How an investment banker thinks about cricket

By Felix Salmon
February 14, 2011
Anshu Jain -- yes, that Anshu Jain -- has filed a lovely column for Newsweek on the subject of the cricket World Cup. Even as a magazine writer, he still behaves like the investment banker he is:

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Anshu Jain — yes, that Anshu Jain — has filed a lovely column for Newsweek on the subject of the cricket World Cup. Even as a magazine writer, he still behaves like the investment banker he is:

My picks for the Cup? I’ve learned always to heed the ineffable wisdom of market pricing, and only then to essay my own view… Here are the odds at the time of writing (from Bet365.com): India, 3.75; Sri Lanka, 5.5; South Africa, 6.0; Australia, 6.5; England, 7.0; Pakistan, 8.5; and the West Indies, 21.0.

I find Australia, Pakistan, and particularly the West Indies good value at those prices…

My perhaps parochial pick is India playing Australia or Pakistan in the final.

Jain has managed to name four different teams, here, as his picks; if you take Bet365.com’s pricing, the odds of one of those four teams winning the Cup are about 59%. So, he’s not exactly going out on a limb here.

I’m also fascinated by this:

West Indians will, more than a little wistfully, recall “Super Cat” Clive Lloyd’s 102 in the inaugural cup in 1975… I doubt there’s an Indian across the spectrum of caste, age, and language who doesn’t thrill, still, to the images of a feline Kapil Dev sprinting 30 yards to catch Viv Richards and set India on course for its only World Cup win, in 1983.

Jain is old enough to remember both of those events, but it’s worth noting that most of the people in India and the West Indies weren’t even born in 1983, let alone 1975. And frankly you had to be there: those thrilling images of Kapil Dev are pretty grainy and mundane taken out of context and presented on YouTube.

But that’s sport for you. As Jain says, the World Cup will render a billion and half people agog, while the rest of the world is oblivious. Still, that’s more than enough to value the broadcasting rights at some $2 billion, and to force a large chunk of the US population to shell out $149 for the ability to watch it on DirecTV.

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And I will be one of the watchers, via Willow TV on the net. Not that most Americans care or even know about this. I was snagged by cricket during a holiday trip to New Zealand four years ago, making me one of the few US-born cricket fans… I imagine there must be others, but I’ve never met any. Everyone who knows about the game here was born in one of the Commonwealth countries.

To misuse an engineering term, cricket has more “degrees of freedom” in its modes of play than other sports. That is, there are more elements which can change the course of the game in more surprising ways.

Along with that is the great and deep literature of the game (led by indisputably the greatest cricket book of all, Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James, as much a meditation on the changes in a globalizing world as on the inner workings of the game), the completely unique idiom of cricket terminology and commentary, the fierce devotion to statistics and high-tech tracking devices well ahead of anything American sports can offer, and a penchant toward exercising all the Seven Deadly Sins and occasionally provoking a minor international incident or two, creating turmoil in national politics, but also building bridges and easing international political tension.

The game on the field has all the elements of gladiatorial combat and three-dimensional chess, with long periods of apparent tedium while players move about in mysterious formations to incomprehensibly named field positions, interspersed with moments of excruciating disaster, high drama, humor and triumph. Sometimes all within a matter of a single over.

The scoring, of course, is impossible for Americans to understand, and that’s even before getting to the business of run-rates-required, two wickets, two batsmen and two gloves for the wicketkeeper, oval fields with no foul lines, and the mysteries of leg-before-wicket, not to mention there are now three major forms of the game, including one specifically boosted up to compete directly with Bollywood in the subcontinent market. All of which attracted a lot of Bollywood money to where this new action is.

Cricket, of course, has always been about money, including the wagering kind, ever since “gentlemen in top hats laid stacks of guineas on the green.” Outright gambling has long been banned on the field, and this week the constabularies are chasing bookies out of major Indian cities to ply their trades in obscure smaller towns. But as always, the syndicates and tough guys circle around the action and the betting handles will nevertheless easily exceed $100 million for many of the World Cup games.

Yet, even more than other sports, the essence of cricket lies well beyond the monetary realm.

My friend who moved to New Zealand from the US couldn’t understand it at all. “How can you take seriously any game where the players wear sweaters?” he said. Cricket lives in some post-postmodern state, simultaneously rooted in a mythic past, a frantic now and a serene future. It is both an escape from the world and a mirror into it.

As for the 2011 World Cup, South Africa, India and England are the teams on form, and Australia is still quite strong after falling from unreachable heights only a few years ago. My Black Caps seem poised to continue their unfortunate era of NZ underperformance, despite the versality of the veteran Dan Vettori and the agility of the up-and-coming Ross Taylor.

All that said, with the slow, turning pitches and sultry weather of the subcontinent, I will pick balanced and focused Sri Lanka to take it all, with the ageless Jayasuriya and the incomparable Muralidaran bringing home the honors.

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