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A sport for nerds which makes millionaires of players

A.B. de Villiers plays an unorthodox shot

A.B. de Villiers plays an unorthodox shot  

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Cricket’s version of Saul Bellow’s much-quoted question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” is, “Who is the Cardus of T20?”

The Cardusian philosophy is that the scoreboard is an ass, that figures don’t matter, that beauty is all. It reflects the mistake in assuming that T20 is a version of 50-over or even first class cricket.

But in T20, the scoreboard is everything, and the best writing would focus on data, its usage and constant re-appraisals. Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde does exactly that.

It is the first serious book on a format that began by confusing players and commentators alike, but has evolved into something both challenging and fascinating. The data may become obsolete in two years’ time, so T20 is a sport for nerds and number-crunchers. Old theories do not apply; nor do old ways of calculating how good a player is.

Variety of changes

Some of the changes are inevitable given the essential shift to a winning-is-everything philosophy. Some changes are cultural, as when emotions are taken out of team selections, and top players like Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are dropped by their teams. Some changes nod in the direction of American sport with projections worked out by experts.

T20 burst into prominence with the IPL just over a decade ago. It was “cricketainment” then, but with so many millions of dollars involved, it outgrew that early label. Now the auctions no longer surprise, cheerleaders no longer shock. Data is the new cover drive. The beauty is in the relationship between figures.

Wigmore and Wilde take us on an absorbing ride while emphasising this change. It is possible that the pre-tournament computations made in air-conditioned offices are far more interesting than the actual game on the field, whatever the number of sixes hit. Some might prefer to read the book to watching a match.

Sometimes the philosophy of a thing is more interesting than the thing itself.

I have been arguing for many years now that T20 is a sport that looks and feels like cricket, uses the same equipment, and many of the same personnel, but it is in fact a different sport altogether. In time it might even have its own governing body. Cricket 2.0 is a history of the format, its evolution speeded up by the IPL, and its possible future. Clearly the format works differently.

Revelations

Some of the revelations come with the startling force of unexpected thunder on a still night. Who imagined for example, that part of Chris Gayle’s impact lay in the way he forced bowlers into bowling wides to him to keep him in check, thus giving his team extra deliveries to play with? Gayle received nearly twice as many deliveries as the average batsman!

Cricket, like all sport, generates statistics and allows for comparisons between players and eras. But what is unique to the numbers generated in T20, especially the IPL, is that these lead directly to commercial gains for the player. The best batsman is not the one who scores the most or averages the highest, but the one who can be relied upon in tight situations. This happy marriage of the concrete and the abstract adds to the format’s uniqueness.

The chapter ‘Why CSK win and RCB lose’ summarises the authors’ clear-headed reading of what makes T20 the sport it is, and why mining data is so crucial to it.

Some teams, like Rajasthan Royals, were quick on the uptake. Others, like KKR worked it out as they went along. The basis on which they picked their players, made clear what was expected of them, and suggested the harmful effects of ego — whether belonging to the players or owners — is well written.

‘Team’ format

Kane Williamson says T20 is the most “team” format of cricket, and the authors explain why. “No team,” they say, “identified undervalued players as consistently as KKR.” This is no mere “gut feeling”. Everything — as in the format itself — is supported by figures.

Things are still evolving, of course. As R. Ashwin said in an interview, “I basically think that six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward…” Thus, the value of unpredictability.

Equally important are the problems, both current and future. The scope for fixing games, something the IPL has seen, is one. With power-hitting an important element, there is the likely issue of performance-enhancing drugs raising its head too. In 2018, say the authors, there were 719 fixtures worldwide, hence the potential for corruption. A game built on six-hitting is clearly vulnerable to doping.

By not ignoring the potential for danger, the authors give us a rounded picture. Cardus loved to tell us the stories behind the scoreboard, of the players behind the figures. Wigmore and Wilde do that too. But the real heroes are not the players, but the data analysts. This is the nerds’ triumph.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 8:53:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-sport-for-nerds-which-makes-millionaires-of-players/article30019748.ece

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