On Test Cricket

-- Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. 

— Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. 

It’s the morning after.

Yesterday, the Indian cricket team managed to pull off its most famous Test match win ever, the recency effect of it notwithstanding. In the truest sense of the term, it was a fine Ocean 11’s kind of heist which went right down to the wire, and not the tacky Dhoom type.

The sun is just about getting ready to peep out of the clouds. While a whole host of things remain to be done, I am reluctant to start my workday given that I am still brimming with excitement over yesterday’s win.

And in this situation who wants to write yet another piece on what the government should do in the next budget. (For those who don’t know me, I make a living out of writing on economics and finance).

As I process yesterday’s win and get ready for the boring, mundane day that lies ahead, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan is singing his legendary thumri ka karun sajni aaye na balam. It took me years to reach a level where I could appreciate the brilliance of Khan sahab’s singing.

My interest in music started with listening to Hindi film music on Vividh Bharti. Over the years, thanks to my father and a few neighbours, I graduated to listening to Jagjit Singh sing ye kagaz ki kashti ye baarish ka paani.

And then it was Ghulam Ali singing faasle aise bhi honge ye kabhi socha na tha.

It continued with Mehdi Hasan singing ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa.

And I thought I had reached the peak of listening prowess when I heard Akhtari Bai Faizabadi sing wo jo humme tumme karar tha, tumhe yaad ho ke na yaad ho.

The greatness of these singers notwithstanding, everything fell flat once I had heard Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sing ka karun sajni aaye na balam.  Of course I am mixing genres of music here, but that’s the way it is and I can’t do anything about it.

So what’s the point here? It took me years of listening to music patiently and spending all the time that I did, to reach a stage where I could appreciate Khan sahab’s singing. It didn’t happen in a day or even a year or two, it took decades.

Imagine what would have happened, if someone had introduced me to Khan sahab’s singing in the 1990s. I would possibly have turned around and said what rubbish is this. It’s so slow. And he sings the same thing over and over again. Have you heard Kumar Sanu sing maine pyar tumhi se kiya hai, maine dil bhi tumhi ko diya hai?

But then I was still maturing as a listener. Appreciating good things in life takes time. It takes decades to develop some taste, if at all that happens.

The question is, why have I been going on and on about Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab in a piece supposedly on Test cricket. Let me explain.

Watching Test cricket for me is an experience similar to listening to Khan sahab sing ka karun sajni aaye na balam. I wasn’t always up for it.

My first memory of watching cricket goes back to India winning the World Championship of Cricket in 1985. Doordarshan had just come to Ranchi, the city I was born and brought up in, only a few months earlier on October 2, 1984, and we had bought our first TV on December 25, 1984 (It was an Uptron).

I don’t have many memories of the 1987 Reliance World Cup other than India losing the semi-final to England in Mumbai. For days at end there were rumours of Dilip Vengsarkar having opted out of playing in the semi-final because Sunil Gavaskar wanted India to lose, since he didn’t want to play the final scheduled in Kolkata (then Calcutta).

The 1992 Benson and Hedges World Cup was the first cricket World Cup I saw in colour and on cable TV. My memories of it are limited to India losing to Australia by one run, thanks to a stupid rain rule, which would eventually also cost South Africa a place in the finals. I still remember the looks on the face of Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson, the South African batsman at the crease, when the rain rule revised South Africa’s target to 22 runs to get from one ball.

The 1996 World Cup was when things got really personal. We were not supposed to lose.  But then despite the bowling heroics of Javagal Srinath who got rid of both Sanath Jayasuria and Romesh  Kaluwitharana very quickly, Sri Lanka went on to win the semi-final, once the pitch started spinning like a top during the Indian innings and our batting simply collapsed after Sachin Tendulkar got out, as was often the case in those days.

My final memory of that lousy day is that of Vinod Kambli slowly walking off the Eden Gardens with tears in his eyes, once the match referee Clive Llyod decided to call off the match and award a victory to Sri Lanka, due to crowd trouble.

The pain that followed was very personal. After the game got over, I walked around aimlessly for at least two hours in the colony we used to live in, trying to process what had just happened. It simply didn’t make any sense. How could India lose?

After that loss, over the years, things became less personal when it came to cricket. The main reason for it was the rise of cable TV and the fact that the live cricket broadcast became more and more ubiquitous. The popularity of cable TV and ODI cricket went hand in hand, with each feeding in on the other.

The law of diminishing marginal utility was also at work and the continuous live coverage of cricket, made it like just another game, you watched, you forgot and you moved on. The value of the game wasn’t quite the same. As the supply of cricket increased, the enjoyment with each extra game being played, came down.

In fact, the rise of T20 cricket led to my emotions getting totally detached from the game. My mother used to watch soap operas while having dinner (now she watches Netflix), and I watch IPL, when it is on. These days I watch the Aussie Big Bash League while having lunch.

Cricket, like soap operas for my mother, became another time filler for me.

Then things started to change in 2012, when I quit my full-time journalism job and went freelance. This is when I seriously started watching Test cricket because I finally had the time to watch a game which unfolds itself leisurely over a period of five days. Until then I used to follow Test cricket but post 2012, I started seriously watching it.

And like I took time to appreciate the singing of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab, it took me time to appreciate Test cricket, and when I did, boy did I enjoy it. I had go through watching a lot of 50 over cricket, international T-20 cricket, league T-20 cricket and first class matches, to finally start appreciating Test cricket. It was a proper process.

Much of T-20 cricket to me is timepass and to put it honestly, given a choice, I would rather spend time eating the original Indian timepass, the humble moongphali, than watch T-20 cricket.

A simple reason why I find Test cricket more enjoyable is because the game is much more balanced, with the bowlers getting almost an equal chance as batsmen.

Like it is in ODI cricket, the quota of overs a bowler can bowl is not limited. This means the best bowlers in a team can keep bowling as long as their body allows them to. Among the Aussie fast bowlers, Pat Cummins bowled the most overs in the fourth innings at Brisbane. Not surprisingly, he is the world’s number one rated fast bowler. And his bowling made the game as enjoyable as the Indian batting.

What also helps is the fact that in Test matches, the pitches, drop-in or otherwise, are a little more bowler friendly, unlike ODI matches where some of the pitches are like Mumbai’s cemented Marine Drive or even more aptly the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Road, which is better known as the Worli Seaface and where I ideated a bulk of this piece.

Second, there are no limits to the way a captain can place his fielders. He is free to place all his fielders on the boundary line, if a batsman is going crash, boom and bang. Fielding restrictions make many a modern day batsman look so much more better than he actually is.

Oh and in Test cricket boundaries are not brought in, or at least not as much as they are in 50 over and 20 over cricket, where many a mishit by batsmen goes for a six. Hence, finger spinners have a better chance in Test cricket.

And finally, I love the slowness with which the game unfolds and builds pace. On a good day, watching Test cricket is like reading a great Scandinavian police procedural where things unfold at a leisurely pace, the story builds up and then it climaxes with every random bit coming together.

Like yesterday’s Test match, if Cheteshwar Pujara hadn’t taken all the blows and tired out the Aussie bowlers, they wouldn’t be bowling the lollypops they did later in the day, in particular Mitchell Starc. Imagine, Josh Hazelwood finally bowled a full toss which Rishabh Pant straight drove for four and India won the game.

And before that, if Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur hadn’t put on the 123 runs they did, there would have been no chance of the world watching the heroics of Shubman Gill and Pant.

Of course, all this needs time and the mental energy to constantly follow the game over five days or the time that it lasts, and rise and fall with its ups and downs. How do you do that while holding on to a proper job? How do you invest your emotions in cricket 100%?

One reason why the recent India-Australia series has been so closely followed is because most people are still working from home and given that there is always an opportunity to switch on the TV and watch the game, while pretending to work. I am really not sure if the series would have been as exciting as it has turned out to be, if covid hadn’t forced people to work from home. Test cricket, unlike ODI cricket, needs a lot of attention. And attention and being at office don’t always go together.

All this comes from a true blue Indian Test cricket fan. I don’t watch tennis simply because no Indian really plays the singles game well enough. I don’t watch football either because I find it hypocritical, living on Linking Road in Mumbai and supporting Liverpool or living in Malleswaram in Bengaluru and going gaga over Manchester United.

In the end, the India Australia Test series has led to a lot of talk about the revival of Test cricket. But that is not going to happen simply because people don’t have the time. The rat race, even though at the end of it you are still a rat, is more important, and why shouldn’t it be.

So that still leaves me with the memories and memories are all I have. And as Pant hit the winning boundary, which I later realised Sanjay Manjrekar on air thought was just a single run, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab was still singing ka karun sajni aaye na balam.

Test cricket and Khan sahab where both on a loop!

Dhoni’s Final Fall and a Semi-Final Loss 23 Years Earlier … (with due apologies to Salim-Javed).

(This was written in July 2019, after India lost the World Cup semi-final to New Zealand. Reposting with a few updates).

It was around 6.30pm in the evening and I was sitting at Kharbucks (as the Santa Cruz Starbucks on the ground floor of Shah Rukh Khan’s office in Mumbai, is more commonly known as), waiting for Amit.

Those were days when you could go out for a cup of coffee, unlike now.

While I waited for Amit, I was watching the World Cup semi-final between India and New Zealand, on my phone. To be honest, by then I had given up any hope of on an Indian win, but like a true Indian fan I was watching for what I call nirmal anand.

In the kaali peeli ride to Santa Cruz, the driver had put on All India Radio, and the commentary, though torturous to listen to, had given me a bit of hope of India winning. Of course, with Dhoni at the crease and the Ranchi connection, I had to watch.

And so, I kept watching, until we lost.

I am not going to write yet another counterfactual trying to envision what would have happened if Dhoni had batted at 5 and not 7. Or that Dhoni shouldn’t have been in the team in the first place. Everything is obvious once we know the answer.

Immediately, after the match ended, I went to record a two-hour podcast with Amit. That was followed by an Italian dinner, where both of us avoided discussing cricket, for very obvious reasons. Dinner done, we went back to Kharbucks to have more coffee.

By the time I got back home, it was close to 1AM, and time to sleep. In the four days since, multiple writing assignments have kept me busy. In that sense, I have not been able to properly process the Indian loss (Yes the Indian male needs to process this sa well).

It’s around half past six in the evening on Saturday evening. I have managed to finish my writing for the week. And am finally in a position to sit and think about the loss. I am also in a position to think of counterfactuals which will perhaps make me feel better. Right from India playing three fast bowlers to Dhoni batting at number five and Karthik providing the finishing touch. I am also thinking about how some of the players in the team will probably never play for India again (turns out Dhoni will be one of them).

But what I am really thinking about is that evening in March 1996, when India lost in a World Cup semi-final to Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in what was perhaps still Calcutta.

This was Eden Gardens before the stands were broken down and could seat more than 90,000 people (or perhaps even a lakh on a good day). There was no bigger stage in world cricket than this, at least back then.

And India lost.

This after we had given Pakistan a proper bashing in Bengaluru a few days earlier, in the quarter-final match. The thing to remember is that those weren’t days that India beat Pakistan frequently. So, the thinking among many was that if we could beat Pakistan, Sri Lanka would hardly be a problem. It would be a cakewalk.

The trouble was that Sri Lanka had beaten us comprehensively in the league stage. This was the World Cup where Sanath J and Romesh K had come out all guns blazing smashing bowlers in the first few overs.

In the league match in Delhi, Sri Lanka had managed to reach a scrore of fifty in three and a half overs. (One match that destroyed Manoj Prabhakar’s career, a rare all-rounder in Indian cricket, who could open the batting and the bowling. At least, I haven’t seen anyone else do that at the national stage, after him). This meant that the Lankans weren’t to be taken lightly.

As things turned out, Srinath had sent both Jayasuria and the little Kalu back to the pavilion in the first over. But then Aravinda D’Silva came out all guns blazing scoring a 47 ball 66.

While, such a score maybe par for the course these days, back then it wasn’t. Sri Lanka ended up at 251 after fifty overs and given India’s batting line-up (a long phrase for the fact that we had Tendulkar on our side), it looked India would chase down the runs.

India started slow. But were at 98 for 1 with Sachin still batting at 65. And then Sachin got out and the team soon collapsed to 120 for 8, when the match had to abandoned because of bad crowd behaviour (Eden Gardens did this quite a few times in that era) and Sri Lanka declared winners

The pitch suddenly broke down and the ball was turning like a top. The last scene I remember is that of a teary-eyed Vinod Kambli who was not out on a score of ten, walking away from the ground. And that made me teary eyed as well. But in our society, the male of the species are not supposed to cry. At least not in public.

I just couldn’t take this. How had just one hour changed the fate of the Indian cricket team? I walked out of the C/5 flat and walked around aimlessly all over the colony, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

How could India lose? Weren’t we supposed to win the 1996 World Cup? Wasn’t it destined to happen? The agony made me want to smash a few things. But that wasn’t how I was brought up. After aimlessly roaming around for an hour or two, I came back home.

I have no memory of what I did in the days that followed. Of course, life continued, and things gradually got back to normal.

We lost the World Cup final in 2003 and crashed out in the 2007 World Cup before reaching the semi-final. We crashed out of the semi-finals in 2015 as well, like we did a few days back. In between we won the World Cup in 2011.

But the intensity of grief that I felt on that evening in March 1996, as a teenager, I have never felt since. What explains this?

Given the life I have lived (being in academics, media and now freelancing), I have always had the time to watch all the cricket in the world that I wanted to, and I have made good of this opportunity. And I have seen more than a fair share of India losses. But I have never grieved like the way I did that evening in 1996.

I think the answer lies in the fact that between then and now, life happened.

In March 1996, I was 18, going on to 19. I had lived almost all of my life in a public sector colony and gone to a missionary school, and then college. Life was sheltered and good.

There were no real challenges and hardly any disappointments. One usually got what one asked for (like a Hindi film cassette) and one usually did what one wanted to (like play cricket in a tennis court in the evenings).

As I left my teenage and life happened, the disappointments mounted (And I was a huge disappointment in the conventional sense of the term, on multiple fronts, from not getting into an engineering college to completing a three-year graduation in four years to completing an MBA which I had lost interest in midway to trying to do a PhD, which got lost in all the politics that came with it).

And as that happened, I guess the mind came to the realisation that everything that one wants to happen, doesn’t necessarily happen.

If one has no control over one’s life, what control can one have over the Indian cricket team?

You win some.

You lose many.

And life goes on, because Basanti No Dance In front of These Dogs.


MS Dhoni — Where Will I Get That Adrenaline Rush Again?

Sometime in 2019, late at night, I was surfing through OTT media platforms, hoping to watch something interesting.

Post-midnight, I came across Dhoni-The Untold Story on Hotstar. As surprising as it might sound, given that I am a Ranchi boy, I had somehow never gotten around to watching this movie.

The reason was very simple, I just couldn’t digest the idea of Dhoni breaking into a song, and perhaps even dancing around trees. I found that quite tacky.

But somehow late that night with nothing else to do and sleep eluding me, I finally got around to watching the movie.

I guess everyone who has watched it would know that it starts with the cricket World Cup Final of 2011.

We are shown that Sushant Singh Rajput who played Dhoni in the movie, is in the dressing room at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai watching the match on TV. (And for some reason, only Ravi Shastri seems to be commentating. I told you the movie was tacky).

Two wickets had fallen. Dhoni then goes to speak to the coach, Gary Kirsten, and a conversation in which we just see the side profile of Dhoni and hear the voice of Kirsten, follows.

“Excuse me Gary, if a wicket goes down, I think I should go in,” says Dhoni.

“But Yuvi is padded up and ready,” replies Kirsten.

“No, it’s Murali, I think I should go in.”

“You sure?”

“Yes… Just tell him… I’ll… I’ll go,” replies Dhoni.

And then the third wicket falls, with Kohli driving one straight to Dilshan.

Dhoni then walks out to bat, and as soon as he steps on to the ground, the screen freezes and the movie flashes back to July 7, 1981, the day he was born.

As far as movie openings go, it was a terrific opening, the jarring music and a slight tackiness notwithstanding. It clearly establishes that everything that the lead character of the movie had been doing all through his life until that day and until that moment, was working towards walking out to bat for India in a World Cup Final and winning it. If there is something called destiny in life, Dhoni was its best example.

Nothing works in a movie like the feeling of something that is destined to happen. It’s the ultimate underdog story and we all love it.

If one were to summarise Dhoni’s story in a paragraph it would run something like this:

A pump khalasi and a homemaker’s son, who grew up in a public sector steel company colony, in a city which people often used to confuse with Karachi and who had to work as a travelling ticket examiner for the Indian Railways for nearly three years on India’s longest railway platform in Kharagpur, rose to become the captain of the Indian cricket team and hit an unbeaten 91 to win India the cricket World Cup, after a gap of 28 years.

Come what may which other story could have had a better cinematic potential than this?

Not the story of the Bandra-East Shivaji Park boy who broke all batting records, with the country chanting his name everywhere he went.

Not the story of the southpaw from Behala who taught Indian cricketers to go out there and win, even stripping off his t-shirt at the Lords.

Not the story of India’s best bowler, who managed to get an engineering degree while playing cricket, took ten wickets in a test innings and once even bowled with a broken jaw.

Not the story of India’s best test batsman who got nicknamed Jammy because his father once worked for Kisan and who could out-bat everyone at a certain point of time.

Not the story of the Nawab of Najafgarh, who played test matches like an ODI, but, whatever you might say Najafgarh is almost Delhi and not a cricketing backwater like Ranchi.

The romance of Dhoni’s meteoric rise, from being a travelling ticket examiner in 2002-2003 to leading India to a T-20 World Cup win just four years later, can simply not be matched.

The point is that you might have played 200 tests, scored a hundred 100s in international cricket, taken more than 600 wickets or taken more than 200 catches in test matches, you didn’t win a World Cup final by hitting a six, like the way Dhoni did.

You didn’t win the T20 world cup final by getting an almost unknown bowler with no track record at the international level to bowl the last over, like Dhoni did.

You rarely took any match to the last over and then won it, over and over again, like Dhoni did.

You didn’t win India a match simply by running faster and running out the opposition batsman on the last ball of the match, like Dhoni did.

And finally, your football coach wasn’t also your wicket-keeping coach.

When it comes to cricket, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a freak, an oddball of nature and a matter of chance.

And a freak like could have up only from a city like Ranchi, which loved cricket but barely had any conventional cricket coaching available, ensuring that Dhoni kept batting the way he did. Any conventional batting coach would have ruined his batting. And India would have lost out on so much pleasure.

Of course, there were failures along the way as well. And no bigger failure than Dhoni’s last match where he got run out from a super throw by Martin Guptill and India lost the 2019 World Cup semi-final to New Zealand. It was such a heart-breaker, given that we were all used to Dhoni pulling off the unthinkable and winning the game for us.

But then what one wants doesn’t always happen.

India has had greater batsmen who have scored more runs and more centuries than Dhoni.

India has had greater batsmen who have been technically more competent than Dhoni.

In fact, India has even had wicket keepers with a better technique than Dhoni.

And India clearly has had many more better bowlers than Dhoni.

But then none of these gentlemen could hit the helicopter shot, where Dhoni got his front foot out of the way, allowing the bat to come down with great speed at the ball which would have otherwise yorked him, to whip it masterfully over the top of anywhere between long-on to deep mid-wicket, for a huge six.

Ab ye kar ke dikhao?

And when it comes to getting the adrenaline going… that rush… that feeling of ecstasy… that feeling that we are going to win… nobody can beat Dhoni. Absolutely nobody.

I am going to miss him.

(A part of this originally appeared in a Facebook post I wrote in 2019).

Relentless cricket and the fleeting sense of loss

dhoni and sharma

It was March 1996. India had just lost to Sri Lanka in the cricket World Cup semi-finals. And I remember roaming around listlessly in the colony I grew up in, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
It was not supposed to end like this. India was supposed to win the World Cup. For many months to come, me and my friends kept talking about the loss. And even after we had discussed the issue threadbare, we still kept coming up with new reasons for the loss. Such was the pain or our inability to accept what had happened. Those were the days.
This is how things were back then. Losses to England in the 1987 World Cup semi-final and Pakistan at Sharjah in 1986, when Javed Miandad hit a last ball six of Chetan Sharma’s bowling, were events that were discussed for years to come.
Cut to now—India lost to Australia in the World Cup semi-final on March 26. Television channels tried to create a lot of outrage. Some showed footage of people burning their televisions protesting against the loss. They did not bother to tell us how many televisions were burnt? Or how many such incidents happened all across the country?
Given the pressures of TRP, what were possibly a few isolated incidents made it to prime time television news. And then other television channels blamed the loss on a girl friend of a star cricketer. Her fault being that she was at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching the match. Since when did such idiocy start to become news?
A few others said the selection was all wrong. Yuvraj Singh should have been in the team. The question is, if the selection was wrong, how did the team win seven matches at a trot before they lost to Australia. And then there came the proverbial reason—it was fixed!
When it comes to the inability of the Indian cricket fan to accept a loss, not much has changed. But what has changed is the fact that the losses don’t linger in the minds of people like they used to. By the time the next week starts people would have moved on and there would be other issues to rant about.
What has led to this change over the last two decades? First and foremost is the fact that in the 80s and through much of the 90s there was only one state owned television channel. So, whatever it broadcast(from Ramayan and Mahabharat to cricket) was fodder for discussion for days at end. There was no social media, no cable television and even no FM radio channels, around. Hence, the chances that the attention of people could be diverted once they had caught on to an issue was rare. These days there are too many things seeking the attention of the Indian cricket fan.
Further, as far as cricket is concerned, back then, there weren’t as many matches as are played now. The ICC till very recently used to organize three major events—the Champions trophy(which it has now disbanded), a T20 World Cup every two years(which it has now changed to every four years) and a 50 over World Cup every four years.
Back in the 80s and the 90s, there was just one 50 over World Cup (starting from 1987 onwards, before that it was 60 overs). And even other one day internationals played between two countries were few and far between. That isn’t the case now. Also, there was no T-20 cricket. Within ten days of the cricket World Cup ending the Indian Premier League (IPL) starts on April 8, 2015.
Given this, the gap between matches has come down dramatically. And there isn’t much time to linger over a loss. In a way this is a good thing. It gives the Indian cricket fan an opportunity to move on quickly, until the next big disappointment comes along.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on Mar 28, 2015 

Why Dhoni was right in bowling Ishant in the 48th over

dhoni and sharma
Vivek Kaul 

When it comes to movie endings, my favourite is the last scene of the classic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In this scene Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have taken cover in a building which is surrounded by dozens of Bolivian policemen.
Both Butch and the Kid are seriously injured. Butch suggests to the Kid that after this they should move to Australia. And this is where the movie ends, in a freeze frame shot, in sepia tone, showing the pair charging out of the building they are hiding in, with all guns blazing. The Bolivian policemen are also repeatedly firing at them.
Earlier in the movie, Butch and the Kid are shown fleeing the United States where they are in trouble. They move to Bolivia because they believe that the country has a lot of gold and silver. Or as Butch says in the movie “You wouldn’t believe what they’re finding in the ground down there. They’re just fallin’ into it. Silver mines, gold mines, tin mines, payrolls so heavy we’d strain ourselves stealin’ ’em.”
But that is not how things turn out. As Duncan J Watts writes in 
Everything is Obvious – Once You Know the Answer “when they finally arrive (in Bolivia) after a long and glamorous journey abroad a steamer from New York, they are greeted by a dusty yard filled with pigs and chickens and a couple of run-down stone huts. The Sundance Kid is furious… “You get much more for your money in Bolivia,” claims Butch optimistically. “What could they possibly have that you could possibly want to buy?” replies the Kid in disgust.”
Things end badly for Butch and the Kid and in the last scene they are presumably killed. So was their decision to go to Bolivia a good one or a bad one? “Intuitively, it seems like the latter because it led inexorably to Butch and the Kid’s ultimate demise. But…that way of thinking suffers from creeping determinism – the assumption that because we know things ended badly, they had to have ended badly,” writes Watt.
Creeping determinism is also referred to as outcome bias. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (he got the Nobel prize for economics) explain outcome bias in his book 
Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a situation in which “observers…asses the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad.”
Mahendra Singh Dhon, the captain of the Indian cricket team, i has become the most recent victim of the outcome bias. He has been criticized for asking Ishant Sharma to bowl the 48th over of the third one day international against Australia, which was played on October 19, 2013. Before Sharma bowled, Australia needed 44 runs to win of 18 balls. India was in the driver’s seat. In this over Sharma gave away 30 runs and India consequently lost the match.
Shashi Tharoor, the minister of state for human resources development, tweeted immediately after the match “Why Ishant & not Vinay for 48th over when VK(i.e. Vinay Kumar) had 2 left?” This is a clear case of sounding wise after something has happened or to put it more technically Tharoor was promulgating the outcome bias.
Michael Mauboussin and Daniel Callahan of Credit Suisse explain this brilliantly in a research paper titled 
Outcome Bias and the Interpreter – How Our Minds Confuse Skill and Luck released on October 15, 2013. They define outcome bias as a situation in which “people take outcomes into account in a way that is irrelevant to the true quality of the decision.”
This is exactly what Shashi Tharoor did when he questioned Dhoni’s decision of bowling Sharma in the 48th over. Lets look at some numbers. Ishant Sharma has played 68 matches and has conceded runs at the rate of 5.7 per over. Vinay Kumar has played 29 matches and has conceded runs at the rate of 5.7 per over (This takes into account their performance on October 19, 2013, I couldn’t find numbers for before that).
So as far as runs per over are concerned both Kumar and Sharma are on an equal footing. But what about their career averages? Sharma averages 31.36 runs per wicket whereas Kumar averages 36.25 per wicket. So I am not surprised that Dhoni went for Sharma even though Kumar also had two overs left. Given the choice he had at that point of time, bowling Sharma was a better bet than Kumar, numbers clearly show that.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the other fast bowler in the team, had already bowled his quota of ten. But assuming he had an over left, Sharma still would have been a better bet. 
A recent piece on Cricinfo pointed out that Sharma’s concedes runs at the rate of 7.38 runs per over in the last 10 overs. His average is at 24.22 per wicket. In contrast Bhuvneshwar concedes runs at the rate of 8.46 runs per over. While Bhuvneshwar is an excellent bowler during the initial overs, his bowling during the death overs, still needs to improve a lot.
This is not to defend Ishant Sharma. I personally feel he shouldn’t be in the team at all. All I am trying to say is that on October 19, 2013, Dhoni made the correct decision while bowling Ishant in the 48th over, even though India lost the match in the process.
Another factor that would have influenced Dhoni’s decision would be the fact that Sharma brought India back into the Champions Trophy final against England, by dismissing Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara of consecutive balls.
The moral here is that even good decisions can lead to bad outcomes. As Mauboussin and Callahan point out “Every day, people who make good decisions with bad short-term outcomes risk losing their jobs. This might include the head of a studio in Hollywood who failed to deliver a blockbuster, a chief executive officer who made a reasoned investment that soured, or a money manager with poor results for a quarter or two. The career risk in making better but bolder decisions can be too high for many professionals to handle.”
When such decisions go wrong, people who made them, are heavily criticised, as Dhoni has been And that’s because of the outcome bias. As Kahneman puts it “When the outcomes are bad, the clients often blame their agents for not seeing the handwriting on the wall – forgetting that it was written in invisible ink that became legible only afterward.”
In fact, Mauboussin and Callahan share a very interesting experiment which shows how human brains are tuned towards the “outcome bias”. This experiment was run by Jonathan Baron and John Hershey, two scholars of decision science.
In this experiment, the subjects of the experiment were told about a 25 year old man who was unmarried and had a steady job, and who had won a prize. The prize was essentially choice between winning $200 for sure or an 80% chance of winning $300 and a 20% chance of winning nothing.
The subjects were then told that the man selected the gamble. “The researchers then showed the subjects two different outcomes. In one the man won $300 and in the other he won nothing. They then asked the subjects to rate the quality of the man’s decision on a scale from 30 (clearly correct, the opposite decision would be unacceptable) to -30 (incorrect and inexcusable)…When the subjects were told that the man had won the money, they rated the quality of his decision a 7.5. When the researchers told the subjects that the man had earned nothing, they rated his decision a -6.5,” write Mauboussin and Callahan.
What does the result tell us? “These ratings are clear evidence that the outcomes deeply influenced how the subjects assessed the decision. Somehow, the subjects didn’t distinguish between two independent issues: the quality of the decision and the outcome from the decision,” explain Mauboussin and Callahan.
In fact, worse the consequence the greater is the outcome bias. The attacks carried out by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, are a very good example. On July 10, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) came to know that al-Qaeda might be planning a big attack against the United States. “George Tenet, director of the CIA, brought the information not to President George W Bush but to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. When the facts later emerged, Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of 
The Washington Post, declared “It seems to me elementary that if you’ve got the story that’s going to dominate history you might as well go right to the president.” But on July 10, no one knew – or could have known- that this tidbit of intelligence would turn out to dominate history,” writes Kahneman.
Hence, it is always easier to be wise after the event and criticise people. But its worth remembering what Mauboussin and Callahan point out “We know that when we see an outcome and don’t know what information the decision maker had, our minds assume that good outcomes are associated with good decisions and bad outcomes are linked to poor skill.”

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He tweets @kaul_vivek)