ON RESEARCH & CRICKET
Research, as the name implies, is a
re-examination: a rethinking of hypotheses. The hypotheses made
are examined repeatedly for their correctness from a variety of
angles. The theme is elaborated here.
A case study
Scientific research is a human activity, and
a community activity. It should therefore be similar to any
other activity of that type. Playing Cricket is also a human and
community activity. Can we ask whether doing research is similar
or even identical to playing cricket?
Many of us feel that beauty is sought
in doing scientific research. Does cricket possess beauty? I
submit that it does. Once upon a time I was very young, and I
went to see a cricket match between Australia and India in
Madras. I was an avid fan of the great left hander Neil Harvey.
He entered to bat and the little lion Desai bowled a beautiful
ball. With just a flick of his wrists, Harvey sent the ball
racing to the ropes. An old man sitting next to me was simply
thrilled, and opined that we should give all we have to the
batsman for just turning his wrist so well. There was such
beauty in a stroke and so much joy in watching it!
Many also believe that research in science is carried out following The
Scientific Method: a
series of cycles of Hypothesis, Experimental verification and Modified
hypothesis. Does this apply to cricket? I believe it does and that it has been
recently demonstrated in the case of Kambli. Hypothesis: "He is weak in
the area outside the off stump". Experimental verification: A large
number of instances of his losing his wicket to bowlers who seem to
love the area outside his off stump. Now that Achrekar Sir has `told
him in no uncertain terms as to where his off stump lies', hopefully
this hypothesis would be found to be incorrect by bowlers in the future,
requiring a new modified hypothesis.
Another great belief is that doing research in science represents
seeking of truth. ( I hope no one minds the small t). Truth
in scientific parlance
represents an experimentally verifiable fact, and nothing
more. It must be clear that in this sense playing cricket is also a
search for truth. Every batsman believes he can figure out from the arm
action or facial expression or the way width of the crease is being
used etc., what the
bowler is intending to do with the next ball. Well, he surely has to
verify the veracity of these beliefs when he faces the delivery!
It is often said that scientific research is an expression of ones
creativity. What about creativity in cricket? Alan Davidson was one of the
great opening bowlers for Australia. In one of the test matches of
the historic series, which had produced the first tied match, Gary
Sobers hit Davidson for a straight six. The admiring press reporters
asked him how he did that. Sobers said that he saw that the ball was
slightly over-pitched and so he went back and cracked the ball straight
over the bowler's head! Any one who has had the conventional advice on playing
overpitched deliveries would be shocked at the audacious creativity of this
stroke. Closer to home, any one who has seen Srikkanth of yesteryears
playing knows what creativity is!
There are certain traits research scientists exhibit. Some
publish a lot of papers, and some only a few gems. Do the names
Gavaskar and Vishwanath ring any bells? Some scientists produce
exciting results and some do dull stuff. Don't we find parallels
in Viv Richards and Boycott? Surely there are scientists who
enjoy their research work. I think there are more cricketers in
this category: look at all the young boys who play with even a
punctured tennis ball and a stick. Some do research just as a
job, some thing to be suffered between 9 and 5; there would be
cricketers like that too had it not been for the large number of
jobs available in research, entirely due to the distortions
introduced by the free market policy.
Cricket has umpires, and research has editors, and incidentally
both are abused for 'wrong decisions'. There are coaches for
cricket and guides for research. Cricket is team game, and so is
research. Now there are test matches between countries. Is there
an analogue in research? Yes! One has to only read "Nobel
Dreams" to see how Europe was lobbying to bag The Nobel.
Well, if there are so many similarities between doing research
and playing cricket why is it that Gavaskar is not a professor
and I am not playing in test matches for India?
Are there differences?
One thing that comes to our mind is the
generality of science. Newton's laws, quantum mechanics and so
on seem to be very general and applicable in a variety of
situations. Does cricket have such features? Can one pronounce
the canonical way of facing left arm pace bowlers? I suppose
not. But while I have cited physics for the generality, some
examples from the area of biology perhaps may show similarities
Another possible distinguishing feature is the longevity of
ideas and problems of science. Suppose I now know how to
get the great Ranjitsinhji out, it won't be of much value. In
this sense some of cricket's facts are very temporal and person
specific. But then think of Astronomy, it is indeed very
difficult to get a reproducible experiment !
Maybe there are other clearer distinguishing features? How does
one do research as opposed to playing cricket? In cricket one
needs to practise a lot. Can we practise `separation of
variables' ? Though superficially they seem different, there are
similarities. Cricket practice is about recognizing patterns:
patterns in the way a bowler delivers the ball, patterns that a
ball can exhibit depending on the way it was delivered, what a
batsman reveals in the the way he shapes to make a stroke etc.
Research is also in a sense pattern recognition. What the
present problem is similar to in terms of its basic features?
What are the underlying physical phenomena? Thinking
about the problem at hand in this manner is very necessary for
doing research. This aspect of it brings to focus other
differences between cricket and research. There is a certain
physical aspect of playing cricket, physical reflexes and
coordination between eye and body. Although research in biology
involves holding a capped test tube in one hand and removing the
cap using the same hand, (here I am utilizing perhaps the only
opportunity I will have to refer to Feynman) one must confess
that this physical skill required by sports is not needed so
much in research. Similarly there is a certain amount of
intellectual content in doing research which is not needed in
playing games. No doubt there is strategy in playing sport, but
this intellectual effort is not comparable to that needed in
Let us explore this a little bit more. In doing research, one is
constantly aware of what others have said earlier, and how to
say some thing new and more meaningful, and yet being consistent
with all the observations made by others. I do not think
cricketers have to do literature search.
Another aspect of the same thing
is relating the problem to other known basic facts, in the case
of engineering it is the basic science behind. This provides a
view or outlook for doing research. If such a view can be
developed, one can experience the very exciting feature of
research: prediction of outcomes in an entirely new situation. I
do not think that cricket has this feature. Could any one say
what would happen the very first instance when Tendulkar faced
There is another interesting feature that does separate cricket
from research. One of the central features of doing research is
`posing problems', that is selection of problems to work on.
"What problem has potential for yielding interesting insights?",
this is the central challenge faced by all researchers. The
interesting thing here is that the person who sets the problem
to be solved and the one who solves it are one and the same ! In
cricket, you solve problems posed by the opponent, and in this
sense cricket is indeed very different, and similar to taking an
The greatest difficulty in doing research is generation of a
hypothesis. This is where the creative leap is needed. The
greater a researcher is, the broader is the area influenced by
the hypothesis or in technical jargon, the broader is the
`framework' he generates. I do not think that there is quite an
analogue to this in cricket playing, unless some genius comes up
with the theory of getting `all right handers out'.
Examination reveals that the differences
between such divergent activities like playing cricket and doing
research are superficial, and that there are great many
similarities. They both give scope to express the finer
feelings of human life. A re-examination however shows that they
are not identical and fine structural differences do exist.
While cricket has more scope for expressing physical skills,
research seems to give more scope for intellectual satisfaction.
Published in CEA magazine.
This forms a part of Prof. Gandhi's home