Has luck run out for Pakistani cricketers?
What has luck to do with professional cricket? A systematic analysis of test cricketers’ performance suggests that luck is indeed instrumental in successful cricketing careers. In fact, a professional cricketer’s career depends perhaps as much on luck as it depends on skill. It turns out that those who debuted at home did significantly better in their cricketing careers than the rest who had their debuts abroad.
Having one’s debut at home or abroad is primarily a matter of chance, which has no bearing on the debutante’s cricketing skills. However, the place of debut ends up having a systematic influence on a player’s career. A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) studied the performance of 790 test cricketers who had their debut during 1950 and 1985.* The authors discovered that the batting average in the debut series of batsmen who debuted at home was 33 per cent higher than the batsmen who debuted in foreign countries. Similarly, during the debuting series a bowler who debuted at home conceded 18 per cent fewer runs per wicket than a bowler who debuted abroad.
The above results show that at least in the debuting series launching test cricket career on home ground is advantageous. A more important question however relates to the impact of the place of debut on the lifelong performance of a cricketer. More specifically, is there a significant correlation between the performance during the debuting series and the performance during the rest of the career? The authors discovered that the performance in the debuting series has a lasting impact on careers such that a 10 per cent higher batting average at debut results in a 5 per cent higher career batting average.
Playing in front of the home crowd matters in almost all sports. Athletes talk of the energy they draw from the cheering crowd, which helps them perform better. But in cricket, the home crowd offers much more than a supporting environment. The home team can have the pitch surface prepared as per their needs. For instance, pitches in West Indies used to be designed to favour their pace bowlers and pitches in India were prepared to favour Indian spinners.
Miran Bux, who is the cricketing world’s second oldest debutant at 48 years of age, played only two test matches for Pakistan in 1955. Later in life he used to prepare the pitch for first class cricket matches in Rawalpindi. I remember listening to Bux talk about how the pitch was prepared to ensure it gave the maximum competitive edge to the Pakistani team. Having one’s debut on a pitch designed for one’s convenience is an obvious advantage. Whereas debuting at a pitch designed to favour the competition is an obvious disadvantage. However, it is only a matter of luck for a cricketer to have the debut at home under favourable conditions versus abroad.
The IMF paper studied the performance of almost 800 cricketers from seven countries (including Pakistan) who debuted before 1986. Would one see similar differences in performance for Pakistani cricketers in more recent times? I looked at the test matches played by Pakistani cricket team in the past 10 years to determine if there is indeed a home side advantage. I compared the batting averages for those who scored over 600 runs in test matches in the past 10 years. It turns out that on average Pakistani cricketers reported an 11 per cent higher batting average while playing test matches in Pakistan.
The difference is even more pronounced for the five top-scoring batsmen who on average reported a 60 per cent higher batting average when playing in Pakistan. Consider Kamran Akmal whose batting average in Pakistan is more than two-times higher than that for matches played in an opposing team’s country.
The same is however not true for Pakistani bowlers whose performance in test matches played in the past 10 years return a mix bag of results. While Danish Kaneria conceded the same number of runs per wicket for matches played either in Pakistan or abroad, Umar Gul on the other hand proved to be more expensive abroad whereas Mohammad Asif conceded more runs per wicket in Pakistan.
The worsening law and order situation in Pakistan suggests that international test cricket may not be played on Pakistani soil for years to come. The March 2009 attack in Lahore on the Sri Lankan cricket team by 12 armed men shocked Pakistanis and cricket lovers all over the world. Later in July 2010, a terrorist attack on the shrine of Lahore’s patron saint left over 50 dead. Other numerous terrorist attacks in Lahore and several similar incidents in Karachi have left hundreds dead. With Karachi and Lahore out of the cricketing circuit, it is no longer feasible to host foreign teams in Pakistan.
Given that test cricket is unlikely to be played in Pakistan in the foreseeable future, budding Pakistani cricketers will have to launch their test cricket careers abroad, which often correlates with inferior performance over the entire cricketing career. This suggests that relatively speaking Pakistani cricketers will be disadvantaged because their careers will be launched on foreign lands where unfamiliarity with the climate, culture, and soil and will act against them.
The above puts added onus on the selection committees to be cognizant of the underlying handicap in launching cricket careers abroad. Dropping a player for poor performance in the debuting series may result in losing a high performing player who may be unfortunate in having a foreign debut.
* Aiyar, Shekhar and Ramcharan, Rodney. What Can International Cricket Teach Us About the Role of Luck in Labor Markets? (September 25, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1478408
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at email@example.com
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