous perhaps was the stance of the glorified tabloids of Bengal which also call themselves newspapers.

Lokendra Pratap Sahi, a veteran, experienced journalist, hastened to produce an article on the front page comparing success statistics of captains Sachin played under, while harping on the fact that Sourav still remained the most successful test captain and had started the trend of winning overseas with regularity.  In his laughable analysis, he manipulated the data with the crudeness of a one year old fiddling with play-dough. Win-Loss ratio, till a while back the only statistic used since it showed Sourav in the best possible light was dispensed with. Understandably so, since Dhoni’s W/L ratio now reads 4.67 compared to Sourav’s
1.61. Instead, a football league type of scoring was used which awarded one point to draws, thus bringing down the difference between captaincy records.
Additionally, rather shrewdly, only matches featuring Sachin were considered, since that took away one win each from Dhoni and Dravid while taking 3 wins and 3 losses away from Sourav, making him look better in the percentage figures.

In the One Day Internationals, the Bengali journalists have never used the Win Loss ratio, although it makes even more sense. This is simply because Mohammed Azharuddin has been ahead of Ganguly in that aspect, regardless of the virtual reality we are fed by the media.

It was a desperate attempt to fit the USP built around the local icon in the overhauled landscape of Dhoni’s exploits along with The Master’s pronouncements. It is quite evident from the article that the newspaper would have been happier if India had failed to reach the finals after 2003, so that the regional halo could be polished to sparkling glory at the expense of the success of the cricket team.

The public responded by agreeing that Dhoni was at best a lucky captain, wins coming by no merit other than strokes of good fortune.

Unfortunately, that is what irrational cricket fanaticism has turned into.

Sourav Ganguly himself was the first to admit of Dhoni’s remarkable feats, acknowledging him as the best skipper in an interview to the Times of India. However, Lokendra Pratap Sahi brought his immense experience into the field, salvaging the situation by taking another interview on the eve of the IPL, coaxing the southpaw to say that it was not possible to compare eras.

It is quite obnoxious, but Indian journalism finds it more lucrative to feed on the public fascination for larger than life icons and personality cults rather than steady improvement of the team.
In simple terms, Sourav started the transformation into a winning side, his work was carried forward by Dravid and Kumble, and now has been taken to an unprecedented level of excellence under Dhoni. But, truth is hardly likely to sell papers.

Now, coming back to the Master’s remarks, the statement has been criticised by the media and public alike. When Sachin walked out to bat for the first time as a fifteen year old against Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, no one in the cricketing or journalistic or fan world could contemplate even halfway towards 33000 runs and 99 centuries in international cricket. A mind that believes such feats are possible and actually makes them happen is not bound by the parameters of the normal. It is difficult to gauge it with the yardsticks used to judge politicians and corporate clowns.

However, many deduced the supposed motivations for Sachin to make the statement.  There are again multiple opinions, and some of them range from ingratiating himself to the current skipper to mutual back scratching.

I am not here to judge the claims, however ridiculously far-fetched they seem even by the lenient, liberal standards of conspiracy theory. I would rather take a fact-based look at things.  Looking at the statistics, Sachin does not need to appease any captain for a place in the team. At this stage of his career, scoring more prolifically than ever even by a Tendulkarian standard, teams are more in dire need to coax him to continue.
To me it seems more believable that Sachin said whatever he did because he thought it was true, something which seems quite radical in the cacophony that echoes around Indian public figures.

 One critic pointed out that Sachin with all his experience should have known that the press would stir this up into a major discussion point, and should have avoided making the statement. Whereas, it baffles me why singling out a particular captain as the best would give rise to controversy, especially when backed by figures, there is some truth in the statement.

In a country of millions of cricket ‘lovers’, any statement by the Master will create a division. Even if he answers in the affirmative when asked whether he has normal bowel movements is likely to break the hearts of thousands of constipated followers of the game. So, it definitely seems that the best solution for the little master is to take a vow of silence for the rest of his life apart from one or two statements about it not having been possible without the fans.

So, let us not try a moral judgement of the master’s words in a country where even morality may be polarised. Instead let us see how correct the master was with statistical verification.

As in a previous article in which I compare  the fab five batsmen of Indian cricket, I will be using hard core statistics. Again, there won’t be a tabular representation of data pretending to be statistical analysis as one is used to from Cricinfo. 

The idea will be to compare the proportions of success and failure of different captains and to judge whether one has a better record than the other in statistically significant terms. What that means is testing the hypothesis that there is no difference between the records of two captains, and finding the probability (p-value) of the results being as they are if the two captains were equal in their achievements. A very low
p-value will indicate that the hypothesis can be rejected and there is indeed statistically significant difference between the success ratios of the two captains. This means that it is very unlikely for such different success ratios to be a result of fluke or chance.

In technical terms, proportions are compared, and a Z-test is carried out to arrive at a test statistic which
corresponds to a p-value. If the p-value is less than a very small value, we reject the claim that the proportions are equal. 

India’s historical record in test cricket still leaves a lot to be desired. The Win-Loss ratio still stands at 109 to
139. The fact that they are ranked one in the world stems obviously from exceptional performance after 2000, the time Sourav took the reins.

So, let us test whether there has been statistically significant change in India’s record since 2000.

From the table it is pretty clear that there has indeed been a significant change in the fortunes of Indian cricket since 2000, and the credit needs to go to all the players and captains who have played the game since the turn of the century. Transformation is a gradual process and I would like to state my opinion that Sourav did start the process that sees fruition now.

However, the scavenging reaction of the scribes makes me go ahead further and compare the records of different captains who have led the sides in this century. Was Sachin Tendulkar statistically correct in his evaluation of Dhoni?

Let us explore the question. The captains we will consider are Sourav, Dravid and Dhoni. We will not talk about Anil Kumble because he led India in just 14 tests and does not satisfy the statistically significant sample size to be evaluated.

First, let us try to see whether there is a significant difference in the results of the team while Sourav was at the helm and thereafter.

From figures, there is no significant difference between the results of Sourav’s captaincy and others in the
post-Sourav era.

Now, let us do the same analysis for Dhoni.

So, at this stage, Dhoni definitely stands head and shoulders above the rest as far as results are concerned. In fact, the probability of his being a lucky captain, as alleged by many ‘fans’, is 2.3%.
In any scientific analysis, it will be considered significant. With the analysis performed only for test matches played after 2000, this is remarkable because it shows Dhoni shines brighter than the rest even in the most luminous period of Indian cricket.

Having done the analysis for the individual captains, let us do a pair-wise comparison of the three major captains of the 2000s to see whether there is a significant difference between their captaincy records or not. 

And the final comparison everyone will be waiting for with anticipation and bated breath.

From these results, it is quite evident that while there is nothing to distinguish between the captaincy records of
Sourav, Dravid from the each other, Dhoni’s success record is currently significantly better than everyone else. The difference is more striking if we remove the minnows  from the equation (outliers in statistical terms). He comes out better than the rest in the most stringent of statistical tests.

These figures do clearly indicate that whatever be the complicated ethical or moral question, from pure factual point of view, Sachin Tendulkar has judged the delivery to a perfection. For someone who has  played more international cricket than anyone in the history of the game, it is natural to be correct in evaluation.

However, we take nothing away from Sourav Ganguly’s achievements. He started India’s re-emergence, with test wins in foreign soils of West Indies, England and Australia. He combined with Rahul Dravid to win a series in Pakistan.

Dravid continued from where he left off by winning a series in England and West Indies and a test match in South Africa. 

Kumble, in his brief tenure, ensured that the legacy continued by battling unsporting Aussies and winning a test in Perth.

After that Dhoni ensured that Indians top the test rankings, square a series in South Africa, win a series in New Zealand  and triumph in the World Cup.

Each one of them sterling contributors to the history of Indian cricket.

And I am sure every one of them wishes that soon either Dhoni himself or his successor will better the record by winning a series in South Africa, conquering new peaks in the cricketing world. These are the people who bring glory to Indian cricket, and do that in spite of the scavenging scribes who crawl beneath their strides, to make a living out of the semblance of dirt that they leave in their wake.

And while on the subject of conquering  peaks, let me end the piece by doing the same analysis with someone who has conquered all conceivable peaks in the history of the game. How did India’s cricketing fortune change when he entered the scene? Let me quickly share the analysis in the same format.

Does he need to ingratiate himself to captains? Sorry, the numbers do not point to any remote possible statistical significance for not rejecting this hypothesis.

 I will allow the figures to demonstrate the importance of the man, his match-winning capability and his contribution. I suffer under no illusion that his critics will be convinced. The usual reactions will be snide remarks with the underlying theme that matches are not won with calculators. They are not, but as in everything else in the world, the figures left in the wake of events tell a major story if one knows how to interpret them without manipulating them like a one year old with play-dough.

However, the Indian ‘fan’ is more obsessed with icons than figures. I do not even dream of convincing ones with tri-colour painted to their bare bosom, intent on shouting themselves hoarse rather than hearing the crisp sound of the willow on the leather, swaying to the blaring music at every boundary, looking with baffled confusion if ever asked the current score. 

Addendum on 22.03.2012 :
There are some who have written to me wondering where MS Dhoni stands now given the 8 overseas losses (7 in Tests led by him) since the article was written - although some comments speak less of curiosity and more of the fanatism that is associated with some Indian cricketing fables . For them I can point to this article I wrote after the Australian tour.... There is no categorical data analysis, but the simple statistics presented may be useful.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Interview on FunAsia

FunAsia channel will be conducting an interview with me to be aired live at - 700AM.

The interview will be aired at 7 PM CST, Tuesday 5th April, which corresponds to 

  • midnight GMT, 
  • 2:00 AM CET Wednesday 6th April and 
  • 5:30 AM IST Wednesday 6th April. 

I will be mainly speaking about my new book - The Best Seller, but cricket and The World Cup 2011 will definitely feature in the discussion.

In case you are interested and awake, please listen in.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Watching Captain Cool in Zurich

Watching the final in an Irish pub,Zurich
In the cricket-agnostic Switzerland, the barbaric land not yet converted into the worship of the willow, I had watched the quarter final and the semi final at a colleague's place. I had seated myself in one particular chair, dressed in one particular suit, following every delivery on livestream, holding my bladder ever since the second innings of the match against the Aussies when Sehwag had skied Watson down the throat of Hussey, while I was blissfully taking a leak.

We started the Big Saturday at my colleague's place, cricketing acumen honed over thirty years of watching advising us against changing our winning combination and field setting.

However, when the Sri Lankan innings was coming to an explosive end, we decided to move to Paddy Riley, an Irish Pub in Central Zurich, which was screening the  Sky Sports telecast on High Definition television.

Cricket fans had gathered from all around the town and some from well beyond it. Maybe some had slipped in from the neighbouring Italy and Germany as well. When it is cricket mixed with India, stirred in the cauldron of the World Cup, anything can happen. The atmosphere was that of the Wankhede in a small microcosm. Only, here we had to cluster around two television sets while the rest showed Football and Rugby. Such is the way of the ignorant Europe, full of people who have never felt the thrill of the sound of bat striking the leather, a ball swinging in late or soaring over the boundary. 

What followed is now history, and will be documented in detail by countless many. 

Captain Cool, a billion feet raised to stomp mercilessly on his head at anything remotely close to failure or even stopping at semi-success, walked into the ground at number five and played an innings which can be best described as ethereal. 

To be unfazed and without any visible emotion in an amphitheatre of simmering tension is an phenomenal feat. The team was in trouble. His every move was being criticised in an increasingly atrocious media. He was struggling with self for elusive batting form. Losing no longer remained as an option within the scary transformation of the virtual national sport from fun to fashion to fatalistic fanaticism. Yet, Mahendra Singh Dhoni stood firm, resembling an immovable iceberg - although not remotely as warm.  

That he has led India to a World 20-20 victory, to the number one ranking in Test Cricket, to a World Cup Final; that his win loss ratio is better than any other Indian test captain by several multiples, that never before has India been blessed with a wicket keeper who averages more than 40 in both forms of the game - facts quickly erased from the proverbial time-challenged public memory of all the supposed connoisseurs. His so called blunders were brought under the scanner by millions of FB Status Updates, thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television programmes. 

The six that finished the match answered it all. Along with the ball did disappear all the critics who had snapped at his heels like rabid, stalking hyenas all along the road to the finals. For a while these legions of vilifiers in urgent need of a life of their own will hide in some of their despicable holes before poking their heads out again at the whiff of another champion whom they can tear down with caustic criticism.

Such is the face of cricket followers in the country where the World Cup will remain for the next four years. That is the unfortunate, but undeniable, truth. I will probably write in detail about this phenomenon in some other post.

However, cricket etches itself on the landscape of our society in different ways. Let me enjoy the day of this great victory by recounting a little anecdote depicting how the delightful patterns of the game emerge on every fabric of the society.

As mentioned, we had left for the pub during the final overs of the Sri Lankan innings, leaving our wives and daughters together to hold fort and follow the live-stream on a small laptop. As we watched on the flat screens with drinks in our nervous hands, our partners conspired to win it for India in their own way. 

Minal, my colleague's wife asked my better half to station herself in the same chair in which I had sat unmoving against Australia and Pakistan. An exercise in causal analysis made it clear to them that Sehwag and Sachin had succumbed not because of the Lasith Malinga's slinging swinging deliveries, but because ten month old Meera had been sleeping in the next room. So, she was brought into the playing arena, kept awake with distractions, danced with at boundaries - while my wife, Rumela, sat there very much like me, on my favoured chair, unable to visit one WC in the fear of losing grip on the other. 

Cricket means so much more to us than a game. In the success and failure of our team, life becomes meaningful or otherwise. Every heart of the nation, tied together by the common thread of cricket, throbs in a single resonating thud when India is at the wicket. Be it on the stools of an Irish pub or the wooden chair in front of the computer table at home, in the revolving chair of office or in the driver's seat on the road.  Around the unlimited passion, we develop laughable rituals and superstitions.These underline that it is indeed a religion with one or five day long festivities marking our calendars in red, the rest of our lives revolving around these milestones, reshaping itself to fit around the schedule. For when it is cricket, life stops still.

And, somewhere down the line, we forget that the gods we create are mortal, with frailties and faults that are very human. More and more frequently we get caught up in the morbid mix of corporate hoopla, national fervour, Cassius like abhorrence at the success of another,  fanaticism disguised as sports following and linking our own dreams and hopes to the team. In this entrapment, we take away the option of failure from the heroes that we worship, leaving them to battle opponents and fate while bearing the burden of our expectations.

As so happens in fundamentalism, we have lost ethics and humanity in the potholes of religion. We have forgotten that the true spirit of sportsmanship lies in enjoying the game and being equally gracious in victory and defeat. Thus, by creating the gods, we end up more and more subjecting them to pressure that is inhuman - the same dead-weight of a billion hopes that  Sachin Tendulkar has been carrying on his shoulder each time he has walked out to bat in the last twenty one years. When Virat Kohli said "Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, it was time we carried him," it touched thousands of hearts because it summarised a phenomenal career. I hope the exceptionally mature words of the youngster will help fans realise what it is to play under expectations and the respect the true ambassadors of the nation should be rendered.

With the last six, Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have stroked his way into a new realm for the Indian team. I bow to his way of staying unmoved under the relentless scrutiny of a nation of supposed fans, for playing one of the greatest innings under unprecedented pressure. But, I wait to see what this is going to do to the expectation levels that the team has to play around.