HOW SOME OVEREDUCATED PEOPLE EXPOSE THEMSELVES IN FRONT OF IMPACT INDEX

The most interesting thing about trying to set up Impact Index as a viable lens to see cricket through has been the diversity of experiences along the way. Cricket administrators, corporate sponsors, technical backend people, all-powerful CEOs and owners of companies, media people, commentators, broadcasters, T20 franchises, coaches, cricketers themselves… we’ve been through it all, and someday we will tell the story in detail, as it truly encompasses a story of modern-day India, struggling to suspiciously harmonise self-interest with new ideas.

And, of course, there has been the diversity of responses from cricket fans and the so-called experts on the game. It is hard for many cricket fans, especially those who believe in Holy Cows, to digest that their worldview is deeply flawed. And as for the so-called experts, their palpable insecurity in simultaneous guises of contempt and indifference has been pathetic to behold for the most part.

They are running away from a reality that is hitting them hard on their faces (of which they will see harsher manifestation soon) – that the romantic way of covering cricket is now officially over. Their reluctance to show even some curiosity, let alone give the benefit of doubt, is symptomatic of that lot.

THE POINT OF IMPACT INDEX

What none of these people understand is that Impact Index is not setting itself up to be the last word on the subject – it is actually merely the first step.

It is time for cricket analytics to enter the twenty-first century and transcend the one-off exercises that pass off for statistical systems in this sport. And for cricket to join others like football, baseball, basketball and tennis in acknowledging the role deeper analysis can play in their evolution, both intellectual and commercial.

Impact Index may be the first one to holistically attempt something comprehensive in that direction of practical value to the sport but we are not going to be the last. At some point, we may not even be the best, as even newer ideas via better minds and deeper pockets than ours bear fruition.

Sadly, on the evidence of the pitiful discourse around us on this subject, those days might still be some distance away.

REPETITIVE NEGATIVE ENERGY

We have been attacked publicly for a while now from certain quarters, and it has not been worth our while to respond because it has never appeared to be about enquiry but hostility (leading one of my colleagues Gokul Chakravarthy to craft the equation that heads this piece.)

Our silence appears to have only made this worse as some people seem to be mistaking it for some kind of admission of guilt.

It is hard for many cricket fans, especially those who believe in Holy Cows, to digest that their worldview is deeply flawed.

That transparent hostility found expression a few weeks back on the social media when a ‘Cricket Historian’ called Arunabha Sengupta called Impact Index a fraudulent system led by a “wannabe filmmaker who has no background in statistics”. Yes, this is what he said. More amused than stung about the blatant personal attack, I could not resist responding, asking him and the forum (which appeared to have a few more of similarly-inclined individuals) to explain if they were actually suggesting that Impact Index is likely to be nonsense merely because its creator was not a trained statistician but a filmmaker, wannabe or not. Yes, that is precisely what this gentleman, to broadly use the term, meant. (It’s curious that Sengupta is described as a novelist in his bio, but nowhere does it say that his three ‘novels’ are all self-published; a little research tells you that actually – wannabe, glass houses, stones? But since this is not relevant to the point being made here, we won’t dwell on it.)

Sengupta actually then went on to publish this online – where his primary point is exactly that (he did not have the gumption to mention Impact Index by name though every reference is to us and material on our website) – anything done by non-specialists is fundamentally bogus, alluding to analogies in medicine and architecture. Make of his logic what you will but his spectacular ignorance about sports analytics can take your breath away. For example, he has no idea perhaps that Bill James, the founder of sabermetrics in Baseball (that led to ‘Moneyball’) was actually a soldier and a nightwatchman with no training in statistics. Earnshaw Cook, another prominent proponent of sabermetrics was a Metallurgist. Even the more contemporary and highly regarded Nate Silver – perhaps the most well-known statistician in the world today, does not have a formal degree in statistics.

If Sengupta’s argument had even a modicum of merit, I could still formally counter that Impact Index has two formally trained statisticians (one, an MSc Statistics from the London School of Economics; the other has worked in IBM in New York) but that is completely not the point – which really is about what these so-called trained statisticians produce at the end of the day in these spheres.

Sengupta’s idea of being a historian seems to be assembling facts from various sources with zero personal insight. His idea of a trained statistician, going by the examples he gives in the piece, appears to be about hiding behind complicated formulae that only his ilk can understand and producing absolutely useless trivia at the end of it. None of the examples he gives has any meaningful practical value whatsoever. The statistics degree that appears to give him his identity doesn’t seem to have helped him in producing any trace of a practicable model in cricket (presumably, it has at least given him one of those stable cog-in-the-wheel jobs.)

This, of course, is a quintessential problem with highly educated people with intellectual pretensions, especially in India.

THE ARROGANCE OF THE OVEREDUCATED

At different times during Impact Index’s evolution, we often dealt with IITians, and almost without exception, we encountered very substantial intellectual preening, entirely disproportionate to meaningful results achieved. It has happened too often for this to be a mere coincidence. A friendly IITian himself explained this to us as what the system of relative marking in their courses has spawned – upstaging people physically around is the primary, often the only, motivation.

This hostility starts making even more sense when we see how much of this is from NRIs, notably from the US, and almost entirely in academics. Perhaps the chip on their shoulder comes from their inferred intellectual superiority – they did leave behind their loser countrymen, didn’t they, to be accepted by one of the world’s premier educational institutes? Aren’t they the ones destined to make the breakthroughs?

A few months ago, one of those – a PhD student from Berkeley, Kartikeya Date, who contributes cricket pieces to other websites – attacked us on his personal blog (presumably because he could not get this published anywhere else). Previous to this, he had asked us to reveal our precise methodology to him as our structural revelation was not enough for him.

We had declined to do so for obvious reasons. Our system is proprietary with patent still pending. We have in the past twice made the mistake of revealing our system more than we should have, after which there were shamelessly blatant attempts to replicate that; the last one was by a premier Sports channel in June 2013. They miserably failed to do that (what kind of arrogance it must take in those quarters to think that they can even come close in just 3 months to what we have done in over 4 years of development?) and scrapped their system very shortly but that may not be the case next time when they get better quality personnel, spend more money for testing and don’t demand overnight results.

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Date proceeded to rail against us in the social media and then in this article. Again, more than the things he says (which is laced with the sort of ignorance that is curiously always accompanied by bluster), it is his tenor which is notable. There is barely-disguised hostility here, as if the teddy that’s fallen from his cot is the sense-of-entitlement he has as someone who has produced various academic papers on cricket – sadly, typically obtuse, with zero practical or holistic value. Someone needs to perhaps (gently) explain to him that his failure in creating something worthwhile that can actually be used in any way is not Impact Index’s fault. Transparently itching to trash our system and pull us down will not remove that anxiety from his life.

This is even more obvious from the way he follows us on Twitter and gives us suggestions on what we can do (we have even responded constructively a couple of times even after he wrote that piece; not everything he says is utter nonsense). But if you found a system worthless (as he seems to from the piece he wrote) would you waste any time or energy following it like a hawk? For instance, when we published our piece on Shoaib Malik recently, he tweeted – “Really? Of all time? And this is a stats site!”

Yes, this is the level of discourse. Date’s piece suggests that his grasping power of what is actually on our website is less than many others’, including those less educated than him – whether that is a function of intellect or attitude is anybody’s guess.

Are we expected to reveal our system and jeopardise our commercial viability to appease a clutch of such self-hating academics?

A MORE CONSTRUCTIVE WAY TO VENT

All one can really say to such people is – get a life. And in that, try and do constructive work yourself, instead of tying to pull others down, in the tradition of that crab mentality phenomenon, which may have originated in the Philippines, but defines the Indian mindset perfectly.

Please develop your own analytics systems and contribute something concrete to the game we all love so much, instead of constant bile and bluster. If they are more holistic and practicable than ours, we will be the first ones to applaud you.

It might be useful to remember though that fancy mathematics may not be the solution always. Even rudimentary arithmetic can do the job considerably better sometimes if applied correctly. When you have to remove a tonsil, and you start from the arse, it is not going to be easy, regardless of how good your tools are.

We want worthwhile company in this space; it will benefit the sport eventually. If baseball can have more than half-a-dozen such systems coexisting meaningfully, there is no reason why they cannot in cricket.

When you have to remove a tonsil, and you start from the arse, it is not going to be easy, regardless of how good your tools are.

A recently published book ‘Criconomics‘ by economist Surjit Bhalla and investment consultant Ankur Choudhary assesses ODI cricket through a model previously created by Bhalla. Though it doesn’t really reveal its methodology in any more detail than Impact Index does, nor is there sufficient public record of their predictions (which they consider to be the true test of a system), it does throw up some interesting ideas. However, despite the fact that it uses averages as a base, and given that we don’t believe any amount of finessing averages can produce anything meaningfully accurate, it does produce some food-for-thought. We hope this does not end as a one-off exercise and becomes a viable and holistic system someday, capable of cross-era analysis in all three formats. The likes of Arunabha Sengupta and Kartikeya Date should give their spleen a rest and try and learn from this.

DATED CRICKET COVERAGE

The problem with cricket coverage around the world, not just in India, is the accent on the romantic aspect of it. Too many wordsmiths see it as a space where they can show off their prowess with language and believing that their twin passions of cricket and writing merge meaningfully here. For the most part, it just adds to the noise because most of them have absolutely nothing new to say – no fresh takes, no original thought and poor observational ability. In an age of low attention spans, they are all rapidly becoming redundant. As always, there are exceptions of course – but they are substantially, as is the nature of the beast, in the minority.

It is sad to see more than a few young people following in the footsteps of those people, and become outdated before they have really even begun. Fossils in their twenties – what can be a sadder waste than that?

More significantly than the escapist accent on romance, are the flawed notions and false information that people operate on. It is bordering on a scandal really, as will become clear one day.

Cricket statistics has been treated as trivia for too long – its scope and understanding has been pitifully limited. How ridiculous is that in a sport where every single aspect is measured in numbers? To meaningfully and qualitatively interpret the numbers, using context, to provide a truer picture of what has really gone on, is not anywhere near a priority for most people in the sport. In these big data times, their time is rapidly getting over.

Many of these ‘cricket writers’ feel that any new finding should ‘chime in’ with their gut feeling and “the received wisdom of the sport”. How deluded and misled are they about their infallibility? How many of them would even bother reading a piece like this, for example (where we demonstrate how immense Ian Redpath’s contribution to Australian cricket is) – one, which we believe changes cricket history but would make most of them blanch at such a blasphemous finding? On the evidence of what we have seen so far, they would not even read the piece, let alone think about it or examine it more closely.

Cricket statistics has been treated as trivia for too long – its scope and understanding has been pitifully limited. How ridiculous is that in a sport where every single aspect is measured in numbers?

AN OPEN CHALLENGE TO EVERYONE IN CRICKET

This is the essence of what we have been saying again and again for a while now. You do not have to know our methodology in detail (beyond the overview) to know whether our work is worth anything or not.

Some people (like the ‘Criconomics’ team, for example) feel a predictive record is a good indicator of a system’s worth. We do not actually think so, even though our predictive record based on our projections before each ODI and T20 tournament since 2011 is better than anything or anyone who has ever attempted this in cricket, and compares favourably with the best forecasts made in different sports around the world.

No, we believe the best evidence of the quality of our system is in the elaboration of our findings, especially in the ongoing series “100 Hidden Cricket Facts”  where we do not quote impact numbers but demonstrate their implication in absolutely non-esoteric conventional terms that anyone can absorb and research.

There are some people who think Impact Index is a fraud precisely because we don’t quote esoteric numbers. So, basically, they would rather see numbers on the page that they cannot understand rather than an uncluttered presentation and clear-eyed explanation of the findings that they can absorb much more easily and actually confirm, if they chose to. Is this what education has done to some of us?

Many ‘cricket writers’ feel that any new finding should ‘chime in’ with their gut feeling and “the received wisdom of the sport”. How deluded and misled are they about their infallibility?

Since this is not a PR piece, I will not mention the people who appreciate our work, or endorse it, thereby giving us credibility – that is all mentioned on our website.

Though we greatly appreciate the endorsements, our sense of worth really comes from the explorations of our findings that we are doing through the series mentioned above (and others like this). We believe we are rewriting some parts of cricket history through that; time will tell if we are deluded.

For example, the piece on Peter May, where we make not only the case that he is England’s highest impact Test batsman but also the second-highest impact Test batsman after Bradman despite having a Test average of just 47, goes against every strand of conventional cricket wisdom. We may have found this through the Impact Index sieve but the arguments we make are entirely accessible, in absolutely common-speak terms.

If you cannot refute the arguments in the Peter May piece and find yourself accepting the logic (even after examining the findings independently), then please understand that cricket history is changing in front of your eyes. Check out the reactions of some others too. This is what a stats system can also do, indeed should do. And not be content to produce quirky trivia, which seems to be the place given to it by the ignorant cricket gentry.

And if you don’t accept the arguments, please tell us why and we will publish them on that page itself. Provided it comes from a spirit of enquiry and not unbridled hostility.

Negativity should have no place in this discourse really. We’re all trying to leave things a bit better than we found it within the ridiculously small window of time each of us get.
Jaideep Varma
Founder, Impact Index

Graphic- Vasim Maner