For a set of activities that are governed by clear rules, unpredictability is what makes sport a compelling watch. The Netherlands’ defeat of South Africa just a few days after Afghanistan’s triumph over England in the ICC Cricket World Cup would not have been predicted by even the keenest observers of the game. Where do these upsets rank among other victories by underdogs over favourites in all World Cup games?
To answer that question, we take recourse to the use of the Elo ratings method. Elo ratings, developed by professor Arpad Elo for games such as chess, can be replicated for other two-team sports as well. The Elo system assigns a rating to each team, using the results of previous international games. The ICC uses a similar system to rate and rank its teams but it only publishes the current rankings of each team.
We relied upon the work of Gaurav Sood and Derek Willis (outside_edge at github) who constructed an algorithmic approach to calculate monthly Elo ratings for each ICC cricket playing nation/team, to identify the Elo ratings at the start of each World Cup. Sood and Willis had brought out ratings for each team till late 2021, but The Hindu used the same method of extracting match information from ESPNCricinfo for later ODIs and found the Elo ratings till October 2023. More involved Elo calculations that account for individual player ratings have been undertaken by others such as Kartikeya Date (@cricketingview in X) but only for Test playing nations.
The Elo ratings of any two teams playing a game during any World Cup are an indication of their prior and recent performances and their respective strengths. The difference in their rating would indicate the gulf between the two sides. A team with a lower ELO rating, defeating one with a higher one could constitute an upset and if the Elo difference is quite high, it would qualify as a major upset.
Table 1 | The table lists the major upsets in all games played in the World Cup till Tuesday.
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The Netherlands’ defeat of South Africa on Tuesday was despite a gulf of a whopping 457 points between the Elo ratings of the respective teams. This was the second biggest upset after Bangladesh’s defeat of Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup (Elo difference of 569 points). Afghanistan’s defeat of England on Sunday was only the 13th biggest upset, largely because the former had a better cricketing resume in the lead up to the World Cup, leading to a difference of 255 points in their Elo ratings. If not for technical reasons, this defeat would have rated 12th, as the 6th biggest upset – New Zealand losing to Kenya – was due to the former forfeiting the game after refusing to take the field in Nairobi citing security concerns.
Table 2 | The table lists the favourite teams and the teams that won the various World Cups throughout the years.
Having the highest Elo ratings at the start of the World Cup is not always a guarantee of a team’s success as Table 2 shows. Only West Indies in 1979 and Australia in 2003 and 2015 managed to live up to their status as favourites by winning the trophy. And India in 1983 and Pakistan in 1992 were the most unfancied teams that went on to lift the World Cup. Not for nothing are Kapil’s Devils continued to be feted in India for heralding a cricketing revolution in the country. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan might be currently in the lowest ebb of his political career, but the sheer scale of his triumph as cricket captain in 1992 could explain how he managed to reach a peak in popularity in Pakistan.
Table 3 | The table lists the Elo ratings of all the teams currently playing in the 2023 World Cup.
(With technical inputs from Rishywanth Ambalam)
Source: ESPNCricinfo, outside_edge at github (Work of Gaurav Sood and Derek Willis)
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