Liam Cromar

How I stopped worrying and learned to love declaration bowling

Why the captains' arrangement in the Middlesex-Yorkshire Championship game didn't feel unsporting

Liam Cromar
A general view of the Middlesex-Yorkshire game, Middlesex v Yorkshire, County Championship, Division One, Lord's, September 23, 2016

The mutually-agreed-to target at Lord's gave the spectators a contest they could enjoy even though it was contrived  •  Getty Images

The observation that cricket is a mad game will be one that many, both inside and outside the ranks of its followers, will instantly agree with. It demands a strange love. For a few hours during the final afternoon of the County Championship, however, the game that Middlesex and Yorkshire were engaged in threatened to be not merely mad but MAD.
That is to say, had collaboration between the warring parties not been undertaken, they were heading for the cricketing version of Mutually Assured Destruction. As Middlesex batted on, unable to manoeuvre into a winning position, Yorkshire found themselves in a no more enviable situation. Had either team struck what threatened to be a decisive blow, their counterparts would likely still have been able to prevent them winning - a draw equating, in the circumstances, to complete failure, since this would have ensured the Championship title headed to the third party of Somerset.
The analogy only works partially: MAD as a strategy was designed to leave both parties in perpetual stalemate - in the circumstances, a "draw" being as good as a "win".
By contrast, in the Lord's scenario, a draw was the same as a loss, hence the need to step off the MAD treadmill.
Which is why the two captains, James Franklin and Andrew Gale, famously negotiated in the War Room - the Pavilion toilets in their case - a specified target of 240 in 40 overs for Yorkshire.
The equilibrium of the situation, with both teams locked in a deadly embrace, meant that such cooperation - and the binge of artificial run-gorging it entailed - was needed to yield a possibility of either succeeding. It was unfortunate that it had the side-effect of drastically reducing Somerset's chances of the title, but that was one that neither Middlesex nor Yorkshire could reasonably have been expected to factor in, without compromising the integrity of the competition. As an arrangement, it was less contrivance, more concert.
Cricketers are blasted when they fail to provide sufficient entertainment to the paying viewers, so it hardly seems fair to then criticise them for taking actions that guarantee greater thrills
The unease of many viewers - and it should be acknowledged that it was to be found both among neutrals and partisans, cricket lovers and neophytes - can likely be ascribed to the fundamental expectation that one has when viewing sport, the unwritten contract between spectator and sportsmen: the latter are expected to exert themselves fully, to give no quarter, to expend the maximum effort in the attempt to win. Seeing "joke" bowling and fielding barely worthy of the term understandably stirred such discontent. It felt un-sporting, if not unsporting.
When viewed in context, though, it was clear that what may have appeared "preverted" behaviour was a reflection of full exertion in the cause of winning, rather than the lack of interest that first glance might have suggested.
Yorkshire had, of course, far from given up. Indeed, Gale could have justifiably employed General Oliver P Smith's famous pronouncement: "We are not retreating - we are advancing in another direction." By Yorkshire's conceding territory - runs - to Middlesex, both teams advanced in the game, reducing the probability of what could, for once, be properly termed a losing draw.
The fuse was lit and the stage set for drama. Quite appropriately, too, for how could a great cricket finale be such without a dash of controversy?
Earlier in the season, on the same ground, a situation had briefly threatened to arise where both teams would have stood to gain by not continuing to play. In the final round of the Royal London One-Day Cup, Middlesex played Surrey, with neither team assured of a place in the knockouts. On a day greatly affected by weather, a win would have given either team a strong chance of qualifying; however, if Kent and Hampshire lost their games, both Middlesex and Surrey would have qualified in the event of curtailment; the former on points, the latter on net run rate. Playing to a result, however, would mean one of them would likely be eliminated. Collaboration in such a situation would have benefited both teams, but at the cost of entertaining the spectators.
It is mildly diverting to wonder whether, if it were beneficial for both teams' competition prospects, those in the stands would ever call for players to halt the match. It would be another temporary inversion of the normal roles of sports viewing: the supporters would be ceding ground - their right to expect their team to attempt to win - to increase the chances of advancement at a later date. Partisans on both sides might be content with such an arrangement; neutral spectators likely less so.
As it turned out, Kent won, ensuring that the Middlesex and Surrey captains, Franklin and Gareth Batty, did not need to grapple with such questions, and also that their teams' obligations to the public - to provide a contest for them to observe - were fulfilled. One could argue that, logically, had that situation arisen, they should have downed tools.
Yet courses of action based on logical analysis of narrow premises have a nasty habit of coming back to bite the subject. The most famous occurrence was the 1979 one-over declaration by Somerset that should, in theory, have sent them through to the quarter-finals, but actually secured their expulsion from the competition. Bizarrely, they even voted for their own disqualification. Again, the main ones to suffer were those least culpable: the spectators who saw 17 deliveries in the entire match.
The exact opposite proved true in the Yorkshire game. Indeed, continuing to play without taking steps to guarantee a result would have reduced the spectacle for the crowd. Cricketers are blasted when they fail to provide sufficient entertainment to the paying viewers, so it hardly seems fair to then criticise them for taking actions that guarantee greater thrills. Collaboration may be a dirty word in battle, but when it promotes competition, there's no reason to get mad.

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar