Shamik Das


Friday, July 29, 2011

The case against substitutes in cricket

Cricket

THERE has been much debate recently about the use of substitutes in cricket, from the forthcoming outlawing of runners, to the tightening up of fielding subs post-05, and now a suggestion on Cricinfo for tactical replacements to be allowed.

We’ll come to the wider debate later, but first to Rob Steen’s article on Cricinfo this week making “the case for substitutes”, in which he asks why cricket is “so resistant to permitting like-for-like replacements for players who are under-par and underperforming”.

At the beginning, he writes:

“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.”

This attempt to suggest the one day innovations led to the five day final day clamour is as wilfully ignorant as it is misleading. The Lord’s Test was not a “condensed match” and did not feature “fielding restrictions” or “‘super’ overs”, and even the “arbitration by TV replay” was DRS lite - no LBs could be referred to the third umpire, as well Rob knows.

There is no causal relationship between the one day modernisations and the fifth day lust for pure, old skool class. The queues would have been “snaking around Lord’s on Monday” regardless.

Onto the substance of his plans, let’s first look at what the laws of cricket (pdf) currently say.

Law 2.1 (a) (i) states:

“If the umpires are satisfied that a player has been injured or become ill after the nomination of the players, they shall allow that player to have a substitute acting instead of him in the field.”

With Law 2.3 specifying:

“A substitute shall not be allowed to bat or bowl nor to act as wicket-keeper or as captain on the field of play.”

Rule 2.1.3 of the ICC’s Standard Test Match Playing Conditions (pdf) adds:

“Substitute fielders shall only be permitted in cases of injury, illness or other wholly acceptable reasons. ‘Wholly acceptable reasons’ should be limited to extreme circumstances and should not include what is commonly referred to as a ‘comfort break’.”

That ruling tightens up the system, dealing at a stroke with abuses of the present subs system, most notably during the 2005 Ashes in which England players were on and off like a light switch, nipping off for a wizz or towel-down... though it should be remembered that Gary Pratt, when running out Ricky Ponting at Trent Bridge that memorable summer, was very much a legitimate replacement.

Steen’s desire to amend these laws, allowing current substitutes to become players, and permitting tactical substitutions, would fundamentally alter the game, turning it from the last true 11v11 into a 12- 13- (why not 14- or 15-) a-side contest, diluting the talent level, and descending the game into farce.

In the case of the former, what would stop a ‘bloodgate’-style fake injury scenario, or football-style feigned writhing around on the floor in agony, in order to bring on a new player who’d be permitted to do everything; in the case of the latter, there’d be nothing preventing teams, for example, packing fourth innings line ups with batsmen/bowlers, or third innings’ in the case of follow-ons/game-saving situations.

More draws would most likely result.

Then, there’s the question, in the case of permitting full replacements for injuries, from where one would summon up a 12th or 13th man, unless one were to propose they wile away the five days on the balcony in the vain hope of an injury. It’s fine for touring teams, but is it really feasible for the home side?

And on tactical subs, wither the all-rounder; why have a Hadlee or Sobers or Kapil or Flintoff when you can pack the squad with pure bowlers and pure batsmen.

As Simon Briggs wrote in the Telegraph:

“...let other sports shuffle people on and off the field like Shane Warne changing his poker hand. In cricket, the same team that starts the match must finish the match - minus any casualties sustained along the way.

“It is a tough school, admittedly, but the status quo favours the teams with the most exacting fitness standards and the most brave and resourceful individuals.

“Some of cricket’s greatest legends tell of incapacitated batsmen who shrugged off the pain of broken fingers, or bowlers who kept running in when lesser men (can we avoid another football parallel here?) would call for the stretcher.

“Think of Malcolm Marshall skittling England with a plaster cast on his left arm in 1984, or Colin Cowdrey defying Wes Hall with one hand in 1963...”

Onto the change in the rules on runners, which are to be banned in all international cricket from September/October, at the end of the English season. Even allowing for the ICC’s claim “there has been a strong feeling that runners were used not in the right spirit”, their complete abolition does seem overly disproportionate.

ICC chief Haroon Lorgat says:

“It’s quite a difficult one for umpires to determine whether there has been a real injury to batsmen or whether it was a tactical use of runners...

“If a bowler gets injured you can't continue bowling for the rest of the day and the feeling was that it would be better to not allow the use of runners because there has been abuse in the past.”

As I said, even allowing for this, it’s easily got round, with a firm ‘No’, or maybe even the corroboration of the opposition physio if in doubt, someone who, despite their colours, owes their first allegiance to their oath and is unlikely to give false advice - and neither will players be willing to chance it if they knew that could be humiliatingly rebuffed.

Under the new rules, you may end up with a crooked batsman hobbling out to the middle and both he and his partner blocking or boundarying, with no running whatsoever. Or, if we’re getting real farcical, the fit batsman running two and getting one; one short is short whether the batsman is 21 yards shy or 21 milimetres short.

But back to the primary point, about tactical subs and full subs for injuries. If we aren’t careful, we may end up with 16-man squads, or, the nightmare vision, specialist teams as in American Football, and if there’s one thing cricket ain’t, it ain’t American.

As Michael Atherton wrote (£) so brilliantly on the eve of the 2,000th Test:

“It is, though, only the rhythms of Test cricket, the ebb and flow, the peculiar challenge offered by the changing conditions over five days and the mental and physical questions that the long game asks of the players, that marks cricket out as a special game.

“Otherwise, you might as well watch baseball.”

The Times: A brief history of Test cricket
Cricinfo: England v India, 2nd Test live

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