Holder’s ban just, but only just

It is possible to be delighted in Jason Holder’s success with bat, ball, and captaincy, and to maintain that his suspension for the third and final Test at St. Lucia was correct.

As has been observed elsewhere, slowing the game down yields a tactical advantage: the less a bowler has to bowl each day, the more energy he conserves. West Indies thus gained a small but not entirely inconsequential unfair advantage in bowling at a slow rate.

This is not, of course, to claim that England’s loss was due to the the slow over rate; they were simply thoroughly outplayed by a superior West Indies team. Furthermore, should any English supporters be about to climb on to the moral high ground, it should also be noted in passing that Len Hutton cottoned on to the potential of the tactic for the 1954-1955 Ashes.

Nevertheless, the idea that England’s batsmen were equally culpable for the early finish misses the point. The shortchanging of spectators from slow over rates is not caused by an early conclusion to the match, but by providing less play for your pound/dollar/rupee. Spectators are not financially robbed by games that finish early: refunds are typically issued for missing days of play.

One wonders if the outcry would have been so vocal if the offender was not so eminently likeable a character. Had David Warner been in charge and suspended for such an offence, it seems unlikely that he would have garnered as much sympathy as Holder did.

What certainly is unsatisfactory, however, is the current system of post-game penalties. Several years ago on ESPNcricinfo I called for fielders to be suspended during games. Russell Degnan’s analysis of the problem merits careful reading; he calls for a delivery clock, similar to that used in tennis. Either way, to justly redress the in-game advantage unfairly gained, an in-game penalty is required, whether that be penalty runs, fielder suspension, or some other means.

Post-game fines and suspensions do not remediate, they punish; for the sake of spectators and the game itself, in-game penalties should be used wherever possible. The redrafted Law 42, indeed, gives umpires more leeway in this regard. Had such an in-game penalty been applied in this instance, the Second Test would have been marginally more balanced, spectators could have witnessed Holder in action in the Third Test, and less time would have been wasted both on the field and in writing about the disappointing outcome.

Bonus-point fiasco reflects poorly on Pembrokeshire league

It will go down as one of the most infamous declarations of all time. In a case widely reported across the globe, Carew CC, in Pembrokeshire, declared at 18-1 against Cresselly CC. The declaration ensured they would lose the match, but crucially denied Cresselly bonus points, thus safeguarding Carew’s position at the head of the league table.

At this point, I don’t wish to comment extensively on the moral ramifications of Carew’s move – plenty of other have done so – save to observe that their action was contrary to the very essence of sport: to provide a contest. Nor do I want to discuss the intelligence, or otherwise, of Cresselly’s decision to insert Carew after winning the toss, if, as has been suggested, they had been warned that an early Carew declaration was a distinct possibility.

What I would like to focus on is the role of the league in this affair. By and large, they appear to have received little attention; however, in my view, they do carry a measure of responsibility for allowing the situation to occur in the first place.

Here are the Pembroke County Cricket League bonus point rules (section 12(d)):

Bonus points (awarded for performances in each innings and whatever the result of the match):-

(i) Batting: In Divisions One & Two the first batting point will awarded [sic] when 40 runs have been scored. Thereafter one point will be awarded for every additional 40 runs scored up to a maximum of 5 (200 runs). […]

(ii) Bowling: For each two wickets taken by the fielding side in an innings – 1 point, i.e 2 wickets in an innings – 1 point; 4 wickets in an innings – 2 points; 6 wickets in an innings – 3 points; 8 wickets in an innings – 4 points; 10 wickets  in an innings – 5 points;

(iii)  In the event of a team batting short for any reason and their opponents capturing ALL available wickets, then the maximum of five (5) bonus points shall be awarded.

Brief consideration should reveal the problem: the side batting second is actually penalised for bowling well, since doing so may limit the number of batting points they can then obtain. A team that sets 200 and then bowls the opposition out for 34 would score 10 bonus points, whereas a team that bowls out the opposition out for 34 and chases them without losing a wicket would only score 5 bonus points.

Post-hoc wisdom is extremely easy to throw around, of course, and league administrators – often volunteers wearing many different hats, giving up their free time in order that others may play – cannot ultimately be held responsible for the deliberate actions of the teams they attempt to serve. They do, however, have the responsibility to ensure that, to the best of their ability, the rules they set out are fair. Quick consideration of these bonus-point regulations should have revealed that they were inherently unfair; at worst, the rules could actually encourage teams to bowl badly in order to concede enough runs to chase later.

As a separate, much less serious example, I once played in a friendly match a few years ago with a curious format. Each team was to receive two innings, and a set number of overs for those two innings. If a side was bowled out, any unused overs were carried over to that team’s second innings. A few moments’ consideration of that format reveals that it similarly militated against the essence of bowling. Teams bowling in the first innings had an incentive to not take wickets, since quickly bowling out the other side would allow the batting side to preserve valuable overs for their second innings; if anything, it encouraged bowlers to bowl defensively, focusing purely on run-saving (of course, one could fairly level that criticism against limited-overs cricket in general, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Let’s return to Pembrokeshire (and, beautiful area that it is, who wouldn’t want to?). The league rules are not hard to fix. Some options would be to:

  • Remove all batting bonus points, thus ensuring that both teams always have the chance of 5 points.
  • When calculating bowling bonus points, treat a declaration as a loss of 10 wickets, thus preventing teams from artificially denying their opponents the chance to acquire bowling points.
  • Give chasing teams batting points based on a proportion of the setting team’s score (e.g. 1 point at 20%, 2 points at 40%, etc.), rather than at fixed intervals; this would stop teams closing their innings just short of bonus-point boundaries to prevent their opponents the chance of batting points.

One rather expects Pembrokeshire County Cricket Club to be reviewing its rules this winter. The changes it makes will, no doubt, receive rather more attention than usual.

The Wisden Guessing Game, 2017 Edition

With less than a week to go before the release of Wisden 2017, here are a few predictions for the 154th edition’s Five Cricketers of The Year.

  • Chris Woakes
    Not for nothing was the 2016 season described on Twitter as the #SummerOfWoakes. Before the start of the season, he was on the verge of being another of England’s “nearly” men; now, he’s close to irreplaceable. His 9-36 against Durham in the Championship sounded his arrival: called up for the Second Test against Sri Lanka, his summer rapidly went from good to astounding, finishing the season with 34 wickets in the Tests and 48 in all international cricket.
  • Younis Khan
    At times in the summer, Younis looked bizarrely out of place, hopping around the crease in a cartoon-like manner unworthy of a batsman in the 1000-run, let alone 9000-run club. Just when he was about to be written off, he produced a masterpiece: he saved the best till the final Test of the summer, a sumptuous 218 that gave Pakistan a stranglehold on the match and, ultimately, a share of the series.
  • Yasir Shah
    Everyone loves a leg-spinner, and Shah’s 19 wickets in the series, combined with his evident enthusiasm, gave much reason for excitement. With ten of them coming in a single match, however, the sense was that his effectiveness lessened as the series moved on; nevertheless, his impact was sufficient to help Pakistan share the spoils in a 2-2 draw.
  • Misbah-ul-Haq
    Misbah’s calming presence in the captaincy role cannot be overstated, but his batting was also highly significant: his 114 in the First Test made him the oldest captain to score a Test century. The sight of a 42-year-old doing press-ups on the Lord’s outfield was one of the greatest of the summer. Later on in the year, he would take Pakistan, albeit briefly, to the No. 1 Test ranking.
  • Jack Leach
    Wild card, this one, but bearing in mind the value Wisden places on the county game, Leach’s 65 wickets may prove hard to overlook. Furthermore, his story – plucked from trolley-shunting in a supermarket car park – is almost impossible to resist, although it was denied the icing of a maiden Somerset Championship. Without him, Somerset would not even have been close.

Now for some long-term predictions for the 2018 edition:

  • Quinton de Kock
  • Steven Finn
  • Haseeb Hameed
  • Kagiso Rabada
  • Jos Buttler