Pietersen vs Cook: it’s the runs, stupid

Kevin Pietersen’s ejection from the England cricket team is, on one level, extraordinary.

The greatest batting talent of a generation, as many think KP is, has been defenestrated for personal reasons, it seems. The need to rebuild, to move on from the Ashes debacle, meant a scapegoat was needed. KP was an easy target.

Perhaps all that is true. It’s also true that Pietersen’s genius and infuriating ability to get out stupidly has been known for years. Remember this headline: “Dumbslog Millionaire“? That was from 2009.

The truth is, Pietersen simply isn’t as important to England in the test set up as he once was, when it comes to the only thing that matters: scoring runs. In the meantime, captain Alastair Cook has grown in importance, and overtaken him.

To show this, I’ve taken each player and looked at their runs as a percentage of the England total in each innings. Forget averages – they are things like no-outs and by low run chases.

Now of course, that percentage fluctuates wildly. So to smooth it out, I’ve taken a rolling average of 10 innings.

Pietersen from the start of his career was very influential – he was regularly around 15 to 20 per cent of the innings. But that has waned, and apart from a brief spell around 2010-11, including the previous triumphant Ashes in Australia and the successful 2011 home series vs India, his percentage has tended to be below the 15 per cent mark for the second half of his career.

Cook, on the other hand, has seen his importance increase. His peaks over the 15 per cent mark have lasted longer and been more pronounced as his career has gone on, with a recent drop the only blip. His trajectory in terms of run percentage is on the up – KP’s is going down.

This is not something that people tend to measure – cricket watchers use averages, or talk about “important” innings. And those are fine – but they don’t show the relative run-accumulation within the team.

Pietersen is disposable because he isn’t indispensable any more. His runs aren’t any different when you add up the team total, even if gathered in a more exciting way. His sacking may be a huge story – but he won’t be missed nearly as much as some people think. As James Carville might say, “It’s the runs, stupid.”

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Who made a worse deal: AB InBev, or Chelsea?

Buying an asset back at a higher price always looks like bad business, whether it’s a company – or a football player.

So which organisation has made a worse deal this week? Giant brewer AB InBev, who bought South Korea’s Oriental Brewery back for $5.8bn? Or Chelsea, who bought Benfica midfielder Nemanja Matic for £21m?

In absolute terms, it’s AB InBev, no question. The company sold OB for $1.8bn in 2009 – so an extra $4bn was needed to get it back.

For Chelsea, Matic was valued at around £5m in a deal in 2011 – so an extra £16m, which is pocket change in this market.

However, in relative terms, Chelsea have lost out more. Matic’s value went up by over 4x in just three years – ie 1.4 times per year, whereas OB’s value roughly tripled in 5 years, going up 0.64 times per year.

Yet in essence, it’s a false question – both the business and the player are different from when they were sold. Another way of looking at it is: what would you need to spend in this market to get something of similar value? When in the summer transfer market Manchester United spent £27m of a rather out-of-sorts Fellaini from Everton, and Arsenal spent £42.5m on Ozil, this doesn’t look like overpaying.

As Andy Brassell said on the BBC: “We should not be too hard on Chelsea for letting him go in the first place, though. His improvement in the last 18 months has been breathtaking.”

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Can Federer find that elusive last big win?

Question: Should Roger Federer go quietly into the night?

It’s the first slam of 2014 – the Australian Open – and Roger Federer isn’t in the running.

That’s according to the bookies, who have made him fifth favourite and a pretty outside punt at around 20 to 1.

He’s seeded 6th, which doesn’t sound bad to mortals, but after a decade as either 1 or 2 seed at most events, it feels low.

After a 2013 when he didn’t reach a single grand slam final – and only one semi, the question of his retirement has become more of a debate about dignity than possibility. A new coach – Stefan Edberg, of all people – and a new racquet don’t seem to be putting the pep in his step yet.

One way to judge this not simply to look at Federer’s results, or demeanour, but to find a reasonable comparison. And that player is Pete Sampras – someone Federer has frequently been compared to throughout his career. The comparison is now becoming even more piquant.

Sampras had a similar period of domination in tennis, followed by a tough autumn of his career. But he did something few players get to do: he finished the game as a slam winner, taking the US Open of 2002 vs Andre Agassi, and never played on the main tour again.

The possibility of such a last hurrah is clearly what is driving Federer on. His recent losses in big events to rank outsiders and journeymen such as Tommy Robredo are awful in their way, of course. But only a couple of months on from losing to George Bastl (!) at Wimbledon 2002 in R2, Sampras was able to quit at the very top.

There are differences, of course – but these if anything should give Federer fans hope. Sampras’s ranking plummeted further than Federer’s has – he was 17th in the world in his final match, whereas Federer is still top 10.

On the other hand, Sampras had been to the US Open final in 2000 and 2001 – Federer hasn’t been in a winning position like that for some time. However, in both those matches he lost to Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt in such a manner (both straight sets losses) that it only served to highlight his decline. Basically, he was crushed. Nobody saw the 2002 US Open coming – even his rivals dismissed his chances publicly, which you’re pretty unlikely to hear about Federer this year.

So these charts should give Federer and his fans hope. They show Sampras and Federer’s slam careers – the high degree of similarity – and the last hurrah. Sampras starts with an early success that took a few years to translate into winning the big titles on a regular basis, whereas Federer won his first major later, but then won more slams more often.

The red boxy bit is their period of domination – and the red dots their slam win outliers.

The question is whether Federer can emulate Sampras with a last big win (as Edberg believes he can) – or if that last win has come and gone, in Wimbledon 2012. Statistically, it looks more and more unlikely with every passing slam. But this is more about dreams than reality.

After the US Open win against Agassi, Sampras’s only mistake was to suggest in 2003 that he might make one more run. It was pride talking, and luckily he didn’t try. But if Federer can land one more major in 2014, his course of action should be very clear: retire right then, right there.

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Forget Harry and Amelia – we are naming our kids with more variation than ever

I have a big interest in this one: I am about to be a father for the 4th time. Finding a name is tough when you’ve used up a whole bunch already, and you have to avoid clashes with friends and family with similarly-aged children.

So the Office of National Statistics baby names for 2012 – released on Monday – is a data treasure trove. What’s up, what’s down, what to avoid.

But in all the hoopla over the top names (Harry and Amelia), there is an important trend playing out. In the UK, we are getting far more diverse in how we name our kids.

There are several ways to measure this, using the ONS data that goes back to 1996.

One is to look at the number of babies that are given the top name. From a peak of nearly 11,000 for boys in 1996 (the first year of available data) and 9,600 for girls in 1998, the top name has dropped to around 7,000 for boys, and until 2012, around 5,000 for girls. Ameila, the top name in 2012, has bucked the trend, with around 7,000.

But does that mean that we are simply spreading names out further among the favourites? It seems not. The ONS also lists all names that are given to three or more children in each year. The pool of names that aren’t so weird or odd as to be completely unique is rising, from under 4,000 for boys in 1996 to over 6,000 now; and under 5,000 for girls to nearly 8,000 in the same period.

(The Independent reported that there were 28,000 different boys’ names and over 36,000 different girls’ names in 2012 – which means there are a HUGE mass of names that aren’t listed by ONS which have just one or two occurences. Roughly 28,000 names have one or two occurences – out of 350,000 births, that’s a lot. But I’ve worked from the ONS dataset which gives three or more instances of each name.)

That could be partially explained by simply more overall births – and after a drop to 2002, the birth rate has indeed picked up.

But we can easily factor that in: the average frequency of names for both boys and girls (ie the total births divided by the number of unique names used 3 or more times) is going down consistently over the period.

Equally, we can look at the number of times the top name is used as a percentage of the total births for boys and girls – and this is also heading down, with over 3 per cent of boys being given the top name in 1996, to under 2 per cent now. The girls top name has fluctuated more, but the trend is similar.

The divergence between the results for girls and boys shows that we have always been more creative with girls names – but the diversification trend is happening for both genders.

Why is this happening?

One answer may be immigration. As the UK gets more people from other countries, so it will get a greater diversity of names. This explains the higher number of unique names.

But that doesn’t explain the rapid decline in the number of times the top name is used. That implies we are getting more creative.

And in fact, if we look at the number of times the 20th name is given, and the 100th, there is an interesting pattern. For both girls and boys, the 20th name is also declining in popularity, but not as dramatically as for the top name. But the 100th name is generally getting more popular over time. That implies we are searching for more interesting names – the 100th most popular name is not exactly mainstream.

How far can this go? For boys, a lot further, clearly, as boys names lag behind girls in terms of diversity. Overall, there may be no end to it. You can imagine almost limitless variations on some names, as well as ever more exotic places and made-up names. Then there are hypenated versions: there were 19 Lilly-somethings alone last year. And there are parents perhaps trying to get their kids noticed by alphabetical means – there are 69 girls names in the 2012 data that start with two As, compared to 17 in 1996. And there were 125 girls names starting with Z in 2012 – compared to 74 in 1996.

Parents want their kids to stand out, it seems.

Data for all charts from ONS

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The royal baby: is the US that interested?

Any piece about the interest around the world in the new royal baby, now named as George, invariably asks why the US cares so much about the UK royal family.

But if web searching is any guide, the US is way less interested than we think. Google trends regional results for the search term “royal baby” show that the US is down in 8th place, behind Italy, for relative search volumes in the last week.

The UK is top, as you would expect. But the rest of that top ten I would not have guessed. Some of the Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada) – maybe. But Ireland, Singapore and Switzerland in the top 10? Nah.

Here’s the chart:

Top regions for “royal baby”  Search volume
United Kingdom 100
New Zealand 68
Ireland 64
Canada 61
Australia 55
South Africa 50
Italy 46
United States 44
Singapore 18
Switzerland 16
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Murray vs Djokovic charted: a streaky final

In all the excitement and euphoria of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory – in the UK, at least – one thing has hardly been mentioned: how strange a match it was.

For a 3-setter without any tiebreaks, it was as close and as tight as possible. But yet it didn’t follow the usual pattern of tight games, with each player holding serve until one blinks or a tiebreak ensues.

Instead of the “I hold, you hold” rhythm of most matches, the final instead went in hot streaks. Murray just got more of them than Djokovic.

In fact, looking at the chart below which shows the games won in the match as a descending ladder, there was only one brief period of the game (at the end of the first and start of the second sets) where both men held serve regularly.

You can see that Murray only won two games in isolation (ie sandwiched by Djokovic games). During the rest of the match, he won games in streaks of 2, 3, 3, 5 and 4.

Perhaps it was the heat, or the occasion. Whatever, it’s certainly history.

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Nadal’s seeding: Wimbledon’s own subprime crisis

No one can be happy about this.

Grass court tennis has been something of an anomaly on the tour for many years now – there are only a handful of tournaments, and then the biggest catch of them all: Wimbledon.

So when the All England Championships garnered agreement back in 2001 that it could continue to re-jig its seeding, but only by accepting that it had to take the top 32 players in the world, it seemed like a victory for common sense.

And yet we are back at square one. Rafael Nadal is a two-time champion, three-time finalist. He’s just won the French Open. But because of his long injury, his ranking is #5 in the world.

No matter – Wimbledon can bump him up, to 4th or even 3rd seed, surely?

Except it hasn’t worked out that way. Wimbledon now use a formula to work out grass court credentials. It is basically a player’s ranking, plus 100% of grass court points in the last year, plus 75% of the year before.

And that is not enough for Nadal, who lost in R2 in 2012, but was a finalist in 2011. He is 5th seed, behind David Ferrer, who has been to the quarter final just once at Wimbledon.

This isn’t madness – it’s rational. But it fails the smell test. Ferrer isn’t going to win Wimbledon – whereas Nadal has a damn good chance. A decent formula has come up with a nonsense answer. And when the draw comes out on Friday, Nadal may well play any of Federer, Djokovic or Murray in the quarter-finals – a big shame.

This reminds me of the 2007-08 (and onwards) financial crisis. Essentially, the players rankings are a mark-to-market valuation of their rolling 12-month form. But we all know that they are a guide, and a fallible one at that. Otherwise the #1 ranked player would win every time.

What Wimbledon has done is add to that mark-to-market pricing their own extra value-at-grass quant formula, to try and iron out the errors in the value of players measured on other surfaces – concrete and clay, essentially.

But just like the subprime crisis which had its origins in the slicing and dicing of bad mortgages to come up with collateralised debt products, giving them an ‘A’ rating, Wimbledon has sliced and diced the grass numbers, and come up with an equally meaningless result.

Part of the problem is that Nadal and many other players don’t play the grass court warmup events – and therefore don’t have grass ranking points from lesser tournaments – as the French Open and Wimbledon are too close together in the diary. The players need rest instead.

This could all be solved by spreading out the French and Wimbledon tournaments, and creating a grass masters series event in between, to give the grass season proper ranking weight – but everyone has known that for years, and it’s not happened yet.

But unlike the financial crisis, the result of using poor incentives and ill-judged computer formulae won’t result in economic armageddon. It will just skew the tournament a bit and mess up the finals schedule, annoying a few advertisers and a lot of fans. Still a pity though. The sport deserves better.

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Why Nadal-Djokovic may be the best tennis rivalry ever

French Open final, 2012

Tennis thrives on great rivalries – they are almost more famous than the players themselves. Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi, Federer-Nadal.

But the current rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may be the best ever. Here’s the killer fact why:

They are the only pair (in the men’s game) to have contested each of the four major finals. No-one else has done that – not any of the rivalries I mentioned at the start, nor even any of the pre-open era rivalries such as Laver-Emerson.

Why is that important? Well, it shows that they are both hugely talented on all surfaces, and have stamina to get to many major finals. And although this Friday’s meeting at the French Open is a semi rather than a final, due to Nadal’s ranking slipping after a long injury, who would bet against them overtaking the record of eight slam finals held by Federer-Nadal?

Which makes you realise how many finals Nadal has played against Federer and Djokovic – only three of his 16 major finals have been against other players (Soderling, Berdych and Puerta, winning them all).

The BBC (wrongly) stated that: “The Monte Carlo final [earlier this year] was the pair’s 34th meeting, making their rivalry the most prolific in the modern game, with Nadal leading 19-15 overall and 12-3 on clay.”

Update: the BBC updated the story, thanks to Piers Newbery.

Not quite. Lendl and McEnroe played 36 times. But that’s just another milestone soon to be passed by Nadal-Djokovic. Only injury can prevent them breaking several more records.

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Luis Suarez and the moral hazard of transfer fees

Mind the teeth

 

Statement from Liverpool Football Club:

We deeply regret the behaviour of Luis Suarez during the club’s recent match with Chelsea, and announce that the club has terminated its contract with Mr Suarez with immediate effect.

Dream on.

This is what Liverpool actually said, from Liverpool FC managing director Ian Ayre (with my emphasis):

I think the most important thing is that we acted swiftly yesterday. Luis issued his apology and then we spoke with him last night and then again this morning. We’ve taken action to fine Luis for his actions. Brendan has spoken to him and I’ve spoken to him, and Brendan will be working with him further on his discipline. You can see when you speak to him how sorry he is about it and he’s certainly shown quite a lot of contrition to us – and as part of that, he’s also asked we donate the fine to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. I think he felt like he let a lot of people down yesterday. We’ll work with Luis – Brendan particularly – on this side of his character in his game. Hopefully that puts the matter to rest from our point of view and we’ll wait and see if there’s any further action from the football authorities.

If, like me, you are wondering what a footballer has to do to get fired from their job, then read on. UPDATE: Suarez was banned for 10 games. Liverpool said they were “disappointed”. 

Footballers don’t really get fired, whether it’s for biting another player, racially abusing another player, or beating people up. In any other profession you would probably lose your job, especially if this wasn’t the first time. (Note: Suarez has biten another player before, but for a different club. The racist abuse was at Liverpool).

Why?

It’s all to do with how clubs view players. They aren’t employees, they are assets. The reason why they are assets is that they can be sold on to other clubs.

Some quick sums. Suarez is paid around £6.25m per annum. He is on a 5 1/2 year contract. Excluding bonuses that will make his total pay just over £34m

That sounds like a lot. And it is. But Suarez was bought from Ajax in the Netherlands in January 2011 for £22.8m, and given his performances for Liverpool, his value will be a lot higher. Of course, towards the end of his Liverpool contract it will decrease given he will have fewer good years in him. He could even leave as a free agent in 2016. But if they sell him in the next 2 years, a transfer fee well upwards of £35m is not unlikely – more than his total salary over his contract.

In other words, Liverpool would effectively have to writedown an asset of approx £40m in value over a pitch incident. Never mind that in any other walk of life he would face criminal proceedings. This isn’t about discipline. It’s about business.

There is also the question of his value as a player in scoring goals. Liverpool aren’t going to fire 10 per cent of their starting outfield lineup, and one of the best players in the league with 30 goals so far this season.

Of course, if that asset starts to affect shirt sales or gate reciepts, you can bet that the equation changes. But that is not going to happen, or at least it will not be noticeable (which in this case is the same thing).

Which brings us to the moral hazard. Suarez knows that, whatever stupid thing he does, in all likelihood, he will simply get fined, his manager will shout at him, other players and opposition club fans may give him a hard time. But that’s it. So what? Where are the true consequences of his actions?

Losing his job? That might make him – and other players – think twice.

But until football scraps the transfer system and treats players as employees, we have a case of pure moral hazard, where a club will not sacrifice an asset and players can get away with criminal behaviour. It’s not a very nice sport, is it?

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Electing the leader of 1.3bn

I’ve written before about the similarity, in pure number terms, between the Catholic church and China – same number of citizens / devotees (1.3bn), similar number of rulers (boils down to around 300).

The recent election of Francis I and of Xi Jinping brought it home again – but the comparison between the processes couldn’t be starker.

The Chinese rubber-stamp of Xi was ostensibly transparent – we know the number of votes. The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, is a mystery.

According to the Washington Post, Xi received 2,952 out of 2,956 votes cast by the National Party Congress – three abstentions and one brave dissident.

The Papal Conclave, on the other hand, had 115 electors – of which at least two-thirds, or 77 cardinals, were needed to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. But the ballots are burned, so we will never know any margin of victory, or how the voting progressed over the five rounds until the majority was gained.

So we have on one hand a process that is ostensibly transparent, but a total stitch-up – Xi has been leader-elect for years; and on the other other, a perfectly democratic, lobbying process that is utterly secure and opaque, within a confined theocracy cum-oligarchy.

It might not be perfect, but I know which I’d prefer to be a part of.

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