We are the Robots

A couple weeks back, I predicted the outcome of all the matches at the ICC World T20s using the ICC’s very own ranking system as a guide.

It got one very big thing wrong right at the start, as the Netherlands qualified and Ireland did not, but it still started out with an impressive streak of eight matches in a row correctly predicted.

Now with two and a half matches left to go in the group stages, I wanted to take another look at how my predictions did.

Group 1:

Super 10; Group 1 Predicted Winner Actual
SA v SL SL SL
ENG v NZ NZ NZ
NZ v SA SA SA
SL v IRE SL SL
SA v IRE SA SA
ENG v SL SL ENG
NZ v IRE NZ NZ
ENG v SA SA SA
ENG v IRE ENG NETH
NZ v SL SL n/a

That’s seven out of nine correct – which means the ICC robots got 78% of its pre-tournament predictions right in this group. That’s impressive. If this was Vegas, the ICC would get kicked out of the casino for card counting.

As I type this, New Zealand are 23/4 and collapsing, so it will likely be a solid 8 out of 10 for the ICC’s rankers – a classy 80%.

But they got one match very, very wrong. For today in Chittagong, the Netherlands humiliated and hapless England. It was a simultaneously unpredictable and predictable result. Everyone knew that England were in a shambles, despite an impressive win over Sri Lanka. And despite the points they had built up in the T20 format over the last couple of years, everyone – save the ICC robots – knew that England might struggle against a spirited Dutch side. And they did. And that’s why we play the games. Because sometimes the things that really matter don’t show up on a stat sheet. I don’t put a ton of stock in the sports cliches of “clutch” and “hustle” and the like – I think it is more that good cricketers play for good cricket sides and those good cricket sides more often than not beat poorer cricket sides – but things like momentum and attitude and chutzpah and spirit and teamwork MATTER. And those are not tangibles. And that’s why we play the games. For the intangibles.

Onto group 2:

Super 10; Group 1 Predicted Winner Actual
IND v PAK IND IND
AUS v PAK PAK PAK
IND v WI IND IND
WI v BANG WI WI
AUS v WI AUS WI
IND v BANG IND IND
PAK v BANG PAK PAK
AUS v IND IND IND
AUS v BANG AUS n/a
PAK v WI PAK n/a

With two matches still to come tomorrow, the ICC robots are 7 for 8 for an impressive 88%. If Aus v Bang and Pak v WI go as predicted, it will end up at 90%.

What this shows us, I think, is that for the most part, the ICC rankings are pretty good, if not infallible. And so while I think they can and should be used a guide for tournament rankings and the like, I do think they are not quite good enough to be used to determine¬†which sides should get into those tournaments and which stay home. And I certainly don’t think they are good enough for the proposed relegation/promotion system.

*

And just as a reminder, here is how the robots predict the knockout stages:

Semi-Final #1: Winner
Sri Lanka v Pakistan Sri Lanka
Semi-Final #2: Winner
India vs South Africa India
Final Winner
Sri Lanka vs India Sri Lanka

A couple of results in the group stage still need to go the right way for those to hold true, but I think that looks about right.

Why I Canceled my Willow.TV Subscription

There is more than one reason, of course, but I will spare you the boring ones like “I wanted to save a few bucks” and “been too busy to watch much cricket lately anyway” and “ESPN3’s been doing a nice job recently filling in the cracks when I do have time” – those are important and valid reasons, of course, but they do not tell the entire story.

I cancelled because the service – despite its best intentions – is no longer worth the $15 a month. And this is because it is catering not to the global cricket supporter, but to the Indian ex-pat in America. All you have to do to see the direction the service is taking is to look at the events page: mostly Indian domestic leagues – including the IPL, of course – plus a few International tours, most of them involving India.

Now Indian cricket is phenomenally entertaining – and the IPL alone is a fantastic product (if that’s your thing) – and so I do not blame the service for the business decision they have made – they saw a hole in the market and they exploited it, just like you’re supposed to do – but unfortunately their current roster of rights is just not worth my $15 a month.

But there is a larger story here, as Willow’s model adjustment makes it appear that the only way for an online cricket service to survive in America is for it to cater almost exclusively to one segment of the cricket watching US public – albeit, of course, the largest and most passionate, but still only one segment – and that goes to show that the sport really hasn’t taken any sort of foothold in the mainstream US sporting landscape. And this lack of solid footing for the game could spell the end of what was a truly a great time to be a cricket follower in America.

Of course, there is ESPN, with their coverage of ICC tournaments and other tours, but as the American based Aussie Rules fan will tell you, ESPN picks up and drops rights to “alternative” sports as it pleases and without warning. And so while ESPN might very well pick up the rights that Willow have dropped – England, for one; New Zealand, for another – then again they might not. And if they don’t, then the cricketing golden age here in the states might very well have reached its Zenith last summer, and simultaneously we might very well wave goodbye forever to cricket ever “happening” in America.

I hope I am wrong, and I might be jumping the gun a bit, but we shall see. At this point I don’t see another provider the size of ESPN – like an NBC for example – jumping in for any cricketing rights; and I really don’t think there is room for another start-up online cricketing service. And so we can only hope that ESPN expands its coverage, and fills in the gaps left by Willow.TV, or that Willow adjusts back to its past business model of showing a great deal more variety of world cricket (and if that happens, they will get my $15/month back).

Time will tell. Until then, I am back to the good old days of the ball by ball and the BBC.

Rankings

When it comes to sports, there are certainly a lot of really dumb things, but for me, one of the dumbest is surely the ranking system certain leagues/sports use. From the BCS in college football to FIFA’s international football rankings to, of course, the ICC’s format rankings, it all seems so convoluted, and wrong, and random. The formulas are simultaneously too simplistic and too complex. They try to explain the intangible using the tangible, and that never works. It’s like trying to use statistics to describe the act of falling in love. It just doesn’t translate. And to use these rankings to decide championships and tournament seedings lends an air of corruption to the whole system.

The ICC’s rankings are, of course, some of the most ridiculously complicated out there, and we all tend to give them a bit of a hard time – but just how wrong – or right – are they?

Take the current T20 rankings, for example. They go something like this:

Team Matches Points Rating
Sri Lanka 26 2848 129
India 19 1843 123
Pakistan 40 3638 121
South Africa 31 2940 118
Australia 31 2869 115
West Indies 29 2690 112
New Zealand 29 2475 108
England 34 2811 104
Ireland 17 1106 92
Bangladesh 18 1034 74
Afghanistan 15 928 66
Netherlands 12 508 56
Scotland 13 545 50
Zimbabwe 17 589 45
Kenya 17 633 42
Canada 8 11 2

Is Sri Lanka really the best T20I team out there? I think so. Probably. But what about all the other places? Should Afghanistan really be behind Bangladesh? And India has only played 19 qualifying matches – shouldn’t that go against them? And is England REALLY that bad?

Thankfully, we have a T20 World Championship going on right now. So let’s test these out – see how silly – or how spot on – they truly are.

The qualifying matches are happening as I type, but if we use rankings alone, Ireland and Bangladesh will move on to the Super 10 stage.

Then Group 1 will look like this:

South Africa
Sri Lanka
England
New Zealand
Ireland

And Group 2 like this:

Pakistan
India
Australia
West Indies
Bangladesh

And based solely on ICC’s rankings – and just assuming for fun that there are no ties or no results – the Group 1 Super 10 stage will play out like this:

Super 10; Group 1 Winner
SA v SL SL
ENG v NZ NZ
NZ v SA SA
SL v IRE SL
SA v IRE SA
ENG v SL SL
NZ v IRE NZ
ENG v SA SA
ENG v IRE ENG
NZ v SL SL

And the Group 2 Super 10 stage like this:

Super 10; Group 2 Winner
IND v PAK IND
AUS v PAK PAK
IND v WI IND
WI v BANG WI
AUS v WI AUS
IND v BANG IND
PAK v BANG PAK
AUS v IND IND
AUS v BANG AUS
PAK v WI PAK

Final Super 10 tables:

Group 1 Wins Points
South Africa – 2 3 6
Sri Lanka – 1 4 8
New Zealand 2 4
England 1 2
Ireland 0 0
Group 2
Pakistan – 2 3 6
India – 1 4 8
Australia 2 4
West Indies 1 2
Bangladesh 0 0

Those results put Sri Lanka v Pakistan in Semi-Final #1 (Sri Lanka to win) and India v South Africa in Semi-Final #2 (India to win).

And then Sri Lanka will win it all, just as the ICC Ranking Gods decreed.

So why even play the games?

I am kidding of course. We play the games because sport exists outside the realm of math and science and statistics. Sure, they play their role, but at the end of the day, sports are played by humans, and humans are by nature completely unpredictable.

But just as an exercise, I will track the 23 matches above as they go – noting the actual outcome versus the robot’s prediction – and see how it all shakes out.

You have your way to enjoy a T20 World Championship, and I have mine.