We all know our bosses have got where they are by the unjust whims and caprices of Lady Luck. We, on the other hand, could have done much better because of our intelligence and hard work, but unfortunately luck hasn’t favoured us. That’s more or less what most of us believe. Economists have tried to research this luck versus ability debate, but their work has been confined to their own profession or to the strange world of investment bankers. In this paper, Aiyar and Ramcharan look at the role of luck in shaping the careers of international cricketers.
The authors point out that performance in test cricket depends not only on ability, but also on “familiarity with geographic and atmospheric conditions”. The nature of the pitch and a player’s ability to play on a particular kind of pitch is important. High humidity and cloud cover, for instance, can cause a ball to “swing”. The authors point out “England is renowned for aiding swing bowling, while Australia’s pitches tend to be particularly bouncy. Pitches in the Indian subcontinent are known to crack in the latter stages of a test match and thus aid slow bowling”. Cricketers are naturally more familiar with playing conditions at home rather than abroad and this is particularly true for cricketers who are making their international debut. Whether a player’s first international game is at home or abroad is, therefore, very important to him. This is all the more so because success in their debut is very good for their careers, just as a good first job usually leads to success in other walks of life.
The authors say that the opportunities for the debut of a player are usually random events, as they are contingent on injuries or weak performance by an incumbent in the team. Moreover, whether a player debuts at home or abroad is also very random, depending on when the opportunity arises for the player. Naturally, a player who debuts in a home series is at an advantage, because he will be playing under familiar conditions. On the other hand, a player who debuts abroad will be at a disadvantage.
The researchers do find that players who are lucky enough to debut at home, perform significantly better on debut. They also found that debut performances have a strong and persistent effect on long-run career outcomes of cricketers. In other words, the luck factor—whether a player debuts at home or abroad—is found to have a significant effect on a player’s career. Selectors do not seem to consider debut locations on deciding how well a player has performed at all. And because they do not take this factor into account, the upshot is selectors retain low-ability players following a successful debut performance in friendly conditions, while dropping potentially high-ability players who have played their first international match in unfavourable conditions abroad.
The conclusion is, of course, common sense. Ability matters in a career, but so does luck.
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