Don’t sweat it if you’re initial reaction was “The Cricket World Cup is on?”
You’re not alone.
Yes, baseball’s poor cousin is throwing its once-in-four-years party, in the Australasian continent down under. Cricket may not be a popular sport in North America but get this: the game between arch rivals India & Pakistan last month was watched by a billion people worldwide!
So what is cricket, you ask. Well, you take baseball and slow it down – if that’s even possible. Then you slow it down some more. Take away two bases and replace the diamond with a somewhat circular ground, and you get a sport that started out as a past time of the English upper crust. How else do you explain a tea break in the middle of an inning?
These days though the game has evolved from its white flannel roots, and has since spread through many of the original British colonies. Money has poured in. Player contracts run into the millions. Flashy team names and uniforms are common. The game itself has been shortened considerably to accommodate work schedules and television rights. The original five day format, considered by many as still the only true form of the game, still exists but the shorter four and eight hour formats have gained favor, especially amongst the smartphone generation.
The cricket ball – harder and heavier than a baseball – contains an iron core and is covered by tightly stitched leather with a pronounced seam that acts like a rudder allowing for curved balls through the air and off the bounce. Yes, bounce!
Pitchers (bowlers) are not only allowed to bounce the ball before reaching the batter (batsman), they are encouraged to do so. Bowlers have a particularly unhygienic (and rather gross) habit of rubbing sweat and saliva on one side of the ball and shining it on their trousers. Flu season, anyone? In any other sport this practice would likely dominate most of the discussion but in cricket it goes unnoticed.
Much of cricket is spent getting the ball back from the catcher (wicketkeeper) to the pitcher. You’d think that the catcher could simply toss it back to the pitcher but, as with all things English, there is an unnecessarily convoluted way. The ball makes its way back to the pitcher in three to five stops, while each fielder joins in the polishing ritual with the aim to add moisture (read germs) and shine to one side of the ball allowing it to swerve more viciously.
As you’d imagine, this Japanese high tea-like routine gives commentators and statisticians a chance to mull on detailed, and sometimes obscure, facts and trends. In fact, growing up in India, knowledge of cricket statistics was valuable currency during school recess. This obsession with measuring anything that can be measured makes cricket fertile ground for big data scientists.
In a previous post, we wrote about how big data has permeated the NFL, from predicting winners to tracking hydration. Much of that science has crept into cricket, especially with the more affluent teams whose entourage can be up to sixty people at a time, only a fourth of them actual players. Team coaches and stats jockeys track everything – every pitch, every hit, every catch, and perhaps every scratch. (Hey, a lot of cricket is played in the humid tropics!)
Coaches even track how pitchers perform in the “nets” (practice areas to simulate a match experience, fenced off by fishing nets). They mine this data for insights on which pitcher to bring on in a particular match situation given their propensity to pitch certain types of curved balls.
Like most sports, every aspect of cricket has gone digital. This influx of data has helped organizers plan more effectively, players perform more consistently, and fans enjoy more thoroughly. Read previous posts on this blog that deep dive into the challenges posed by the growing volumes of data and real time analysis, as well Red Hat solutions to address those challenges in an increasingly data hungry sports world.
So who will be crowned world champions in 2015? Going into the tournament, South Africa looked like favorites but losses against India and Pakistan have pegged them back. The final four are likely going to be India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Our money is on a Australia-South Africa final, with a solid edge to the home team.. Either way we suggest you tune in for a great spectacle in the Melbourne twilight on March 29. Howzat?