Cricket as Mario Kart
Russell Degnan

It is always a joy to interact with the Cricket Australia marketing machine. It is more or less guaranteed to drain me of any excitement for the game of cricket, and particulary their proposed BBL. The latest, a survey of proposed rule changes that would be laughable if it wasn't so depressing.

Some are no more than marketing gimmicks, such as the suggestion to let the spectators keep the ball when a six is hit - a suggestion even my housemate, no cricket fan but occasional attendee recognised as being fundamentally at odds with the game's nature.

Others just don't seem to understand what I'd been led to believe was their target market: people like my girlfriend, in fact, non-cricket fans, who might occasionally attend a T20. Last T20 season a friend brought an overseas aquaintance who'd never seen cricket before. There is under-current of snobbishness in cricket circles that the game is hard, intellectually; too at odds with foreign temperaments. It can be hard and T20 is in theory an easy introduction to the basic fundamentals. But it also suffers from confusing and unnecessary elements: it is much harder to explain a free hit, fielding and bowling restrictions than the game itself, and unlike batting or bowling these elements are not obvious to the eye.

Why then does CA propose to increase the number of fielders allowed outside the circle by 1 every 5 overs; or to introduce free-hits off wides; or add substitute batsmen or "super overs"? All of them complicate a simple game and alienate the uninitiated in favour of ten year-olds.

A video game like Mario Kart is good fun as a pure racing game, but as entertainment they can be repetitive if competitors are not evenly matched. To compensate, they introduce elements of luck that sometimes even out the competition. These are confusing to the uninitiated too, but the value of luck as a defining feature over-rides that problem. Sport, however, is not about luck, it is about finding the best performer. As luck plays a larger part in an outcome, the value of winning the contest is reduced, and for a spectator (rather than a player) the sport becomes a joke.

Nor is it clear that the proposals will work as suggested, or are the best way to achieve what they want. A clear aim seems to be to encourage higher scoring by crippling the bowling team (fielding restrictions) or boosting the batting team (more free hits, super overs and extra batsmen). But such gimmicks devalue the attacking cricket on display: there is no evidence that spectators like watching more boundaries in and for themselves, as opposed to attacking cricket, which is a given in a shortened contest.

Moreover, the secondary aim of he super over is for a team to use it to "get back into the game". This may work occasionally, but by and large, the value of an attacking option is proportional to available resources that can use it. A super over is as likely to blow a contest out, as to improve it.

Needless to say, there are other ways, ones which would enhance the tactical elements of the game, without confusing spectators, and without increasing the quotient of luck.

Removing bowling restrictions would achieve the same effect as a 12th man/pinch hitting batsman, as teams could risk playing with fewer bowlers to increase the batting resources. It would enhance the spectacle as the best players - the marketable stars - would be in the contest for longer periods.

The better way to maintain a semblance of parity to the contest for longer would be to introduce split innings to T20, as mooted for 50 over games. Arguably, T20 is more in need of this concept, as a weak first innings score is generally an easy (and risk free) chase, whereas most games would be three quarters finished before it was completely clear a team was unlikely to come back with a split innings.

If the aim is to allow a side to get back into the game, then scope needs to be given for them to change their tactical approach. The traditional way of doing this is via actual substitutions - not a pinch hitter - such as by allowing a team to replace up to two players who hadn't already batted at half time. There are several advantages to this: teams needing runs could remove a bowler in favour of more batting; ineffective bowlers could be replaced in favour of bowlers who could exploit the pitch conditions; and it would reduce the effect of initial selection gambles and the toss.

The problem with most reforms undertaken of the one-day game is that they pevert the scorecard by constraining the tactical options of one side, perhaps improving the entertainment for children, but lessening the tactical elements underlying the sport, and therefore the strength of narrative. Administrators need to realise that cricket is a sport, not a video game where slipping a banana skin under a side constitutes entertainment, and spend more time thinking about the patterns of play they are trying to adjust. The alternative - more gimmicks - is profoundly off-putting, and I'd seriously consider not attending if the bulk of these rules were introduced.

Idle Summers 29th May, 2011 07:40:00   [#]