Still Not Cricket

by J. J. Gass

I've taken to following cricket, a game that has the charming yet problematic concept of "the spirit of the game," which means that even legal actions can bring opprobrium (whence the phrase "It's not cricket"). I learned of an infamous moment from the 1970's, which you can read about here:
You may find the account of what happened afterwards particularly interesting: such was the outcry that the management of the offending team voted in favor of a motion to expel the team from the competition.

A primer on the game may be necessary to establish context. As in baseball, the object is for the batting team to score as many runs as possible before the fielding team records the required number of wickets (outs). Unlike in baseball, the fielding team's task can require hours, or even days, with the batting side scoring hundreds of runs. At the highest levels of professional cricket, games are scheduled to take up to 3, 4, or 5 days. A team that is batting very successfully may use up so much time that it doesn't have enough time left to bowl out the other team; if time runs out before the last wicket has been taken (in other words, before enough outs have been recorded), the match is a draw. Therefore, the captain of the team that is batting may "declare," or forfeit the remainder of the team's innings (similar to at-bats in baseball), giving up the chance to score more runs in order to give his bowlers (which correspond to pitchers in baseball) a better chance to bowl the other side out.

In the 1970's, a shorter form of the game, in which matches were completed in a single day (of eight or nine hours, including lunch and tea intervals), became popular. Each side is given a maximum number of deliveries in which to score its runs, usually something around 300. If you are bowled out before then, your innings is over; but even if you haven't lost a single wicket, your innings ends after the other side has bowled 300 deliveries. In this form of the game, declarations are unnecessary and unheard-of, but still legal.

In 1979, the premier one-day competition in England was the Benson & Hedges Cup, and it led to a great controversy over sportsmanlike dumping (where an entrant sacrifices chances in one unit of play to increase its chance of overall success in the event).

Like a number of the other instances that The Bridge World has chronicled, this competition involved a group round-robin stage to qualify teams for a knockout stage. And like many of the other cases, the difficulty stemmed from the rule for breaking ties in the round-robin. A team that had scored runs at a faster rate would be placed ahead of a team with a lower run rate (run rate being defined, in essence, as the number of runs scored per delivery faced).

Coming to the last round of round-robin matches, Somerset was in a position to advance to the knockouts. Two other teams could tie Somerset if they won and Somerset lost in the final round-robin matches. Both of those teams had significantly inferior run rates to Somerset's, so the only way that Somerset could fail to advance was if it not only lost but scored very few runs, while both of its two rivals scored big totals in winning. One of those rivals was Worcestershire, Somerset's opponent in the final match. Somerset won the coin toss and elected to bat first, which was crucial to its sportsmanlike-dumping plan. It batted for one over (a set of six deliveries), and then declared with one run. Worcestershire quickly scored the two runs required for the victory, which ended the match. Having played so few deliveries, however, the teams made barely any impression on their run rates for the season, so Somerset clinched a position in the knockout (that is, until they were expelled from the competition).

The spirit of the game mentality does sometimes lead cricketers to behave differently from their counterparts in other professional sports. In an international (or "test") match last summer, in a moment reminiscent of the Fred Merkle debacle of 1908. [In a pennant-critical major-league baseball game, a two-out hit had ostensibly driven in the winning run, but Merkle, a baserunner on first base, ran off the field before touching second base. Johnny Evers (of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame) retrieved the ball (allegedly from celebrating fans) and touched second base (where an umpire still waited) to force out Merkle. An inning-ending out by force out or by preventing the batter from reaching first base precludes any scoring on the play.] An English batsman left the field for the tea interval without ensuring that play had concluded. India's version of Johnny Evers broke the batsman's wicket, and the umpire declared the batsman out. The crowd was in an ugly mood when the Indian team retook the field after tea. But then the batsman in question also reappeared, and the public-address announcer notified the spectators that India had withdrawn its appeal against him (cricket umpires don't declare a batsman out unless the fielding side appeals). Boos turned to cheers, and when the batsman was finally dismissed for good, he shook the hand of the Indian captain before returning to the pavilion. The captain was loudly applauded by the English crowd and lauded by the English press as a fine example for young cricketers to look up to.


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