November 28, 2008

Duckworth and Lewis needs a rethink

Andy Zaltzman looks at Duckworth-Lewis, "one of humankind’s greatest scientific breakthroughs", but questions whether it needs a revamp

One of the greatest scientific breakthroughs known to man © Cricinfo Ltd.

The Duckworth-Lewis method is rightly regarded as one of humankind’s greatest scientific breakthroughs, fit to set alongside Archimedes hopping into his bath and splashing water all over his new carpet, Fleming not bothering to wash up his petri-dishes, and whoever first discovered the sliceability of bread.

Before Professors D and L intervened, the received wisdom of the ages had been that the intervention of rain or bad light would forever skew the natural axis of limited-over cricketing justice. Previous attempts to solve this ageless conundrum had ranged from incomplete to idiotic. However, after years of secretive testing of their formula on teams of cricket-playing laboratory mice dressed in garish little pyjamas, Duckworth and Lewis unleashed their ingenious system on the cricket world and instantly catapulted themselves onto the Nobel Prize waiting list. Many still do not understand the method, but it is one of those things that the public needs to trust rather than comprehend. Like air travel, the workings of the digestive system...and Tony Blair.

The slight powerplay-related glitch revealed in the fourth India-England ODI will no doubt soon be ironed out (indeed, all significant developments in scientific history have had their teething troubles – when Newton was demonstrating gravity to then king Charles II by lobbing fruit in the air and letting it land on his head, he hurled a grapefruit upwards which never came down).

However, Duckworth-Lewis’ one seemingly irredeemable failing is its inability to adjudicate matches which fail to reach the minimum length, or are completely cancelled, leaving the disappointed spectator either with a no-result or a bowl-out (a deeply unfair resolution heavily loaded in favour of teams whose bowlers habitually drift onto middle-and-leg, thus rewarding sloppy bowling).

D/L must therefore return to their laboratory to develop special brain-scanning helmets to analyse the mental states of players, and thus predict which team would have performed better on the day – based on their confidence levels, intensity of will-to-win, homesickness, and extent of distraction caused by external media and financial issues.

The winning team could thus be fairly adjudicated, and the paying spectator would return home happy that justice had been served. (Whilst inevitable technical teething troubles are overcome, it may also be necessary for the ICC to back up the results of the scanner helmet by spying on the teams to gain the deepest possible insight into the psychological states of the players – the authorities would have to start bugging team meetings and hotel rooms, and conducting elaborate tabloid-style sting operations to trick the players into revealing whether, deep down, they genuinely believe they can win, or are just saying so in press conferences out of contractual obligation.)

In time, it may prove that the helmet-scanner system provides a far more fair and accurate means of deciding cricket matches that cricket itself. Result of games are often determined by moments of unnatural luck, skill or umpiring – science could remove such quirks, and ensure that by removing cricket from cricket matches, the team that deserves to win always emerges triumphant.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer