The race for the quarter-final spots in the ICC World Cup is almost nearing completion. The league phase has had a few surprises and a few nail-biting finishes, but it seems that the top eight teams that will enter the quarter-finals will all be test playing nations. The only question is whether Bangladesh will pip England to the post.
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In an earlier column, I mentioned that the key role of the tournament organizer, the International Cricket Council (ICC) in this case, is to ensure that the tournament is structured to induce the teams to play to their fullest potential. The format that was adopted in the last World Cup in the West Indies caused havoc with some of the top contenders being eliminated in the early stages. If keeping the audience interest alive by ensuring that the knock-out rounds have key match-ups among teams that are equals in terms of strength and ability was the objective, then the ICC seems to have achieved it in this World Cup.
In this article we look at team and individual player performance in the context of a 50-over cricket match from the perspective of the economic theory of tournaments.
Tournaments and effort levels
In trying to understand the behaviour of individuals as it relates to work-leisure choice, economists have analysed the behaviour of participants in tournaments to see what motivates them. In this context, by tournaments we refer not just to sporting competitions, but also work-place settings where reward structures resemble a tournament among workers/employees.
It is natural for sportspersons to claim that they do not vary their effort level according to the size of the prize and it is the thrill of victory that drives their performance. Yet, empirical evidence shows that there are in fact three distinct effects when it comes to effort expended by tournament participants. First, reward structures determine the field, i.e., tournaments with higher prizes attract contenders who are strong in terms of ability and skill. Second, the thrill of victory determines the level of effort expended by the competitors. For instance, after factoring in the size of the reward, evenly matched competitors compete aggressively to secure victory. Third, even after accounting for the ability and skill-level of the competitors, and the thrill of victory factor, there is evidence that participants in a tournament vary their effort level in relation to the size of the prize.
What motivates team performance?
What does this mean for the performance of teams in the World Cup, or in international matches in general for that matter? Before venturing to extend the predictions of tournament theory to the case of cricket, a few things have to be kept in mind. First, in the context of cricket, generally it is a team’s performance that is important as opposed to an individual’s performance. Second, in addition to an individual player’s thrill of victory (battles between a bowler and a batsman), nationalist passions play a role in team performance—e.g., an India vs Pakistan, or an England vs Australia match.
Given this background, the obvious question is whether the size of the reward motivates a team to perform to its fullest potential. In order to answer this question, one needs to analyse the alignment between the individual player’s motivation to perform and team performance. It is definitely possible—but not easy—to create an incentive structure to maximize an individual players’ performance within the team that can motivate players to perform to their fullest potential in a manner that benefits the team overall.
What motivates players to perform?
Let’s look at what motivates individual player performance. Given that at the highest levels cricket is played by professionals, a significant incentive for players is the financial reward attached to performance. The objective of players, therefore, is to get a contract from a team, whether it is the national team, regional teams playing first class cricket, or franchise teams playing Twenty20 (T20) cricket.
From the standpoint of team management it is critical to define and set performance metrics that will elicit the right level of effort from the individual players that will, in turn, enable the team to perform to its fullest potential. In setting these metrics the team management needs to have a good idea about the type of performance that results in a team winning.
In the context of the 50-over one-day game, what metrics should be used to evaluate players, and how should the rewards be structured to ensure that all the players on the team perform in a manner that maximizes the team’s chance of winning a game?
In the World Cup league game between South Africa and India played on 12 March, India squandered a good opportunity to put around 350 runs on the board by losing 9 wickets for just 29 runs. The Indian captain remarked in a post-game interview that some of his players played to the gallery rather than for the country, implying that they chose to play risky shots that would have thrilled the crowds if they worked but were inappropriate, given the situation of the game.
India is not the only country that was guilty of such play as England and South Africa, among the leading teams, have already enacted such scenarios during this World Cup. The question then is, is there too much emphasis (wrongly) placed on the strike rate (runs scored per ball faced) of batsmen now with the advent of T20 cricket that drives players to play low percentage shots (high risk high return shots)? While these shots might work in a T20 game, more caution is required in a version that is one-and-a-half times longer.
Another hypothesis that could explain this type of behaviour is that players are showcasing their ability to score at a fast rate and improve their statistics in this regard with an eye on more lucrative T20 opportunities.
It is too early to say whether the metrics used to measure performance and reward players in the 50-over game are faulty, but this is an interesting empirical question that can be answered as more data becomes available, possibly even by the end of this World Cup.
Nathan Economic Consulting India Pvt. Ltd is the Indian subsidiary of Nathan Associates Inc., a US-based economic consulting firm. Nathan India specializes in applying microeconomics’ principles to consumer behaviour, competitive strategy and competition law. Ram Tamara is director, Nathan Economic Consulting India.
Photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP; graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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