We are back to the ritual that is conducted religiously every year. All-time great players have been nominated for a poll on the best ODI team ever. What purpose do such exercises serve?
Each player is a product of his times and each performance is unique. A person who does great things in one era has to be lauded for the fact that he has managed to rise above the constraints set on him by his environment, surmounted challenges posed on him by opposition, and managed to triumph in spite of all odds. Celebration of all victory is our way of acknowledging the indomitable spirit to fight that resides in all of us.
The bowlers that the great Don faced and the countries he played against (England) are very different from what Sachin faces today. Both of them are champions, but from different eras. Why do we insist on having the debate about who is the greater batsman? Why not just revel in the greatness of both and feel happy about it?
The modern era is one of making lists. We want to rank everything and everyone on a scale, and are not satisfied till we decide who is number one. The persons or institutions being ranked sometimes do not take part in the process and do not care what you or I think about them; but unfortunately, in the era of market based economies, it matters. A lot of decisions are made based on who is first, and a lot of money is spent based on such rankings. So we have the spectacle of people competing to be ranked, and losing sleep over retaining their place on the rankings. Why not just enjoy the process and let the rankings go?
We rank batsmen based on their runs; bowlers based on their wickets. Since this does not seem adequate to capture the complexity involved, we throw in things like strike rate, quality of opposition (which itself is based on another rank, but never mind that), number of maiden overs bowled, etc. We assign weightages to each factor. Would these weightages adequately distinguish between the balance of various factors that changes with every match? But never mind that, we want one number, and one ladder on which to place people. We now have two lists, one of batsmen, and one of bowlers. Since the two need to be compared for the ladder is but one, we assign equivalences between number of runs scored and number of runs conceded, number of tons and number of wickets, and so on. And then we come up with one number. A number that encapsulates the genius of each sportsman… the whole genie in a bottle neatly packaged and measured!
You can imagine the following scene in a sports management agency. The client has a budget of ten crores, and he wants to sign on a couple of celebrity sportsmen for endorsements. The media planner will have a powerpoint presentation ready that has all kinds of scientific analysis; like, amount demanded by the player divided by his ranking as decided above, a two-axis graph with performance on the x axis, and popularity on the y axis, with player names plotted inside… I am sure we could think of many more metrics. What do such metrics actually stand for, what do they represent? No one gives a thought to that. Unfortunately, a lot of decisions are made based on these metrics, sometimes for want of a better alternative. I am sure a Richard Branson or a Steve Jobs, if asked to decide on whom to pick for endorsing their products, would not look at such metrics; they would look at numbers no doubt, but go with their gut. Unfortunately, when there are too many people deciding at the top, with too many stakeholders to report to, and too many justifications to make, everything has to be reduced to a metric.
Coming back to cricket, there are not just individual rankings, but team rankings as well. And then you have a selection of the best current world one-day team based on points. Would a Dhoni or a Sachin perform similarly when they are part of a different team; how much of their performance is part and parcel of the set-up and the team they are in – how much of their spirit that we see in the game is intertwined with the team they are in? All these nuances are ignored of course – we just want to pick one team that we think is the best, and in order to justify our choice we want numbers to back us up!
And then ICC has its 40th anniversary celebrations and declares that it will have an online poll of the best ODI team ever spanning players across generations. What are we comparing and why? We are of course ecstatic that a few of our players are there on the shortlist – they better be, considering the number of countries that play cricket, and considering the disproportionate amount of time we devote to cricket as a nation.
And then the winning team is declared. If you happen to have chosen the correct winning team in the poll, your name gets mentioned somewhere. You get your 15 minutes of fame. Several online polls are conducted in such a way now that the majority verdict on the poll determines the winner (with revenues to the telephone company if it is an SMS poll, but that is another matter). The irony that is lost by most people in such a scenario is that you are declared a winner precisely because you are part of the majority! To be unique, you have to belong!
(23 December, 2010)