May 5, 2013

Don't penalise fielders for touching the rope

If the ball doesn't touch the rope, it shouldn't be a four

Consider this. A batsman sends the ball hurtling towards the boundary but a fielder comes sliding across the turf and pulls it in just in time. Since the on-field umpire is 60-odd metres away from the action, he calls the third umpire to investigate if it's a four or not. The replays show the fielder managed to keep the ball in but his toe grazed the skirting while he was in contact with the ball. The umpire signals a four because, according to the current law, the circuit is complete - the ball is touching the fielder, the fielder is touching the rope - though the ball itself hasn't actually touched the boundary.

How often does this happen? In almost every other match, these days.

According to the current law, a boundary is scored if (i) the ball either touches the rope or is grounded after the boundary, or (ii) the fielder, while in contact with the ball, touches the boundary or has some part of his person grounded beyond the rope.

When the ball is hit along the ground, it is the second point above that is unfair to the fielder, and like most laws, indirectly benefits the batsman. If the ball has not physically touched the boundary, why award the batsman extra runs? Why not let the fielder take measurable credit for the effort?

For someone who is risking injury, the demands on a fielder in this case are harsh and too many - he is expected to be a bodysurfer and a limbo dancer while also being a cricketer. When he slides on one leg, he has to keep an eye on the ball and his extended leg; when he dives headlong, one side of his body becomes a potential contact. It is hard enough to intercept a speeding ball, but worrying about contacts within a fraction of a second adds another level of difficulty. (On the other hand, a fielder is restricted to breaking the stumps with only his hands - not the whole body - to run out a batsman. Talk of the game favouring the batsman.)

The same logic can be extended to catches taken at the boundary. If a fielder's foot (or feet) brushes the inside of the boundary and is not well over the line, it's still a well-judged catch. So why penalise him?

In international cricket these days, a foam-triangle-encased rope with a paint marking underneath is standard as a boundary marker. The cameras spot the ball's position relative to the boundary better than ever before. Why not just focus on the ball rather than the fielder's errant limbs? The tweak to the law can make the third umpire's life easier too and save the time wasted in checking each camera angle and frame.

In the modern game, boundaries get pulled in - sometimes by a few yards - to favour batsmen. How about yielding an inch for fielders?

Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo