Travis Basevi, my friend who changed the way cricket was consumed
A 30-year friendship that revolved around cricket scorecards, coding, and Beavis and Butthead
Not many people can say that they changed a sport, especially if they did it without being a star player or an administrator or a billionaire starting (rebel) leagues.
But Travis Basevi changed cricket.
Since his passing, several people have mentioned my deep friendship and partnership with Travis, and I have penned some thoughts on that and what a truly magnificent and unique individual he was.
Travis and I worked on several things (often together) for Cricinfo, but the most impactful were three aspects: getting the scorecards archive complete; getting the live scorecard infrastructure put in place; and, finally, Statsguru.
I first met Travis on the internet in the fall of 1993 when I discovered IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and #cricket. I had just moved to the US as a graduate student, and being a big fan of cricket, I needed my fix. We became part of the volunteer group of Cricinfo, a ragtag bunch of cricket fans on the nascent internet, led by Simon King.
Travis and I hit it off right away - besides our common love for cricket, we had a shared sense of humour and were huge fans of the TV show Beavis and Butthead. Often we'd start the routine on IRC and go off on the act so much so that we were known as "travishal" (and sometimes got kicked off the channel).
The scorecards archive
Cricinfo was in its early days and maintained a database, a collection of articles or scorecards, that were typed up by our dedicated volunteers. As you can imagine, the scorecards were often riddled with errors, given how the data was being entered. While both Travis and I loved the romance of the game, we were equally passionate about precision: hard, verifiable facts, and data.
To get accurate stats, you needed a complete and accurate database of scorecards. Our archive had barely 5-10% of all scorecards. In the summer of 1995 we hit upon a plan. At that time there were software packages available for PCs that let you run some stats on Tests and ODIs. We had this idea that we would run the stats package one game at a time, get the raw output and use that as input data for our own scorecard format. We spent a considerable amount of time designing the Cricinfo scorecard format version one, trying to keep it aesthetically pleasing but at the same time fitting all the information in the 80-column width that we had budgeted. Once we had the format down, I started writing the code to create the scorecards. (Travis, at that time, couldn't code to save his life.)
He was then studying engineering in Sydney and I was doing an internship in the New York City area. Every day after dinner, I would return to my office; Trav would just be waking up, and we'd get to work. He would have spent the whole of the previous day cross-checking the scorecards generated against sources like Wisden and fixing small mistakes.
The process was time-consuming. I had the easy part of the job, simply running my script and generating thousands of scorecards automatically, but Travis gamely took on the hard work of going over each one of them. He did it without complaining, and with his usual humour. He would make wry jokes about any programming bugs I had created.
To help speed up this process, I wrote some scripts that would create aggregate stats from a collection of scorecards. This way we could check for errors in multiple scorecards at a time - if the stats for a series as a whole checked out against a source like Wisden, then there was no need to go check every card from that series. I had no idea then, but Travis was already thinking of creating Statsguru; years later, he told me that those scripts eventually turned into Statsguru.
By the end of the summer, we had completed the scorecard archive, and the management of Cricinfo triumphantly announced it to the world. Every scorecard on it had a tagline "Thanks: Travis, Vishal" - but in a nod to our volunteers who had typed up some cards in the past, we retained a "contributed by xyz" when we replaced those specific cards in the database. For the first time in history, all the Test and ODI scorecards were available for anyone to look at anywhere in the world, free of charge.
The next phase of Cricinfo's evolution came during the 1996 World Cup: due to a crisis, we were forced to invent our live ball-by-ball scorecard infrastructure, anchored around "Dougie", software written by a South African graduate student, Jacques de Villiers. This solved the problem of keeping our scorecard database active and current: we were then generating the new cards ourselves (and since then Cricinfo has covered the large majority of international games live).
For the World Cup, we also improved those stats scripts with the help of another friend, Nandan Nayampalli, who had a short but invaluable stint as a volunteer for Cricinfo. Those scripts were used to generate live stats during the World Cup (and Travis was collecting them all in his bag to eventually build Statsguru).
In the late 1990s, Cricinfo received significant investment dollars and became an actual company with employees and real offices. I had to make a decision to either join Cricinfo full-time and quit my PhD, or reduce my involvement with the company. I decided I wanted an academic career.
Thus far, I had been maintaining the live-scoring software and deploying enhancements and bug fixes, but I asked Travis to take over those jobs. He had by then moved to England and had learnt to code. Our "database" was still essentially a collection of text files, not a database in the conventional sense of a relational database. During the 1999 World Cup, we briefly flirted with the live scorecard in a Java applet that needed its data from a relational database, so we built an interface to Dougie that wrote out each ball into a relational database. For the first time, Cricinfo had a relational database with cricket data.
Following that World Cup I withdrew almost completely from Cricinfo - but remained in touch with Trav all along. One day, out of the blue, I saw the announcement for Statsguru and my jaw dropped. He had been working silently, on his own, and had now released his magnum opus. When I asked him about it, he said, modest as ever, "Remember those scripts from World Cup '96? That was the origin."
Those clunky Perl scripts were probably 0.001% of the project. Travis, who did not know how to code a few years earlier, had designed the schema of the database that would answer the stats questions a fan like him would pose, and had populated the database by parsing the scorecard text files as the input.
He then designed a web interface that would let users pose questions that he would translate to SQL queries, for which the results would be fetched and the data posted back on the web page in an easy-to-digest format. He did all this essentially alone. All for the passion of the game. Once again, he was not a natural or trained programmer; he picked it up because he wanted to build something for cricket.
Much has been written on how Statsguru transformed the way cricket was consumed. From fans to journalists to players, anyone could now look up all sorts of cricket stats. Sunil Gavaskar's record in the fourth innings of drawn Tests? Dennis Lillee's record under Kim Hughes' captaincy? Douglas Jardine's batting average in Australia? Clive Lloyd's win-loss record as captain when he lost the toss? All at your fingertips.
Like the scorecard archive, this service was provided free of charge. Remember, this was about 22 years ago. Travis was so far ahead of his time, it was unimaginable. He always had a vision around cricket and stats, and worked relentlessly until he achieved it.
Cricinfo went through a lot of turmoil after the dotcom crash. Travis soon left for Wisden, "came back" when Wisden acquired Cricinfo, and stayed on when ESPN acquired Cricinfo in turn. His final act was as the chief technology officer of CricViz, another company that is dramatically transforming cricket.
Even after my involvement with Cricinfo went down to zero, Travis and I continued to exchange emails and messages, and we also saw each other in person regularly. I would go see him when I went to England, and he often visited me in the US. We have walked around the Charles River, hit both Croydon and New York City pubs (where he would easily outdrink me 4:1), and I even got him to play a game of cricket with me in Connecticut.
The day his son was born, I got an email from him announcing the birth, and adding "set aside time for your next visit so we can discuss dowry for Ila" (my daughter, who was born a few months earlier). That was Travis, physically incapable of saying anything without wit and humour. He loved his family dearly and had his son's initials tattooed on his arm.
I last saw him in person July 2019, during the World Cup in England. We met at a favorite pub of his; he regaled my family with stories and jokes and then opened up his laptop to excitedly show me the data that CricViz was collecting and plans for all kinds of new analysis. We exchanged a few ideas around working together, but then the pandemic came and the world stopped. In the midst of that, one day Travis sent me a message that he wanted to update me on something. Over Zoom, he told me of his cancer diagnosis and my heart sank.
What kept me afloat was how stoic he was himself, calmly telling me how he was going about the various operations and treatment options. Over the next year and a half, I went on a roller coaster of hoping against hope, with good news followed by bad, followed by good again. When I stopped getting updates directly from him and they came from his wife, Jane, I knew the end was near. When it finally came, it was hard to accept. My buddy who changed the game that we both loved for ever was gone - travishal was now split into two.
Farewell my friend, until we meet again. I am lucky to have known you.