After he found love and hunger for the sport that was his designated occupation since birth, Andre Agassi programmed a mission between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. When many tennis players rested, Agassi would be putting in the hours with trainer Gil Reyes. The idea was to arrive in the severe heat of Australia for the first Grand Slam of the season in top shape, and use that, along with the deficits of many others, to his advantage. Between 2000 and 2003, aged 29 to 32 years, Agassi won three of his eight majors in Melbourne.

In another sport, closer home and in the present, starts are being made. In the eight-team Indian Premier League (IPL), Kolkata and Chennai are off to a 2-0 start. Conversely, by the end of Friday, at least two teams will be 0-2. It’s still early days, but they matter in the larger context of progressing to the four-team playoffs as the numbers for the first five matches of the season—or roughly, one-third of the season—bear out.

Data from the past 11 years of IPL show that the better the performance in the first five matches, the better the odds of advancing to the play-offs. In most years, the tournament has comprised eight teams, who square up against each other on a home and away basis. That’s 14 matches for each team. Further, generally, eight wins is a ticket to the play-offs, while seven wins puts a side in the reckoning.

Data for the first five matches for the last 11 seasons shows that twice teams have started 5-0 and both made the play-offs (Punjab in 2014 and Rajasthan in 2015). On 18 occasions, teams started 4-1, and 16 of them made the play-offs, or a play-off progression rate of 89%. Even the difference between a 3-2 start and a 2-3 start—the difference of a match—is significant: a play-off progression rate of 61% versus 31%.


It’s not just how a team is doing in the first five matches. How other teams are doing is also a part of the dynamic that determines who makes the play-offs and who doesn’t. There have been seasons of distance like 2008 and 2017, when the teams that eventually made the play-offs opened up a big lead in the front stretch over the ones that didn’t.

There have also been seasons of closeness like 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2015 when the two sets ran close in the front stretch. In seven of the 11 years, between the sides that made the play-offs and those that didn’t, the difference has been two points or less. That’s one win here or there, which shows how small margins can end up making a big difference.


At the same time, individual teams have tended to respond differently to how they start and where they end. For example, Chennai—the most successful side in the IPL and the only side to have qualified for every play-off—is mostly indifferent to initial form. Of the nine IPL editions it has played in, in its first five matches, it has registered four wins on three occasions. On the other four occasions, it has started slow and notched up only two wins.

Where Chennai has been resilient to overcome a slow start, teams like Delhi and Rajasthan haven’t. Every time Delhi has registered anything less than four wins in its first five games (eight out of 11 times), it has failed to qualify.

Rajasthan has been similar, leaving itself a lot to do in the first five games to make the play-offs. Then, there’s a side like Mumbai, which has been at times emphatic in its first five matches but has also come back from the brink in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015).

From start to end, swinging from one extreme to another—whether good or bad—is rare. However, it has happened, with brilliance or poignancy. Twice, after a 0-5 and 1-4 start, Mumbai has broken into a run in the middle and back end of the tournament, winning seven of its last nine matches on one occasion and eight of its last nine matches on another. Bengaluru is the other team that did the same, in 2009.


Conversely, at the other extreme, there are sides that have started extremely strong, but frittered away that advantage. Kolkata in 2015 and Punjab in 2018 failed to convert 4-1 starts . Expect this IPL to add to narratives of the start.

Vaidik Dalal works at howindialives.com, which is a database and search engine for public data.

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