THE JOY BHATTACHARJYA INTERVIEW: WORKING WITH KOLKATA KNIGHT RIDERS, IPL AUCTIONS AND MORE
Starting his career as an applied mathematician and a computer engineer, becoming one of the pioneers of sport in India never looked like it was in the plans. Yet, life works in funny ways and as the years have progressed, the name Joy Bhattacharjya has become all too familiar for anyone who lives and breathes sport across the nation. His reputation as an exceptional orator, quizzer and a sports producer, who took the industry by storm from when he first step foot in it almost three decades ago is a ride that’s worth taking notes from. At this point, Bhattacharjya’s legendary status in the sports industry as one of the cornerstones to the heights it has reached is solidified and any disputing this simply makes you sound and look like a detractor.
From his early days as a quizzer alongside Derek O’Brien, his work on India’s very first fantasy game, Super Selector to being the brains at Kolkata Knight Riders as their Team Manger and calling the shots as the Project Director for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup that was hosted in India, Joy Bhattacharjya’s CV is enviable and that’s putting things modestly. More Than A Game had the honour of having a chat with the man himself as he dropped gems about his journey in sport, his take on the current status of Indian sport and much more.
Being an army man’s son, how much did your upbringing and family life have an impact on your love for sports and how beneficial was it in helping you chart a career in the industry?
I am not sure if it helped me a great deal in terms of getting into the industry. I was about 10 years old when my father came to Kolkata on deputation. So, in a way I got about 10 years of army life and post that, my only other connect was my schooling in the 11th and 12th standard from Central School, Fort William and while I was there, I used to play basketball fairly seriously. I think the one good thing the army did was to help inculcate a sense of community wherein your background, societal standing or your family’s financial situation did not matter. There was a sense of equality which very powerfully ran through the environment and if you did well in sports, it really didn’t matter where you came from, which perhaps in its own way is the most equal thing in the world.
I know cricketers around the world who are blind to what colour or background you are as long as you play well. They really do not care about such things. That’s one great thing about a person being really good at their profession, whether it’s sport, music, the corporate sphere. It leads to the others becoming oblivious to their colour, race or gender and all they see are the actions or performances rather than any other aspect.
You mentioned in an interview that your career has been “25 years of (an) adventurous life.” How does a mathematician land up in the sports industry and do you feel that your qualification helped you gain an edge over the competition?
No, it didn’t give me any particular advantage. There is one thing I would say- it’s really nice to look back in hindsight and say that I have a career in the sports industry now but when I started in 1990/91, I didn’t envisage that I would have a career in sports. I always felt that I wanted to gain as much pleasure as I could from what I was doing. My girlfriend at the time was pursuing her MCA (Masters in Computer Application) and she loved computer science, it was her thing. It completely dominated her thought process; this was something I too felt very strongly about and I wanted to spend my life doing something I really loved. The very first opportunity I had was in quizzing and I got to work with Derek O’Brien, I would say I was a fairly decent quizzer at that time but it wasn’t as if I knew that the next 25-30 years of my career would be spent in this industry. All I knew was that I wanted to get as much pleasure from my work as that girl got from pursuing computer science and I knew that my preferred options were either media, sports or mind-games.
My gravitation towards sports started from quizzing to sports quizzing to sports and then it continued from there. I won’t say that I had any big grand plans at that time infact in those days there was nothing in terms of exposure for sports as television broadcasts were minimal and there were no leagues like today.
So, I think that’s the thing that when we look at these things, the way to look at them is to say that the world is changing so fast that one can at best really only see 6 months to 2 years in the future and not much beyond that. Once that is the case, you simply put in all your effort into the job and take it as it comes. It’s always a short to medium term focus. A lot of people may tell you that the career path they are on is what they always wanted to do but it’s extremely rare that there are these occasional music conductors or a Sachin Tendulkar who knew what they wanted to do at the age of 10-11 but they are a rare minority.
You are one of the select few people who are instantly associated to an IPL franchise and your role in the success of the Kolkata Knight Riders is something we all are very familiar with. What was your approach when it came to tackling the IPL auctions, considering it was an entirely new approach to cricket in India and how unpredictable could their outcomes be?
There are two things actually- one is that I got into the KKR team due to the IPL auctions because when I was at ESPN Star Sports, I designed this game called ‘Super Selector’ which was India’s first fantasy sports game. The IPL Auction is basically an enhanced version of Super Selector wherein if one team chooses a player, the others can’t select him. It’s also similar in a way that you put players with similar attributes together and then you have financial constraints in terms of the budget and salaries you can spend and within those parameters, you have got to make your choices. So, that’s how I started off and with the help of two professors from the Indian Statistical Institute, we designed a software to help maximize what we could do. However, to do it well is a different thing altogether.
In the first season we heavily relied on the data and numbers and took calls accordingly. We did end up with a good-looking squad but what we didn’t account for was the team chemistry, the fact that you can get a lot of pieces to win a championship but if you do not have the glue to hold them together and a team in which the players play for the team rather than themselves, then even the best players in the world won’t win you titles.That was our learning from the 2008 auctions and during the period of 2008-2010, we had a very star-studded team. In fact, the 2010 team was more talented than the team that actually started qualifying for the playoffs in 2011 and eventually won the title in 2012. But it had less chemistry, it had many individual stars, but it wasn’t a great team. So, that’s what we learned.
I think then, we were very good at the mathematical part of it and even in 2011, we did something not many others had thought of. I looked to analyze which positions were the least price flexible. For example, we found out that foreign fast bowlers and middle-order batsmen were extremely price flexible in the sense that if I were to buy a David Hussey for $1.2 million in the same bracket, I could get a Kumar Sangakkara for $800,000 or an Eoin Morgan for $250,000 and the difference in terms of quality wasn’t all that much. So, paying extra money in those positions was a bit pointless because whatever price you give, if you didn’t get your first pick, even if you added an extra $200,000-300,000, the quality drop-off wasn’t that much.
Secondly, we discovered a similar category for fast bowlers so leaving aside a phenomenon like Lasith Malinga, whether I had a Brett Lee, Doug Bollinger or even a Dale Steyn in the side, it did not make that much of a difference in the quality they were offering the team. Surely, on any given day, one of them could be better than the others but to pay extra money for that one day was meaningless. So, in those categories we had price cut-off mark, we said, “Okay, $400,000 is what we will spend on the fast bowlers.” We then drew up a list of say 10 bowlers and decided that for any of these guys and if we got an opportunity to buy, we would go ahead. Essentially, we did not want to overspend in this category because we knew that even if we spent less, the quality difference wouldn’t have been all that much.
What we really wanted to do was to spend the big bucks on Indian batsmen, that was our strategy and because of that, we could spend $5.6 million of our $8 million budget on just 3 players- Yusuf Pathan, Gautam Gambhir and Jacques Kallis. To add to them, we got Brett Lee, Eoin Morgan and the rest of the pieces such as Laxmipathy Balaji for very reasonable prices. We used a lot of different strategies at the time.
In 2014, we worked with SAP, who did something called as the Cloud Analysis which compared two batsmen in the manner in which they scored runs and the frequency with which they struck boundaries through data, all of this was completely machine driven. The machine would then throw up a Similarity Cloud and through that, we got to know that the Indian batsman who came the closest to Sehwag’s similarity cloud was Suryakumar Yadav and that’s why we got him.
That year people said that we had gone mad and didn’t know what we were doing but we knew even at our auction table when we had bought it that it was a very very good team and just that the people weren’t being able to see what we did as those weren’t very fashionable players at the time.
There has been a huge debate on the application of saliva or sweat on the ball and the need for there to be a rule change in terms of that practice. Do you feel that such methods have been resorted to due to the increasingly lopsided nature of the game with it being heavily in favour of the batsmen and what are your thoughts on the West Indies tour of England?
My take on the saliva issue is that whether it’s used or not, there will be at least be 15 to 20 people sharing a dressing room, eating together, training with each other and in general, being in close proximity with each other. If any person becomes COVID positive, he or she will surely pass it on to the others. The chances of transmission are very much there beyond the saliva effect, sharing rooms, workspaces and even the same air conditioner could lead to an outbreak so whether it’s saliva or sweat is a meaningless question for me. The moment we are sequestering 20 people together and expecting them to live together, use the same facilities, attend meetings in the same conference rooms etc., we are already endangering everyone anyway. Hence, it’s not just the saliva which would threaten an individual.
As far as today’s game is concerned, there is no doubt that it is heavily skewed in favour of the batsmen and that’s primarily a product of television as well because viewers like to see big sixes and fours. These shots bring in the spectators and therefore unfortunately, the pendulum has been swinging more and more in favour of the batsmen. I think at some point, there has to be a course correction in order to make the sport more of a contest between the bat and the ball, otherwise there will be almost no value to the bowlers in the game which cannot be allowed to happen. In terms of the ongoing West Indies tour of England, I feel it was important for cricket to start somewhere.
The ECB (England Cricket Board) is one of the few boards who could have undertaken such a massive financial exercise to actually prepare bio-safe environments and then host different teams in such protected conditions and it is important for the rest of the world that they get it right. As an example, the Djokovic Adria Tour has set us back almost 6 months in tennis and that is something that we hope won’t be the case, seeing as how the preparations have been made in England.
You have been involved with football at a national and an international level, with the success of the ISL (Indian Super League) and the ever-increasing popularity of the different European Leagues. How do you see the beautiful game developing in India?
I feel there is a huge scope for football in India. It’s an extremely resource poor sport and considering the average Indian, it’s a sport which is very much in reach of the masses. There is another aspect here as well. If you look at some of the most successful South American or African countries, you will even see that this constant talk of lack of infrastructure isn’t relevant. The majority of footballers there aren’t coming from academies only. There are thousands of kids playing on the streets, be it the favelas of Rio or the beaches of Buenos Aires. The Pelé’s and Ronaldinho’s of the world have come from the slums, playing on the streets with footballs made from crumpled socks and rubber. So, in that sense, football is a lot about passion. We can keep building facilities, but we must have the right kind of people incharge who are passionate about the sport.
A simple example from schools tells us that the ‘sports period’ isn’t taken seriously at all anywhere, be it by the teachers or the parents. This lack of involvement leads to zero accountability for the sports teacher or the coach and we end up losing around 50% of school kids in this manner. Also, when you yourself aren’t watching these kids in a school game, weekend colony matches or a college tournament and aren’t yourself interested in promoting sports, the battle has already been lost. A glance at the American Collegiate and High School system for sports tells us how far we are from even beginning our journey of becoming a sporting nation. High School sports stars are well known in their communities but in India, we rarely have any sporting heroes unless they crack it on the international level.
This connect with the sportspersons from your community is the sporting culture we have to try and aspire to. India, with its population of over 1.3 billion is ripe for football, there is undeniable ability, but the belief and passion is something that is lacking a bit.
Working with incredibly talented media personalities and with great sportspersons, have you ever found yourself almost pinching yourself at being able to share the same stage as stalwarts such as Harsha Bhogle, Saurav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag to name a few?
Yes, that feeling is there, but you have to lose it otherwise you won’t be able to work. It happened with a friend of mine who worked with an Indian batting legend and upon seeing him, my friend told him as to how much of honour it was for him and that he was a great fan. The problem is that as a producer, it’s your job to tell people off as and when required but once you show yourself to be a fan, it becomes very difficult to get your work done so it’s a wonderful thing to remember in the evening with a drink in hand, but while you are working, you just cannot be a fan as it takes away from your work.
Lastly, the quartet of Harsha Bhogle, Joy Bhattacharjya, Gaurav Kapoor and Gautam Bhimani through the shows on Cricbuzz have changed the way cricket analysis is consumed in India. Your shows during the IPL season and during international matches are incredibly popular and extremely engaging. How has your experience been like with Cricbuzz?
It’s been an absolute pleasure and it started quite sometime back when Harsha was working with Cricbuzz and introduced me to Ajith Ramamurthy. We had a very good time working in Bengaluru and Ajith came across as a very nice young man. Then before the next IPL auction, I got a call from him asking if I would be interested in doing the shows for Cricbuzz covering the auctions so Gaurav Kapoor, Harsha and I did that auction and had an amazing time.
Often in life, one is faced with challenges, but I feel your biggest disadvantage can sometimes be your biggest advantage as well. Here we had no footage to keep the viewers engaged and neither did we have a consumer base which had been pre-established. Since, we did not have these two things, we decided to have an engaging discussion which also had its share of fun. There was leg-pulling but never at anyone’s expense.
Another thing that worked in our favour was that we tried to ensure that the viewer enjoyed the content. People are used to the same type of pre and post shows on television and we tried to be different from them. There were no sponsored elements that had to be taken care of and that was our advantage as we weren’t forced to use any video clips or graphics due to that pressure. Hence, your ability to be able to chat and continue your conversation without any hindrance was a great gift.