I have been thinking of posting this all through India's disastrous recent cricket tour of England. It was Chris Dillow's excellent post about cognitive biases in football that finally got me around to writing it.
The dismal performance of India's cricketers has been variously attributed to IPL, England emergence as the successor to the great West Indian and Australian teams of the past forty years, India's "club-side" like bowling attack and the inability of its batsmen to cope with the swinging ball, and so on.
Without going into the merits of each of these, if we view this performance in its true perspective - the sheer magnitude of the defeat, the recent relative performances of both teams, and an individual assessment of the players from both sides who played in the series - none of the aforementioned explanations appear convincing.
Consider these. India's 4-0 defeat, apart from being its worst ever against England in 15 series there, was also its worst test loss margin ever. In fact, even the great West Indies, with all its great bowlers and batsmen, or Australia of the last two decades, could not inflict a test defeat of such magnitude, even in series with more tests. Undoubtedly much weaker Indian teams, both in batting and bowling, have performed more creditably against far better teams than the current English team, even in conditions atleast as adverse as that in the recent series. A logical performance-based explanation would lead us someway down the conclusion that the current English team is among best ever cricket team or conversely this Indian team is among the worst ever team assembled by the country!
In the build-up to the series, both teams had equally impressive recent test records. If anything, India's performance was superior, both in terms of the fact that its successes were for a longer period of time and was against slightly better opposition. The No 1 test ranking was a just reflection of India's superiority. Apart from its big success in Australia last winter, England's recent victories have been against the lesser teams (nothing in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and South Africa).
Interestingly, it needs to be borne in mind that the same set of English bowlers have played in all the last three test series between the two countries, two of which were in England, and two of which were won by India and one was drawn. James Anderson (in four) and Stuart Broad (in two) led the English bowling attack on these tours. This brings us to the English bowlers themselves. While Anderson is arguably one of the finest exponents of swing bowling in friendly conditions today, his place among the greats of swing bowling is questionable. Stuart Broad's place was itself under threat, though it can be argued that his best years may be ahead. Take out the performance of the last one year, and the averages speak for themselves.
Man to man, given the fact that Graeme Swann was hardly a factor in the first three tests, the South African attack of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, against whom the same Indian batting line-up fared with great distinction less than a year back, is far superior. In terms of every imaginable measure of a bowler's art, Dale Steyn is far superior to James Anderson. Morne Morkel is similarly superior to Stuart Broad. Although England's third seamer, Chris Tremlett or Tim Bresnan or Steve Finn, is superior to South Africa's, the added presence of Jacques Kallis evens up things on this front. So, if South Africa's bowlers are superior to the English bowlers, there is something amiss about attributing the extraordinary English performance to the excellence of their bowlers.
I have three explanations for the triumphalism of English cricket writers,
1. Statistical coincidence - As Chris Dillow writes, events occasionally turn out such that one team enjoys the rare confluence of all fortunate factors, while the other team suffers the exact opposite. England had all its players playing at the peak of their form and free from injuries (and given their otherwise normal averages, it cannot be denied that England enjoyed one of the rare runs of all players being in great form), conditions favorable to its bowlers, its batsmen facing a weak and demoralized bowling attack, and so on. India had exactly the opposite - the injury toll, even with IPL workload, and the near complete batting failure, being inexplicable.
And once, the coincidence of factors align in such comprehensive manner, and one team starts to suffer, it is more likely that its confidence will deplete just as fast as that of the other will rise. A self-fulfilling spiral is triggered off. A statistical outlier will then get mistaken for something else.
2. We live in the present - The stellar performance of the same English bowlers, who not far back were whacked by all and sundry in the cricket World Cup (admittedly there is difference between test and one-dayers, but not so much as to merit such differential - Morkel and Steyn hardly suffered such consistent punishment even in one-dayers), raises the issue of how we should assess modern day cricketers.
The amount of cricket modern cricketers play means that their careers are more likely to be short and spliced with injury or fatigue interruptions. In the circumstances, there is a strong case for assessing players based on their current form. Given the competition and standards, even lesser mortals (say, Time Bresnan or Chris Tremlett) playing cricket today are likely to have a streak of great form for some period of time. Then law of averages catch up and they fall back to their mean career trajectory. Only the great players, and there appear to be only a handful of true greats playing now, can sustain their high-level performance for years.
3. Availability Bias - The 3-1 victory over Australia in 2009-10 was easily the greatest cricketing achievement for England in nearly four decades, if not more. It was preceded and succeeded by consistent performances by the team, albeit, as aforementioned, against the weaker teams. The whitewash of the World No 1 Indian team on top of all this naturally reinforces the positive feeling about the team and therefore the impression of an all-conquering team.
In fact, this is classic availability bias, wherein the immediate recollections of the team's performance gets disproportionate importance in the overall assessment of the team. The immediacy of the string of these successes, amplified manifold by modern media coverage, gave rise to the impression of an all-conquering team.
None of this is to denigrate the English achievement nor condone the pathetic performance of India. It is only to fill in a sense of perspective to the emotion charged reporting that dominated the richly deserved triumph of the British team.