Set the fielders free
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!
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.
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