June 7, 2014

The Minus Rule and its pluses

What if batting teams were penalised for playing out dot balls in T20s?

Sixes may bring in crowds in the short run, but for the game to truly flourish there must be an even contest between bat and ball. Dale Steyn was smashed in one over each by Yusuf Pathan for 26, MS Dhoni for 24 and AB de Villiers for 23 runs in the course of a single tournament. And five spinners, including international stars such as Pragyan Ojha, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra, were hit for more than 20 sixes in IPL 2014, more than any other bowler - not the sort of performances that will inspire youngsters to become bowlers.

The Sunrisers Hyderabad coach, Tom Moody already feels the IPL is a "quality product that has plateaued". This may become true of T20 cricket altogether, and by extension cricket itself, because its vehicle of growth will have lost its wheels.

So how can the playing field be evened out a little bit? T20's popularity hinges on aggressive hitting and fast-paced scoring, so we may not be able to equip the bowler with tools that curtail this too much. The fans make the game, and playing to the galleries is therefore not just desirable but necessary in this context.

But what if there was a Minus Rule: where the batting team was awarded negative runs for every dot ball faced? Other sports have changed along similar lines. Doubles tennis, for example, is played with the "no-ad" rule in some tournaments, whereby a game is decided by a single point at 40-40 to prevent viewer fatigue on account of back-to-back deuce-advantage situations. Field hockey, meanwhile, is set to become a 60-minute game of four quarters as opposed to the 70-minute game of two halves it currently is.

How will the Minus Rule work? For every dot ball earned by the bowling team, one run will be deducted from the batting team's total score. One run will also be deducted from the batsman's individual tally and correspondingly one will also be reduced from the column showing runs conceded by the bowler. The only type of dot ball that need not be penalised is a wicket-taking ball, because the bowling team is already adequately rewarded in that case.

This single step will provide greater reward to bowlers while giving batsmen more incentive to score runs off every ball. From a viewer's perspective, the dot ball will no longer be that dull moment between two scoring shots, but a moment that will be cheered because of the impact it has on the score and the match situation.

The effect of the Minus Rule may be better understood with a few examples:

Batsmen playing out dot balls: In the game between Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Wankhede Stadium, Chris Gayle scored 38 runs off 24 balls at a strike rate of 158 - a good T20 knock by any account. However, in the 15 balls that he faced from Harbhajan Singh, Lasith Malinga and Kieron Pollard, he scored only 16. He played out eight dot balls and struck only two boundaries against them. He then went on to plunder 21 runs off a single Pawan Suyal over. Since he played a total of 12 dot balls in that innings, Gayle's contribution under the Minus Rule would have been worth 26 runs off 24 balls, at a strike rate of 108 - nothing to write home about in the T20 format. When batsmen play out bowlers the way Gayle did in this innings, those bowlers have nothing much to show for their good work, and it makes for dull viewing. Since fast-paced batting is the unique selling point of T20s, why not incentivise it even further, especially if it makes for better viewing and gives the bowlers a fairer chance.

How overall team scores will be impacted: Some may wonder whether this will make any difference at all in the long run because, after all, the same rule will apply to both teams. Let us say the team batting first scores 170, including 30 dot balls in the innings. While it may seem that the team batting second will only need to score 141 runs to win, they will in fact have a dynamic target depending on how many dot balls they play out. If they play zero dot balls in a clinical chase, they may need to score only 141. However, if the batsmen attempt to play out the better bowlers and smash the others, scoring even 180 may not be good enough if the team has played out more than 40 dot balls in the process. The Minus Rule will force teams to think more about strategy and pacing the innings.

Low-scoring chases: There are often situations when viewers expect the chasing team to wrap up the game quickly when the runs-to-balls equation is straightforward. However, some teams become overcautious and take the game to the very end, leaving fans bored and frustrated. A case in point is Chennai Super Kings' match against Sunrisers in Sharjah, where Super Kings needed only 22 runs to win off the last five overs, but eventually won with only three balls to spare. The Minus Rule will ensure that games don't drag on, thus staying in sync with the T20 spirit. Super Kings took no chances and played out six dot balls between the 15th and 19th overs of that match. If the Minus Rule were to be applied, they would have needed 11 runs to win off the last over, not as straightforward as the six runs that they in fact needed.

A foreseeable criticism of this model is that the move will be counterproductive and actually disincentivise strokeplay, because batsmen will poke and prod at balls to ensure they at least score a single run off it. For example, if the team batting first scores 150 with 30 dot balls, the chasing team can easily achieve their target of 121 by taking singles throughout the 20 overs. However, an educated fan will know this is not as simple as it sounds. Historically, we have seen that batsmen don't have the control to score off every ball, because if they did, they would have already been doing that in the numerous opportunities that low-scoring chases have presented them. Further, the Minus Rule will ensure that the pressure is always on the batting team even in a low-scoring chase. If a batsman plays out three dot balls and then scores a four, he has effectively scored just one run. Therefore, the boundary has not really released any pressure and he will be forced to go for another boundary in the over to ensure that the asking rate (even if it is only six runs an over) is kept in check. The Rule will incentivise attacking strokeplay, at least more often than not, while keeping bowlers in the game and ensuring viewers stay interested.

Potential glitches: There are a few foreseeable practical difficulties. The most significant issue will be around the scorecard representation of the negative runs. Another is the question around whether batsmen's milestones (such as fifties and hundreds) will be negated if a batsman plays out such a large number of dot balls after reaching the milestone that his score falls below the mark by the end of his innings. Also, another difficulty will be comparing individual and team scores played under the Minus Rule to past T20 matches.

A plausible solution is to make deductions from only the team total and not the batsman's individual score. However, the negative runs on account of the batsmen must be recorded separately. This can be done in the following manner. If MS Dhoni was bowled by Dale Steyn after scoring 75 runs off 34 balls it would currently be represented on the scorecard as below:

Current scorecard representation of a batting performance
Batsman Dismissal Mode Runs Mins Balls 4s 6s SR
MS Dhoni b Steyn 75 45 34 5 5 220.58

If the match is being played under the Minus Rule and Dhoni has played out ten dot balls, the scorecard could be shown as below:

Scorecard representation of a batting performance under the Minus Rule
Batsman Dismissal Mode Runs Mins Balls 4s 6s SR Minus Net SR
MS Dhoni b Steyn 75 45 34 5 5 220.58 10 191.17

This would ensure that batsmen's milestones and records will not have to be revoked once achieved. However, it is likely that there will be interesting scenes where batsmen are slightly embarrassed to celebrate their fifties/hundreds if they have gotten there after playing out numerous dot balls (like if he has scored 50 runs off 45 balls, including five sixes and five fours - this would mean that he has played out 35 dot balls, making his effective contribution to the team 15 runs off 45 balls). A similar system can be used to record bowling figures. Besides "runs conceded", additional columns can record "runs earned" and "net economy rate". Absurd situations such as those of batsmen ended their innings on a negative score (like of they score a five-ball duck) will also be avoided by this mode of data recording. This method also resolves any issues relating to scorecard representation, because the alteration from status quo is minimal. While match scorecards can record Minus Runs, Net Strike Rate, Runs Earned and Net Economy Rate, they may be ignored for the purpose of all other records. This will allow us to continue recording match data in the way they are today, thus ensuring that a separate database need not be created in relation to individual records (it may still be necessary for team scores and results) for matches played under the Minus Rule.

Under the Minus Rule, batsmen would not just be adding a run to their team's total by taking a single, but also ensuring that a run is not deducted from it. Essentially, a single will now be worth two.