IPL and the changing grammar of cricket

2014 May 12 by Suresh Menon

Part of the charm of cricket, nay, sport itself, lies in the variety of figures and the relationships that runs scored or wickets taken or goals missed can give rise to.

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By Suresh Menon

As I write this, King’s XI (Punjab) batsman Glenn Maxwell has, while hitting 19 sixes in the current IPL sent the ball a total distance of 1.5 kilometres. Or so the statistics on television inform us. Does this mean anything? Is it more momentous than a batsman whose boundary hits have totalled, say, six kilometres or a bowler who has run in two kilometres over the last three years?

The IPL has changed not only the way cricket is played but the way it is discussed. The other day, a commentator plugged a player’s bat manufacturer, leading his colleague, as keen as anyone else to plug what is paid for, to say in some embarrassment, “Hey, you players-turned-commentators are keen to plug bats too huh?”

When Mitchell Starc and Kieron Pollard went at each other with their choice of cricketing weapons, commentators tripped over themselves to give it a positive spin. It is a sign of passion, they said. They were right. Often murders are a sign of passion.

Innovative strokes and bowling are being matched by innovative commentary and innovative statistics. Not to speak of innovative spellings on the scoreboard that says “monsterous” hitting, for example. Or “Well play!” Changing the grammar of the game is one thing, but to change the grammar of the language too?

Maxwell’s 1.5 kilometres is fascinating, and will no doubt lead to other, related statistics. How many pages of War and Peace can Vijay Mallya read in the time it takes a cricket ball to travel 1.5 kilometres? What about a batsman who hits fewer sixes but ensures that those travel three kilometres? Is he twice as useful?

How long before a cover fielder’s effectiveness is calculated by how far he runs? Does mileage equal efficiency? IPL is an American sport accidentally invented in India. Distance as a measure of value is commonplace in American football, and if IPL borrows from that, it might even seem inevitable.

Part of the charm of cricket, nay, sport itself, lies in the variety of figures and the relationships that runs scored or wickets taken or goals missed can give rise to. These might be artificial, and raise cries of apples and oranges as Sachin Tendulkar’s one hundred international centuries did, but that doesn’t make them less fascinating.

For so long have we had with us the standard model - to calculate batting averages, for example - that we believe it is sanctified by the cricketing gods. But as the Impact Index, for example, demonstrates, there is another way of reading the figures. Neither is right or wrong.

There is something about those 1.5 kilometres that causes merriment rather than awe. What about the height? Why is that not important? Calculation can be endlessly fascinating: height, distance, time, velocity, impact on meeting resistance. Then there is the question of whether it is wind-assisted or spin-assisted. As each column is filled, we get a clearer picture of the six.

But – and this is the crux – do we want it? Are statisticians unweaving the rainbow, taking the poetry and thrill out of one of cricket’s most exciting events? If all the articles that I have written on the IPL were laid out end to end, would they cover 1.5 kilometres? Now that would be something.