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How the World Cricket Rankings were born

The day I was paid to have lunch with Ted Dexter

On August  the 1st 1986 The Cricketer magazine, edited by the late, great Christopher Martin Jenkins, published an article of mine. Little did I suspect that it was to change the course of my life.  

The article was about a computer program written by my friend Gordon Vince. This program was a sophisticated version of a dice game called Howzat that kids had been playing for years.  In Gordon's computerised version, you entered the details of two cricket teams, pressed 'Start' and moments later out came a ball-by-ball analysis of what looked remarkably like a real match (declarations, night-watchmen, in fact everything except rain!).  

I had rebuilt a version of Gordon's cricket program on my desktop computer, and on a whim I had entered the details of the England and India teams of the time, and had then run the program to see what random match the computer would produce. The scorecard that churned out of the printer looked so realistic that I imagined myself as a sports journalist and wrote a report about this fictitious match. And having written a match report, I thought I might as well send it in to the Cricketer magazine. To my astonishment the editor not only accepted the article, but he decided to make it that month's lead feature.

All this happened just after I started working at the management consultancy firm Deloittes. I had only been there for a week when I returned home to find a letter postmarked from Ealing, London W5.

Dear Mr Eastaway

I read with interest your article in The Cricketer about a computer simulation of a cricket match.

I have been thinking about an idea that involves computers and cricket, and thought you might be able to give me some advice.  If you are interested in discussing this, perhaps you could ring my office to arrange a time when we might meet.

Yours sincerely

Ted Dexter

I read it again, not quite able to take it in.  This was the legendary Ted Dexter, the former England cricket captain and sporting icon of the 1960s, writing to me to ask for my help.

The next day I took the letter into work to show to my boss, an incredibly bright and far-thinking man called Dennis Sherwood who, a bit like Ted Dexter, was something of a maverick in his field.  Dennis had recruited me to his small group at Deloittes called Decision Systems.  The projects we worked on all involved using maths to help tackle business problems.  For example one of my colleagues was using sophisticated statistics to help the brewers Bass work out if their huge TV advertising campaign for a leading lager (catchphrase "I bet he drinks Carling Black Label") was actually boosting sales.

I showed the Dexter letter to Dennis only because I thought he might be interested. I didn't expect to be allowed to act on it.  "Is this THE Ted Dexter?" he asked after he'd read it.  "Yes," I said, "and he'd like me to go and meet him."  Dennis chuckled.  "Look, if you'd like to go and meet him during work time, please feel free to do so.  It sounds interesting, and who knows, something might come out of it."

I needed no second invitation. 

I rang Dexter's office, and was told by his PA that yes, Mr Dexter would be interested in a meeting, and would I care to suggest a date when I could come to Ealing for lunch.

Lunch was arranged.  It was a Wednesday, and I was to travel to Dexter's office, which was at his home.

Number 5 Warwick Dene is one of a line of imposing detached Victorian houses overlooking Ealing Common.  Walking up to the door, I felt like Julie Andrews outside the Von Trapp mansion.  My finger hesitated before I took a deep breath and a pushed on the bell.

Instead of a butler, the door was answered by a smiling slim, blond woman, in her mid forties.  "Hello I'm Susan Dexter, you must be Mr Eastaway, Ted is expecting you."  I was shown into a grand hallway. 

"Teddy, your guest is here!" Susan called. "Ah, Mr Eastaway," came a voice from the top of the stairs, a voice all too familiar from the many hours I'd spent listening to it while watching Test matches unfold on the TV.  As he walked down the stairs, I could see Ted just hesitate for a second as he looked me up and down.  "Oh, you're younger than I was expecting," he said.  "But with you knowing about computers, I should have realised that would be the case."  (I looked about 16).

The first thing that struck me about Ted Dexter was what a tall and imposing figure he struck.  Going with this stature he had a reputation of being a little aloof, and had been nicknamed "Lord Ted" because of it, but I was soon to find that his real persona was very far from this. 

Ted is a man who likes ideas.  Somebody aloof wouldn't read an article in The Cricketer, sense an opportunity and write a speculative letter to ask if I fancied coming for a chat.

"Let's go for lunch and I'll tell you about my idea."

Lunch was a few yards down the road, at a lovely - and empty - pub called The Grange.   I couldn't believe my good fortune that I was being allowed to do all this during work time.  I was being paid to have lunch with Ted Dexter.

Over a pint of beer and steak and ale pie, Ted explained why he'd invited me.  "You might know that these days I am a golfer, and in golf they have come up with an excellent system for ranking players called the Sony Rankings.  What's clever about it is that it takes account of more than just a player's score.  It allows for how strong the opposition is, the importance of the tournament and so on.  And it occurred to me that cricketers are measured very crudely using averages, and really what we need is something more sophisticated like they have in the golf.  I realised this is the sort of thing that will require a computer, so when I saw your article that linked computers and cricket, I immediately thought you might be the man for the job."

I was intrigued, and I could immediately see the potential.  Years earlier, while still at school, I'd had an idea along these lines myself.  In 1981 Mike Gatting had scored several fifties for England in low scoring matches which, in context, seemed to me to be almost as valuable as centuries in higher scoring games. What was needed was some sort of weighting that took account of the strength of the opposition and the general level of run scoring in the match.

Our lunch lasted well over an hour.  I formed then an impression of Ted that has barely changed in nearly 30 years since our first meeting.   Once you get to know him, he is a warm, imaginative man with a genuine interest in people and a lovely, often self-deprecating sense of humour.  He listened when many others with such cricket pedigree might have just wanted to pontificate.

I recall raising two concerns with him about his idea.  The first was that unlike golf, cricket is a team game.  Can a team game have individual player rankings?  Ted rightly pointed out that unlike most team sports, cricket is better regarded as being a series of contests between individuals, each of which is recorded statistically.  And let's face it, this team sport has thrived on statistics comparing one player with another ever since cricket began.

My second concern was that while I understood the challenges that would be involved, and I had a very good understanding of the maths needed to model cricket (I had spent many evenings of the previous year doing that when getting to grips with the simulation program), I really didn't have the high calibre computing skills that a project like this would need.  But I knew a man who did: Gordon Vince.

So that is the moment when it was agreed that Ted Dexter, Gordon and I would start working on a mathematical system to rank cricketers. 

We gave it a name: The Dexter Index.  Months later it was launched as the Deloittes Ratings. Today, these are the official ICC World Rankings.  

[The rankings still occasionally make headline news. Since I wrote this blog in early 2015, three England cricketers, Joe Root, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson have all made it to No.1 in the world. In each case, their rise to the top was headline sports news on the BBC and all of the broadsheets.]