BLIPS AND RANDOM WALKS

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Could this be significant later? Not unless you are huge Paulo Coelho and Rhonda Byrne fan!

Quite a while back, during the 2009 IPL season when the Kolkata Knight Riders were having a nightmare season, I was also coincidentally reading Leonard Mlodinow’s book ‘The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives’ and was struck by how KKR’s season from hell could easily have been way better if one or two pieces of luck had gone their way early in the tournament.

(Conspiracy ‘all-matches-are-fixed’ theorists may stop reading at this point.)

Back then I had written:

Pretty much the same perhaps is the case with the hapless Knight Riders. Poor Brendan McCullum can’t be totally blamed if he loses a toss. Yes, at times the Knight Riders have contributed to their own downfall with shoddy cricket but a record of 1-8 is something that is largely due to chance. How about that match decided in the Super Over? (Against Rajasthan Royals) If Yusuf Pathan had mishit a single delivery, things could have been so different. In T20, you cannot plan much ahead primarily because of the compact format where stuff just happens on the fly. All the more reason to believe in chance.

The format of the IPL and the inherent ‘small sample’ problem has ensured that we have had some wildly fluctuating fortunes and some astonishing results. It has also meant that the less statistically inclined RCB fans now believe there is a voodoo that prevents them from winning the title (thrice semifinalists consecutively between 2009-11 and twice finalists ’09 and ’11) and the even lesser statistically inclined Chennai Super Kings fans to believe their team is invincible (semifinalists every season, finalists in all except 2009 and winners in 2010 and 2011). But the whole set up of the IPL encourages random streaks and you could easily have had a KKR hegemony or a Delhi stranglehold on the tournament. Consider Delhi – semifinalists thrice; finalists never. I intend to address that RCB ‘voodoo’ idea for a moment here. As we head into the playoffs (yes that circuit diagram like thingy that has words like ‘Qualifier’ and ‘Eliminator’ written on it) in IPL 6, here are a few facts to consider (and twist to fit your own theory of what will happen this year):

1. Topping the table in the league counts for didly-squat. Of the five seasons thus far, only once (2008) have the table toppers (Rajasthan Royals) finished as champions.

2. Some fairness seems to have been restored under the current playoff format that gives the 1st and 2nd place teams a second bite at a place in the final (they play a ‘qualifier’ where the winner goes through to the final while the loser gets to battle the winner of the 3rd v 4th place ‘eliminator’). Table toppers RCB in 2011 made it to the final despite losing their initial playoff game to Chennai. (They lost the final to Chennai, though).

3. Finishing somewhere below second place on the table isn’t as bad as it looks. Since the playoffs are effectively a one off thing (‘momentum’ is just boiler plate press conference talk!), just getting there looks as good as getting there with games to spare. Consider: 4 out of 5 IPLs have been won by teams finishing 2nd or lower in the table (in fact Deccan finished 4th in 2009 and Chennai 3rd in 2010, qualifying with only 7 wins because of their net run rate when four teams were tied at 7 wins!).

4. Speaking of net run rates, having the best NRR (and thus presumably a good amount of dominance over your opponents in general) isn’t a guarantee of anything either. Teams not finishing top of the table can have the best NRRs but apart from 2008 when Rajasthan had the best NRR, the team with the best NRR has never won the title.

5. And finally the playoff voodoo for RCB. RCB have played five games where losing has meant elimination or ending up as runners up (I am not counting the CSK v RCB ‘qualifier’ in 2011 because their loss there had given them a second chance). They have won two of those and lost three. That’s a 40% success rate (admittedly the sample is ridiculously small, but bear with me here). RCB in five seasons have won 36 games and lost 34 giving them a win %age of 0.514 (I am not counting No Results). If the playoffs were a set of random coin flips and you expected the same winning percentage in the long run for RCB (about 0.51), then what has happened thus far isn’t really statistically significant, i.e. it is more likely that this has happened by chance than because of a ‘voodoo’ or some ‘reason’. Fun fact: If they lose this year too and thus take their winning percentage in playoffs down to 0.33 (2/6), the sequence of events would still not be statistically significant.

Admittedly my point here is a bit labored and strictly speaking statistically kinda spurious (because there isn’t enough data for a thorough scientific crunching) but broadly all I wanted to reassure RCB fans of is that ‘S*** happens’ and you shouldn’t worry too much about how your team does in the playoffs as long as it makes it there in style! 

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