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Some Ramblings - Money Ball
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

1992. World Cup. New Zealand. Martin Crowe, the captain of the home side, did something that was so radical (in baseball parlance, 'so out of the left field') that it took some years for the rest of the cricketing world to realize the effectiveness of the idea. That the idea eventually didn't help New Zealand lift the cup was beside the point to the fact Crowe changed the game forever in the way the shorter format is approached and played. Conventional wisdom till then dictated that the team preserve its wickets till the end overs before launching one final assault for a big score and that thinking made sense - have enough wickets till the end to throw the bat at everything. But Crowe (and his think tank) looked at the situation differently - why wait till the end, even if with enough wickets at the disposal, when the field is spread out and the chances of getting out are much more than scoring heavily from risky shots off every single delivery. Instead move that risk to the front and have the batsmen have a go at the bowling in the first 15 overs, when most of the field is still within the ring. And it doesn't hurt to say again, that the game was never the same again. And all the different ways that the game has gotten entertaining and high scoring sprung from that rather unconventional thinking of a relatively weaker side. Moral of the story: when all else fails, risk with the opposite. As a corollary to the above, consider the NBA team of 2000-2001. Studded with superstars brought together for the express reason of buying the championship, the Portland Trailblazers fell flat on its face failing to play as a team. Moral of this story: Great talent doesn't maketh a game.

Sports, with all its glorious uncertainties, is filled with points and counterpoints, corollaries and converses as these. Particularly at the professional level, where talents are honed sharper than the samurai blades, the difference between success and failure is often fractions of a second. A few tenths of a second a slugger delays his swing, the strike ball finds its safety in the catcher's mitt. A few milliseconds a player rushes his jump to the hoop, the ball mercilessly rolls off the rim. So the toughest job in sports in catching these lightning moments in a bottle, and consistently at that, with the talent and the timing complementing each other perfectly well. And even tougher job is devising a strategy around bottling up the lightning bolts. The struggle between conventionalism and radicalism is as eternal in sports, as is between good and evil in general themes. And there are enough success and failures stories on both sides of the aisles to become ambivalent about ruling one against the other. So, faced with a string of successive defeats, what is a team to do if it badly wants to get out of the losing rut - stick with what generally works or embrace something that rarely worked (rarely, but not never)? And when one sets upon the road less travelled, the unconventional options open up like the Pandora's box and every idea is just as better/worse/risky as the other. 'Moneyball' is a true story about a manager of a weak team, who had ideas that, according to the establishment, were plain heresy. And he put his faith not in talents, temperaments, timing or other intangible (and therefore unworkable) entities. He took to numbers, statistics, and records and built his team from the ground up bypassing the tried and tested methodologies of player recruitment (It is like saying, in order for his team to score 300 runs in an ODI consistently, look for a pool of medium achievers, who can give the team at least 30 runs (and not more, but never less), instead of hiring big stars who can slam centuries, but only once in every 3 or 4 games). That his lateral thinking now became a part of the standard toolset for assembling a team is a testament of the impact of the unconventionalism.

There were many movies before that went along the lines of corralling a rag tag bunch of no names to go up against a Big Brother to achieve ultimate glory. Though those fairy tales relied thematically on the underdog sentiment, with enough emphasis on the comical aspect of the bumbling Davids standing up to an unbeatable Goliath, they cannot be entirely ruled out as fantasies, as anyone with enough knowledge of sports can attest for. 'Moneyball' is real, as the failures and frustrations are palpable, and consequently, the success emerging out of the 'hitherto never thought of' idea has real real world implications. It is not a fantasy, it is not a fairy tale, because somebody tried it and somebody achieved it, and the underlying theme is not one of triumph of the underdog rather about finding inspiration in defying the convention. 'Moneyball' sparkles in the able hands of the scripting titans Steven Zallian ('Schindler's List', 'A Civil Action') and Aaron Sorkin ('The Social Network', 'West Wing'), though the words feel more Zallian than Sorkin, with almost no rapid fire, circular, and talking over each other dialog. It is a sports movie that is more interested in the action that happens off the field as against the usual 'depressing failures building up to the final heartwarming victory moment' routine and therefore the movie would stand just as well against any other background, not just sports.

Sourav Ganguly, as a captain, once said that he never knew why an idea worked when it worked, and why something didn't, when it failed. And the key takeaway of that statement is trying regardless. And Bernard Shaw sharing similar sentiment - 'I dream of things that never were and ask why not'. This is that story.

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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