April 14, 2014

India: cricket's Brazil

It's difficult to beat a huge talent base exposed to good facilities, and possessed of a long history of competing as a nation

Is India's recent dominance of international competitions just the beginning of a long-lasting dynastic supremacy? © AFP

As losing finalists, India had a bad World T20. That is a compliment, not a criticism. Under MS Dhoni, India completed a kind of limited-overs grand slam: the World T20 (2007), the World Cup (2011), and the Champions Trophy (2013). If an international tournament is played with a white ball, India are about as likely to win as everyone else put together. India are now as good at cricket as Brazil are at football - and they are likely to become much better than that.

Fourteen years ago, researching my book Playing Hard Ball about cricket and baseball, I had a debate with an American executive from Major League Baseball. Naturally, we both argued that ours was the better sport. One of my arguments was that cricket was more genuinely a world game, whereas baseball was skewed towards the US. I've never forgotten his reply: "You estimate how many people in the world play cricket, I'll do the same for baseball. Then we will each subtract from that total the biggest single national population - so I get baseball minus America, and you get cricket minus India. How's your world game looking now, Ed?" His point was that cricket is wildly skewed towards India, in terms of both participants and fans. I went quiet. Over the last decade and a half, India's weight within world cricket has only become more marked.

This raises an interesting point about performance in international competition. We - as professional players, pundits and supporters - seldom take into account how our team "ought" to perform given its population, wealth, talent base and resources. We find it difficult to adjust expectations to fit reality.

In their excellent book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski try to do just that. First, they ask which underlying conditions determine why teams win and lose; secondly, the authors ask which countries "overperform" given the resources at their disposal.

The authors analysed all international matches, then used the mathematical technique of regression analysis to determine which factors influence the performance of national teams.

First, international experience - simply chalking up the games played as a nation - is an excellent head start. Having twice as much international experience as your rival is worth just over half a goal per match. Secondly, sheer weight of numbers has an effect. Having twice your opponent's population is worth about a tenth of a goal. Thirdly, money talks. Having twice the GDP of your rival is also worth about a tenth of a goal. All taken together, it makes perfect sense: a huge talent base exposed to good facilities that has a long history of competing as a nation - that is pretty difficult to beat.

India's economy has been growing fast, it is now the fulcrum of well-paid cricket (the IPL), and for that reason boasts the strongest concentration of cricketing intelligence and knowledge

Of course, these three factors - experience, population size and national wealth - are pretty much outside the control of sports coaches, selectors and administrators. But Kuper and Szymanski explore a further influence: knowledge networks. Mainland European nations, they found, have punched above their weight because so much elite club football happens in Europe. They benefit by always being close to the game's tactical and strategic cutting edge.

Between 1968 and 2006, Germany, France, Holland, Italy and Belgium shared 12 World Cups and European Cups. Spain's more recent success further demonstrates the power of connectedness. It was Johan Cruyff, who imported the Dutch idea of "total football" while coach of Barcelona, who led first Barcelona then the Spanish national team to become world-beaters. In contrast, the performance of Brazil - the greatest of all footballing powers - has slipped in the 2000s as the Champions League has changed the way the game is played.

So how does this matrix - population, wealth, experience and knowledge networks - apply to cricket? India has always benefited from a huge talent base (though it has got even greater as a new generation has been turned on to cricket since the arrival of T20 on TV). But for much of the 20th century, India was held back by the comparative wealth and knowledge networks of old powers such as England and Australia. That advantage has gradually crumbled and, looking forward, the picture is even rosier for India. Its economy has been growing fast, it is now the fulcrum of well-paid cricket (the IPL), and for that reason boasts the strongest concentration of cricketing intelligence and knowledge. (For proof of this last fact, try to persuade a top international coach to leave the IPL and coach England - a role that demands being away from home for 280 days a year.) It is very likely that India's recent dominance of international competitions is just the beginning of a long-lasting dynastic supremacy. India, in fact, has all the advantages of Brazil and a few more.

There is a political dimension to India's rise as cricket's superpower. The last few years have been dominated by a long-running series of rows and negotiations about the power of India within world cricket. I'm not interested here in the particular rights and wrongs of each instalment of that dispute. Instead, I make a much more general point. In a game that is dominated so completely by one marketplace, one fan base and one national board, it is very likely that the power of that country will be a source of perpetual anxiety and resentment among the other nations. I continue to hope, of course, that cricket's governance improves. But I am realistic enough to accept that the best guarantor of democratic fairness is not appealing to good intentions but widening the vote. If cricket had more countries with a huge fan base, there would be a greater democratic equipoise at the game's high table.

That is easier said than done, of course. But one way to protect the interests of cricket's smaller powers is to encourage new, expanding markets in wealthy, populous countries. Cricket needs to find new Indias. Time to take cricket to America and China.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here