Cricket World Cup 2019: Week 1, update #2—Tamper tantrums

The second of an informal weekly (p)review of the 2019 Cricket World Cup – or, as I like to call it, the #Champ10nsTrophy.

Truth be told, #CWC19 needed the England vs Pakistan result. After a couple of one-sided shellackings (expect me to return to that at a future date as part of yet another criticism of the 10-team format) a high-scoring game that went down to the wire and, most importantly, saw the favourites finish in second place, was needed to kickstart the competition.

England shouldn’t worry too much. Neither of the previous two hosts to win the World Cup managed a clean sweep: India lost to South Africa in 2011, and Australia lost to New Zealand in 2015. Neither had too much trouble in lifting the trophy a few matches later.

What it didn’t need was a ball-tampering controversy. Maybe “ball-tampering” and “controversy” are too strong a pair of terms: a couple of English batsmen were noticeably reticent – albeit also noticeably exercised – when given the opportunity to comment on the subject, thereby damping down the flames.

At Trent Bridge the umpires were quick to jump on the signs of proto-tampering and nip them in the bud. To be specific, both sides were warned against throwing the ball in on more than one bounce to the keeper, a well-worn tactic (geddit?) for roughing up one side. Whether they were consistent or not, or whether both teams complied with the direction equally, is immaterial to this discussion.

It strikes me as excessive to prevent teams from engaging in legitimate activity that has an incidental and beneficial side effect. The key point is that throwing the ball in on the bounce is justifiable for non-tampering reasons: the flatter trajectory is faster. Perhaps two or three bounces – which is what the umpires were taking exception to – is pushing it; is there a valid reason, other than an attempt to change the condition of the ball, for such throwing? Could one not argue that it saves time and reduces the sting on the bowler’s receiving hands?

Obviously this all seems to be overlooked when a run out is on the cards: I’ve yet to hear of umpires pulling up fielders who’ve effected outfield dismissals via a bounced throw. Yet even when not aiming for a run out, the the fielding side has a right, nay, a responsibility to save time where possible – as Bumble would say, to get on with the game. (There’s another #CWC19 disappointment: why’s Bumble missing from the commentary box?)

That’s not to say the umpires acted incorrectly. Law 41.3.2, the Law that prohibits ball-tampering, reveals a double standard: one for batsmen and one for everyone else.

41.3.2 It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball.
Except in carrying out his/her normal duties, a batsman is not allowed to wilfully damage the ball. […]

https://www.lords.org/mcc/laws/unfair-play

How, pray, can one interact with the ball in any way that does not change its condition? Bowling anything other than full tosses will cause it to land and rough up. Catching it will transfer sweat or other substances onto its surface. Batsmen, however, are given special dispensation to wilfully damage the ball in carrying out their normal duties. Why are bowlers and fielders not similarly allowed to effect damage in the course of their normal duties?

Wasn’t the game so much more interesting when Hassan Ali found a bit of inswing? In fact, forget England losing: so far, the biggest surprise of the World Cup has been the lesser spotted Kookaburra swing. Even up the playing field, I say, and let bowlers damage the ball incidentally, if not accidentally.

Square leg scorer

3.1 Appointment of scorers

Two scorers shall be appointed to record all runs scored, all wickets taken and, where appropriate, number of overs bowled.

3.2 Correctness of scores

The scorers shall frequently check to ensure that their records agree.  They shall agree with the umpires, at least at every interval, other than drinks intervals, and at the conclusion of the match, the runs scored, the wickets that have fallen and, where appropriate, the number of overs bowled.  See Law 2.15 (Correctness of scores).

[…]


Marylebone Cricket Club, 2017, Law 3 – The Scorers

Law 3 is not a controversial Law. It makes sense. Two scorers are better than one: they can check with each other, watch out for each other, and even cover for each other (in extremis).

Law 3 is also, probably, the most flouted law in the book, particularly in the recreational game. How often do captains agree to “just copy the book” at the end of the game and get away with one scorer, drawn from whoever isn’t batting at the time? Chances are that scorer hasn’t had official training, either. It’s not in the least surprising that scoring errors plague lower (and sometimes the not such lower) levels of cricket.

One of the more unexpected discoveries from my excursion to play cricket in Quebec (more on that another time) was the system that a social cricket club had developed to address the frequent scoring discrepancies that threatened to derail games. They had, in effect, re-invented linear scoring. The umpire was given a clipboard and blank bowling record. Provided he/she filled it in, the teams would then have two records – one by the umpire, one by the book scorer, and errors could be detected. Most importantly, the final score could be agreed without undue wrangling.

It’s such a simple idea that it must already be in use elsewhere. Nevertheless, I liked this idea so much that I’ve adapted the core idea for use in my club, Haymakers CC, during its social fixtures. As a strategy in casual cricket, it has a lot going for it. Appoint one bowler’s end umpire (i.e. somebody who knows the LBW law), and one striker’s end umpire. Give the latter the job of maintaining this A6 size bowling record. The advantages are myriad:

  • It allows every over, and indeed the entire innings, more or less, to be reconstructed.
  • It gives the fielding side access to the score on the field when the scoreboard inevitably falls behind.
  • It makes the role of the striker’s end umpire a bit more interesting.
  • It means the striker’s end umpire can’t avoid keeping count of the number of balls in the over.
  • It starts to introduce players who fulfill this role to the scoring symbols.
  • It finally satisfies Law 3.1 (two scorers are thereby appointed) and Law 3.2 (runs, wickets and overs are recorded and can be meaningfully cross-checked).
  • It relieves the bowler’s end umpire from keeping score (some do, some don’t).

The downside is, of course, that it does make the job of striker’s end umpire more involved. Yet it will be worth it for the time and aggravation it’ll save down the line. Whole overs won’t go missing (not that that’s ever happened – ahem).

Here is version 1 of my Square Leg Scoring record. It includes:

  • A row for each over (maximum of 30)
  • A box for each delivery
  • A space to record an identifier for the bowler (whether name, number, initials, hairstyle, or something else)
  • Columns for the over total and the running total
  • Two features for those new to the job:
    • A quick reference guide to scoring symbols
    • A couple of example overs

The underlying format is an Excel spreadsheet. Each page covers 30 overs. You can print it at A4 if you wish, but my strategy is to print 4 to the page, as shown in the PDF version. This can then be folded twice to leave an A6 size sheet. Add pencil and backing board (time to source an A6 clipboard), and your Square Leg Scrumpire / Striker’s End Umporer is ready to sally forth and tally.

I intend to hone this in light of user feedback, and to that end I’d be interested to hear from anyone who uses this, or a similar system, as to how it might be improved.

Special thanks to Angus Bell of the Pirates of the St Lawrence CC for the inspiration, and the welcome to cricket in Montreal.

DRS: power to the players, not the umpires

The pitch at Trent Bridge was so lifeless that it almost succeeded in even deadening the interminable drone about DRS that always seems to accompany any high-profile series. With England—India, though, DRS is always a handy fallback topic, thanks to the BCCI’s continued intransigence on the subject. N Srinivasan stated in December 2012 that “We don’t believe the technology is good enough”. With the increased powers that the BCCI has in the ICC, the cry of the casual, unsuspecting fan on Twitter that the ICC should force the BCCI to accept DRS is laughable.

Nevertheless, there is some talk that India may be coming round to the idea, although naturally not officially. The BCCI’s increased power may, curiously, encourage them to engage in some goodwill gestures. They now have the money; they can afford to be generous, and bask in the glow of their magnanimous actions. We’re not “a bully”: look at how reasonable we are in being willing to listen and yield to the rest of the ICC on DRS.

A key point is that accuracy of ball-tracking has improved drastically since its inception. Mike Selvey, a self-described sceptic, has been won over by this. Martin Crowe, who expresses the opposing view well, has not.

Both Crowe and Selvey suggest, however, the possibility of beneficial changes to DRS. Crowe is unconvinced of the accuracy of the predictive path, and would prefer abandoning that part of the system. Selvey, by contrast, is impressed with the apparent accuracy of current technology, and toys with the possibility of taking the DRS away from the players and into the hands of the third umpire. Furthermore, it has been suggested that this may provide the BCCI with a way to save face, should they feel it necessary.

Those who view a player-initiated review as essentially a whitewashed form of dissent may welcome a removal of such power from the player. I am afraid, though, I do not share Selvey’s view that moving the power to review from players to the third umpire “has some merit.” I view it as a terrible idea, for at least three reasons.

1. Umpires would have no function in LBW decisions

If the third umpire were to check every LBW decision, there would be absolutely no point to the on-field umpires even knowing the LBW law. You would have the curious situation wherein the umpires standing in domestic first-class cricket would need greater skills than those in the international game.

2. The game would run even slower

We already see virtually every run-out decision referred to the TV umpire. This is an acceptable use of time, since they are relatively rare, happening perhaps once every few hours. Yet LBWs are inherently much trickier to judge, so in due course, in an attempt to avoid criticism, on-field umpires would end up referring all but the most blatantly obvious LBW appeals.

Over rates, already low, would worsen, as the game stops every time the ball hits the pads, for the third umpire to confirm that it was, indeed, not out, on most occasions. Test cricket does not need any further reduction in pace: quite the opposite.

3. Player dissent would increase

Let us suppose that, in order to mitigate the above two disadvantages, the system is set up so that not every decision is referred; rather, the on-field umpire can choose whether to refer it or not. The result? Players will simply attempt to coerce the umpire into referring decisions that they think are borderline. (I have a recollection that trials of this system yielded precisely that outcome, but have been unable to find the details.)

In a slightly different set-up, during 2012 a third-umpire intervention system was tested out in Australia, with the TV umpire having the power to overrule a decision if he considered it controversial. It was scrapped mid-season, with the players unhappy with what was perceived as inconsistency and confusion over its application. Daniel Brettig reported that players would hang around on the field, hoping for an overrule, which had a knock-on impact on the rhythm of the game.

We come back to what the DRS is intended to remedy: the “howler”. Selvey rightly asks how one is supposed to differentiate between a howler and a non-howler. Where does one draw the line? Selvey sensibly indicates the absurdity of attempting to decide which decisions players may or may not review, on the basis of a sort of volume of howl. Players should be allowed to squander their reviews. Yet this does not mean that the third umpire should be given the option of overruling, as discussed. Players should be miserly with their reviews, and only use them up if they genuinely believe a blatant error has been made. Any blame for a poor decision thus remains on the players, not the umpires. Crowe goes so far as to call for the number of challenges in Tests to be reduced from two to one.

In conclusion, however, Selvey’s article made me reconsider one point that I have previously been pretty firm on: the question of whether an “umpire’s call” verdict should use up a player’s review. As it happens, I am still of the opinion that it should. Yet Selvey’s experience indicates that the margin of error is much less than I envisaged, down to about one millimetre. This suggests that “umpire’s call” verdicts are much less doubtful than might be thought: a clip of a bail is still a clip.

If the corresponding uncertainty has therefore been reduced, one of two things should be done: either 1) leave the system as it is, but dramatically reduce the yellow “umpire’s call” zone to reflect the actual accuracy of the projection, or 2) allow teams to re-use their review, since their referral has been shown to be justified. I would opt for the former. To do so, however, requires confidence in the accuracy really being as high as the manufacturers, hardly disinterested parties, claim it is. Stringent, transparent, independent verification is needed for confidence in the system.

It remains to be seen what the BCCI will do, if anything, as regards DRS. As stated earlier, there may be little political need for them to change. In search of good PR, though, we might see them make a popular decision.