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

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