Cricket: Risk, Strategy, Design

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.


  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:48h, 26 March Reply

    “One missed catch, stumping or run out would not affect the outcome of a 20-20”

    Empirical evidence doesnt point to this. Lots of 20-20 games have been turned around by a good catch, stumping or run out. I think you are missing out on the fact that teams can play many more 20-20 games in the time they can play a single one-day game.

    What would be a better assessment of the relative abilities of 2 teams ? 1 one-day game or 4 twenty-20 games ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 21:18h, 26 March

      Vikram: I wouldn’t compare teams across formats. One can try and determine the best 20-20 team, the best ODI team and the best Test team. And, of course, as James March mentions, the longer the series the better the accuracy of the determination. So, in every format a best-of-five series should reveal which is the better of two teams at that time.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 02:49h, 27 March Reply

    Mohali is the worst place India could have played a fast-bowling team on.
    Worst on the subcontinent, that is. The pitch is unusually quick and bouncy.
    Pakistan should play Shoaib as a psychological ploy.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:02h, 27 March

      Aakar: I agree Shoaib (if fit) would be a good calculated gamble. India’s strength is in the top order and Pakistan’s aim would be to breach it quickly or at least retard its accumulation. Shoaib would induce the caution that neither Wahab nor Razzaq would. On the other side, India probably has a Plan B – what to do if an opener falls early.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 16:41h, 27 March Reply

    I think Yusuf Pathan is a better bet at No 7 than Raina. He’s less predictable, but a team shouldn’t be looking for stability from that position.
    However, both teams were competent in their last two matches, and so I doubt either team will change its line-up.
    One interesting thing. My bookie says that when India plays, all punters pick India even when the opponent is formidable. I learnt that when I called him to place a bet for a relative (a Bengali) who picked Lanka over India in a match a few years ago.
    After the bet was placed, I asked him out of curioisity how many bets he had booked. He said 49. How many were against India, I asked. None, he said.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:44h, 27 March

      Aakar: This brings in a related issue that I had referred to – thinking on the feet and adapting to the situation. In the match against Sri Lanka, I felt Pakistan’s approach was too mechanical. With a platform of 210/4 and 9 overs left, there was little point sending in Umar Akmal at the fall of Younis. Razzaq and Afridi should have been moved up and Umar could have stepped in if they had failed. As it is Umar scratched around for 15 balls for 10 runs and Razzaq got only four balls. There is little disagreement that both Razzaq and Afridi are faster out of the blocks than Umar even if Umar’s overall strike rate is higher.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 04:39h, 28 March Reply

    Perhaps this has to do with form. Afridi’s contribution has been on the bowling side. He might not be confident enough to take the last 10 overs.
    I must say, and this is anecdotal, that think-on-feet experiments usually do not work out for desis.
    There is less fluidity to the way Indians captain their sides than, say, Australians.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:35h, 28 March

      Aakar: Afridi is over-rated as a batsman – he either gets out or belts a few. My point was that in that situation Razzaq should definitely have gone in before Umar since he is the one player with the capacity to brutalize the bowling. By the way, Afridi did move himself up against Australia when Pakistan were strolling home. The reason he gave later was that he wanted to finish the game early.

      This is the first time I discern Pakistan having a game plan: Start fast; if it doesn’t work consolidate with risk-free contributions from Younis and Misbah; from the platform explode in the last 10 overs. The point I was trying to make was that this was essentially the situation in the SL game but the pre-determined batting order came in the way – since Umar was slotted to come in, he did. As a result, there was no explosion in the last ten overs. The order is fine if the middle gets out early but has to be tweaked if it has done its job.

      This fits in with what you mention re lack of fluidity. I think it stems from the insecurity about the excessive blame and second-guessing. Its safer to stay with the script when the captain or coach are not given the luxury to make the occasional mistake.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:16h, 28 March Reply

    My Paksitani housemate wished that this India-Pak match didn’t happen. He worries that regardless of the outcome of the match a few Kashmiris will die. If Pakistan wins some young Kashmiris will celebrate with fire crackers and get shot by the Indian army. If India wins the Indian army would go shoot some Kashmiris out of the kick they get out of India’s victory.

    I wonder whether this is going to be true. My eyes are set on the news from Kashmir after the match.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:48h, 28 March

      Vinod: This is a tough question. Should the teams play or not play? Should the leaders of the two countries make some statements before the game? Can sporting interactions pave the way to better relations or should better relations be a pre-requisite for sporting interactions? Given a break in relations, how do two parties begin to pick up the pieces and move on? We need a discussion on this topic.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:44h, 30 March

      I think the sport should go on along with strong measures to prevent any violent aftermaths.
      I think it would also help if the players of the two teams were shown to be friendly with each other; that the spirit was one of sportsmanship and not war. Players can diffuse tensions with a little bit of horseplay with each other.
      It would have helped if the government had spoken to the major news channel to report on this match responsibly and not hype it as a war preparation.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:17h, 01 April

      It does seem that my friend is half-wrong. No deaths in Kashmir so far.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:23h, 29 March Reply

    The World Cup belongs to South Asia!

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