December 3, 2012

Is cricket the only sport that rewards the less skillful?

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

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