Sport has many applications to real life. We learn that life is sometimes unfair, that even our best is sometimes not good enough, or the commentator’s favourite cliché that determination is as important as preparation, athletic ability or creativity. But, at a broader level, sport can also inform our understanding of how humans behave, which has application to activities outside of the sporting world. Think of goal keepers’ decisions to choose which way to dive in a penalty (game theory), or the tests for racial discrimination in English football or the NBA.
A 2010 IMF working paper investigates one other aspect of sport – and life – that is too often neglected by economists: luck. The paper asks a simple question: is an international cricket player’s career adversely affected if his first series is played in a country outside of his home country. The authors argue that the bad luck of being first selected in an away-series, on average, leads to a less successful career than those cricketers who were selected for their countries and then played their first series at home.
This has important implications for labour markets in general, the authors aruge. Economists often find it tough to dissect the effect of luck in the job market, as it is often correlated with ability; people who work hard create their own luck, as Gary Player would have said. What this study shows is that luck (playing in either a home or away series, which has nothing to do with player ability) does not only impact a players performance during the first series, but also has an impact on his chances of being reselected (negatively, if he played his first series away from home) and on his career performance (measured as his batting average). Vernon Philander (pictured) is perhaps the best recent South African example. Many thought his initial success was down to beginner’s luck and that he would struggle on different pitches. Yet, he has reached 50 test wickets faster than any other South African bowler. These findings also suggest why it is better to keep Mark Boucher for the England series; the lesson here is don’t send your best new youngster to debut away from home in difficult and unfamiliar conditions.
Of course, the study is open to criticism. The data used is for all test cricketers between 1950 and 1985 (excluding South Africans because of isolation). That is before the professional era. Top cricketers are now readily exposed to different pitches and environments; just think about the emergence of the IPL where most of the best players play annually, and of the hectic international tour schedule. The best cricketers also play little domestic cricket, and international pitches have also improved to meet certain standards. Even so, captains and commentators often emphasise home ground advantage.
The best cricketers are arguably those who adapt best to new conditions. But allowing them to play their first series at home can improve their chances of success. Perhaps a large share of Vernon’s success is simply down to, well, the beginner’s luck of playing his first series in South Africa.