[DISCLAIMER: If you are a non cricket follower let me apologize in advance for some of the inside references I will be making. I will write a longer and more universally accessible post, I promise. But for now, my brain is a slave to cricket.]
During the innings break of the supercharged World Cup match battle that is India v Pakistan, while everyone fretted over how India may have been short of a matchwinning total by about 20 runs, a friend of mine asked me on Twitter if Pakistan had ever chased down a target of 300 or above (India had scored 300-7 in the first innings) in the World Cup. I replied to him that I didn’t think they ever had but added the disclaimer that I was purely relying on my memory. Luckily he soon got a statistically verified answer from someone else that said that they indeed hadn’t. I may have looked very omnisciently clever in a cricket nerd sense but I was never very confident of my answer. And that is because our memories are not like a computer’s which can flawlessly recall any piece of data you call up from a storage point. Our memories and cognition are coloured by what in behavioral economics are popularly called biases. And in this instance I was worried about one bias in particular – the ‘availability heuristic’. I thought that was the end of that till I read a news story this afternoon about a controversy from yesterday’s game.
When Umar Akmal came out to bat for Pakistan at a crucial juncture of their chase, he lunged his bat out at a ball from Ravindra Jadeja that just held its line and seemed to brush his bat and find its way into M S Dhoni’s gloves. The Indians spontaneously appealed but the on field umpire, Ian Gould, was not convinced and decided in favor of the batsmen. Teams are allowed a referral each in each innings during the World Cup which meant India could challenge Gould’s call and captain Dhoni who seemed convinced there was the faintest of edges called for a referral. The whole of India and the whole of Pakistan held their collective breaths as third umpire Steve Davis reviewed the video evidence as well as checked the ‘snickometer’ which picks up any spikes in sound as the ball passes the bat (an edge would show up as a tiny spike, a sharp rise in the sound level picked up by the stump microphone). The snicko registered almost nothing. But the ball was tantalizingly close to the bat and Davis declared Akmal out. The technology used in the Decision Review System (DRS) has always been under scrutiny in terms of consistency and reliability. Davis’ decision in such a high stakes encounter seemed to light a powder keg on that debate.
But I am not here to discuss that. Back to the news story. While appearing on a TV news show in Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal lashed out at the ICC and suggested that India had conspired to have the decision their way primarily because Steve Davis hates Pakistan. (Davis is on record having made disparaging statements against Pakistan after the terrorism incident in 2009 involving the touring Sri Lankan team.) But while he was trying to expose Davis’ alleged bias, Ajmal unwittingly exposed one of his own with this statement “Steve Davis never upheld any appeal when I bowled and I had to always ask for a referral to get a wicket when he was the umpire.” Now, it is a hard stat to verify (I will be hitting ESPNCricinfo’s Statsguru tomorrow to give it a try, though) easily but I am convinced Ajmal here is a victim of the ‘availability heuristic’. It is defined as a bias where someone “assess(es) the frequency…or probability of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind”. (Kahneman and Tversky, 1974)
Perhaps Davis has given decisions in favor of Ajmal too but at that point he could only recall instance(s) where he had to ask for a referral. It happens to all of us because our minds are limited that way. It is the reason why people suddenly are afraid of flying the moment they hear about a plane crash or people go and buy the lottery when the hear the news about someone winning the jackpot. Continuing in the vein of our India v Pakistan cricket references, it is also why a Pakistani fan might easily and endlessly recall Javed Miandad’s famous six off Chetan Sharma, but almost similar feats of Rajesh Chauhan (in Pakistan) and of Hrishikesh Kanitkar (in Dhaka) would not come to mind.
For the brain, it is hard work recalling and classifying ALL possible instances to make a judgement in a particular situation so it uses a shortcut, or to use fancy terminology, heuristic. The result is that we overestimate the probability of something (let’s say, being attacked by a shark when at the beach because you were watching the ‘Jaws’ rerun yesterday night) and often make poor decisions in everything ranging from investing in the stock market to playing Monday Morning Quarterback (or in Ajmal’s case, off spinner) as a sports pundit on TV. It is also why you think the lift is never (ugh!) on the floor that you are on or the bus number you want never comes on time or you have to wait the longest always for claiming your luggage at the airport. Your mind recalls those unpleasant (or remarkable) moments easily while ignoring the many times the opposite of those things happened.
Awareness of the availability heuristic is important because while sometimes you can get away with the shortcuts, if you want to make measured judgements, it is a better idea to call up the stats if you can rather than rely on your memory. I was lucky I didn’t look stupid in front of my friend yesterday when he asked me about the chase statistics, but let me tell you a secret – when he asked that question, all I could recall were Pakistan’s games in the 1992 World Cup which was anyway a low scoring one and 2007 where Pakistan were knocked out in the first round. I gave him my answer based on just these two instances. I could easily have been wrong and admitted as much. Now, if only Saeed Ajmal had tempered his statement with the words “As far as I can recall, and I may be wrong…” And that is where an M S Dhoni had a subtle triumph. At the end of the game as everyone was euphoric over how the stat that Pakistan had never won a World Cup tie against India remained intact and chants of 6-0 were going around he said “6-0 is a good record but it won’t stay forever. One day we’ll lose to Pakistan. 4 years or 4 World Cups later. We should not forget that Pakistan has a better ODI record than us.” Now, here was a man not letting the availability heuristic of just World Cup games cloud his judgement.
Evidently Captain Cool known his Psychology and Behavioral Economics 101.