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Sports, luck and Dhoni

What is the difference between a Twenty20, a fifty-over match and a five-day Test? Does randomness play a role?

Vineet Jindal
MS Dhoni, a master of chance?  •  BCCI

MS Dhoni, a master of chance?  •  BCCI

What is the difference between a Twenty20, a fifty-over match and a five-day Test? Is there a hidden dissimilarity? The game essentially remains the same: the ball, the bat, the pitch, the stump height, the rules (more or less) and the players (not always). Then, why is it that some teams can consistently play well and win in one format but look pedestrian in another?
More questions. Why do teams manage to score 200 runs in a Twenty20 while in a fifty-over game 300 is not easy? And why is scoring 400 runs in the fourth innings (even on a good pitch) of a Test nearly impossible? How come Dale Steyn is carted for more than 20 runs in an over by average players in Twenty20s, but when it comes to Tests, they can't lay bat to his deliveries?
Why do we love to play Candy Crush? It looks so silly at times to slide fingers over a smartphone, but let's face it, everyone does it. Why? The answer I presume is not that we love sweets or chocolates (though it is a nudging factor) but it is the nature of the game. It involves a lot of luck and only a little bit of smartness. If you lose, you say it was luck; if you win, you can silently pat your ego for being smart. Would we play chess like this? I can't imagine, because chess is essentially a game that does not involve luck. If you win, it entirely proves that you are smarter than the opponent. Even in card games, when the experience of the players starts to converge, it is the lucky one who is dealt all the aces that wins. Sometimes even a novice beats a seasoned player. But in chess, a novice never wins. If players are equal in ability, the one who is more alert on the day may win but he still can't be called lucky.
Unlike most sports, chess begins on the same board with the same pieces arranged in the same spots. There is no toss, wind, sunlight, a line call or injured players to induce luck. Some other games are similar, like checkers, but chess' possibilities make it vastly superior.
The popular games will always be slightly high on the luck factor because watching unpredictability is easier than facing it. Uncertainty also keeps the underdogs interested and hopeful of toppling a big-name team or player. Sports which have no element of luck, like chess, struggle to penetrate for viewership. This is not to say that only sports involving luck are popular. Olympic track and field events are hugely popular but they owe their viewership to the sense of the event. Imagine watching a 100-metres race, a wrestling match or a shot-put event every month.
Football too has an element of luck which introduces unpredictability, and hence reduces the dominance of perennial favorites. True, some teams dominate but others are never out of contention. Where else do we see a rank outsider like Senegal beating France or Cameroon stunning Argentina?
Why are tennis and Test cricket high on intensity while low on luck? It's primarily because a lucky line call or a streaky boundary might give you a point or a run, but they can't win you the match. In Twenty20, or even in an ODI, a couple of lucky hits, wickets or even dot balls can make the difference. And remember there are no second chances in limited-overs cricket.
This is not to say that players who excel in the shorter formats don't have these attributes, but Test cricket does require a lot of patience, perseverance and grit. To turn a Test match is no joke: it needs a sustained high-quality performance to tilt it, even more to turn it in your favour.
The length of a Test match ensures luck does not dominate the game. If it were not so, we would see a lot of inferior teams winning Tests. In the IPL, every year mostly all the teams have a chance of qualifying till the end. This is pure randomness. Who are the players who excel in this? Not only brilliant players of the shorter version, but also those who are masters of cashing in on randomness. MS Dhoni is such a master. Using his influence as a captain, he loves bringing every game to a state where a stroke or a wicket can decide the game. If a chase comes to a point where 120 runs are needed in 20 overs, instead of batting with sustained aggression, he would stretch it to make it a game of chance. He would bring the equation to say, 75 in ten, and then 40 in four overs. At this stage, the opposing captain will not have a choice but to gamble. He would forget the ideas of field setting or wicket-taking and would indulge in pure run-stopping tactics. Before I proceed, let me clarify. There is nothing unethical in Dhoni's methods.
Dhoni works hard to find himself in a 22 runs off ten balls situation. He loves it. This introduces randomness in the game. An edge can fly over third man, a catch might be dropped, or the bowler may drift to the leg side under pressure. All such things help the batting side. Moreover, Dhoni, invariably the senior batsman in such a situation, hits the ball out of the ground with his muscular swing and wins it. Dhoni becomes a hero while the spectators and fans are left to bite their nails.
A Test can rarely be brought to a lottery state where it can be decided by a swing or two. A few fortunate happenings will even out in the day itself. This is where a quality player excels. He needs to bat or bowl session after session with the same intensity, aggression and most importantly, with the same calibre. This is indeed very tough. VVS Laxman did this for five sessions against the world's best in Kolkata in 2001. His effort produced possibly the greatest cricketing contest.
Five deliveries compared to five sessions. Which one do you prefer?
Batting in cricket depends a lot on horizon. Arguably, every delivery can be hit out of the park - even the ones delivered from stratosphere by Curtly Ambrose and Joel Garner. Batting also depends on the match state and batsman's mindset. So, if the horizon is an over, it is not at all a heroic act to hit sixes against Dale Styen - or for that matter two or three. In fact, it is more like a gamble that might pay off. It does need, however, a basic capability of hand-eye coordination and a good swing. Further, in Twenty20 situations, if a batsman fails, he has nothing to lose, especially if he has scored well in his previous innings. So, with that knowledge, he can always swing with abandon. If the same state becomes surviving a whole day against Dale Steyn bowling at his will, scoring even 20 runs becomes a challenge for most batsmen.
The more you shorten the game, the more it hinges on a few events - most of them can be pure luck. Try playing a one-over game. The outcome of a match between international teams would not be far away from the randomness of a coin flip.
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