Big Data Needs You Mr. Shekar

Richie Lionell | Jul 24, 2015 | | | |


I remember the times when I would turn with eager anticipation to the Sports page of 'The Hindu' to devour meaty articles written by my favorite columnists - Nirmal Shekar, Ted Corbett & the late Peter Roebuck. They all had one thing in common - lively sports writing. Few can write like Nirmal Shekar.

There are not many who can paint a picture of the beauty of sport as vividly as him. Many a time I've nodded my head vigorously in approval of a statement well said. This morning though I had to respectfully disagree with one of my favorite sports writers in certain aspects of his piece - Technological nirvana isn’t a fun thing.

Mr. Shekar writes, "Using cutting edge technology, experts in the business of sport have turned the simple act of playing into something larger than life. And the result is predictable: sport is now fighting for its very soul, something that turned it into a pleasurable activity both for the players and for those watching."

Later he adds, "And the whole process of using technology, and Big Data, to explain away anything and everything in sport on television is rather tedious. While it may be foolish to expect today’s expert commentators to achieve the incisive lucidity and astounding brevity of a John Arlott, it might help to remember that very often the best of sport is best left unexplained."

I am a data enthusiast and a firm believer in the coexistence of "romanticism" and "metaphysics". For a person like me with one foot in technology and the other in arts it is easier to relate with the argument - 'Art for Art's sake' and 'Sports for Sport's Sake' and so on.

I am not surprised that Mr. Shekar has not just mentioned 'those watching' but also 'the players'. First lets talk about 'the players'. Today's sports professionals have recognised the importance of insightful information that comes out of data. Sachin Tendulkar for example started off at a time when even the role of a coach was not very significant but as he neared the sunset of his career the world around him had taken a great technological stride and so did he. S. Ramakrishnan in an interview with the Business Line mentions how with the aid of technology he had helped Sachin overcome a technical glitch in his batting. We've all heard of Sehwag's nonchalance approach to batting - 'See ball hit ball'. This cheeky piece sums it up. Surprisingly Mr Ramakrishnan also mentions how technology helped Sehwag of all batsmen, rather how Sehwag of all batsmen embraced the favors technology had to offer. The same can be said of tennis and football professionals. Big Data Analytics playing a part in Germany's World Cup success is already a part of the sports-and-technology folklore. And before you throw stones at me, yes I have also read Scott Oliver's "Data-obsessed England need reality check"

Now to 'those watching'. This is where I agree with Mr. Shekar wholeheartedly. There is a problem with 'Big Data', rather the 'consumption of Big Data'. The crux of the problem is that the analyses isn't being presented well to the television and print audience. Either it is too 'metaphysical' or it is too 'bland' - Cricket commentary, pre and post game shows are nauseating these days. There is none to replace a John Arlott or a Richie Benaud but lets be thankful for Tony Cozier, Michael Holding, Nasser Hussain and Mark Nicholas , a handful who still strive to paint the picture with measured words of intellect, wit and silence (a rare commodity in the commentary box) - of course aided with 'technology' and 'analyses', but the difference here being the human touch to the 'presentation'.

The day television and advertising got mixed up with Sport it ceased to be a common thing but was raised on pedestals seen never before. The game became business and the players attained the status of demi-gods. Television in many ways has fuelled the craving of us the consumers and filled the pockets of those running the sports circus.

The "charm" and "romance" of sport has been long lost in many different ways. As for 'technology' and 'big data' in sport (analyses on television and print) the need of the hour is for more brilliant story tellers like Mr Shekar to present them to a famished audience. 'Big Data' needs you Mr. Shekar.


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