1. Oh, so many runs!

Welcome to the Criconometrics newsletter

Hello, and welcome to the first edition Criconometrics newsletter.

As the title (humbly contributed by Sidin Sunny Vadukut) suggests, this is a newsletter of cricket and economics and metrics and econometrics of cricket. The plan is to send this out three times a week, typically on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the idea is to analyse cricket from the lens of data and analytics.

Now, we’re nearly two decades since Michael Lewis published Moneyball, and statistics is a stranger to no competitive sport. “Statistical analyst” is a fairly common position in most top-level professional cricket teams, though to my knowledge nobody has started calling it “data scientist” (yet). Commentators don’t hesitate to talk about statistics or use the word “correlation” during commentary (admittedly, this was on the geeky Dugout channel of the recent Indian Premier League).

Yet, viewers are not that much better off with all these stats. Most sports statistics, I like to say, is an exercise in data mining. A lot of “statistical inferences” presented in commentary is simply insight from small amounts of data. It is common to hear stuff like - “highest score by a number 8 who came in to bat before 30th over in a day night game” or “In each of the two occasions when a team made more than 300 against England at the MCG in a day-night game, England won” (I just made these up, but you get the drift).

Commentators and publications have been attempting to move beyond these banal statistics, but mostly come up short when communicating with data. Sometimes it’s simply a deluge of data. You’re barely getting into stride with the copy when your flow is disturbed by a graph, or a table, or both. Or an article asks you to refer to a table three scrolls away. Or each number in a table is presented as-is in text.

The idea of this newsletter is to try and go beyond that, and provide genuine data-backed analysis in a way that readers should find easy to consume. I hope that each edition of this newsletter will leave you with a better appreciation of the game after you have finished reading it.

My name is Karthik Shashidhar and I’m a management consultant based in Bangalore, India. I have been writing for fifteen years, mostly on my blog, where I have clocked more than 2400 blog posts. For six years I wrote a column for Mint, initially analysing elections using data and later analysing pretty much everything in the world using data. Since last month, I’ve started contributing sports stuff to the Hindustan Times (they barely put their stuff up online, so no point linking).

I’ve developed what I think is a neat way to visualise a cricket match. I’ll explain more about this at some point in time in some edition of this newsletter. I ran this algorithm live during the recently concluded IPL, and hope to do the same during the World Cup as well.

I’ve taught quantitative methods at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (my alma mater). I’ve written a book on platform markets. I’ve researched public policy for the Takshashila Institution. And I write another (irregular) newsletter on “The Art of Data Science”.

Now, I’ve taken the liberty to migrate the subscribers of this other newsletter to this newsletter, in the hope that if you’re interested in my writing on analytics, you’d be interested in my writing on sports analytics. If that is not the case, please accept my apologies and unsubscribe.

Oh, so many runs!

Now that the extra-long preamble (the first edition of anything deserves one such) is out of the way, let’s get to the real stuff.

With the IPL having concluded we’re in World Cup season now. Teams have started playing One Day Internationals in preparation for the World Cup. And some of them are producing lots of runs. The first game of the series between England and Pakistan got rained off but the next two games proved to be run-fests. In the second game, England just about defended 376. In the third, they rather comfortably chased down 358.

Taken together with a string of high scores in ODIs in England last year, commentators are wondering what is to come in this year’s World Cup. While we will worry about England in tomorrow’s edition, let us first look at the pattern of scores in ODI cricket overall.

When I started watching cricket in December 1991, 220 was a good score. In the first game I watched fully, India made 208 and I wasn’t disappointed (Australia collapsed for 101 in reply).

ODI cricket had been remarkably stable in the decade leading up to that, with about 220 runs scored every 300 balls (notice the choice of metric - this is to deal with rain-shortened matches, and the lack of standardisation of game length until the mid-1990s). There were minor variations - the World Cup in the subcontinent in 1987 had led to runs being scored at 228 per 300 balls that year, but ODI cricket in the 1983-92 period was rather stable.

And then the first “bull run” happened.

It probably began with the 1992 World Cup, when Mark Greatbatch and Ian Botham were promoted to open by their respective sides with a mandate to “pinch hit”. Other teams were quick to follow the cue - the West Indies promoted Brian Lara to open, and I even remember Kapil Dev walking out to open in two games for India (against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe).

The idea for pinch hitting was rather simple - to exploit the field restrictions in the first fifteen overs of the game. The pinch hitters at this World Cup were big men capable of clearing the infield, and they were given a free rein to hit out or get out. And the likes of Greatbatch and Botham were largely successful at this in the World Cup.

Following the 1992 World Cup, Botham retired and Greatbatch lost form to such an extent that a year later New Zealand were opening with the dour pair of Blair Hartland and Bryan Young. Pinch hitting went out of fashion as well and teams reverted to the conventional way of innings building.

And then in early 1994, Sachin Tendulkar went out to open for India in what in hindsight would be a historical game in Auckland. By then, Pakistan had ditched Rameez Raja for the aggressive Saeed Anwar. Lara was opening regularly for the West Indies, and Mark Waugh for Australia.

Jayasuriya-Kaluwitharana as a pinch hitting pair happened just before the 1996 World Cup, and the manner in which Sri Lanka won that tournament forced other teams to recalibrate. Hitting out in the first 15 overs became the accepted way of batting after this, and as teams learnt to maximise that while continuing the run flow later on in the innings, and the bull run continued until 1998 when teams could be expected to hit 240 in 300 balls.

The first bull run was ended by a World Cup year. In 1999, the white ball still swung in England and that that pushed down average scores. The progress in the following decade (that included World Cups in South Africa and the West Indies) was rather modest and volatile.

The second bull run was more rapid, with average scores increasing from 255 to 275 between 2013 and 2015. Unlike the bull run of the 90s, this lacks a clear story. One possibility is the use of two new balls in each game (one from each end), a practice that started in late 2011 (we will take a fuller look at this later this month). Another could be lessons from T20 cricket, which took off around 2007, finally making their way to ODI cricket. It could also just be the nature of venues where the game was played, since 2015 included a high-scoring World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The good thing about this bull run is that while we currently lack good stories, we have access to ball-by-ball data for each game played in this period (and the preceding period). This means using data we can precisely analyse why this sudden uptick in run-scoring happened, and the impact of any rule changes in this time period. We will get to this in a future edition.

In any case, the second bull run didn’t sustain, with scores falling rapidly to 260 in 2018. 2019 has seen a revival of scoring back to 2015 levels (the graph uses data until yesterday). With 2019 being a World Cup year, the World Cup will define what the average scoring for this year will be. And indicators from the England-Pakistan series suggest that the graph can only go higher!

What do you think the average score of the team batting first will be in the forthcoming World Cup? Write back and let me know!

Concluding

This was a taster to begin the newsletter with. As you can see there’s much to be explored, and many opportunities to dig deep. We’ll get there in the following few weeks before the World Cup comes down upon us. Tomorrow, we will take a look at England and what we could possibly expect in terms of the pitches and scoring.

I hope you liked this edition. Since it’s the first one, there’s a longish preamble and so this is longer than all future editions. If you liked it, do share with your friends and colleagues and ask them to subscribe (it’s free!). If you didn’t like it, let me know what you want to see more of or less of in the newsletter.

Cheers
Karthik