I miss baseball. And I miss T20 cricket, especially the IPL. And because of that, I have been busy having a lot of random conversations with friends about these two sports that involve a bat and ball. Given that many of my readers don’t know much about cricket, I will try and use the baseball comparison to give you more context.
At present the game of cricket can be divided broadly into three categories — long-form (where games last between 4-to-5 days,) short form (where matches last a single day or about 300 pitches per side, not including foul balls) and the quick-form, where the games last about 3 hours, with each team sending 120 pitches, not including the foul balls.
The quick form of the game drives the purists insane. Everything evolves, and as I have written in the past — all sports adapt to the realities of our work lives and schedules. There is a reason why basketball is so popular across the world. And much as I appreciate the test cricket, my life can accommodate the T20 games much better. Sure it lacks the finesse and nuances of the long game, but it has its rhythms and quirks.
A few weeks ago, my friend Nitin and I got into a discussion about two Indian spinners (think of them as curveball pitchers in baseball terms) —Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. These are two names that are quite familiar to cricket fans around the world. Together, they are nicknamed — KulCha. I thought this nickname was pretty stupid. I mean, Kulcha is an Indian flatbread, and there is nothing flat about these two bowlers. (Or is it a reflection of how flat they have been as strike bowlers in recent times?)
Instead, I came up with my nickname for the duo — Chaku, aka a knife. That is more fitting. For quite a while, Chahal and Kuldeep had bamboozled the batsmen (hitters in baseball parlance) with their dips, spin rates, and mysterious trajectories. They were the pointy edge of the rise of the Indian cricket team in the rankings for the shorter forms of the game — the one-day and T20 matches. Over the past 12 months, they seem to have lost their edge. The rivals have figured them out, and they have looked very ordinary.
They have gone from being a chaku to being a kulcha! 😂
What could have happened? My theory is that it could be pending retirement of MS Dhoni, former Indian cricket captain, and wicketkeeper (think catcher in baseball lingo.) He might have been a fierce hitter, but what made Dhoni so effective as a captain and as a leader was his immense cricketing brain. His game-calling skills made good bowlers (pitchers) into great and useful weapons.
Nitin, like he always does, argued with me, saying that I was talking out of my ass. And he is usually right. I say things to wind him up. But in this case, I knew I was right.
Text messages went back and forth. And Nitin, being a data nerd that he is, decided to put my theory to test. I believed that Kuldeep and Chahal are much more effective when Dhoni calls the games and gives them precise instructions, telling them which pitch to throw, when, and to what batsmen. And not surprisingly, I was right. We had to make one compromise — we looked at Chahal’s data for T20 games (because he has played more of those). For Kuldeep, we went with his ODI data.
We started with a data set from queries to the Cricinfo Statsguru database. Dates for “with Dhoni” and “without Dhoni” were calculated by looking at the start date for the player and going till the date of the last match with Dhoni. Any games after the date of WC 2019 semi-final have been counted as “without Dhoni.” The Dhoni effect was initially analyzed for Yadav in ODI and Chahal in T20 as there was more data on these. We will look at other bowlers as well.
Chahal, who has played more T20 games for India, has seen a remarkable improvement in his economy rate and his strike rate when Dhoni calls the games. Without him, there is a decline in both his economy rate and strike rate. It doesn’t matter if he is playing in India or away. His economy and strike rates are higher in India, as the subcontinent environment is more suitable for curveballers like him.
The same holds true for Kuldeep, who has been largely a ODI presence. HIs economy rates are much better with Dhoni, though he seems to do much better overseas. His strike rates are quite high with Dhoni calling the game.
The past three decades following technology, startup founders as a writer and investor have taught me one thing: there are very few leaders who have a 360-degree view of the chessboard. MS is one of them. MS is so experienced that he knows the flaws and strengths of most of the rivals. If you listen to the players from various teams, they all talk about MS in reverential terms, not because of his prodigious hitting talent, but for his ability to use his intellect to change the trajectory of the game, even when he fails with his bat.
My argument is that Indian cricket fans are limited in their appreciation of Dhoni, mostly because they only see the direct outcome of his presence on the field. As he has become older, he is no longer the power-hitting monster he was in his youth, but the old dog has a lot of tricks to teach.
When Dhoni walks away from being an active cricketer, he would be the ideal coach for Indian cricket team — whether it is the senior team or the boys team. Either way, we have to remember Dhoni not just for his braun, but for his brain.
Data analytics by Nitin Borwankar. Charts created by Nima Wedlake.