Analytics and Cricket - II : The IPL effect

This is second in the series of articles on O.R. and cricket. Click here for the first part, done a while ago.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) is close to becoming the number one Indian global brand - not just the number one sports brand. It has overtaken past colonial stereotypes (such as snake charmers, elephants, and Maharajahs), current pop stereotypes (IT outsourcing brands like Infosys, Wipro, et al, knowledge-brands like the IIT graduate, etc). The two newest franchise teams unveiled in this fledgling three-year old league were purchased for $333M, costing more than a couple of current NHL teams. Sports has become big business, even as the cricket fan in me rebels against this. Several owners have 'Bollywood' connections. Not surprising, given that these movie types make so many expensive flops year after year, the risk level for a cricket venture is surely much lower.

This IPL season is on YouTube now after a pioneering deal with Google, and this experiment serves as a nice dress rehearsal for the search engine company toward more such live streaming ventures in the future. In terms of audience size, it's easily a factor of ten-twenty bigger than that for NCAA basketball. India has a lot of cricket-crazy people. I've provided the YouTube link for my favorite match of the tournament so far: Bangalore v Mumbai. This is the shortest form of cricket played where each innings lasts twenty overs and the entire game is completed in three hours.

We will cover two new analytical induced innovations observed in this season's IPL.

First, the number of run-outs (analogous to a baseball strike-out where a player doesn't make it to a base in time) seems to have increased dramatically. Why? It looks like team statisticians have noticed that a traditionally weak area of teams is fielding and the probability of a direct hit on the stumps is low. This reduces the risk of getting run-out and the reward for stealing an additional run against statistically poor fielding teams may be well worth the risk. Teams that do not improve their fielding will probably see this hit-probability decrease. Teams will take more chances against you and more members in your team will have the opportunity to show-case their non-athletic, keystone kops-like fielding prowess leading to a deterioration in stats. Conversely, good fielding teams can improve their hit-probability stats and reap the reward in terms of effecting more run-outs. Teams of both kinds can be seen. The ones adopting better fielding standards are at the top of the points table.

A second analytic innovation is the form of a special T-20 (twenty-over cricket) bat and is now the most famous mongoose in India (that's the brand name for this bat). It has a handle as long as the blade itself, with the total length of the bat itself being constant. Statistics show that in this form of the game, oftentimes, half a bat is often better than a full-one, if optimally designed! Don't believe it? See this YouTube clip of Matt "the bat" Hayden, the first player in the IPL to use this bat. He is certainly not going to be the last.

So why is the mongoose effective? In the most serious form of cricket (test cricket), a full bat is a must. It's a longer game (over 5 days) and the chances of getting out is much, much higher over time and you want a bat as large as a barn door to prevent the ball from disturbing your stumps. From the T20 perspective, the ball travels the longest when it hits the sweet spot of the bat (roughly three-fourth of the way down a bat), and combined with the fact that getting out in T20 is not such a big deal, you end up with the mongoose, which is essentially just a long handle and a reinforced lower half, like a pendulum. It's made of wood just like the traditional bat, just as long, and roughly the same weight. For a given period of time at the crease, you are more likely to get out using the mongoose, but the expected number of runs (specifically in the form of hitting sixers) you could score before that happens can be much higher, thus making it an attractive trade-off in certain T20 match situations.