Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The tyranny of numbers

Yesterday India lost the first test of the current England Test series by 196 runs. Indian fans are of course disappointed, but there are three more games to go and they hope that India will claw its way back. Our team certainly has the ability to do so.


Anyway, the intent of this piece is not to talk about cricket. It is to talk about metrics. Metrics as in measurements, numbers, ratings, rankings, and how we are all slaves to them. The front page of the Mint newspaper has a photograph of Sachin Tendulkar with the following caption "Sachin Tendulkar missed out on his 100th international hundred as India faltered while trying to stave off defeat in the first Test against England at Lord's on Monday. The 196-run loss puts India's No. 1 Test ranking in jeopardy."  


What is more important in our scheme of things? The fact that it is after all a game and wins and losses are part of it? Or that it is a disappointing loss in a test match where we played badly and England played well? Or the fact that we are waiting for Sachin's hundredth international ton – what is his hundredth ton but a statistic, an eagerly awaited and welcome one of course, but a statistic nevertheless? Sachin made only 12 runs yesterday, it's not even that he got out in the 90's! Or is India's No.1 Test ranking more important?  A No. 1 ranking is a cumulative effect of many matches –maintaining the ranking is important, but is it more important than the game that just took place?


Also, the fact that it was the world's two thousandth test match, and the hundredth India-England test match, and Duncan Fletcher's 100th Test as coach, got a lot of mileage. The combination of all these important factors makes it a landmark test!


When it comes to measuring anything, there comes a point beyond which the focus is merely on the measurement; on the collection, compilation, collation, reporting and discussion of statistics. Everyone talks about these numbers, what they mean  and how significant they are. It is very likely that many of these numbers are converted to graphs and charts, preferably dual axis and in 3D. After some time, someone comes up with a metric indicating how many metrics there are. This is compared to another setup which tracks more metrics, of course followed by an effort to increase the number of metrics. The number of metrics itself becomes a metric and a target to be exceeded. Cricket of course lends itself to metrics generation much more than any other game, so it is not possible to compare cricket with other games. If it were, there would be comparisons, based on metrics of course, of how many and what kind of metrics cricket has in comparison to, say hockey, and there would be tomes and tomes of analysis on that. There would be consultancy organizations offering to take the learnings from cricket (meaning the metrics, not the game itself) and apply it to other games like hockey. There would be conferences with the theme "Metrics and their measurement, in pursuit of excellence" which would be attended by all the cricketers, presumably to improve their game.


And so on it will go… somewhere in this whole process, the fact that we are talking about cricket in the first place is forgotten. We focus on the numbers, create our own interpretation of them, bring them to life in different contexts, weave stories around them, and bask in the resultant insights. After some time, it ceases to matter whether it is cricket we are discussing or some other game.  It is reduced to a play of numbers, and in the process the spirit is lost! If it sounds familiar, it is t because the same thing happens in many other contexts as well.


1 comment:

friendindeed said...

Very apt piece. This could well be the one billionth article related to cricket ever since the damn game hit India as a plague that never seems to leave us. All the rest of our sports have suffered mercilessly at the hands of this single game that continues to reign on all forms of media. Perhaps statistics is the reason why this game reigns supreme in a country that is filled with arm chair sports lovers/critics.