The first Test match between England and Pakistan in Abu Dhabi resembled a Greek tragedy in which cricket's fate was to struggle relentlessly towards the distant dream of entertainment and competitive drama - only to give up when the prize was almost in reach.
Homer's Odyssey describes the ordeal of Odysseus as he tries to return home in order to be reunited with his wife, Penelope. It takes Odysseus ten years but he gets there in the end. So the analogy with this Test match only half-fits. The first four days of tedious cricket in Abu Dhabi certainly felt like a ten-year ordeal. But when nirvana approached - in the form of an actual competitive match with the prospect of a result - both sides were ushered off the field and a draw was pronounced.
It was like pursuing a beautiful woman around the world for ten years, finally persuading her to have dinner, only to announce after the starter course, "Sorry to leave early, but I pre-booked a taxi home at 9pm. Bye."
It was a magnificent effort by England even to create a chance of a result. But sometimes you have to pinch yourself about Test cricket. Here is a game that seems unable to fix the most elementary problems, though the remedies are clearly in the sport's collective self-interest.
Theoretically, cricket is engineered to entertain. In practice? The pitch played as though it had been expressly curated to negate entertainment (I'm not saying it was). The hours of play were bizarre. Overs were lost every day due to bad light - lost overs that ended up preventing a thrilling denouement - but no one seemed willing or able to shift the hours of play forward. I went running every morning of the Test and there was some dew but it was not extravagant. So there was no reason, if play had begun earlier, why 90 overs could not have been bowled every day. It is scarcely a secret that night falls quickly in the desert. So why wait till the evening to squeeze in extra overs?
The hours of play were bizarre. Overs were lost every day due to bad light - lost overs that ended up preventing a thrilling denouement - but no one seemed willing or able to shift the hours of play forward
Instead, England were denied victory by bad light - a move that carried a certain narrow rationality (it echoed the decision to go off for bad light at the end of day four). Do not get carried away with the logic of the game's rationality, however. How would you explain to an American that the match could not be finished on account of bad light, despite the fact that the floodlights were on and there was absolutely no threat to the players' safety? In three weeks' time, an ODI will be in full swing at the exact hour that this Test was declared as a draw.
Pakistan's attempts to slow the game down in the last hour effectively used fading light as their central tactic to avoid defeat. Everyone does it and Pakistan were no more cynical than other teams. The umpires intervened late and reluctantly, or so it seemed. Meanwhile, no attempt was made inside the ground to communicate the salient facts to the crowd, who were literally left in the dark as they waited for night to fall.
Let's draw up a short list: a desperate pitch, slow over rates, time wasting, reluctance to use common sense, poor communication with fans, light-touch umpiring. And still, despite all that, a thrilling finale nearly broke out. Imagine how good cricket could be if we cured the easy fixes.
Sport can solve problems, where there is the will. When the back pass was making football boring, it was made illegal. When big servers were killing the spectacle at Wimbledon, the balls were made 10% slower to give returners a chance. Cricket has sometimes shown a preparedness to address problems - the ICC has finally cracked down on suspect bowling actions.
So why does cricket continue to get bogged down by the problems that beset the first Test here? The explanation was provided in 1950 by Albert Tucker, the Princeton mathematician and game theorist. He formalised "The Prisoners' Dilemma". The theoretical experiment explains how when two agents pursue narrow self-interest it can work against the long-term benefit of both parties.
Imagine two members of the same gang are imprisoned in separate cells. They are not allowed to communicate. But there is insufficient evidence against them. To try to force a confession, the police offer each of them the same bargain - known as Defect or Cooperate.
Admit that your partner committed the crime - and if he stays silent - then you will go free and your partner will get three years in prison.
But if you stay silent and your partner testifies that you did it, you will face prison for three years and he will walk free.
If you both betray each other, you both go to prison for two years.
If you both stay silent, you both get only one year in prison.
What is the best strategy, defect or cooperate?
The best outcome, in terms of combined punishment, is obviously for both prisoners to cooperate - to remain silent. The combined punishment would be two single-year prison terms.
But that isn't what they do. Because they cannot communicate, the rational response is to anticipate what the other prisoner will do. If you think the other prisoner will stay silent, the rational response is to defect - and hence walk free. If you think the other prisoner will defect, the rational response is still to defect - and hence serve only two years in prison rather than three. The playing out of the game is both entirely rational and yet still works against the self-interest of both prisoners. Here is a short video summary.
The point is very simple. There are some circumstances in life when the failure to communicate and agree to a collective response leads to a series of rational responses that ultimately work against everyone's interests.
Cricket is currently suffering its own versions of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Individual teams play on pitches that may suit their own team, but certainly don't suit the game as a spectacle.
Captains slow down games to avoid defeat. They escape with a draw at the expense of the drama. Teams bowl overs slowly to escape losses. It works, but to the detriment of the entertainment.
The only way to avoid this is to take the decisions out of the hands of the individual agents. There must be a collective agreement that serves the whole game. This is why sports have governing bodies - effectively to convene meetings between the prisoners in the prisoners' dilemma and to persuade them not to defect, but instead to cooperate for the good of the game - which, of course, is the best protector of their own individual long-term self-interest as well.
Step forward ICC. Set the prisoners free.