March 26, 2007

Super 8 - Some analysis and a few predictions.

Though my interest was momentarily dulled by India's defeat, I am very excited now about the Super 8. It will begin tomorrow with the very interesting Aus-WI game.

When the tournament began, I predicted the four semi-finalists to be India, Australia, SA, WI. I am horribly off the mark about India. Not many will doubt that Aus and SA will be there. So there are two more spots, for which the serious contenders will be Sri Lanka, WI, England and New Zealand. Ireland and Bangladesh will struggle to win even one match, and are very unlikely to be in the semis.

If we make the safe assumption that all the above six teams are going to win if they play with either Bangladesh or Ireland (I say "if" because SL and WI will not play against BD and Ire), then the points distribution will look something like this, before we count the important matches:

Aus 6
NZ 6
SA 4
WI 4
SL 4
Eng 4

Apart from this, Aus, SA, NZ and Eng will play four matches each while WI and SL will play five matches each. There will be 13 matches in all. So 26 points are at stake. Together with the 28 points above, there will be a total of 54 points divided among 6 teams. 12 points will mean a certain spot in the semis. Anyone with 10 points will almost certainly be in the top four. 8 points should give a pretty good chance of making it to the top four.

Aus and NZ have the advantage of six points, and SL and WI have the advantage of playing 5 matches. Eng and SA have only four points and play only four matches.

I think that England are the weakest team and will not make it to semi final. Of their four matches I expect them to win at most one. I also think Australia and SA will either win all their matches or at least three. I do not see them both losing many matches. Their match on 24th March tells me that they are way ahead of others.
So if I am correct, then the contest for the remaining two spots will be between SL, WI and NZ.

NZ will have six points, so they have a definite advantage. But SL and WI will play against Eng and if they win they will be on par with NZ. So it might all come down to what happens in the three matches between these three teams. Of course any victory against Aus or SA will be huge.

Predictions are always tricky. However, I am going to make them. Aus and SA will surely be in the semi finals, and most likely in the top two slots. I have a feeling that WI is going to be also there. I think that home advantage will be important and in close matches I think WI will be better. Between SL and NZ, I will say NZ. I know SL are favorites now for many people, but I just feel that they have not been tested really. Their batting looks susceptible against quality bowling. Also Muralitharan is their only bowling threat against better batting. NZ look good now, though they have some injury worries. Their general efficiency coupled with very good bowling should see them through.

In any case, all set for an exciting Super 8 stage, with at least 13 great matches to look forward to.

World Cup debacle - Will it make this better?

Just as with any debacle, India's ouster from the world cup in the first round has caused a great deal of analysis, debate etc. There were numerous articles which I enjoyed reading and mostly agreed with. Just to cite a few, this, or this, or this, or this. Attention is rightly drawn to the ineptitude of BCCI, lack of a healthy domestic league, concentration on individual glory, absence of good back-up players, poor condition of grounds, raw deal meted out to the paying spectators etc etc.

But then I can't escape a feeling that no fundamental change will take place. For one thing most of the analysis is being carried out by people who are not in charge. One of the ills bemoaned by everybody is the unaccountability of BCCI. So none of this outcry will directly impact them. What will is a real threat of people turning away from cricket. This is quite unlikely to happen.

The disaster in the WC is not typical. This outcry would not have been so intense if India made it to Super 8, but not to semi finals. All this will be forgotten the moment Indian team wins the next series. And they will soon, given the amount of cricket we play. For fans to turn away from cricket requires a string of seriously bad performances, like the one in this WC. Indian team is not so bad for that to happen.

Of course, some changes will take place. BCCI will need to appear as if they are acting. Some of the changes may even be drastic, like dropping of some senior players. But I think it's pretty unlikely that BCCI will initiate the systemic changes that will improve things in the long term. There is simply no incentive for that kind of action. What powers that be are interested in is how to reap the maximum benefits at present out of the golden duck that is Indian cricket. They are only wise enough to keep it alive.

March 24, 2007

"Nobody realizes the enormity of the defeat than the players"

Dravid was professional and straightforward in the press meet. He admitted frankly that India did not deserve to proceed to the Super 8. He raised many important points, one of which is: players are having the worst time right now.
Nobody realizes the enormity of the defeat than the players. The players are the one who put in a lot of time. They worked really hard for this. It is an opportunity they get once in four years. It is something that you really look forward to in your career. So no-one understands the enormity of this more than the players. Definitely there is a lot of introspection and disappointment in the dressing room.

Players will be subjected to much nonsense in the next few days. Most of it will come from misplaced notions of entitlement and honor. We need to realize that players went out there and did what they could. While reasoned criticism is surely par for the course, there is time for that and certainly a limit. Indian players play under unreal pressures and frankly, more is demanded of them than they are capable of delivering. Burden of these unreasonable expectations was certainly one factor in this miserable world cup for India.

Many people denounce Indian cricketers by saying that they make lots of money. But this is really a stupid argument. We only see them making money now. What is not seen is how many risks they take to get there. A reader has put it best on India Uncut:
i find it insane that people should grudge cricketers their money. those guys worked hard to get where they are. they put aside their education and a ‘secure future’ for a 11 in a billion chance to make the india team. would YOU have made that choice?

March 23, 2007

Picture says it all.

Sorry end to India's World Cup.

India's world cup run all but ended today after the convincing victory by Sri Lanka. Barring a highly unlikely victory of Bermuda over Bangladesh two days from now, India are out.

Before the match Rahul Dravid was asked what would happen to India if they lost. He answered that they were not even thinking of the possibility. Now he needs to think about it. Many others will also need to look for some answers.

From the time colored clothes made their debut in world cup in 1992, this is probably India's worst world cup, though the seventh place finish in 1992 would be a close contender. I say this is the worst considering the expectations and the supposed caliber of this team. A look at India's performances in last the four world cups reveals a very interesting picture.

In many ways, 1992 world cup was transformational. Soon after 1992 many long and successful careers ended and a significant regrouping took place within the Indian team with Sachin Tendulkar becoming the batting backbone and Azharuddin consolidating his captaincy. In 1996 though we reached Semi-Final, it was considered a disappointment given that India was a big favorite playing at home. This also resulted in some changes, most significant being the emergence of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, and Tendulkar's captaincy. 1999 world cup was largely dull though we managed to reach the Super 6 phase. Major changes resulted after that with a foreign coach (John Wright) taking charge for the first time and Sourav Ganguly becoming the captain. This brought about a fresh dynamism in the Indian team and one-day team with Rahul Dravid as the wicket keeper looked solid. As a consequence, 2003 was clearly the best world cup we had after 1983 and India was only second to a flawless Australia.

Now this!

What now for the Indian players? I suspect this debacle will usher in some important changes. Senior players will need to introspect. This is especially true for Sachin Tendulkar. It pains me to write this, but he is fast becoming a liability to the team. May be there is still time for a graceful exit. Dravid and Ganguly have surely some cricket left in them, though I doubt Dravid will continue as captain. May be it's a good time for Yuvraj. I surely think that a change of guard has to take place with management and administration handed to the next generation. Greg Chappell will almost certainly go. It's probably time for an Indian coach.

Painful as this early exit is, there is a part of me which senses some good coming out of it. In the last two or three years Indian cricket is being successfully and rapidly morphed by various vested interests into a sort of sensational marketing machine. BCCI has become a lucrative body with high profile politicians throwing in all their might to control it. Media, with its constant look out for sensationalist talking points, also played a big role by coining terms like "Team India" and "Men in Blue". As a result a realistic connection between team's performances and fans' expectations was destroyed.

Ground realities being disregarded, desires, passions, and emotions were exploited. It looked as if people were cashing in while the going was still good. Widely covered stories in the media of people shaving their heads, offering prayers for the team, naturally led to the ridiculous reactions to the loss. Now a national calamity will be declared and a multitude of theories will be offered as explanations. Much has been written about the financial disaster that will befall if India fails to reach Super 8. I see that as one bright spot in this gloom. It might bring in some much needed balance to cricket following in India.

The fact of course is it's not a calamity. Indian cricket team just failed to do well in a world cup. Surely a very disappointing experience, but by no stretch of imagination a calamity. Obsession with cricket team's fortunes to the exclusion of all sensible thought is a dangerous national malaise. May be this disaster will remedy it.

March 21, 2007

Some thoughts on Friday's crucial Ind - SL match.

After Sri Lanka's big win over Bangladesh today, equation is pretty straightforward for India on Friday: win and qualify and carry two points to the Super 8. It is all but impossible for Bangladesh to qualify if India wins on Friday.

A quick calculation: India scored 191 + 413 = 604 runs in 100 overs and gave away 192 + 156 = 348 runs in 98.3 overs. So they are +256 in terms of runs. If they beat Sri Lanka, their net will be at least +257.

Bangladesh scored 192 + 112 = 304 in 94.3 overs and gave away 191 + 312 = 503 in 96 overs (today's match came to DL, with Bangladesh's target revised to 311 in 46 overs). This gives Bangladesh a net score of -199. This means Bangladesh will need to win the Bermuda game by just below 199 + 250 = 449. We can safely assume it's not going to happen.

So India just needs to win against Sri Lanka. In the recent past we had a good record over SL, with a 6-1 win in 2005 and a 2-1 win just before the World Cup. But things are different now. India will be under immense pressure. SL are on a high.

Common perception is that SL prefer to have BD in Super 8, as in that case they would carry 2 points. But the problem then is: it will mean all the other teams in Super 8 (other than Ireland) are virtually guaranteed 2 points. Of course, SL also have those two points. But teams carrying two points from other groups will have an advantage. These will be New Zealand, AUS/SA, WI/Ire. Frankly, NZ and AUS/SA are virtually guaranteed Semi-Final spots with two matches against Bangladesh and Ireland. So SL will end up fighting for one of the remaining two spots with WI and AUS/SA. It might be better for them to have India in Super 8, so that no spot in SF is certain, even at the cost of two points. This is not to suggest that SL will do anything less than 100% on Friday. But they might just be tempted to try out some reserve players.

Anyway for India, it's the proverbial do or die. On March 23 four years ago they had a bad day. But that was the final. Now they are in danger of a knock out in the group stage.

As for us fans, let's hope that we will have a good match while praying that India will win. But let us also remember that it's only a game.

I forgot to mention that an Indian loss on Friday won't technically knock them out. They might pray for a Bermuda win over Bangladesh, which is surely highly unlikely. Given their run rate, India will qualify after a 3-way tie between Bangladesh, Bermuda and India.

March 20, 2007

NYT offers TimeSelect free to University students and Faculty.

I like New York Times a lot. My day is rarely complete without reading at least some articles on NYT. Of course most of the time I read online (though in our university we get free print copies every weekday which I read occasionally). Part of the NYT experience are the bi-weekly articles of Krugman, Friedman, Maureen Dowd and others. When TimesSelect was started in Fall 2005, I was so used to their articles that I bought the subscription for one year. But then I realized that most of the articles are available free on the blogosphere. Following the graduate student motto, why pay for it when it's available free, I didn't renew my subscription after the first year.

Today I found that NYT is offering TimesSelect for free to all university students and faculty, which category happily includes me. This surely simplifies things, in addition to comforting my conscience.

If you are a university student or teacher, check this out.

March 18, 2007

Reaction to India's loss is alarming.

Much as I am dejected by India's loss yesterday and our diminished chances of making it to Super 8, what bothers me much more is the way aspersions are cast on the team. There are broadly two methods that people employ to vent their anger. More sophisticated of these are acerbic rants, while others are unabashed physical gestures.

The dominant reaction to the defeat seems to be one of anger. Anger is a complicated emotion. It's not clear what causes and is caused by anger. Let's say there are two categories of anger: personal and impersonal. The former is caused by things that have immediate relevance to you (your newspaper delivery boy is lazy) and the later by things with no or very little relevance to you (your friend's newspaper delivery boy is lazy). To be sure, this is not very well defined, but I am concentrating one single aspect which will be clear.

Both these angers are perfectly justifiable. The crucial difference between them is what you do about it. First there are some absolute limits on what you can do. For instance, you can't destroy the home of the newspaper boy. Within those limits, personal anger gives you more scope for action. You can fire your newspaper boy. But the impersonal anger almost never permits action. While you can urge your friend to fire his newspaper boy, you can't do so yourself.

The anger generated in many fans by Indian team's loss is impersonal. This is the case even though it may be true that the team's performances are key to many of the fans' happiness. This impersonal anger surely allows for serious criticism, but much of what we see today is unwarranted. It has to be remembered: the Indian team is not responsible to its fans. This might sound sacrilegious in today's atmosphere of affected national pride, but it is true. If the Indian team has the power to cause a fan intense shame and misery, that power is given to them by the fan. The team did not ask for it. The fan can take that power away from the cricketers if he wishes. The fact that cricketers make insane amounts of money is not germane to the issue. Neither is it correct to argue that a cricketer's basking in the glory when he does well requires him to take the obscenities thrown at him when he doesn't. The Indian cricket team does not represent India's pride. Anyone purporting to derive national glory or shame on the basis of cricket team's results is a fool.

It seems to me that this whole affair is symptomatic of a disturbing trend that is emerging in India. Many of the new habits and practices are characterized by instant gratifications and even more instant disillusionments. Gone in the process are the balancing convictions afforded either by ancient culture, or a thorough education. This is apparent everywhere one sees. In cricket, a player is lifted to sky after a handful of good performances and his effigies are burnt after a single bad show. Whether it is the national obsession with daily junk on television, or the eager rush to modify education to suit the immediately visible needs, what seems to drive people today is the expedience of the moment.

March 14, 2007

Stephen Hawking on the origins of the universe.

Image Hosted by

Stephen Hawking talked recently at University of California Berkeley on the origin of the universe. A video is here (the talk starts at around 18:30).

He is witty as usual while discussing deep issues. He gives an overview of how the theory developed starting with the widely held belief that universe did not begin (it always existed). He then refers to Hubble's discovery of expanding universe as a very important intellectual discovery of the 20th century. If the galaxies are moving apart very fast, they must have been close at some point. In spite of a few theories proposed to salvage the eternal universe theory, scientists now believe that universe began around 14 billion years ago with the big bang. He then talks about the need to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum theory to understand what happened at the singularity which was the big bang.

I am an illiterate on these matters and I found the talk quite illuminating.

March 10, 2007

Occasionally I visit Wall Street Journal's editorial page to see if there is something interesting. Most of the articles on economic issues seem logically sound, though I do not always agree with their premises. The articles on domestic politics and especially foreign affairs, on the other hand, are positively atrocious. You get the impression that they are all written by a bunch of standard bearers, sophisticated and intellectual, for the Republican party.

Peggy Noonan, who writes there regularly, provides the latest example. She is the one who penned this classic article when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Reading this article you wonder what parallel universes of self delusion these people inhabit.

She wrote, talking about what Saddam's capture means,
That human agency works and is an active force in history. You don't have to sit back and accept; you don't have to continue to turn a blind eye; you don't have to sit and do nothing, because all action involves choice and all choice invites repercussion. You can move forward. You can take action. You can go in and remove a threat to the world. You can make the world safer. You can help people. Just because they live in Iraq and we don't bump into them every day doesn't mean they don't merit assistance and even sacrifice.

She is of course talking about the glorious do-good spirit of America which spreads such joy and welfare in the world.

Anyway, coming to the point, this is her latest article. It's about the declining standards of American discourse. The two incidents she provides as evidence for this are: Bill Maher's comment on his show that Dick Cheney's death would save lot of lives and Ann Coulter's reference to John Edwards as a "faggot" at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The whole argument of Noonan is based on the assumption that these two incidents are equivalent. But are they really?

Bill Maher is a comedian who is politically conscious. This consciousness informs his comedy, but basically he is a comedian. His show airs late Friday nights on HBO. All this would seem to provide him a certain license to be fatuous, which wouldn't be the case, for instance, if you are addressing a major conference attended by the who's who of the conservative circles and major presidential candidates.

It is quite silly to draw a parallel between the rot in liberal and conservative politics based on these two incidents.

March 7, 2007

World Cup Resolutions.

It is probably a good time to bring in a little perspective amidst the madness of the up-coming world cup. Nirmal Shekar invites us Indian fans to make ten resolutions which do just that.

The following is very timely.
Let us resolve that we will never again say that Team India carries the hopes of a billion people and the prayers of that many are with Rahul Dravid's men. The truth — if anybody still cares for it in this age of ephemera, an age of boosterism and saturation coverage of popular sport in the media — is that a vast majority of that billion has rather more mundane everyday concerns. Their hopes and dreams are not hooked to the fortunes of the men in blue.

In fact all of them are nice. Read them.

March 5, 2007

Origins of religion.

There is a lot of buzz lately about the "neo-atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and their renewed critique of religion. An issue that is lost in this debate (or at least not debated sufficiently), which is very interesting, is the question of how religion came into existence in the first place. Robin Marantz Henig's Darwin's God in New York Times Magazine yesterday goes into the specifics of this particular debate.

Human beings evolved to their present physiological state over countless generations of natural selection. Much of their culture and habits too evolved in a similar manner. This later is the subject of an exciting field called evolutionary psychology. For example, our aversion to snakes probably originated when many of the first humans died because of them. So the genes in man which cause fear of snakes, and thereby protect from them, had a natural selection advantage. These are the genes which survived. Most physical traits and behavior patterns of man must have evolved like this. There are two essential groups of these "adaptations".

One is those patterns which gave direct selection advantage. Most adaptations belong to this group. An important example is the innate human ability for language. Its selection advantages are obvious.

The second group consists of those traits or behavior patterns that are only indirect consequences of direct adaptations, the so-called "spandrels" or "by-product adaptations".
A naturally occurring example of a by-product of adaptation is the human belly button. There is no evidence that the belly button, per se, helped human ancestors to survive or reproduce. A belly button is not good for catching food, detecting predators, avoiding snakes, locating good habitats, or choosing mates. It does not seem to be involved directly or indirectly in the solution to an adaptive problem. Rather, the belly button is a by-product of something that is an adaptation, namely, the umbilical cord that formerly provided the food supply to the growing fetus.[Link]

The fundamental disagreement among scientists debating origins of religion is whether religion is a direct adaptation or a spandrel. The above article in NYT goes into details of this disagreement and is quite fascinating.

It seems very probable that religion (or more generally the capacity to believe without evidence) is hard-wired into human beings. Numerous experiments among children establish this. Note that this is independent of whether religion is a primary adaption or a spandrel. The fact is that humans have an innate propensity to religion. The dispute is only how this propensity evolved.

Personally I am more inclined to take the the view of "by-product theorists", those who believe that religion evolved as a side-kick of other direct adaptations. It is hard for me to believe that religion could have given direct selection advantages.

March 2, 2007

McCain's troubles.

John McCain finally announced that he is running in 2008 (as if we didn't know already). McCain has come a long way from 2000 when for a moment it looked like he might win the nomination, though machinations of Karl Rove prevailed in the end. Back then he was a bit of maverick and much liked by independents and Democrats. In fact, many independents and Democrats showed up in Republican primaries and handed McCain a few key wins. If Bush the team did not resort to dirty smear tactics against him, he might even have staged a surprise victory.

But in the past seven years McCain lost many of the advantages he had at that time. For one thing he realized that he needs the support of religious right and this made him do some pretty crazy things like showing up at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. He has gone back some liberal things he said about gay marriages. In his attempt to win favor in Iowa, he also disowned some courageous things he said about ethanol subsidies (in 2000 he skipped the Iowa primary). All this destroyed the "straight-talking" image that was his pride some time ago. There are also questions about his age. He is doing his best to counter these (showing up at Letterman to announce his candidacy).

McCain has a curious problem: he has a good chance of winning a general election, but great trouble winning Republican primaries. He did not win a single primary in 2000 where voting was restricted to Republicans. Much of the last six years he spent addressing this problem. But in the process he lost many independents and Democrats. And it remains to be seen if he has done enough to win the hearts of the Republicans.

Right now he comfortably trails Giuliani, though it is too early to say anything. Most likely he will not need to contend with dirty Rove-like tactics, but drawing Republicans away from the 9/11 hero Giuliani will be a challenge. It must be said also that McCain has a far more extensive national presence which will surely give him an edge over Giuliani.

March 1, 2007

The long shadow of Iraq.

However skillfully Hillary Clinton tries to justify her decision to vote for Iraq war she will eventually be forced to pay a price for her refusal to admit the error. Democratic candidates who have either been always against the war (Obama) or subsequently admitted mistake (Edwards) are going to have the edge in primaries. (This is of course not such a major issue for Republicans as their base consists of one-time supporters of Iraq war.)

It is misleading to say that the nation was gripped by a post-9/11 shock and that there was no other option. It overlooks the fact that fully 23 Senators voted against the resolution (almost a quarter). In any case, the Senators are supposed to be independent and not susceptible to the general emotions of the moment.

Another important thing was that there were indeed other options. As the op-ed Senate's Forgotten Iraq Choice by Lincoln Chafee confirms there was a very concrete alternative option that was available at the time. Chafe was a Republican Senator from Rhode Island who lost the election last November. He is very liberal and has been a consistent critic of Bush and did not vote for him in the 2004 election.

This alternative was a resolution called Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act of 2002 proposed by Carl Levine, a Michigan Democrat. It suggested a more multilateral strategy for the US. While agreeing that Iraq was a threat, it made the important point which seemed to have escaped many at the time, that it was far from an imminent threat.

Of course the resolution failed. But as Chafee remarks, it was "incomprehensible" why it received only 24 votes. Many Democrats (including Clinton and Edwards) and all Republicans other than Chafee voted against it.

The simple fact is that bellicose nut jobs like Cheney and Rumsfeld had decided right from the beginning of the Bush administration that they had to remove Saddam. Before 9/11 they were more interested in Iraq than serious reports from CIA about al-Qaeda. 9/11 gave them a great chance. They skillfully built up the case for Iraq war and marketed it brilliantly. All this is established wisdom now. For instance, Frank Rich lays it out nicely in his book. And many big name Democrats fell for this very easily. No amount of clever word play will change this simple fact.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]