July 27, 2011

The case for substitutes

Why is cricket so resistant to permitting like-for-like replacements for players who are under-par and underperforming?

Condensed matches, fielding restrictions, Powerplays, arbitration by TV replay, "super" overs. We could while away a lunch interval counting the ways in which cricket, more than any other sport, has been open to flexibility, remaking and remodelling itself to meet the challenges of fickle fashion and a fast-forward planet. Objectionable and irrelevant as some have been, this approach to innovation has achieved the desired means, namely survival, even prosperity. If it hadn't, there would have been no queue snaking around Lord's on Monday, let alone one of such inordinate length that my son and I couldn't find the end of it (and when one's non-cricket-loving teenage son has been dragged from his slumber at 6am, a father is best advised to give up gracefully).

Yet amid all those justified paeans to the enduring appeal of the longest format, fuelled in such timely fashion by the quality and competitive fires of that splendid 2000th Test, something niggled. Which may come as a surprise to those who know me as an inveterate Pom who unabashedly craves the day when his national team peer down at all opposition. The opening round of the Pataudi Trophy series, after all, proffered a multitude of reasons to be nauseatingly cheerful. Yet there it was, a stone in my shoe. How ironic that this misgiving should concern the one area of evolution where the game remains happily mired in the Dark Ages, unable or unwilling to confront its most durable taboo.

When Zaheer Khan outsmarted and outwitted Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook last Thursday, MS Dhoni's sagacious insertion looked destined to bear fruit. Instead, a tweaked hamstring left India spearhead-free for 90% of the contest, leaving a backbreaking burden on the shoulders of Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar and Harbhajan Singh. Would the result have differed had Sreesanth or Munaf Patel been available as a reinforcement? Or, for that matter, had Yuvraj Singh been able to bat for Gautam Gambhir? Maybe, maybe not. Granted, even if Zaheer had not been stricken, victory might still have gone the way of an England side as long on mettle, grit, fibre and steely intent as they are short on passengers, but the margin could hardly have been remotely as convincing, could it?

In the immediate aftermath, publicly at least, Strauss made light of his manpower advantage - but then he would, wouldn't he? This was no time to damn his jubilant charges with diluted praise. Asked by Mike Atherton how disappointed he was with his team, Dhoni sidestepped nimbly and reeled off his casualty list, accentuating the chasm left by Zaheer's exit - but then he would, wouldn't he? Whatever angle you come from, the difference between the sides was distorted.

Sometimes pennies take time to drop. In the 1950s and early 1960s, a stream of FA Cup finals was disrupted, and often decided, by an injury, usually - crucially - to a defender. Replacements for crocked players had been allowed in the very first FIFA World Cup, in 1930, and in the qualifying phase since 1954, yet it took the Football League until 1965 to sanction substitutes. Two years later it assented to tactical switches. For rugby union, the delay was longer: replacements were officially permitted from 1968, but not until 1996 could a misfiring participant be traded for a fresher body.

Cricket's closest cousin, baseball, conversely, has employed pinch-hitters for more than a century, and primarily for strategic reasons. The 12th man, similarly, has been part of the fabric of flannelled folly since antiquity, yet how far have we progressed along that particular curve? Allowing them to field in the slips and occasionally keep wicket. The England and Wales Cricket Board has empowered counties to replace a player summoned for international duty during Championship fixtures, or incorporate one ditched from a Test XII, but while that may be progress, it doesn't get anywhere near even the neighbourhood of the crux of the matter.

Not that there haven't been abuses aplenty. Earlier this month, and not a moment prematurely, the ICC revised its playing conditions so that substitutions will no longer be permissible when players leave the field for what is ubiquitously referred to as the "comfort break". The Laws have not altered, as Fraser Stewart of the MCC's Laws Department recently clarified: "ICC's tweak is a reaffirmation of what is laid down in any case. Under Law 2.1(c) a substitute fielder may act only for a player who is ill or injured or, at the umpire's discretion, for 'other wholly acceptable reasons'." So far as the governing body is concerned, circumstances must be extreme. No longer will it be acceptable to nip off, without leaving the skipper shorthanded, for a change of boots (read massage) or a quick pee (read Twitter update or natter with agent). Regrets will not be profound.

But why, especially in a game that spans days rather than tens of minutes, should a team still be disadvantaged so grievously by misfortune such as that which befell Zaheer and India? While other team games, being more physically demanding, had a more obvious and pressing need to adopt substitutions, we're not talking about a lag time of a decade or two here but half a century, at best. Nor are the counter-arguments terribly compelling.

IN STATING HIS OBJECTIONS, a fellow scribe with whom I habitually concur on pretty much everything cricketing, from the wonders of VVS Laxman to the blunders of not picking Mark Ramprakash for England in the mid-to-late-2000s, was not only adamant but uncharacteristically vehement: as logical and fair as replacements for the injured and lame would be - and he, too, lamented the imbalance caused by Zaheer's withdrawal, as any person possessed of a functioning brain should - the inevitable upshot, tactical substitutions, would make it the thin end of a craggy wedge.

Besides, he reasoned, even if the lawmakers stopped short of this, the scope for corruption would be immense. Anyone who has seen Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, and hence James Woods' immaculate flesh-creeping turn as the doctor who allows a frequently concussed linebacker to take the field and all but die, will testify to the unconscionable depths to which it is already possible for the medical fraternity to plunge. How many physios would suddenly discover a mysterious ailment in a new-baller who'd been biffed for 200 in the first innings, or a misbehaving metatarsal in a batsman who'd gone first ball?

When the outcome of a match revolves around an opponent's health, whether determined by a heavy fall, a short ball to the ribs or an accumulation of strain, the victor's satisfaction can never be complete

The nauseous aversion to tactical substitutions, though, has long bemused. If a player is under-par and underperforming, and thus undermining the collective effort, why is cricket, of all team games, so unblinkingly resistant to permitting a like-for-like replacement?

This might have been tolerable in less tumultuous times, but Grace, Bradman and Worrell didn't have to contend with the Future Tours Programme, much less the lure of the IPL. Reasonable as it may be to forecast that permitting strategic changes would denude the captain's authority and hence pass even more power to the coach, that doesn't strike me as a regression. The former has enough on his plate as it is; would it not be preferable to share the load than be saddled with the sole responsibility of dropping a colleague mid-match, not to mention the prickly fallout?

Admittedly some sports have been too accommodating, too generous. As rugby union became (officially) professional, so a 15-man game transmogrified into a 22-man parade-cum-charade, although given the increased pace and bodily toll, this made more than a soupçon of sense; turning soccer into a 16-man game still feels like an unwarranted indulgence. Cricket scarcely requires such excesses.

Once Pandora's box is opened, there can be no closing it. We've already been down that road with TV replays and where has that got us? Well, to a juster game, since you ask, and hence a better one, however manful the BCCI's attempts to keep a lid on it. If we added a substitute batsman and bowler, to cover all eventualities, and cricket teams became XIIIs instead of XIs, would it really be such a dreadful concession to modernity?

The influence exerted by fortune, outrageous or otherwise, is all part of the human drama; only a killjoy would deny luck its role in sport. Without it, how many triumphs by the little guy would be no more than valiant failures? But when the outcome of a match revolves around an opponent's health, whether determined by a heavy fall, a short ball to the ribs or an accumulation of strain, the victor's satisfaction can never be complete.

Unlike life, and however short it may fall, sport can aspire to perfection because, at bottom, it matters enough to render risk worthwhile but not enough to make the consequences of failure unbearable. In accepting no substitutes, cricket has been far too conservative for far too long.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mysecretme on July 29, 2011, 2:19 GMT

    Guys think about players whose careers (could)have ended because they were doing something they were not good at. One of your squad fast bowlers getting hit by a bouncer/diving in the field and getting a career threatening injury? Batsmen fielding in close-in positions and getting injured? Look at the number of fast bowlers who had to end their careers because of over use. Having separate batting, bowling and fielding teams will be a good way to solve some of these problems. And it would not be the death of allrounders. Good allrounders can be in both 11's. Although for bits and pieces players it would be impossible. But I think guys like Kallis, Flower, Watson, Imran Khan etc would be in more than one 11's. You can even keep the requirement that the captain (and/or vice-captain) needs to be in both fielding as well as one of the other 11's. Countries struggling to find the 33 can always use bits and pieces players to fill up their 11's. The 11's would be announced before the match.

  • Binoj on July 28, 2011, 20:58 GMT

    After seeing WI suffering due to the loss of Rampaul during the entire first innings in the Third Test against India and India now suffering from the loss of Zaheer Khan in the First Test against England, I feel ICC should allow like-for-like substitution so that team does not suffer for the loss of one key player especially in Tests.

  • Chetan on July 28, 2011, 15:02 GMT

    I for one am all for a 15 member team. Even the supersub, a concept which would have been brilliant if used well was not used very well. Imagine - India Vs Australia, perfect I bat first conditions. Supersubs - India - Sachin Tendulkar Australia - Ricky Ponting. What would the captain winning the toss do ? If he bats first, the opposition uses their best 5 bowlers & then, Glen McGrath gets replaced with Ponting OR Munaf Patel gets replaced with Sachin ! If he fields first and the opposition gets off to a flier what happens ? OR - pitch expected to help seamers all day India Super Sub - Zaheer Khan Australia Supersub - Glen McGrath Field first & you know - one of the opposition's batsmen will be replaced with a top class seam bowler. Bat first & if the opposition's remaining bowlers bowl well, the media will have a field day on you.

  • Adam on July 28, 2011, 14:24 GMT

    I think we can all agree that: 1) injury only subs are too open to abuse. 2) like-for-like rules are unworkable. 3) rolling substitutes or mass substitutions of 3 or 4 players is going too far and will affect the game too much.... I do think a substitute should be allowed at any time though: if your bowler is crocked, why should you wait until the opposition have racked up 500 before you can replace him? Just get the sub on immediately. I think one substitute, chosen from a shortlist of 3 (one batsman, one bowler, one keeper) named before the game, and its up to the captain whether he goes for a like-for-like replacement for an injured or out-of-form player or makes a single tactical switch instead. The only argument against this seems to be "tradition, tradition, tradition", which isn't much of an argument at all.

  • Dummy4 on July 28, 2011, 9:33 GMT

    As cricket has its two phases of batting and fielding, so American Football has two parrallel phases of offence and defence. At professional level these are served by entirely different squads; a game which allows only 11 players on the field at any one time requires a squad of 40+ to be in attendance, and players are highly specialised to their positions to the degree that it is (almost) unknown for a player to appear "on both sides of the ball". Tactical substitution at cricket can only lead, in time, to a parrallel situation of a Batting X1 and a Bowling X1. I'm not saying that would not be entertaining, but it will change the game for ever. Allrounders will disappear. The fact that Broad, Bresnan and Swann are all useful batsmen will no longer be a consideration at selection time, nor the fact tha Collingwood can bowl a dozen tidy overs if push comes to shove. And we shall never again see No 11s who "can't bat"trying to play out the last over through gritten teeth to secure a draw.

  • RAGHURAM on July 28, 2011, 9:17 GMT

    I think, substitutions can be brought back in One Day & T-20. It can be unlimited substitutions. In other words, the team nominates the entire 15 member squad to play, though only eleven would bat/bowl/field. There would be eleven fielders including the baller and wicketkeeper with unlimited substitutions from the reserve four players. The captain / coach would have the option of deciding the batting eleven from the 15 players as the game progresses. The same would be for the bowlers. If a bowler goes for plenty of runs, the fielding captain would have the option of substituting him with another bowler from the reserve 4 players. This I feel, would make the game especially T-20 cricket more interesting with strategic substitutions coming into play and team winning even from hopeless positions..... ANY TAKERS ???

  • John on July 28, 2011, 8:19 GMT

    The concept of like-for-like substitutes is utterly unworkable. The laws do not recognise the concept of specialist batsmen or bowlers for the reason that all players are able to participate in both disciplines. Critically, bowlers have widely varying batting skills so the substitution of say, Glenn McGrath with Brett Lee may be like-for-like in bowling terms but is anything but in batting terms. Also, as we found out last week, India's wicket-keeper is also the fourth seamer - where do you find a like-for-like for him? Furthermore, an 'injuries only' rule is equally unworkable. The only scheme I can see working is an absolute right to change one payer between the third and fourth innings. What would happen then is if a team were struggling (say, following on) it would bring in a defensive batsman to replace a bowler and help block out the last two days. And how would that help the game?

  • Himanshu on July 28, 2011, 5:09 GMT

    Point 1: I personally found the articel a bit boring, though I love the topic Point 2: I favor substitutes in cricket. Though I never liked the idea of super-sub as it was poorly though off and executed even worse. In my view, as it happens in some warm up gamesand in football a side should give the list of their first 11 and remaining 3 or 4 or 5 substitutes. The idea should be if a player gets injured during a test, or simply is not playing well, he can be replaced at any time as per the choice of his captain. But again just like football, a player once substituted should not be allowed to play again in that game. So it should not happen that you substitute all proper batsmen with bowlers at the end of first innings (Or vice-versa) and do the reverse at the end of second. That would really test the true deapth of a team. In one-day games where toss is extremely crucial the final 11 can be decided after the toss. it will really make things interesting.

  • Dummy4 on July 28, 2011, 4:52 GMT

    HI, NIce article. yes substitutes in cricket will bring in more excitement. teams can win from bad situations or vice versa. it would be good if during the toss the captains exchange the list of playing 11 along with 3 substitutes. the captains can choose any 3 substitutes based on their own assessment of the pitch and conditions. having 3 substitutes (can be 1 bowler, 1 batsmen and 1 all rounder) will ensure that the game will remain balanced and matches which are decided on the toss will be thing of the past. it might look like an advantage for the team batting second, but every one will have a fair choice to make before the game begins.

  • Dummy4 on July 28, 2011, 3:17 GMT

    I would agree but three things 1) substitutes can only come in for the 2nd innings 2) substitutes can't bat - otherwise any team that is losing will add another batsman to help draw 3) only one substitute allowed

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