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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on April 18, 2014, 0:28 GMT

    Seriously Ed's "Soccernomics" logic is irrelevant in the world of "Realpolitik": He who has the gold, makes the rules! Like the old ICC (Imperial) duopoly of Eng & OZ. And the present ICC (International) troika of Ind, Eng & OZ - with Ind the "superpower". But if Ed thinks its "superpower" clout can be broken by a democratic "widening the vote", he's sadly mistaken. Take cricket to USA & China? Really? Has Ed ever observed the (veto-crazy) UN Security Council? Namely its (gridlocked) 5 permanent members: China, USA, UK, France & Russia? No seat at the high table for India - world's largest democracy, 2nd most populous nation & 4th largest economy! So where's the "greater democratic equipoise"? As it is, all USA wants to do is promote its own home-grown sports - baseball & basketball - overseas. That's why MLB's promotion of the 2014 season opener last month at SCG. As for China, all they're interested in is to totally dominate the Olympics. For cricket's sake, just leave it alone, Ed!

  • Jay on April 18, 2014, 0:24 GMT

    Ed - It's futile to compare cricket & football, India & Brazil. They're like apples & oranges. If Ed thinks the Champions League has "changed the way the game is played", then so too has IPL-T20. It's a great leveler. IPL has had 5 different winners in 6 years. Furthermore, WCT20 has been hosted by 5 nations so far, producing 5 different winners at each venue, never the home side - Ind, Pak, Eng, WI & SL. Look how Ed misfires: "If any international tournament is played with a white ball, India are about likely to win as everyone else put together"! LOL! Check the facts: Nothing could be further from the truth! No. India is not a limited-overs grand-slammer. Even the Test crown has changed heads over recent years: SA, Eng, Ind, OZ. As The Bard says: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"! So how in the world is India as good at cricket as Brazil at football? And likely to become "much better than that"? OMG! The evidence just isn't there to support "India: cricket's Brazil", Ed!

  • Dummy4 on April 17, 2014, 16:21 GMT

    Ed, the title led me to think that you think of Brazil as a superpower in soccer. In the text however, you paint Brazil as the aging superpower whose dominance is 'slipping' for whatsoever reason. India in cricket, is the other part of the day when the sun is just about climbing, or so is what you say in the later part of your article. Then, how is India cricket's Brazil? As for that last statement of yours: since you care for being realistic... Cricket does not need USA and China where it has been sowed unsuccessfully several times now. Try bringing baseball to India: get the point? Instead, if you want the power to decentralize, think of empowering promising and passionate cricketing nations like Ireland and Afghanistan.

  • Ashok on April 16, 2014, 20:00 GMT

    It is an interesting comparison but conclusion is not correct. Brazil in Soccer is a far more dominant power than India in cricket, purely on sporting terms. India's few brief years as World No. 1 in tests (70s and recently), two 50 over world cup wins and 1 T20 cup win pales in comparison to what other countries have achieved in cricket (West Indies, Australia) and Brazil has in football. All the more remarkable considering that the West Indian countries are significantly poorer than Aus/England and that Brazil was similarly poor as India for most part of the 20th century. The reasons for India's mediocrity may not be easily statistickable and may force us to delve into the nether regions of polticial incorrectness- socio-cultural and genetic.

  • asad on April 16, 2014, 16:30 GMT

    @Adnan Younis Lodhi: Ending up as finalists so consistently doesn't mean SL is the best Asian team. In terms of actual world cup (t20 & ODI) wins SL has 2, Pak has 2 & India has 3. Also in terms of W/L ratio in tests Pakistan(1.10) is 3rd, SL(0.83) is 6th, India(0.80) is 7th. In ODIs the W/L ratio is (disregarding Asia XI but non-test nations included): Pakistan(1.23) is 3rd, India(1.10) is 6th, SL(0.99) is 8th. In T20Is the W/L ratio is (disregarding teams who played less then 10 T20Is): SL(1.78) is 1st, Pakistan(1.58) is 2nd, India(1.50) is 4th. So yes, SL is the best T20I side but Pakistan is best Asian team in terms of W/L ratio in test & ODI & India has the most world cup wins among Asian teams. So its hard to say who is the best Asian team & it all depends on what measure do you use to figure out the best Asian team.

  • Dummy4 on April 16, 2014, 4:01 GMT

    This is a really bad article Ed. You premise that India is cricket's Brazil is faulty in the fact that Brazil does not dominate the club football leagues, and is a mass exporter of players. In addition, India does not have the history of Brazil with their 5 world championships, nor do they play the free flowing Brazilian football style.

    West Indies is a much better comparison to Brazil. West Indies, with the Brazilian free flowing style, grace and power combined with their history and their exporting players to the English county system. Whereas Europe is a far better comparison to India, recently winning championships, playing very formulaic football, and having all the money and club leagues.

    Very poor article, as you did not even mention the similarities between Brazil and India.

    You didn't even mention Test cricket. England, South Africa and Australia, the 3 best teams in the world clearly rate limited overs cricket as a distant 2nd which gives a false rise to indian cricket

  • Dummy4 on April 16, 2014, 2:03 GMT

    SL played WC final in 1996,2007 and 2011. T20 Final in 2009, 2012 & 2014. CT Final in 2002. They have reached Finals of ICC events more than India, Pakistan and BD. They have won Asia cup five times not less than India. Let us be honest, they are the best performing South Asian team at ICC events in history. Moreover, they are the best T20I team since the inception of the game.

  • brad on April 16, 2014, 0:28 GMT

    At least Brazil's soccer team can win abroad. When was the last time India won a test series in Australia or South Africa. Also India might have a limetless talent base and financial clout yet havent had a decent fast bowler since Javagal Srinath. Even their spinners aint that great overseas but look at Bedi and co they could suceed overseas but this current lot are overpaid pampered little wimps who dont want to do the hard yards.

  • praveen on April 15, 2014, 18:07 GMT

    No, India is NOT cricket's Brazil. WI is the only team which comes close to that description. And one or two Aussies aside, most cricket fans feel happy when WI wins.

  • asad on April 15, 2014, 17:20 GMT

    Compare this to most other countries who have almost equal number of batting, spin & fast bowling greats. In terms of population India is far ahead of all other cricketing nations but that actually works against them cuz it gets that much harder to find the best 11. When it comes to wealth then again India account for most of cricket's money but if/when the problems I said about BD & Pak in the previous post are resolved then they too will get wealthy. Overall I guess for India to become like Brazil (atleast performance wise) they need to get a few more young batsmen (current batting doesn't look good overseas) & some higher quality spinners who do well overseas (like Harbhajjan & Kumble) as well as some really good fast bowlers. All these guys have to be in there early to mid 20s & be really consistent in order to dominate for 10-15 years. After all that it might be right to call them Brazil of cricket.