Do India choke in high-profile ODIs? Here's what the numbers say
There is no evidence in the record of "pressure" having an effect on the outcome of a game
In recent years India have had a few high-profile losses in knockout matches of world ODI events - the 2015 World Cup semi-final to Australia, the Champions Trophy final in 2017 to Pakistan, and the 2019 World Cup semi-final to New Zealand. These losses have created the impression in the minds of some fans that the current Indian ODI side, good as it is, "doesn't come good when it matters". The claim is that there is some "mental" defect, some shortage of "bottle".
We should all be suspicious of such claims. These claims are untestable (and therefore, unfalsifiable) because they speculate about the psychological make-up of strangers, based on a cursory view of the players in question on TV, and therefore amount to mind-reading. No professional psychologist would offer a diagnosis on the basis of such scant examination.
These simple claims are emotionally deeply satisfying to the disappointed partisan fan - his team has lost, he has been humiliated, and this can only be because the players involved have some deficit as people. These claims about "failing on the big occasion" (another commonly used phrase) require no discussion of cricket. They go straight to the person.
The broad idea on which such judgements are based - that a cricket match consists of large inconsequential periods, interspersed with moments of extreme terror and consequence or that a series or tournament consists of inconsequential fixtures and "crunch" fixtures - may sound ludicrous to the reader when it is spelt out this way, but it remains popular despite the logical difficulties it presents. An ODI match, for example, consists of up to 600 equally competitively significant events known as deliveries. The outcome of each delivery influences the result; the result depends on the accumulated outcomes of these deliveries. Teams want to reach a result as quickly as possible and do, as is evident from the fact that in ODI fixtures in the current century, the average successful chasing team has won with 55 balls to spare; 87% of ODI chases are completed with at least an over to spare.
The majority of successful ODI chases are completed with at least 32 balls to spare. The average successful target-setting team wins by 74 runs on average. The majority of successful target defences are completed with at least 63 runs to spare, and 91% are completed with at least ten runs to spare. The norm in ODI cricket is not that games build up to a thrilling end game. It is that teams contest every ball and want to get ahead as much as they can, as early as they can.
Nevertheless, if there is evidence in the record to show that a team does systematically worse in certain types of games than others, it would require explanation. The question, then, is, what are the different types of games and how well do teams perform in them? For the present purposes, how does India perform in them?
The central charge against India is that they choke in "ICC knockout matches". The evidence for this rests on a few matches over the last eight years or so - in ODIs, the three games mentioned in the first paragraph, and in T20Is, a similar number of World Cup matches. The World Test Championship final is also included in this morose list. The format doesn't really matter. "Pressure", in people's view, seems to decide these once-in-a-blue-moon fixtures lethally.
India have played 154 ODIs since the start of the 2015 World Cup. There is a view that the results of the three matches above tell us about the characteristics of Indian teams of this era that nothing in the other 151 can counter (a similar proportion of T20I and Test fixtures exist). Those who take this view are beyond the reach of the current presentation.
But we can take the ICC knockout matches as the basis for a classification. In any series or tournament, there are basically two types of matches: A. Matches played before the series is decided (Live Rubbers)
B. Matches played after the series is decided (Dead Rubbers)
B. Matches played after the series is decided (Dead Rubbers)
Live rubbers are of two types:
A1. Matches a team can lose and still stay in contention to win the series/tournament. Let us call these Can Lose matches or CL matches.
A2. Matches a team must win to stay in contention to win the series/tournament. Let us call these Must Win matches or MW matches.
Dead rubbers are also of two types:
B1. Matches played after India have already won a series. Let us call these Series Won matches or SW matches. B2. Matches played after India have already lost a series. Let us call these Series Lost matches or SL matches.
Since the start of 2015, India have played 15 matches against Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan or an Associate Member team, won 14 of them and tied one. These teams could be termed "weak opposition" - teams whom India expects to defeat as a matter of course. None of these have been MW matches. A few of these have been dead rubbers. Of these 14, six have been Live rubbers against Zimbabwe of the CL variety, and three have been dead rubbers of the SW variety. In World Cups and the Asia Cup, India have played six times against Hong Kong, UAE, Ireland, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, won five and tied once (against Afghanistan).
League matches in a World Cup or Asia Cup are not considered dead rubbers even if they occur after a team has secured qualification, since their results can still affect the position in which the team qualifies.
If pressure does not have an effect, India should win MW matches at about the same rate as they win CL matches. In other words, as the number of such fixtures increases, the win rate in MW matches and CL matches should converge. Dead rubbers are a different matter, as it is possible that one or both teams rest players in those fixtures.
India have won 100 and lost 47 ODIs (out of 154 played) since the start of the 2015 World Cup.
Of these, 35 have been MW fixtures and India have won 22 and lost 13 of these.
Of the 97 CL fixtures, India have won 63 and lost 27. Of these, 12 fixtures (and 11 wins) have been against weak opposition which India is expected to defeat as a matter of course. After excluding these fixtures, we get 52 wins and 27 defeats in 85 CL fixtures.
Twenty-two wins from 35 in MW fixtures is a 63% win rate. Fifty-two wins in 85 CL fixtures is a 61% win rate. If we ignore the no-results and ties that occur in CL fixtures, India win 1.7 matches per defeat in MW fixtures, and 1.9 matches per defeat in CL fixtures.
Let's consider the Sourav Ganguly era as a second example. It began with the ICC Knockout tournament in Nairobi at the start of the 2000-01 season and ended with the Videocon Triangular series at the end of the 2005 season. Much like the Kohli era, the Ganguly era has given rise to narratives. India won one final and lost ten under Ganguly's captaincy (and shared one title in 2002 after a final was rained off twice in Sri Lanka). Yet, it is the one final that India won, at Lord's against a relatively weak English side in 2002 that forms one of the iconic images of that era. So much so, that a chapter in Ganguly's memoir A Century is not Enough, is titled "Waving the shirt at Lord's".
The point is not that the Ganguly-era side did worse in finals than they did in other games. In those days, it became an article of faith, for instance, that Sachin Tendulkar did not come good in "crunch" matches. The point is that these tropes, along with the idea that the Kohli-era side has a problem in "big ICC knockout matches" are all features of the same problem - that of the arbitrary attribution of value to a very small number of cricket matches.
Under Ganguly, India won 50 and lost 43 CL matches. In MW matches, their record was 19 wins and 18 defeats. In that period India played a lot of fixtures against weaker teams including ten against Associate-member teams of the ICC, of which India won nine. Apart from the World Cup semi-final of 2003 against Kenya, these tended to be CL fixtures. The figures suggest that India's success rate under Ganguly in MW and CL matches was about the same.
At best, it could be argued that winning MW fixtures has been marginally more difficult for India than winning CL fixtures has been. If you consider that series or tournaments in which India are put into must-win situations are likely to be more difficult than series or tournaments in which they are dominant, then this small difference in win rates can be put down to this difference in opposition.
Bluntly, there is no evidence in the record for the proposition that a "big" competitive match is more difficult than the average or bilateral, as it is, often pejoratively, referred to. Indeed, it would be very odd if there was such evidence. The laws, the players, the grounds - all remain the same. Why should the success rate be significantly different?
In essence, there is no effect evident in the record of "pressure" having an impact on the outcome of a fixture. Results are shaped by the relative quality of both teams. Teams that contest series or tournaments that get to must-win situations are more evenly matched than teams that are involved in one-sided series. The occasional final that sticks in the memory is an unreliable measure of either the character or the quality of a professional cricket team. A final is the same as any other ODI or T20I or Test match we watch - a competitive international match that its contestants want to win.
Kartikeya Date writes the blog A Cricketing View. @cricketingview