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December 3, 2012

Is cricket the only sport that rewards the less skillful?

Michael Jeh
Hashim Amla slowly walks back to the pavilion after being run out, Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 1st day, November 30, 2012
Hashim Amla's first innings run-out by a single video frame would not even have needed a third umpire decision if he had started behind the line  © Getty Images
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Here's a question that may require a bit of thought; it occurred to me late on the third day of the engrossing Perth Test. Vernon Philander bowling to Ed Cowan, beating him three times in a row with perfect seam-up deliveries that decked off the pitch and shaved the outside edge by the tiniest of margins. In between those play and misses, Cowan blunted the other deliveries off the middle of the bat, suggesting therefore that either he was able to adjust by the width of almost an entire bat or Philander was able to move some deliveries by that same margin whilst others went pretty much straight on.

So here's the question; is cricket the only sport where (after players reach a certain level of skill) you sometimes get rewarded for being less skillful? Or to reverse the question, where you get less reward for being more skillful? Is there any other sport where a player actually benefits from not being skilful enough to get close enough to the trajectory of the ball? Can we think of another sporting situation where a skilful player who deceives his/her opponent by moving the ball away from the strike zone, admittedly only a fraction of a millimetre, is worse off than if the ball had not moved by that much?

Ed Cowan is just a convenient example of course. It has happened to all batsmen and bowlers throughout cricket's history. Last night just got me thinking about how it might actually work in a batsman's favour to not be skilful enough (or quick enough) to catch up with the movement of the ball. Cowan survived that particular over because he wasn't quite good enough to do what he was trying to do - hit the ball. What other sport offers an accidental reward for consistently not executing something that you are trying to do, being a centimetre or two away from where you intended being and benefitting from that mistake? I suppose tennis occasionally throws up a mis-hit that fortuitously lands in an unexpectedly good place but I can't think of too many other sports where an error of judgement, albeit at high speed, could actually be the reason why you go on to succeed.

Likewise for the bowler - he tries to move the ball one way or the other to beat the bat but if he is skilful enough to execute that skill (or the pitch conditions allow extravagant movement), his reward is nothing. Well, it is a dot ball so there is some upside in terms of keeping runs down but I'm sure you know what I mean. I can't think of another sport where an athlete sometimes needs to be less skilful at executing a skill in order to (accidentally) reap the rewards. I suppose cricket being a game of tiny margins of error lends itself to these vagaries of fortune but I just find it fascinating that it sometimes favours those who get their judgement ever so slightly wrong.

Speaking of tiny margins, when is cricket going to start legislating against the blatant abuse of the privileges afforded to the non-striker when he is backing up? It's now got to the point where every time we watch a replay of whether the bowler has bowled a no-ball, we see the non-striker way past the popping crease. Hashim Amla was doing this regularly throughout this Test and he is not the only one. His first innings run-out by a single video frame would not even have needed a third umpire decision if he had started behind the line, as the law indicates he should. For a sport that spends so much time on adjudicating on detecting hot spots and Hawk-Eye and whether a bowler has any part of his heel behind the line, it is ridiculous that one aspect of the game goes totally unpunished when a player (deliberately or accidentally) steals a huge margin in the context of the fractions of centimetres that define everything else about cricket. The authorities need to address this issue or else they risk making a mockery of a game where millimetres matter.

A few suggestions, perhaps radical but worth throwing out there to ignite debate. Why not allow bowlers to run non-strikers out without a warning and without the stigma? It's not like the batsman's not aware of the law. The batsman deliberately tries to steal an unfair advantage and the fielding team suffer the stigma of being unsportsmanlike? How does that make sense? Who's cheating?

Maybe the third umpire can monitor this and deduct one run from any runs that are scored from that ball, unless it goes for a boundary of course. It's not that different from running one short. Why is it ok to steal a metre at the start of a run but you miss that line by a centimetre at any subsequent stage when you turn for a second or third run and the umpires disallow that extra run. The third umpire could easily monitor the video replay and convey the decision to the on-field umpire. I suppose it won't apply for quick singles because the batsman would presumably have made his ground comfortably but for two's or three's, a short run call should apply. I can't see the difference between that and the conventional short run. In the case of a really tight run out on a single, perhaps the third umpire could check to see where the batsman was at the point of delivery and provide some sensible advice on the margin that was unfairly gained at the start of the sequence.

Looking forward to your responses.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by David on (December 27, 2012, 4:38 GMT)

The first half of this article is silly. As some of the previous commenters have said, almost every sport has an element of luck for the less skilfull. One simple example is that many soccer games are decided by own goals. Mankadding should be legitimised (and I'm no bowler). Also, perhaps if the batsman hits the ball straight to the bowler's end wicket (without being touched by a fielder) and the batsman is out of his ground, he should be out.

Posted by Benw on (December 16, 2012, 9:50 GMT)

What is interesting about the comments on less skillfull i would like to pose another question for batsmen.. What other sport is as harsh as batting in cricket that if you make one mistake and or the bowler is skilled enough to take your wicket you dont get a second chance once your out your out. Football give away a goal you get chances to score yourself, tennis hit a bad shot you go the next point baseball they would have 4 or 5 innings a game. There is no other sport as complex and skillful as cricket batting...

Posted by ChrisH on (December 6, 2012, 12:44 GMT)

Totally agree on the non-facing batsman leaving the crease before the bowler releases the ball. It should definitely be called a short-run. Altho, allowing mankadding would add a little more excitement and skill to the game.

And regards the skill thing, how often do you hear commentators say "That ball was too good to get the edge" or of a bastman "He wasn't good enough to get the edge"

Given Michael Clarke was in such good form, and it took a pearle to dismiss him in the first innings, I did wonder if any other batsman would have been good enough to be dismissed by that ball.

Posted by Scott J. Robinson on (December 6, 2012, 9:42 GMT)

I'm pretty sure the law now states that the batter can start to run when the bowler is in his delivery stride. But I agree that mancadding should be allowed and not seen as something dirty.

Posted by chennaikid on (December 4, 2012, 6:25 GMT)

My previous comment hasn't been posted yet - hope it does eventually. Following on that, here's an idea that might help restore some of the balance between bat and ball: Deduct half a run from the batting team every time a batsman plays and misses. The bowler gets rewarded for beating the bat, leaving deliveries becomes fashionable, batting techniques become purer, fast bowling and flighted leg spin (the two most attacking forms of bowling, IMHO) become profitable - I can see so many plus points!

Posted by Scott on (December 4, 2012, 4:58 GMT)

Are you serious, Michael? I know you are a bowler writing an article based on that perspective, but having the benefit of education at two universities should have conditioned you to think things through!

How often do non-strikers get dismissed as they are caught backing up off a straight drive? There are risks to the gains of pinching that yard. Playing grade cricket, you know that.

What you are referring to, via the beating the edge argument, is called "luck" and is present in every sport. It's there when a tennis player misses the ball which then falls out, every miskick or overhit cross in football which scores a goal; that incident a few years back in golf where somebody overhit his second shot which was rifling over the green until it hit the flag and dropped into the hole; even this morning in the NY Giants v Redskins NFL game,Washington's quarterback was tackled, causing him to fumble the ball which popped into the arms of a team mate who ran in for a touchdown....

Posted by Rianna on (December 4, 2012, 3:28 GMT)

Or why not allow the bowler to overstep legally when the non-striker is out of his crease when the bowler is delivering the ball.

This will punish the non-striker for stealing the yard while at the same time giving an advantage of a foot or two to the bowler.

Posted by David E on (December 4, 2012, 3:28 GMT)

And what about the batsman taking guard with no part of his body or bat behind the crease line? Is he gaining an unfair advantage too? He has less distance to run too. I suggest that bowlers be 'given the line' (as long as they cut the line it is a legal delivery) and batsmen similarly have to 'toe the line' by at least touching the creae line when taking guard.

Posted by Jay on (December 4, 2012, 1:28 GMT)

Michael, in controlling the swinging ball, lies the art. A footballer taking a penalty kick would pay the same price if he imparts an extravagant curvature (to the ball) and finds the goalie, instead of a subtler movement that finds the goal.

Posted by Giri on (December 4, 2012, 1:07 GMT)

No need to legislate where the non-striker is at the time of delivery if you remove the ridiculous stigma currently associated with running the non-striker out. The non-striker can try to gain an advantage - he does so at his own risk. If he gets run out trying,then so be it. It is really very simple.

Look at baseball- runners on base are always looking to gain an edge to either steal a base or gain an extra base on a hit - and do so at the peril of being thrown out. That is all that is needed in cricket.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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