Why I Watch Cricket on Mute


Over the four-day long weekend between March 24 and March 27, two exciting cricket matches were played. The Indian cricket team won both the matches.

I saw both these cricket matches end to end, but I had my TV on mute. I do this because I strongly feel that on most occasions TV commentary does not add any value to the visuals on the screen. And honestly, if there was an option which allowed me to just listen to the noise coming from the stadium, without the commentary, I would choose it.

Most cricket commentary and analysis is full of hindsight bias. And what is hindsight bias? As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil’s Financial Dictionary: “Only perhaps a half dozen market pundits saw the financial crisis coming before 2008, but you can’t swing a Hermès necktie on Wall Street without hitting someone who claims to have predicted it. That is typical of hindsight bias, the mechanism in the human mind that makes surprises vanish. Once you learn what did happen, your mind tricks you into believing that you knew it would happen.”

Take the match between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh had almost won the match and needed to score two runs of three balls. They lost three wickets of the last three balls and India won the match by one run. Of these three wickets, two batsman got out trying to finish the game by hitting a six.

I think the Indian captain Mahindra Singh Dhoni summarised the situation best in what he said after the match: “At times, you look to finish it with a big shot. When you are batting well, you go for it. It is a learning for him [Mahmudullah] and others who finish games. That is what cricket is all about. If it had gone for six, everybody would have said what a shot.”

The trouble is that the Bangladeshi batsman Mahmudullah got out trying to hit a six and win the game for his team. And the commentators immediately pounced on him and declared that he should not have gone for the glory shot. The Bangladeshi cricketers were also called chokers. Nevertheless, if Mahmudullah had been able to hit a six, the same set of commentators would have had good things to say about him.

As Dhoni further said:In-form batsmen often try to play big shots to finish the game. If that shot by Mahmudullah had crossed the ropes, he would have been hailed as a courageous gutsy batsman. Now he will face criticism for playing such a shot.”

An almost similar thing was at view when Virat Kohli single-handedly helped India beat Australia. After India won, the commentators kept talking about his aggression and how it helped him play the innings that he did. The point is that if he had gotten out, the same aggression would have been blamed for his and the Indian team’s downfall.

The outcome of the game determines the analysis that follows. And the confidence with which the commentators speak makes you believe that they had really seen it coming. Of course, the fact that they have played the game in the past, adds to the confidence that they are able to project. But do they really see it coming? I don’t think so.

They day batsmen get out trying to hit shots, the analysis blames them for hitting rash shots. On days these shots come off, the commentators feel that taking a certain amount of risk is a very important part of modern day cricket.

In fact, hindsight bias impact even the commentary that accompanies every ball that is bowled and not just the analysis accompanying the overall result of the match. In the India versus Australia game, I was listening to the Hindi commentary and I think Shoaib Akhtar was speaking (though I am not sure about this) at that point of time. Virat Kohli hit a ball in the air and from the initial looks of it, it seemed that the ball would not cross the boundary and an Aussie fielder would take the catch.

So the first thing Akhtar said was “Kharab shot (A bad shot)”. Just a second later the ball had sailed across the boundary, Kohli had hit a six, and Akhtar said: “behtareen shot (what a good shot)”. Akhtar’s commentary immediately took into account the end result (i.e. Kohli hitting a six) and what was a bad shot suddenly became a terrific one.

The question is why does this happen? The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has an answer for this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. As he writes: “The mind that makes up narratives about the past is a sense-making organ. When an unpredicted event occurs we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate the surprise. Imagine yourself before a football game between two teams…Now the game is over, and one team trashed the other. In your revised model of the world, the winning team is much stronger than the loser, and your view of the past as well as the future has been altered by that new perception.”

Then there is this other point that Dan Gardener writes about in Future Babble: “After a football team wins a game, for example, all fans are likely to remember themselves giving the teams better odds to win than they actually did. But researchers found that they could amplify this bias simply by asking fans to construct explanations for why the team won.”

This is precisely what happens to cricket commentators and the analysis that they have to offer after any game of cricket is over. Given that they have offer explanations of why the team wining, actually won, they end up amplifying the hindsight bias.

Depending on the result, the commentators offer an analysis. Some of it can be as banal as the winning side fielded better, batted better and bowled better (Something that Mohammed Azharuddin used to say all the time in his post-match comments when he was the India captain).

This is not to say that this analysis is incorrect, but why do we need a commentator to tell us this. It is very obvious. On most occasions a team that bats better, bowls better and fields better, is likely to win.

The hindsight bias also impacts stock market experts and analysts who try and make sense of the stock market on a regular basis. After a crash you will hear all kinds of pundits trying to claim they had seen it coming all along. And believe me they will make a very compelling case for it.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind what Jason Zweig says. As he writes: “Contrary to popular cliché, hindsight is not 20/20; it is barely better than legally blind. If you don’t record and track your forecasts, you shouldn’t say that you knew all along what would happen in the end. And if you can’t review all predictions of pundits, you should never believe that they foresaw the future.

And that is something worth remembering.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on March 29, 2016

What made Ranchi famous before Dhoni came along

Vivek Kaul
Bill Bryson, probably the best travel writer of this age, once wrote “You can never make a waiter see you before he’s ready to see you, you can never beat the phone company, and you can never go home again.”
The flourish of the statement notwithstanding it clearly isn’t a law of physics. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is going home again today and playing an international cricket match in a city where it all began for him. Life has come a full circle for Dhoni.
Dhoni put Ranchi, a city of around 10 lakh people, and no heroes other than freedom fighter Birsa Munda and Param Veer Chakra winner Albert Ekka, on the map of India and the rest of the world. He explains it best when he says “When I started my international career, people during the overseas tours used to ask me where I came from. I would first say India, then Jharkhand and then Ranchi. The next question invariably was, ‘Where is Ranchi?’ I had to explain in different ways by saying, ‘It’s near Calcutta, near Jamshedpur from where Tata originated. It’s India richest state in terms of minerals.”
Having been born and brought up in Ranchi I can totally relate to what Dhoni is trying to say here. My childhood retort to the question ‘Where is Ranchi?’, used to be that its the city through which the Tropic of Cancer passes, not knowing that the Tropic of Cancer was an imaginary line passing through a lot of other places in India as well.
Also Ranchi was Agra’s less famous cousin. In popular speak “Agra jaana hai kya” has never meant visiting the Taj Mahal, but the famous mental hospital in the city. Along similar lines Ranchi was famous, at least in parts of Eastern India, for its Kanke Mental Hospital, with the phrase “Kanke jaana hai kya” being seen as an insult on anyone it was used.
After Dhoni burst onto the cricketing scene in 2004, questions about the geographical whereabouts of Ranchi were confined to the dustbins of history. Having said that the question I try and answer in this piece is that what was Ranchi before it became that city from which Dhoni comes from?
One of the surprising facts that I learnt from my social studies text book in the third standard was that Ranchi is also called the hill station of Bihar (since 2000, Ranchi has been the capital of Jharkhand, before that it was a part of Bihar).
A few years later I understood that the textbook had not been updated since the 1960s when Ranchi actually was a hill station where the Bengali bhadralok came to visit and stay during the summer months. The story goes that the industrialist Aditya Birla and his wife Rajasree honeymooned in Ranchi. What would have given the city the tag of a hill station was the fact that it rained a lot even during the summer months.
But as the city expanded and the forests and the greenery was cut down, the temperatures rose, crossing 40 degree Celsius during the summer months, and it could no longer be called a hill station.
The next big thing to happen in the city was the setting up of a large number of public sector enterprises. This included the Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC), Central Coalfields Ltd(CCL), Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), MECON Limited, formerly known as (Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants (India) etc. This was primarily because the area around Ranchi was richly endowed in minerals.
Dhoni’s father Pan Singh was an employee at MECON Ltd. The setting up of public sector enterprises brought people from all over India to Ranchi, and this included Pan Singh as well, who originally belonged to the Almora district in Uttarkhand.
Jawahar Lal Nehru’s big decision of setting up public sector enterprises and not encouraging entrepreneurship and private business may have cost the country dearly, but it did give us a Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It is unlikely that Dhoni would have become what he has if his father would have continued living in his village in Almora. If it was not for Nehru’s vision which screwed up India, Dhoni might have been a humble farmer in Uttarkhand. Even unintended consequences can be healthy at times.
The other interesting thing that happened starting in the 1980s was that Ranchi started sending an astonishing number of students to the IITs for a city of its size. In the mid 1980s, St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, send in 73 students to the IITs in a single year. And this was before coaching became the norm. What cities like Kota are doing now, Ranchi did in the 1980s.
The year 1983 also saw Ranchi fall to the Hip Hip Hurray phenomenon. Hip Hip Hurray was the first film directed by the now famous director Prakash Jha. And he shot the movie in two schools in Ranchi, Vikas Vidyalaya and the Bishop Westcott. I remember seeing posters of the film being plastered all over the city and the elders being quite excited about a full Hindi film having been shot in the city.
So that was as exciting as the city got while I was growing up there. Another important landmark for Ranchi was in the early 1990s when the entire city did not have power during the peak of summer for a period of 15 days. Rumor mills were abuzz that Lalu Yadav had got the entire thing done, so that power could be transmitted to Patna and other parts of North Bihar, which were reeling under a heat wave. This was the last nail in the coffin for Lalu Yadav and his party when it came to winning elections in Jharkhand.
Dear reader, if you have managed to read this far, you will realise that Ranchi, the city where I and Dhoni grew up in, was a city where nothing much happened. The modern sense of the term being, it was boring. It did have its odd ironies though, like the fact that the most famous shopping complex in the city was owned by the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church.
But to me Ranchi will remain the city of dark clouds and rain. And red gulmohar in all its glory. And power cuts. And studying under a kerosene lamp with the hope that power would come back by the time Chitrahar started. And learning tricks of how to rekindle extinguishing candle flames. And listening to the brilliant Ameen Sayani host the Binaca Geet Maala with me making notes of the song rankings. And h
aving sofites at Firayalal. And boarding auto-rickshaws with even nine people at times. All this before it got that man called Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The trouble with nostalgia is that if it gets too nostalgic, there is a danger of creating a time and a place, which did not exist. So let me stop here.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on January 19,2013.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He was born and brought up in Ranchi. He can be reached at [email protected]