Arrogant owners must admit IPL mistakes

Are the Rajasthan Royals the Oakland A’s of cricket? Devotees of excellent sporting literature will need no introduction to Moneyball, a terrific yarn about how the A’s, a relatively low-budget baseball team ($41 million – about £22 million – to spend on players counts as low budget in American sport), consistently outperformed their more illustrious and wealthier rivals by dint of the unorthodox coaching methods of Billy Beane, their general manager.

The basic premise of Beane’s coaching philosophy was that age-old wisdom, in the form of gnarled tobacco-spitting scouts, was subjective and flawed and did not stand up to the scrutiny of statistics and empirical data. And that many of the statistics that were used, such as batting averages, were too general and vague and irrelevant compared with less utilised and understood statistics such as, say, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (don’t ask me, either).

By completely changing the modus operandi by which a player was evaluated, Beane was able to compete against teams like the New York Yankees, who might have two or three times the amount to spend in the player draft. Essentially, Beane was looking for players rated by his team of statisticians, but whom the market undervalued; what the author of Moneyball, Michael Lewis, called market inefficiencies.

Something similar is happening right now in the Indian Premier League, which is finally reaching its climactic phase. Rajasthan, at $67 million the cheapest franchise of the lot, the one that angered Lalit Modi, the IPL commissioner, for underspending on players in the first auction, are top of the league and looking forward to the semi-finals. The most expensive franchises, Mumbai Indians ($111.9 million) and Bangalore Royal Challengers ($111.6 million), are out.

Bangalore, in particular, have had a miserable time; the whipping boys, more chumps than challengers. This has produced some ructions in their camp, since the owner, Vijay Mallya, one of India’s richest men, is not used to losing. Mallya has taken on the mantle of the Roman Abramovich of the IPL: he sacked his chief executive, criticised publicly his captain, Rahul Dravid – an icon of the tournament – and let off a head of steam in the media.

Since the chief executive he sacked was a television presenter in a former life, and since his captain, nicknamed The Wall for his defensive prowess, has not exactly shown an aptitude for Twenty20, it was fairly obvious that Bangalore was, by the standards of American sport, an amateurish operation. Mallya’s public comments did much to back up this suspicion. ‘My biggest mistake,’ he said, showing rare humility for a franchise owner, then breathtaking arrogance, ‘was to abstain from the selection of the team. Though I watch a lot of cricket I am no expert. I had a separate list of players that I wanted, but I left it to his [Dravid’s] judgment. After seeing the list, my friends told me it looked like a Test team.’

Well, with Dravid, Wasim Jaffer, Anil Kumble and Jacques Kallis suddenly on his payroll to the tune of about $3.5 million a year, he got that last bit right. But he did give the impression that, with some mates for company, he had drawn up a list of names on the back of a fag packet, after downing a cask or two of his own brand of whiskey, while watching his Formula One team, Force India, on board his luxury yacht. Beane can rest easy.

The cheapskates Rajasthan, meanwhile, have carried all before them. With Lachlan Murdoch, a director of News Corporation, among their backers they can hardly be said to be paupers, but they sat back at the first auction, surveying the ego-driven carnage around them, before nipping in with some bargain-basement buys in the second. Among their shrewd decisions was that captaincy would prove to be crucial. In Shane Warne they have the best leader in the tournament. Statistically, they also have the best player, Shane Watson, who happened to be, at $125,000, one of the cheapest buys.

It is unlikely that Rajasthan were any more professional than Bangalore or anyone else. Given the rushed nature of the tournament, nobody had time to plan properly. They simply had better instincts, sounder judgment and a lighter, tighter wallet.  But, with data now available from the first tournament and two years to plan until the next auction this is where things will, or ought to, change.

Because of the similarities between baseball and cricket, a couple of years ago a friend suggested I try to persuade a coach in English cricket to apply Moneyball principles and write up the story. There were two problems: in international cricket there is no movement of players because of the restrictions of nationality and birth, and in domestic cricket there is no money and no thriving transfer market. Moneyball principles can only be applied in a free market, but English cricket has been generally feudal rather than capitalist in character.

The IPL solves those problems. It is awash with money and player movement is not hindered either by nationality or by feudal ties. The initial auction, where players were bought and sold according to perceived market value, is similar to the draft system in baseball that allowed Beane to seek out market inefficiencies with his pure data.

Instead of buying greater numbers of expensive flops, the smart owners would be well advised to employ some statisticians. In fact, a group of bright young things has already been hard at work, analysing the first year in great detail on a website, rediff.com. It has come up with a list of the Most Valuable Players (Watson is top) and a Player Value Index, where the performance is adjusted according to price-tag (Sachin Tendulkar is next to bottom).

Broadly, its conclusions are these: it is madness to spend up to 25 per cent of the total spend on one iconic player; it is unwise to spend too much on players who offer only one skill; wicket-keepers have little value; bowling all-rounders are better value than batting all-rounders; young and fit all-rounders offer the best value of all, and that owners should populate their team with a core of young players and Australians.

But if the latest comment by Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood actor and owner of the Kolkata franchise, is anything to go by, winning the IPL is less important than self-deification. And while cricketers have always toadied up to the money men, it seems as if the dash for cash in the IPL has caused a few of them to lose completely their sense of self-worth. ‘My team told me that they have yet to meet a better human being than me,’ the preening Khan has said.

While Khan busies himself for the afterlife, other owners could start professionalising their operations in time for the next player auction. If Mr. Mallya does read The Times of London, he may be interested to learn that I happen to know the best cricket statistician in the business. I’m happy to pass on his details; for a small consideration, of course. The Times, 29 May 2008