Impact Index: The Story Of Filmmaker Jaideep Varma’s Cricket Analytics System
I may as well say it at the outset — I don’t think Sir Don Bradman was as good as his numbers indicate. Sure, he was the greatest batsman of all time, but an average of 99.94 puts him almost 40 points ahead of the next best. Surely he couldn’t have been that good? I’m clearly in the minority, though — as I travelled around the cricket world, speaking to former players, some of the cream of the crop, the verdict was unanimous: yes, Bradman was indeed that good. I struggled to believe it and reluctantly demurred, cursing the fact that cricket invests so much in one number — average. It does very little to accurately reflect either the context of an innings, the conditions it was played in or the actual effect it had on the outcome of a match.
Then, in 2009, I happened to come across someone who I could only accurately describe as a cricket-statistics-analysis evangelist. This man believed everyone who had tried to look at cricket through numbers had done it wrong all through the history of the game — and that he had cracked the code. I was working at the Hindustan Times newspaper, and a chap called Jaideep Varma offered to put together a list of the greatest Test cricketers of all time, using his system, which would evolve into what is now known as Impact Index. The results this list threw up were more than plausible. To suggest I understood exactly how the system worked — the concept is simple enough, the nuts and bolts a little less so — would be stretching the truth. To say that I believed it was an improvement on anything else out there would be perfectly accurate, for a chance to put money where my mouth was would emerge years later. Not my money, I have to add, for cricket reporters don’t really slice much off the billion-dollar industry they report on. Fidelis World, the company that owns Wisden India (where I currently work), had an opportunity to invest in Impact Index, and when my opinion was sought, it was not difficult to endorse the concept. That is a disclaimer — to the extent that I am skeptical but not unbiased — and also an endorsement, in that cricket’s oldest mainstream traditional brand believes in this unconventional system enough to actually back it up with hard currency.
Just why does cricket even need Impact Index? “Cricket needs to account for context — it needs that very badly. Right now, Impact is the only entity that does that comprehensively, tomorrow it could be someone else doing it better. But cricket needs context because without it, it does not factor in the most crucial element of the competition, which is the single-most important quality that separates it from being performance art, like ballet dancing, which a lot of people who cover cricket seem to forget,” says Varma, rightly pointing the finger squarely at journalists such as myself, who sometimes get so lost in the romance and aesthetics of a moment that we lose track of the other aspects of the contest.
Impact Index, in essence, is an analytics system used in cricket to determine the accurate worth of a player’s performance in a match, team and career context. It measures the impact of a cricketer’s performance in a specific match, relative to the other performances in the same match and then, most significantly, in the context of the series or tournament that the match is a part of — this is the big idea in the system. It calculates inputs based entirely on the scorecard, and is therefore much more objective than people think an entity like this can be.
“The aggregate statistics that cricket has celebrated has led to a flawed way of looking at the game, leading to a lot of selfish play from players, false heroes being created — like that Mumbai boy who scored 1009, for example. If you factor in context, his innings was disgraceful. Conversely, a lot of real heroes have been missed. The role of players such as Peter May, Ajit Wadekar, MAK Pataudi, Carl Hooper and Sandeep Patil, and what they really did for their teams (in Tests or ODIs), is really missed in the light of not-so-impressive conventional numbers. No one, for example, talks about Inzamam-ul- Haq or Rahul Dravid being the greatest series-winning batsmen in Test history. Cricket needs this accounting of context and competition for a clearer, more complete view of the game.”
Impact Index, like many of the most original and successful ideas, was an accidental creation, and it emerged when Varma was invited to Oxford for the ICC Centenary Conference, to present a paper. The journey has been far from simple, though.
“The biggest satisfaction is not the creation of the idea or its development, but to be able to not allow it to die, as most things in life seem to. It was a beast that could not be controlled as a part-time preoccupation, so I gave up my other work (as a practicing filmmaker and writer) to do this full-time for five years,” says Varma. “In all honesty, if I had some kind of vision about that in 2010, I would have given it up, because I really couldn’t afford to do all that I did to keep it going. Not only did I not make any money from it till 2014, I lost all my savings and was actually in debt. So, yes, it is satisfying that the conviction I had in it paid off in the end of that chapter.”
Satisfaction seldom walks alone, and here too, frustration has been a fellow traveller on a tough path. “The greatest frustration is the insularity in the cricket world and the complete lack of imagination to anything that shakes a time-honoured way of doing something. In that respect, it is the most unimaginative industry I have been in. It might sound like I am saying this for effect, but it is completely true — the cricket world is far more smug, unimaginative and one-dimensional than even Bollywood. I’ve been lucky that the energy of my colleague Soham Sarkhel, in his first job, helped me get past a lot of frustrations — he is the only person who has survived this rocky road with me, ” says Varma. “Impact Index has a lot to contribute to cricket — both to teams and the media, but either we have failed to communicate its efficacy properly, or the cricket world is completely out of step with a line of thinking that will inevitably take over.”
Varma, who hates being lumped with other statisticians and analysts, insists that Impact Index is a mindset. Ask him how good it is, and it appears the evangelist may have mellowed just a touch. “I don’t know how good or bad it is, but I know it brings a new perspective into the game — that of accounting for the match and the series. Both these are absolutely critical for the evaluation in the sport — and ultimately, in this day and age, inevitable,” says Varma.
“All of it is entirely verifiable — in completely regular (nonesoteric) ways. There is a point-of-view that this is just a version of the truth, that it is one of the many stats systems in the game. I just want to say it is the only one that accounts for match and most significantly series/ tournament context. Unless you believe that context is not important (which is a valid point-of-view), there is absolutely no one else who does what we do. Accounting for context changes the way this sport is seen and alters some fondly-held ideas in it.” If all that Impact Index does is challenge what we think we know about cricket, it has already done a great service to a great game.