Posts Tagged ‘World Cup’

Pakistan-Australia: Alack!

March 20, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

First, the result – A disciplined, professional team easily took care of a ragged, mercurial bunch of individuals. Lightning did not strike. No miracles occurred.

As we watched the pathetic procession in the first half, lines from Macbeth came flooding back:

… a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 

Then, as comments began to circulate, the dissension amongst the faithful was captured by the lines that immediately followed the above:

  • [Enter a Messenger]
    Macbeth. Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
  • Messenger. Gracious my lord,
    I should report that which I say I saw,
    But know not how to do it.
  • Macbeth. Well, say, sir.
  • Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
    I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
    The wood began to move.
  • Macbeth. Liar and slave!
  • Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so:
    Within this three mile may you see it coming;
    I say, a moving grove.
  • Macbeth. If thou speak’st false,
    Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
    Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
    I care not if thou dost for me as much.
    I pull in resolution, and begin
    To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
    That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
    Do come to Dunsinane:’ and now a wood
    Comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
    If this which he avouches does appear,
    There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
    I gin to be aweary of the sun,
    And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.
    Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!
    At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

We died. Amen.

The game epitomized the relationship of the audience to faith. As a signal, before the game began, pre-teen voices started taking turns on the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque with the refrain: “All my dreams will come true, I only have to take your name.” Viewers were in the same mood – hopeful the Almighty would bless the team, at the same time fearful the outcome might be otherwise. Having left it all to the Almighty, there was a strange sense of helplessness in the air – the sort when one trusts in God but fails to tie the camel.

That kind of sums up the fate of contemporary Pakistan – running on faith with nary a thought of the untied camels. The attitude does have a short-term upside, if one could call it so – once the verdict was in there was no postmortem of what led to such a sorry display, no inquiry into the myriad problems that beset all aspects of the game. So be it, Allah did not will it otherwise. Back to business.

Amongst the agnostics, talk naturally turned to India, now, deservedly so, the only South Asian representative in the tournament. There was acknowledgment that the Australia-India semi-final would probably be the first competitive match in the knock-out stage. People agreed the Indian team played with a lot more common sense in keeping with the situation of a match as it evolved. Someone observed the Indian players also sought blessings from goddesses – but only as insurance, after having tied their respective camels.

In the end it all boiled down to God, goddesses, and camels and their relationships to one another.

Good luck India.

Back to Main Page

Advertisements

India-Bangladesh: Beyond Cricket

March 19, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The India-Bangladesh match ended predictably but in Pakistan its off-field resonance was of greater interest. All the ambivalent feelings about India and Bangladesh that are otherwise submerged bubbled to the surface. It was a rich occasion for some casual explorations in social attitudes.

My limited sample revealed two sets of observations – those on which there was relative agreement and those where opinions were more divided. The first set comprised the following:

First, a sense of pride that four South Asian teams had made it to the quarter finals of a major world championship. It was encouraging evidence of a South Asian consciousness amongst people many of whom had not seen more than one or two cities in their own country.

Second, a fairly objective assessment of the quality of the four teams based purely on their track record. Most people ranked India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in that order.

Third, a decidedly calculus-based preference for a Bangladesh victory which would be “better for Pakistan” by yielding an “easier” contest in the semi-finals. It was a commentary on Pakistani optimism that its team was already projected to be in the semi-finals despite the odds of negotiating Australia in Australia. A chorus of Inshallahs settled all doubts.

The following observations belonged to the set of divided opinions:

First, on whom to support in the India-Bangladesh match independent of the implications for Pakistan? A subset didn’t want India to win under any circumstances. At the other end was the opinion that it didn’t matter who won as long as it was good fight.

Second, if India were the only South Asian team left in the semi-finals, should Pakistanis root for it to win the World Cup? Opinion was sharply divided between those who could never support India under any circumstances and those for whom regional affinities held some attraction for one reason or another.

I noted with interest the correlation of education with opinion in my limited sample of fellow viewers. The more educated in the group were more anti-India wanting it to lose every match; the least educated were open to rallying behind India if Pakistan were out of the competition and to wanting the better team to come out ahead. Opinions about Bangladesh were independent of education.

I questioned once again the widespread belief that education is the attribute that leads to openness, tolerance, and objectivity. Its veracity was not borne out in the sample of viewers and confirmed my doubts based on other independent observations. The paradox may have something to do with the changing content of our education. I was reminded of the late Asghar Ali Engineer who posed a rhetorical question (Why is the educated middle-class more bigoted than the illiterate masses?) and pithily answered it himself – “Because it is educated.”

Perhaps it is a blessing that more than half of Pakistan is still illiterate. There is still time to fix our system of education so that a cricket match is just a match and not a psychic extension of war and a means to settle scores.

Back to Main Page

Sri Lanka-South Africa: What a Mess!

March 18, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Sri Lanka took a strategic gamble against South Africa in the first quarter-final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and were blown away. What surprised me was how misplaced the gamble was and how unexpected from a team known for its ability to think.

The nature of the gamble was obvious from the first ball. It was clear that Kusal Perera was sent in to open under instructions to hit the South African attack bowlers off their lengths. The strategy might have paid off but even that would have required some sensible hitting. It was clear as daylight that Perera would not last more than a few balls, and he didn’t. More than throwing away a wicket, it put paid to the Sri Lankan strategy in a hurry and fired up the South Africans instead.

The fact that there was a slight chance the strategy may have paid off doesn’t take away from the fact that it still did not make any sense – it was simply not as good as any number of other possible gambles if the Sri Lankans were bent on gambling for some odd reason. Its biggest flaw was that it was conceived in complete disregard of the psychological burden under which the South Africans were laboring – their history as the team that had ‘choked’ repeatedly on the big occasion and one that had never progressed beyond the first round of the knockout stage of a World Cup.

Given that, a decidedly safer gamble would have been to put the South Africans in after winning the toss simply because psychic nervousness affects batting much more than bowling. More so, because one of the South African openers was in a prolonged slump and hanging on to his place only by virtue of being the first-choice wicket-keeper. There would have been a good chance of South Africa batting too cautiously or being consumed by doubt after losing an early wicket. That could have left Sri Lanka with a target it could chase and against which it could have paced its innings.

Even if it were the case that the pitch promised a huge advantage to batting first, it might have been a smarter strategy to start cautiously to see off the first spell of the much vaunted South African attack with minimal damage. Why substitute an opener who had been doing well in the tournament with one who was opening for the first time? A solid start might have aggravated doubts in the minds of the South Africans and affected the control of their bowling. Such an outcome would have allowed the Sri Lankans to go after at least one of the spinners later in the evening given that the spinners were considered the weaker part of the South African attack. Instead of that, the Sri Lankans generated so much pressure on themselves that it was actually the lowly-rated spinners who overwhelmed them.

How did it happen that in constructing their strategy the Sri Lankans ignored the big picture so completely and treated the South Africans no differently than say the Australians or the New Zealanders? How come the Sri Lankans opted for a gamble for which there was no plan B? Why did the Sri Lankans feel compelled to gamble at all? These are the questions that someone badly needs to answer. Winning and losing are part of the game but being decimated out of sheer stupidity was not expected from Sri Lanka.

Back to Main Page

On Prayer and Superstition

April 3, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed.

At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the demands of performance, spectators have no similar vehicles – prayer and superstition serve as substitutes. (more…)

Cricket: Risk, Strategy, Design

March 26, 2011

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.