England have beaten India in India at cricket! Which for those of you who know nothing about cricket is about as good as it gets. But, this post was not prompted by Englands success. Instead it was prompted by a discussion I heard on the TMS commentary of the penultimate day of the series.
A bit of background info first: Cricket, like most sports,
relies on an umpire to make decisions – and they sometimes get them wrong.
Technology has been progressively introduced over the last decade in order to
reduce errors. The latest development is a Decision Review System. India, however,
said that they did not want to use the system against England. And the
International Cricket Council Regulations say that it can only be used if both
sides agree. The commentators were discussing India’s decision not to use the
system after England captain Alastair Cook was wrongly given out for the second
time in the game. If the Decision Review System had been in use both decisions
could have been corrected. On the basis of this the commentators were
questioning why a team would not use the system. They basically said that it’s
surely to the advantage of both teams to use it.
This made me chuckle. It made me chuckle because cricket is
a zero-sum-game, and in a zero-sum-game there cannot be anything that is
advantageous to both sides. So, the claim is perverse (a Colemanballs). Let me
explain: A zero-sum-game is one where payoffs add to zero meaning one team can
only gain at another expense. Sport contests are effectively zero-sum-games
because winning and losing is what it is all about – and only one team can win.
You might want to argue at this point that winning fairly, in an exciting
contest is preferred to winning by bending the rules in a dull contest, etc.
That’s true, and it would mean that sports contests are not strictly
zero-sum-games. This, however, is surely a very minor effect. Sport is about
winners and losers and so we shall not be far wrong in modelling sports
contests as zero-sum.
In a zero-sum-game, given that one team’s gain is another’s
loss, it is simple impossible to do something that benefits both teams. So, the
commentators on test match special were wrong to suggest that the Decision
review System could help both teams. It’s not uncommon, however, to hear similar
sentiments. For example, we hear that the referral system in tennis has helped
all players. We hear that putting the roof on to stop the weather effecting a football,
rugby, or tennis match will help both teams. This suggests that sports
commentators have a slight bias in understanding zero-sum-games.
Interestingly, however, the bias has its limits. Sometimes
commentators are very good at recognising the zero-sum nature of contests. For
example, we hear that windy weather will favour the less talented tennis
player. Or we hear that rain and mud will benefit the less talented rugby team.
These comments are spot on – bad weather has to benefit one player or team, and
by making the contest more of a lottery it will help close the gap between the
less and more talented.
So, what’s going on? Things like the review system, referral
systems, and putting a roof on are under our control. The weather is out of our
control. My conjecture, based entirely on anecdotal evidence, is that people
are good at seeing the essential zero-sum nature of things when it comes to
events out of our control, but are less good when it comes to things under our
control. Why? Having a review system, or putting a roof on the stadium looks
like progress – and progress must be good - so, we are biased to think it must
help both teams. In truth, progress will almost always help the most talented
to the disadvantage of the least talented, because it takes elements of luck
and chance out of the equation. Which is bad news for those who favour the