Why Cricket Commentary Needs More Outsiders

harsha bhogle

I recently read the English translation of the Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar written by Vivek Shanbhag and thoroughly enjoyed it. The narrator of this novel goes to a coffee shop daily, where he interacts with a waiter called Vincent.

Vincent has a habit of saying things which are full of wisdom. These are things which you would normally associate with gurus, but given that Vincent is a waiter, he is not taken seriously. As Shanbhag writes: “Had Vincent taken on a grand name and grown a long shimmering beard, he’d have had lakhs of people falling at his feet. How different are the words of those exalted beings from his? Words after all are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered. If you think about it, even those held to be gods incarnate seldom speak of profound things. It’s their day-to-day utterances that are imbued with sublime meanings.”

The point being that while what is being said is important, it is more important who is saying it. And depending on who is saying, something gets taken seriously or not. An excellent example of this is the commentary that accompanies cricket matches these days.

Most of it is very mediocre and full of hindsight bias. Allow me to explain. A fast bowler bowls a brilliant out-swinger. The batsman edges the ball. But there is no fielder fielding at the slip position. Don’t be surprised if the commentator immediately says, I would have had a slip there, given that the ball is swinging so much. This is hindsight bias, where you adjust your analysis or comment taking into account what has already happened.

If the commentator had this insight, he should have shared it before the ball was bowled and not after it. Nevertheless, most of the analysis and commentary that accompanies cricket these days is along the lines of, if they had bowled better, if they had batted better and if they had fielded better. Of course, winning in cricket at the end of the day is about batting better, bowling better and fielding better.

Many cricketers simply end up verbalising the visuals being broadcast. That is another example of how mediocre they are. But these commentators are still followed with a lot of interest and seriousness and get paid a lot of money. A recent report in The Times of India quoted a source as saying: “Sunny[Gavaskar] gets Rs 10 lakh per match day while Sanjay[Manjerekar] gets around Rs 3 to 4 lakh. Do your math.”

That is clearly a lot of money for stating the obvious. The question is why do these commentators get paid a bomb for merely stating the obvious at most points of time. As I said earlier, they get taken seriously not because of what they say, but because who they are—retired cricketers.

They have played the game at the highest level and done a reasonably good job of it. And that allows them to get away with very shoddy commentary. Try listening to some of the Hindi commentary these days, given by the likes of VVS Laxman, Shoaib Akhtar and Kapil Dev. It is atrocious to say the least. The language is all wrong and there is very little analysis on offer.

The same can be said about many other cricketers from all parts of the world who appear as experts and analysts on myriad television news channels. The mediocrity of their analysis stands out loud and clear.

But these commentators and experts still manage to peddle their craft because at some point of time they had skin in the game i.e. they played cricket at the highest competitive level. Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about skin in the game in his book Anti Fragile. As he writes: “For the Romans, engineers needed to spend some time under the bridge they built…The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge, after it was built.”

Along similar lines the ex-cricketers who are now commentators and analysts, have had a skin in the game. When Gavaskar talks about facing fast bowling, he has himself faced the fastest bowlers in the world and scored many runs of them. He scored 13 centuries against the West Indies, which in the seventies and the eighties, had the best pace bowling attack in the world. When Kapil Dev, talks about outswing bowling, he knows what he is talking about, given that he had one of the best outswingers in the game. When Wasim Akram, talks about bowling yorkers, he needs to be taken seriously, given that he (along with Waqar Younis) had the meanest yorker, in the game. He was also the king of reverse swing.

Nevertheless, most of the things that these experts say are full of hindsight bias and unoriginal. They also tend to verbalise visuals quite a lot. A simple explanation for this lies in the fact that it is one thing having played the game and it is totally another thing commenting on it. They are entirely different skillsets and it is possible that the same individual may not have both.

Honestly, someone who has watched cricket regularly for a few years, can say the same things. Of course, he or she will not be taken seriously, at least initially, given that he has had no skin in the game. He has not played cricket for his country.

Any cricket match generates a lot of numbers. But you will never hear these cricketers getting into numbers. But this isn’t surprising given that you don’t expect cricketers to be good at mathematics. A good example of this is cricketers dissing about the Duckworth-Lewis system used to decide on things in cricket matches interrupted by rain. Maths is clearly not their strong point.

Use of numbers can clearly uplift the quality of analysis. In fact, this shouldn’t be very difficult, given that TV channels broadcasting cricket can hire maths geeks, get them to do the maths and simply feed it to the commentators. While some of this is happening, more needs to happen in the days to come, to lift the quality of analysis.

Also, if you look at the cricket commentators, at least in the Indian context, it looks like a closed club. You can make it to the big league, only if you have had played cricket for India. The only non-cricketer who has managed to break-in over the years is Harsha Bhogle. And honestly, even after being as over-exposed as he is, he is still one of the better commentators. The commentary accompanying the function that happened after Sachin Tendulkar’s last test match at the Wankhede Stadium, was simply fabulous.

If the boredom that has crept into cricket commentary has to be broken, more outsiders need to be allowed to break in. Some variety will do it no harm. After all, it is not rocket science.

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

The column originally appeared on Value Research Online on May 14, 2016

Of Success, Al Pacino and Amitabh Bachchan

amitabh bachchan

The reasons behind the success of Amitabh Bachchan are well analysed. People have talked about his deep baritone voice. His tall and brooding persona. His legendary acting skills. And the fact that his portrayal of the angry young man captured the frustrations of an entire generation.

Bachchan may have succeeded because of all these reasons and more. Nevertheless, there is a something that people never seem to talk about—the role that luck played in Bachchan’s success. Bachchan’s golden era started with the success of Zanjeer, which was released in 1973.

But the fact of the matter is that he was not the first choice for the role of Inspector Vijay Khanna, the lead character in the movie. This became the first of the many angry young man roles that Bachchan would eventually play. As Diptakirti Chaudhuri writes in Written by Salim Javed—The Story of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters: “Not one major star of the day was ready to act in the film”.

The script was first sold to Dharmendra for a princely sum of Rs 2,500. The actor’s brother Ajit Singh Deol was supposed to produce the movie and Prakash Mehra would direct it. Things did not work out between Ajit Deol and Mehra, and as a reason Dharmendra opted out of the movie.

The script then went to Dilip Kumar. As Chaudhuri writes: “[Kumar] thought it would make a very good film but felt the lead character was too one-dimensional and did not allow enough scope for ‘performance’.”

The script then went to Dev Anand. At that point of time both Salim Khan  and Javed Akhtar felt that this would be a “horrible miscasting”. Anand asked for a couple of songs to be picturised on him and that was that. The story continued.

Mehra approached Raj Kumar. “He too loved the script, probably because he had been an inspector before joining films, and agreed to do the role, but—and this was a big but—he wanted the film to be shot in Madras. One apocryphal story goes that he did not like the smell of Prakash Mehra’s hair oil and made this preposterous demand to wriggle out of having to work with him,” writes Chaudhuri.

After all these stars refusing to do the film, the script landed with Bachchan. As Chaudhuri writes: “Partly out of desperation and partly out of respect for Salim-Javed, and Pran[who had a pivotal role in the film], Prakash Mehra signed Amitabh Bachchan.” And the rest as they say is history.

The broader point here is that if any of these stars had taken on the role of Vijay Khanna that was offered to them, Bachchan’s story may have turned out to be remarkably different than it eventually did.

Before Zanjeer, the only performance of his worth recalling was in the film Anand, as a side-hero to the then superstar Rajesh Khanna. After Anand, Bachchan had done a bunch of forgetful films. And that is how things would have continued, if Zanjeer had not come his way. In fact, his career could have fizzled out very quickly and he wouldn’t have survived as long as he eventually has.

A sort of a similar story played out with Hollywood star Al Pacino, as well. Pacino first shot to fame, a year before Bachchan, in 1972, when The Godfather was released. Pacino played the character of Michael Corleone in this movie, who was the youngest son of mafia boss Vito Corleone (played by the legendary Marlon Brando).

As Robert H Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “Studio executives…wanted to cast Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Coppola, however, wanted an unknown actor, someone who actually looked like a Sicilian.”

But Coppola was clear that he wanted Pacino and threatened to abandon the project if anyone else was signed on. This forced the studio executives to agree and Pacino landed up with the role of Michael Corleone.

As Frank writes: “In Puzo’s novel, Vito Corleone was the central character. But Vito’s youngest son Michael is clearly the protagonist in Coppola’s adaptation. Pacino, who had previously appeared in only two minor films, thus landed what turned out be the most important role in what many critics have called the best film ever made.”

Interestingly enough Coppola was a young film director at that point of time and as Frank writes: “Inexperienced directors almost never get their way into disputes with studio bosses.” But Coppola did.

The point being that hard work and talent are important for success but they are of no use without luck and opportunity. As Frank writes: “Those who believe that talent and hard work inevitably triumph might argue that because Pacino was relatively young at the time, his skills would have eventually made him successful even if he hadn’t landed the Michael Corleone role. But there are many thousands of highly talented actors who just never get the right opportunity to demonstrate their skill.”

Like Pacino got the lead part in The Godfather, Bachchan got it in Zanjeer. They were lucky to get these parts, which gave them a huge opportunity to showcase their real talent. Of course, after they became successful, a narrative was created around their success. This narrative pointed out to their talent, their hard work and so on.

While all that is true, one cannot take away the fact that at a certain point of time, they were very lucky. And that luck gave a fillip to their careers. As Frank writes: “It is almost easy to create a narrative after the fact that portrays such outcomes as having been inevitable. Yet every event is the outcome off a complex interwoven sequence of steps, each of which depends on those preceding it. If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire trajectory would almost surely be different, too.”

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

The column originally appeared on April 26, on www.valueresearchonline.com

When it comes to investing in real estate, the greater fool is you


I am in Delhi as I write this listening to FM radio. I rarely listen to FM and am surprised at the number of real estate advertisements still being broadcast on radio. What makes it even more surprising is that the real estate market in much of Delhi and the surrounding National Capital Region (NCR) continues to remain in a mess. A possible explanation for this may lie in the fact that radio advertising is cheap in comparison to other forms of advertising.

The business lobby Assocham, recently conducted “random survey of nearly 125 real estate developers in Delhi-NCR”. The survey found out that the “demand for buying property have decreased by over 30% over the last year.”

In fact, sales have fallen despite the home prices having crashed. As the Assocham press release points out: “The prices have almost crashed but they are still un-affordable. Be it Rohini, Dwarka, South Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, the prices of property are down by 25-30% as compared to the last two years… The ticket price 3-bedroom, 2 BHK  and single room flats has seen correction by 30 per cent in Noida, 25 per cent in Gurgaon and 15 per cent in some key areas of Delhi but still, the demand stays subdued.”

The total number of unsold homes in NCR stands at 1.7 lakh. Of this around 62% homes are uninhabitable. As Assocham points out: “The problem has been confounded by delays in regulatory clearances and litigations, points out the survey.”

The radio ads are trying lure people in, by harping on the fact that they don’t need to put the entire money upfront. Further, the ads talk about lower down-payments and lower EMIs. Given that 62% of 1.7 lakh unsold homes in Delhi are under-construction, it makes no sense to buy an under-construction home, which the radio ads advertise.

What these ads also tell you is that the builders (especially the smaller ones) are desperate for money, given that the conventional source of lending through banks has more or less dried down during this financial year. In this scenario they will be happy to raise any money that they can. Chances are that they will use this money to complete their earlier projects. Hence, the new projects that they raise money for will continue to remain uncompleted. Given this, it makes no sense to buy a new under-construction home in Delhi NCR as of now.

I decided to test this hypothesis at a wedding I attended in Delhi. Of course, the sample was small and hence, readers need to keep that in mind. But it does not change the points that I am trying to make here. The general feel that I got from the people I spoke to in Delhi was that they would still buy an under-construction property if they were able to afford it.

Most of these people I spoke to are Delhi residents and they have had a special relationship with real estate. They have seen the price of their DDA flats multiply many times, over the years and still believe in the power of real estate. And most of them hoped that they could sell an under-construction property to someone else in the years to come.

The Greater Fool Theory was at work. As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil’s Financial Dictionary: “The belief that no matter how foolish a price you pay for a stock or other asset, you can always find a greater fool who will pay more to buy it from you. Why bother figuring out what a stock [or a home] is worth, when you can simply gamble that somebody else will think it’s worth more?”

This, despite the fact that most of the people I spoke to knew someone who had bought an under-construction property and was still stuck with it, neither having been able to live in it or sell it on forward.

Further, the trouble in the Indian case is how does one figure out the right price of a home? Only the brokers operating in a particular area tend to have that information. And they do not always have the best interest of the prospective buyers in mind.

As Sanjoy Chakravorty writes in The Price of Land—Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence: “The price of a given piece of land [or a home], like the price of everything else, is based on information on the price of other pieces of land: prices paid in the recent past and prices paid elsewhere, especially in nearby locations.”

Such information is not easily available in the Indian context. As Chakravorty writes: “If information on prices is not available and the rights to negotiate and refuse do not exist, a real market does not exist.”

And this is precisely how things stand in India. Given that there is no clear cut way of knowing the right price of real estate in a particular area, there is a great belief that home prices and land prices do not fall.

The trouble is that home prices have been falling in Delhi NCR. It’s just that it takes special surveys like the one by Assocham to bring this fact out. This information is not available on a regular basis, like is the case with the stock market, where you can see the price of a stock going up or down, almost 250 days a year.

And this lack of a real market has its costs. As Zweig writes: “It might seem surprising that there could ever be a shortage of fools in this world, but if you count on always finding one just when you most need to, you will make up one day to find that everyone else has suddenly smartened up and the greater fool is you.”

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

The column originally appeared on valueresearchonline.com on Dec 3, 2015

What Narendra Modi can learn from Narsimha Rao

narendra_modiVivek Kaul

Before PV Narsimha Rao took over as the prime minister of the country, the finances were in a bad shape. Under the previous regime, the foreign exchange reserves had fallen to a level which was enough to pay only for three weeks worth of essential imports. In this scenario India had to take an emergency loan of $2.2 billion from the IMF. This was done by offering 67 tonnes of gold as a collateral.
Given this, Rao realized that he needed a ‘technocrat’ as his finance minister. IG Patel, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) was approached first. Patel, had been the fourteenth governor of the RBI between 1977 and 1982. After retiring from the RBI he was the director of IIM Ahmedabad. Between 1984 and 1990 he was the director of the London School of Economics.
Patel refused Rao’s offer and instead recommended Manmohan Singh. Singh had taken over from Patel as the governor of the RBI. He had a three year tenure at the RBI. After that he took over as the deputy chairman of the planning commission. In March 1991, Singh was appointed as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission(UGC). And this is when Narsimha Rao came calling and on June 21, 1991, the day Rao took over as the prime minister of the country, Singh was appointed as the finance minister.
Singh with the firm backing of Rao unleashed a spate of economic reforms which unshackled the moribund Indian economy and placed it on a much better footing. What is interesting nonetheless is that the entire period of Rao’s rule was not reform oriented. The economic reforms happened in the first three years and after that election considerations for the next Lok Sabha took over. Hence, the last two budgets of Manmohan Singh were of the ‘populist’ nature.
There is a lesson in this for the current prime minister Narendra Modi. Modi is likely to have elections on his mind more than Rao for the simple reason that his party and his allies are outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha. And if he has to establish a majority in the upper house, he first needs governments of the Bhartiya Janata Party in states. The BJP currently has 43 MPs in the Rajya Sabha and the NDA 63 MPs. This makes it difficult for the government to enact any legislation unless it calls for a joint sitting of both the houses.
Hence, elections for state governments are very important for the Modi government.
In this scenario it might is quite possible that economic reforms and even simple administrative decisions for that matter, may take a back seat. A very good example of this is that Modi had to wait for elections in Maharasthra and Haryana to get over before the government could announce the decontrolling of the price of diesel.
The good news is that an election free window of almost 11 months is coming up. As analysts Abhay Laijawala and Abhishek Saraf of Deutsche Bank Market Research point out in a recent report titled
Policy action to intensify “Following three state elections in December – Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir – there will be a near eleven month election free window, before Bihar state goes to the polls around November 2015.”
As can be seen from the accompanying table, after elections in the states of Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir are over, there is an election free window of close to 11 months. This table does not account for elections in Delhi, which also may happen soon.
The next big election is scheduled only in November 2015 in Bihar. The state has around 7.3% of the country’s Lok Sabha seats. It also elects 16 members to the Rajya Sabha. The Rajya Sabha has 241 seats in total. Hence, the Bihar election will be of significant importance. And it may not be possible to push economic reforms around the time elections happen in the state.
Hence, the time to push reforms is early next year, when the election free window starts. A good place to start with would be take the deregulation of diesel prices further, and start gradually increasing the price of cooking gas. Currently,
the oil marketing companies make an under-recovery of Rs 393.50, every time they sell a cooking gas cylinder.
As was done in the case of diesel, prices can be increased gradually at the rate of Rs 10-20 per month. Currently, the oil marketing companies face an under-recovery of Rs 188 crore per day on the sale of cooking gas and kerosene. A part of this amount is reimbursed by the government. This leads to an increase in the expenditure of the government and hence, its fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. An increase in price will also ensure that over a period of time the black marketing of domestic cooking gas to hotels will become unviable.
Also, over a period of time as the government is able to increase its numbers in the Rajya Sabha it needs to introduce land and labour reforms as well. As Laijawala and Saraf point out “Most of the reforms in India, since 1991, have been broadly focused towards product and capital markets. Reforms in factor markets, other than capital, principally land and labor, have been broadly left out by all political administrations since 1991. We believe that a long era of coalition governments may be the reason for this anomaly.”
Narendra Modi’s government is not held back by the coalition dharma, as almost all governments since 1996 have been. Hence, it is in a position to push through some real economic reforms on this front. These reforms are of great importance if Modi’s call of
Make in India is to be take seriously.
Other than this, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill which has been in the works for a while, needs to be passed as well. The benefits of GST over the long term will be tremendous. “It has a very ambitious objective to wean away inefficiencies in India’s indirect tax value chain and ensure smoother movement of goods and services by converting India into a one common market, versus the current status where different states levy different types and rates of taxes, which introduces several inefficiencies,” write Laijawala and Saraf.
To conclude, Narendra Modi and his government need to make the best of the election free window that starts from January 2015 and try and make the best of it.

The article originally appeared on www.valueresearchonline.com on Nov 14, 2014

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