By Anjum Altaf
Cricket is emblematic of South Asia. It distinguishes the region qua region from almost anywhere else – East Asia, West Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe. So at this time when three of the four teams in the World Cup semifinals are South Asian, it is opportune to wrap some thoughts about risk, strategy and design in the metaphor of cricket.
In an earlier article (Achievement and Risk-taking) written quite some time back, I had used illustrations from cricket to make the point that the propensity of an individual to take risks is not a function of personality but an outcome of strategic calculation. In other words, individuals are not born with a given attitude towards risk; they can decide when it makes sense to be cautious or bold.
I have now found an academic presentation of this perspective. In A Primer on Decision Making, James March, a leading authority in the field, frames risky behavior as a reasoned choice:
Individuals can be imagined as rationally calculating what level of risk they think would serve them best. Consider, for example, risk-taking strategy in a competitive situation where relative position makes a difference. Suppose that someone wishes to finish first, and everything else is irrelevant. Such an individual might want to choose a level of risk that maximizes the chance of finishing first. In general, strategies for maximizing the chance of finishing first are quite different from strategies for maximizing expected value.
An extreme example would make this clearer. If winning a particular contest were all that mattered, an individual might take the gamble of cheating. If the long-term reputation mattered more, the risk calculus would change reducing the attraction to cheat.
The example that March to illustrate his point uses leads naturally into the nature of the distinction between the longer and shorter versions of cricket:
Suppose one were challenged to a tennis match and given the option of specifying the number of points in the match. Given a choice, how long a game would a rational tennis player choose to play, assuming that the length of the game itself had no intrinsic value? The key to answering this question depends both on the probability of winning any particular point and on the length of the game. As the length of the game increases, the better player is more and more likely to win, because the variability in outcomes declines with “sample” size (relatively rapidly, in fact). The game’s outcome becomes more and more certain, less and less risky.
It should be clear immediately that less skilled players would prefer a game of chance (Trumps) to a game of skill (Bridge). Similarly, weaker teams or teams that rely less on strategy and more on chance would prefer a shorter duration game to a longer one. As one example, the Pakistan cricket team fancies its chances most in 20-20 games, less in 50-over Internationals and least in five-day Tests. If there were one-over games, the prospects of almost all the teams would even out because chance would dominate average performance or strategy. Six sixes or three wickets in an over would likely decide the fate of a 20-20 game but might just be a blip in a five-day Test.
[Of course, once one moves from individuals to teams (tennis to cricket) a whole new dimension of team dynamics comes into play. This is a different subject but suffice it to say that the 2011 World Cup is after a very long time that the Pakistani team is not torn apart by side-betting, personal rivalries, provincial dissensions, or biased selections which makes it even possible to sensibly discuss its prospects or strategies as a team.]
This brings us to the issue of the design and format of competitions. Given that an ODI is so much more dependent on chance than on average performance, the prospect of upsets is that much increased. On any given day Ireland can upset Pakistan or Bangladesh can upset India. This despite the fact that a best-of-five series between the pairs should leave no doubt as to which team has the better record at the time.
Therefore, to structure a competition comprising teams of vastly different strengths entirely around one-off contests would leave too much to chance. The design is not conducive for a competition that aims to determine the ‘best’ and not the ‘luckiest’ team in a particular form of the game. Thus in the last World Cup both Pakistan and India were knocked out by teams that they would otherwise have defeated nine times out of ten.
In this sense, the two-stage format of the 2011 World Cup is a definite design improvement. The first stage is a Round-Robin format where a team has to prove its merit not by one chance win but by a sustained record of success. The format ensures that it is truly the weak teams that are eliminated in the first stage. This objective was accomplished in the on-going competition where it is (almost) generally agreed that the eight best teams made it into the quarterfinals. From there on, it is a knock-out format between the final eight but again designed intelligently so that the stronger teams of one group are matched against the weaker ones of the second group thereby giving a premium to performance.
Needless to say, each version of cricket calls for a different set of skills and capacities. The five-day Test puts a premium on average abilities, many individual contributions, and teamwork while a 20-20 match can turn on one stellar performance. It is the in-between format, the 50-over ODI, which calls for a combination of an outstanding contribution, quick thinking on the feet, calculated gambles, and, crucially, the minimization of error. The ODI is perhaps the most unforgiving of error. One missed catch, stumping or run out would not affect the outcome of a 20-20 and could be made up for in a Test, but it could be all the difference in an ODI.
Readers will guess this is all nervous babble before the big semifinals. Sri Lanka should win (New Zealand having upset a stronger South Africa) but the India-Pakistan game is impossible to call. On past performance India is the better team but Pakistan is fired up by the shock of its own rebirth. Good luck to all the teams – the ones that avoid the crucial error will win. But South Asia has the World Cup in its grasp and as South Asians we are already celebrating.
It would be interesting if readers write in with their recommended gambles and strategic adaptations for any of the four teams in the semifinals.