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!

It’s luck: Explaining Sonia’s rise, BJP’s 2004 loss and cricket debuts


Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is also a regular economic commentator on India for the New York Times India Ink. He has most recently co-authored Indianomix – Making Sense of Modern India (Random House India, Rs 399) along with Rupa Subramanya. The book is along the lines of international bestsellers like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist, and tries to answer a wide array of questions ranging from why did Jawaharlal Nehru did not see the 1962 war with China coming even though there was a lot of evidence to the contrary, to why seatbelts don’t save lives. Dehejia speaks to Vivek Kaul in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
One of the controversial ideas in your book is that the BJP’s India Shiningcampaign of 2004 was not as much a disaster as is made out to be. Why?
I am glad you asked that. We think it is one of the interesting contributions of the book. I would agree with you that it is a controversial hypothesis because we have this received narrative of the 2004 election – which is that the poor voter had punished the BJP/NDA for the triumphalist India Shining campaign. Even the BJP bought into this interpretation. This has had far-reaching consequences. If you look at the political history of India since 2004, what was the lesson that was drawn? The lesson that everyone drew from the so-called disaster of the India Shining campaign was that you cannot win an election based on economic reform, economic policy and economic success.
And you don’t agree the India Campaign was a disaster…
Our argument here is that if you look at the numbers, if you look not just at the seats won but at the vote shares as well, you get a different story. Yes, there was a swing away from the NDA, but the actual vote share difference between the NDA and the UPA was just over 2 percent. The NDA won 33.3 percent of the vote and the UPA won 35.4 percent of the vote. For us that 2 percent difference in vote share can equally be attributed to a number of other explanations, such as bad luck, as it is to anything else.
Or let me put in another way; if you look at those results, basically it came down to a coin toss. A third of the voters voted for the NDA, another third voted for the UPA and a third voted for somebody else. As we see it, the role of luck and randomness in an outcome should not be underestimated.
That’s a very interesting point…
The NDA might well have won the election. And, in fact, they actually would have won if the DMK hadn’t pulled out their 16 seats at the last minute. And that really was what made the difference. Hence it is very difficult to conclude that it was the voters punishing India Shining. In all Indian elections, there are many regional and local issues at play and then there are issues about the complex way in which alliances work. Our point in the chapter really is that it is a very appealing narrative. We like to have these very convincing explanations because to say well, you know, it was bad luck doesn’t seem like a very satisfying explanation. But if we know that the BJP lost because they had this India Shiningcampaign and the poor voters punished them for it, that appeals to human psychology. We want to have a convincing story that explains everything.
A convincing and simple story that can be broadcast on TV..
That’s right. A story that can fit into a sound byte.
You also talk about the role of luck in Sonia Gandhi‘s life. If it was not at play she would not have ended up at where she is now…
We sort of tell the story as to how she met Rajiv Gandhi at a particular Greek restaurant in Cambridge, England, on a particular day in 1965. That itself was a chance event. Maybe if she did not like Greek food, or if she had gone on a different day! And the number of chance occurrences it took to go from being the shy Italian housewife that she was to being the most powerful person in the country. It took two assassinations and five unexpected deaths. The assassinations, of course, of her mother-in-law and her husband, and then the deaths of five senior Congress leaders (which included Rajesh Pilot, Sitaram Kesri and Madhavrao Scindia). The probability of that happening is so small that you have to call that an accident of fate. Or luck. Or randomness. Or whatever you want to call it.
Any other interesting examples on luck?
We have this study by Shekhar Aiyar and Rodney Ramcharan, two economists of the IMF, who look at the role of luck in test cricket. And they found, amazingly, that the advantage of debuting at home for test cricketers actually had a long lasting effect on their careers – which was really surprising. You would think that if you debut at home, sure it would effect your performance in the debut series, but in fact it has a long-lasting effect.So basically people who debut at home end up playing a lot more…
That’s right. Selectors unfairly punish those who debut abroad and don’t do well. Therefore, you are more likely to be dropped from the side once you debut abroad and don’t do well. But also there could be some learning by doing here. If you debut at home you are able to hone your skills and technique on your home turf and, therefore, you become a better player. Both things could be going on there. But the bottomline is that it is a result of luck because these Test schedules are set months and years in advance, and when someone is picked up for the national side is really the luck of the draw.
An extended portion of your book deals with Jawaharlal Nehru and the fact that for a very long period of time he did not see things heating up with China in 1962, despite there being evidence to the contrary. What is the broader point that you were trying to make?
That forms a central part of our chapter on cognitive failure when we draw on recent behavioural economics literature. The point and the purpose of looking at Nehru in the lead up to the 1962 war was how could something so obvious be missed. It had become clear at that point that China was flexing its muscles. It was a nationalistic state and the border issue was going to be a real problem. But the fact was it apparently caught Nehru by surprise. He himself admitted that he was more or less been living in a dream world before the war. He said: “We were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation”. So how could Nehru’s own assessment have been so far off the mark and have changed so radically over a short span of time?
And what did you figure out?
Certainly, one of the several possible interpretations is that Nehru and Krishna Menon (the Defence Minister when the Chinese attacked India) and people around them had succumbed, perhaps to a cognitive failure, where they couldn’t perceive the Chinese threat for what it was. They were looking at it through a different lens.Could you explain that in some detail?
Krishna Menon, for example, was ideologically towards the left and he found it very hard to accept that China, being a socialist state and being an Asian power, could have any threatening impulses towards India. This showed an ideological blind spot to Chinese nationalism that had been detected as long back as 1950 by the shrewd Vallabhbhai Patel. So the broader point we were trying to make is that a strongly-held ideological view can blinker you to some realities that don’t fit in with that view. There is this pattern that one sees where  leaders can become overconfident in a lead-up to a crisis because what is happening doesn’t fit their world view of things.
From Nehru you jump to rail accidents in Mumbai…
Yes. A staggering 15,000 people die on railway tracks throughout India every year. Of this 40 percent, or about 6,000 deaths, take place in Mumbai alone on the suburban railway network.
And why is that?
If you look at it from a strictly conventional economic point of view, there is a cost-benefit calculation. So someone who is crossing the tracks at an unfenced point will reckon that he is saving the time it would take for him to get to the next safe crossing, i.e. the foot over-bridge. But that foot over-bridge could be several kilometres away from where he is. If, say, you are a daily wage labourer who has get to the construction site and give your name to the foreman, if you arrive half an hour or 45 minutes late you might miss out on a day of work and so the day’s wages. So the cost can be pretty high. That would be the end of the story from conventional economics and you would say let’s build more foot overbridges to reduce the time cost.
But that is not the whole story?
Let me tell you a little story. Biju Dominic, a former ad man and a co-founder of FinalMile, learned about the daily tragedies on the Mumbai rail system while teaching a class at the railway staff college. So he and his team started gathering some data. They realised that 85 percent of those trying to cross tracks were adult males. Of course, this may also reflect the fact that it is mostly men who are trying to cross the tracks. Also children were most adept at crossing tracks. An interesting finding was that people who are used to crossing tracks tend to underestimate the danger to their lives. This is a classic example of the overconfidence bias, along similar lines that had happened in Nehru’s case before the 1962 war with China. While crossing they don’t consciously realise the risks they are taking. They filter out the boiler plate warning signs and the text signs.
That’s very interesting…
So given the possibility of cognitive failure, it’s possible that some targeted interventions might change that tradeoff. FinalMile came up with three specific interventions. First, they painted alternate sets of railway ties (that’s the series of metal beams that connect the two ends of the track) a bright yellow. This was to help compensate for the psychological fact that people tend to underestimate the speed of large moving objects. With an alternate set of ties painted yellow, someone would be better able to gauge the speed of an oncoming train as it as it passed from the painted to the unpainted ties. Suppose you are in a high a speed train and you are looking out at the landscape, it is hard to tell how fast you are going, unless there is some reference point for the speed. That was one nudge.
What was the second one?The second one was to get the train drivers to switch from a single long warning whistle to two short staccato bursts. Again, this was based on neurological research that showed that the human brain was more receptive to sound that was separated by silence. And the third, the most striking nudge, was an image. People tend to filter out generic boiler-plate kind of warnings. So here they actually hired an actor to portray the wide-eyed horror of someone about to be crushed by an oncoming train and made a poster of it. The poster was vividly visceral enough to really get to someone’s gut, to effect someone psychologically. It is much harder to filter out something like that vis-a-vis a generic sign which says it’s dangerous, don’t cross here. And the poster was put up at points were people crossed tracks. Those were the three interventions.
And how are the results?
They started at Wadala. In the first half of 2010, the number of deaths dropped by 75 percent to nine from the previous year. When we spoke to them in February this year we were told that railways were rolling it out at the Mulund, Vikhroli and Ghatkopar stations. But the other point that we note there is that the success of that really won’t show up in any kind of statistic because if someone looks at the poster and decides not to cross or makes it across safely because of the yellow paint on the ties, it will be the absence of a statistic.
Another interesting piece of research you talk about are seat-belts…
Our inspiration is this classic 1975 article by Sam Peltzman, at the university of Chicago, who wanted to test whether seat-belts saved lives in the United States (US) where everyone had just assumed without argument that seat-belts must save lives. And what Peltzman found was that, in the US, that turned out not be the case. What was going on was that since the cars were now safer, the driving became more rash. The human reaction was, now that my car is a little safer, I can drive a little faster and I don’t need to worry as much about getting into an accident. The human behaviour offset the effects of a well-meaning government programme.
You can find examples of this everywhere. We give an example of sports equipment. There is some evidence now that in team sports where there is a lot of protective gear, you actually see more violence on the pitch. So American football and ice-hockey have a lot more protective gear and so you get a lot more violence. It’s the same thing because the players feel safer as drivers feel when they wear the seat-belt. But in soccer there is relatively very little protective gear and hence very little violence.
How does the seat-belt thing work in an Indian context?It’s not been very much studied but we found this one interesting study by Dinesh Mohan at IIT Delhi. The Delhi seat-belt law came into effect in 2002. What he found was that seat-belts saved very few lives. If you look at his paper, he concludes that the seat-belt law at most saved around 11-15 lives per year in Delhi out of nearly 2,000 fatalities.
Why was that the case?
There are two things going on here. The fatality rate for drivers and front seat passengers was already relatively low. And that dropped a bit after the seat-belt law came in. The deeper explanation is that most of the victims are not the front-seat passengers or the drivers. They are the other people. They are pedestrians. They are two-wheeler drivers. And others. With seat-belts in place drivers are essentially transferring the risk from themselves to the pedestrians.
An interesting part of your book is where you talk about how Indian states that were ruled by native princes are doing much better economically than the states that were ruled directly by the British. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

One of the questions that we like to ask in India is what if we hadn’t been ruled by the British, would we have done better? Or questions like: were the British good for India? And here there are all spectrum of opinions. There was a debate published an American magazineThe New Republic between Niall Ferguson and Amartya Sen which looked at this question. Sen wrote that had India not been colonised by the British then it might have evolved in a different (and) better way than with the colonisation. Then Ferguson replied to that. And Sen had a rejoinder. Ferguson is very much a believer in the British Empire. His argument is that the British Empire in its later phase did a lot of good for its colonies by integrating them into global trade and finance.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
It is very tempting to say that Indian economic performance or growth stagnated during 190 years or 200 years of British rule, and then growth began to take off after independence. The point we make is that by itself it tells you nothing and you have to have a counter-factual scenario. What are you comparing it with? And this is where we draw on the research of Lakshmi Iyer of the Harvard Business School.
What is this research about?
She very interestingly compares the economic performance post-independence of those regions which were directly ruled by the British as against those which were ruled by the princes of princely states. And she shows statistically that the native-ruled regions have done better on average even post-independence. And that is a very striking result. One sort of hypothesis is that the British, to the extent that they were more likely to rule states that generated taxation revenue for them (because tax on land and agriculture was a big source of revenue), may not have invested so much in physical capital and human capital as the Maharajas and Nawabs may have. At least, among the more progressive princely states, they probably realised the good value of education, health and so on and began to invest in that.
Can you give an example?
You can take the example of the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III. He ruled from 1875 to 1939. He had compulsory primary education, including that for girls. He put in place a number of socially progressive policies. That sort of legacy is still being reaped till today. That is one possible explanation and a suggestive idea.
The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 19, 2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]