October 22, 2015

Set the fielders free

Artificial constraints, such as fielding restrictions, make ODIs and T20s feel contrived. The duration of the contest ought to be the only limitation

Why do lawmakers think captains will place all their fielders at the boundary and not try to take wickets in limited-overs games? © Getty Images

As England gallantly chased 99 to win against Pakistan in the first Test, in Abu Dhabi, a chase they might have pulled off had the fading light not intervened, I was reminded again of a pet peeve of mine against one-day internationals: their highly contrived restrictions on field placings.

Legend has it that the bewildering modern constraints on where and when fielders may be placed in one-day internationals (inside and outside the fielding circles at various points in an innings) can be traced to the perfidy of the England captain Mike Brearley during the 1979-80 World Series Cricket triangular tournament. In a game against West Indies, Brearley sent all his fielders, including the wicketkeeper, David Bairstow, to the boundary, in an attempt to save the required boundary off the last ball. West Indies failed to beat this stratagem, and the fielding circle was born. Or something like that.

Ever since then, it has been the received wisdom that in order to make one-day internationals "exciting", to prevent fielding captains from "unfairly" stacking the deck against batsmen - the ones who use helmets, elaborate body armour, heavy bats, and receive the benefit of the doubt from umpires - some fielding restrictions must be imposed. Otherwise, as the chest-beaters would have it, we will be treated to the boring spectacle of fielders ranged on the boundary - presumably for all 50 overs - while batsmen, cheated of boundaries, will be forced to run singles and doubles and triples. The horror!

If fielding restrictions were to be removed in one-day internationals, perhaps some of the early flurry of boundaries we are used to will go away. But why is that a problem? Spectators will still witness a cricketing contest

Like with objections to Mankading, I don't get this one. There was nothing dull about England's chase on the fifth day, in the fading light, against Pakistan's strategy of setting its field to cut off all boundaries but the aerial ones. The batsmen were forced to be innovative, to scramble singles and doubles, to challenge fielders' arms, to manufacture creative shots in an attempt to find the few gaps that existed. We saw a cricketing contest. Had the light not faded as it did, England's inventiveness in batting would have been rewarded. Or perhaps Pakistan would have induced enough frustration in them to trigger an amazing collapse.

The central objection to lifting fielding restrictions in one-day internationals seems to be that chasing teams will be "unfairly" hampered by boundary-hugging field settings. But surely the batting team, cognisant of such a possibility, will be no slouches in calling upon such freedom when it fields, and will use such fields as and when required. Does this mean that spectators will be subjected to tedium? Only if you imagine that spectators and fielding captains possess only the barest modicum of cricketing intelligence. Underestimating the intelligence of cricket spectators is par for the course for cricket administrators, but why is such an insult levelled at fielding captains?

Consider, for instance, the limited-overs games we grew up on in school and university cricket. These were typically of 20, 30 or 40 overs a side. There were no fielding restrictions in them; fielding circles were a thing of the international game. Not once did I see a captain unimaginative enough to simply set a field that consisted merely of boundary patrollers. Instead, they tried to get wickets; they sought to pressure visible batting weaknesses; they aimed to cut off favoured strokes. In short, they displayed cricketing nous appropriate to the occasion. The spectators watching these games - including me - did not think they were duller for lacking fielding restrictions. The thrill of the chase, against any constraints the fielding captain could think up, was more than enough.

It's the chase that engrosses the spectators, not piles of runs Hannah Johnston / © Getty Images

A limited-overs game should be just that: limited in overs. Other constraints are artificial and unnecessary and mere contrivances. (This includes the limitation on the number of overs a bowler is allowed to bowl; batsmen are not similarly restricted. I agree, however, that the tighter calling of wides in one-day games is a good thing. The batsman should at least be allowed a chance to lay bat on ball.) Once an overs constraint is imposed, a result is guaranteed. That alone creates the baseline tension needed for spectator entertainment. It creates incentives for innovation on the part of bowlers and batsmen and fielders and captains. It creates cricketing situations unique and particular to the format. Spectators are well aware of these.

If fielding restrictions were to be removed in one-day internationals, perhaps run rates would drop, perhaps some of the early flurry of boundaries we are used to will go away. But why is that a problem? Spectators will still witness a cricketing contest. They will still witness a struggle of bat against ball. They will witness a result, and I will bet good money there will be as many "cliffhangers" and "nail-biting last-over finishes" as there are today.

Each side gets 50 overs (or 20). Do your worst or your best. A result will be obtained either way. Players and spectators might be surprised to find out how entertaining such an uncontrived form of cricket would be.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • chris on October 28, 2015, 9:24 GMT

    Why not remove the restrictions on the amount of overs per bowlers as well. I mean seriously, which team can afford the luxury of choosing five bolwers. And while we're at it, let's also get rid of the restrictions on bouncers per over and keep the batsmen on their toes. And all that rubbish of not tampering with the ball, why bother. Teams should be able to scuff or shine it by any means necessary to suit their bowlers. Straight arm while bowling? What a terribly restrictive idea. let's rather throw it any way we want to. And why can't we roll the ball to the batsmen? Or aim it without bouncing at his head for that matter? What also irritates me is batsmen being given out for getting their pads struck in front of the stumps. Why punish them for defending their wickets? Isn't that the whole idea of batting? And don't get me started on run outs. If a fielder can't hit the stumps directly and needs somebody to gather his throw and break the stumps, he shouldn't be rewarded with a wicket.

  • Saeed on October 25, 2015, 22:55 GMT

    I totally agree. Set the fielders free. If batsmen don't have any restrictions to hit the ball within or without the circle, then why restrict the fielders??? Makes no sense ...

  • StJohn on October 25, 2015, 13:55 GMT

    Also an interesting point re calling wides in limited overs games. I agree that if the ball is a bit wide in a T20 or ODI, it is right to call a wide. But on the flip side of that, I've never understood why umpires are quite so soft on wides in Test cricket. Wahab Riaz was called for bowling a wide in England's run chase in Abu Dhabi last week. I think that was the right call - it was pretty wide. However, although such a delivery would definitely be called a wide in a T20 or an ODI, to be honest I've seen similarly wide balls not called in Tests before - so the fact that England were effectively in an ODI type chase, albeit in a Test match, probably shouldn't cause umpires to be more willing to call a wide than in any other Test match situation. Nevertheless, if a ball is a wide in an ODI or a T20, then it's probably also too wide for a batsman reasonably to be able to hit it in a Test match too - so why have this different approach? A wide should be a wide, whatever the format.

  • StJohn on October 25, 2015, 13:45 GMT

    Good article; I agree. The fielding restrictions rule are obscure. A compromise might be to have no fielding restrictions but bring the boundaries in a bit.

    Interesting point that bowlers are restricted as to the number of balls they bowl, but batsmen aren't restricted as to the number of balls they face. I'm less inclined to fiddle about with that: a batsman only has to make one mistake and he's gone; a bowler can bowl a bad ball or a bad over but have more chances to bowl - this inequality of risk justifies both the benefit of the doubt rule re batting and also that batsmen can bat as long as their skill (or luck!) last. Having a limit on the number of overs bowlers can bowl also requires teams to have all round bowling strength; do away with that limit and it might mean that, in T20s at least, teams with only 2 decent bowlers can use those bowlers for 10 overs each, pick 8-9 batsmen, and beat generally better teams that have, say, 5 decent bowlers. I'm not sure that would be fair.

  • dan on October 25, 2015, 9:00 GMT

    @ salar Ahmed and bcg

    Trust me you don't want to take cricket back 20 years.

    You had mark Taylor opening the batting, David boon at 3 Steve Waugh at 5and Ian Healy at 7.

    Your were lucky to see 1 six and 250 was a good score the middle overs were extremely boring.

    Michael bevan was the greatest finisher in the world running 1s and 2s chasing down 6s an over.

    Then Gilchrist and Hayden came along and started the power game we see to day.

    I ask who would you rather see mark Taylor or matt Hayden, David boon or Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist or Ian Healy.

    Who would you rather see Michael bevan chase down 6 an over or dhoni or Faulkner chase down 8 an over.

    I don't think you see how blessed we are watching the modern game compared to 20 years ago, trust me you would fall asleep in the first 10 overs.

    I thank modern bats and modern skill for making the modern game entertaining

    I do enjoy bowling that's why I would increase a bowlers overs to 13 overs per match.

    I am a spin bowler

  • Paul on October 24, 2015, 16:24 GMT

    The best way to have a fair contest between bat and ball must surely be to produce pitches that give bowlers some encouragement as well as being rewarding for good batting. At the same time, the ball should allow more assistance for a skilled bowler. The fielding restrictions were brought in for very valid reasons. The match in 79/80 highlighted how, in certain situations, bowlers could get away with a poor ball and not suffer for it. Similarly, the Chappell underarm ball changed the laws to stop another "win at all costs" situation. The game moves on for good reason. Not all the changes work and I won't bore you with the history of limited overs cricket in England in the early 1960s as a further argument for change, nor with formulaic ways of building an innings. But it don't think removing fielding and bowling restrictions is a forward step.

  • Ez on October 24, 2015, 5:39 GMT

    I am shocked by some of the comments here.

    300+ should never be a regular score anywhere in the world for an ODI innings. There must a balance between the bat and the ball.

    If one thinks a four or a six every over is very entertaining for a duration 100 overs and 7+ hours, he doesn't really care about cricket.

  • Edwin on October 24, 2015, 1:27 GMT

    Spot on - even if all fielders are on the boundary the batsmen, if they have reasonable technique, should get 2 runs per delivery. However, you can see the ICC meddlers probably making a mess of it with some ridiculous concession....

  • Manika on October 24, 2015, 1:05 GMT

    One most important point which ICC should consider most importantly is the reach of the game. We have many times read that quite a big number of English people are unable to watch cricket because of Sky network and its policies. ICC should look into this. In India , it does not matter which channel is main producer , our national network Doordarshan 1 , it always broadcasts every Indian game and all channels are bound to share its feed. This way game reaches to millions.

    Secondly , one can make tests very competitive , tough for batsman , but to revive interest of new generations, ODI needs to be always 350+ score types. No young generation people will wish to see 200 being scored , its yawning types. One needs flurry of runs 370-390 being made more regularly. That is for making big base in young upcoming generations. 200 scores make game very boring. Though we are from 90s generations and used to it but without a doubt any1 will prefer 450-500 in ODI games to make game stay alive.

  • Jeremy on October 23, 2015, 23:00 GMT

    I agree - the only fielding restrictions should be those that apply in Tests (maximum two legside fielders behind square). But there would still be an imbalance between bat and ball, particularly in the final overs when wickets count for little and containment is everything. I suggest a bonus of 10 runs (4 for T20s) for each intact wicket at the end of the innings. It would also open intriguing possibilities in the second innings: eg, team A scores 4-250 (310 with bonus) and team B is 4-200 after 40 overs - a doddle for team B under existing rules, but requiring subtle strategic thinking by both sides under the bonus runs rule. Also, team B would need to bat out its 50 overs even after passing team A's score, as team A could pull them back with late wickets.