How To Tell A Bad Idea In Cricket Without Actually Trying It First

The Australian Big Bash League have just announced three new rules which will feature in the competition due to start next month. These are ‘Power Surge’ [Two of the six powerplay overs must be taken after the halfway point by the batting team], ‘Bash Boost’ [Teams get a bonus point for being ahead after 10 overs] and ‘The X-Factor’ [Teams can substitute one player at the midway point of the first innings].

The announcement has been met with almost unaminous derision and disbelief from cricket fans, and quite a large proportion of the media too. The answer to that from its (relatively few) proponents is to watch it in action first. This strikes a nerve with me, because it’s the exact same answer people (almost exclusively employed by the ECB, Sky or the BBC) gave when faced with criticism of The Hundred. In the most extreme example, Isa Guha wrote that she felt people only had “the right to have a go” at The Hundred after it had been played for “4-5 years”.

There are three main ways in which this answer annoys me. The first is that it takes us as fans and customers for granted. There is absolutely nothing preventing us from spending our time and money on something else if we don’t like what we see. Second, I think most people can tell whether they like something or not very quickly. A bad first impression, such as from an ECB director going on national radio to tell people that the new cricket format isn’t for anyone listening, is a hard thing to overcome. A company ignores a significant negative visceral response from its consumer base at its peril. The third, and perhaps most important, is that its incredibly patronising. Few hearts and minds have been won by people implying that the people who are concerned must all be morons.

All of which begs the question: How can you tell a good idea from a bad one without spending tens of millions of pounds (or dollars) trying it in live televised games for a few years?

1) Is It Actually A New Idea?

One obvious way in which proposals can be judged is if they have actually been tried before. For people who were following cricket in 2005, the Big Bash League’s ‘X-Factor’ sounds remarkably similar to the ‘super sub’ idea which was briefly used in one-day internationals. That was abandoned within a few months after almost everyone involved agreed that it massively favoured the team who won the toss. It’s difficult to see how the BBL substitution rule won’t suffer the same fate, and it certainly hasn’t been explained by anyone from Cricket Australia.

Heeding lessons of the past need not be confined solely to cricket either. If we wanted to look at The Hundred’s reducing the number of cricket teams in England & Wales, we could compare it to the experience in Welsh Rugby from 2004. Nine clubs representing nine cities and towns were amalgamated into five (later four) regional teams. Despite undoubtedly producing a higher average quality of rugby, in terms of improving the finances or the number of supporters in Welsh rugby it has been a comprehensive failure.

2) Can You Make A Logical Argument In Its Favour?

In life, it’s generally a good rule of thumb that you probably don’t understand something very well if you can’t also explain it to someone else. Likewise, if you can’t clearly express why a change to the playing conditions of a tournament is an improvement then it probably isn’t.

It is a common theme that any explanations coming from the ECB or Cricket Australia on topics like these miss a vital step. They typically spell out what the problem they are trying to address is. They always say what they are doing. What they never do is link the two together in any kind of logical manner. Imagine that you went to a doctor with a splitting headache and they decided to put your ankle in plaster. That’s the level of logic that cricket boards seem to operate at.

When talking about the changes to this year’s BBL, the Big Bash’s player acquisition and cricket consultant Trent Woodhill said both, “Integrity [of the game] is about high performance and it’s about the contest between bat, ball and fielders.” and, “It happens in all other sports, coaches have a major say in the result. We want dialogue, we want discussion from broadcasters, as to why a coach or captain has made the decision they’ve made.” So the position of Cricket Australia appears to be that ‘bat, ball and fielders’ are the key to the integrity of the game, and that these new additions will make those aspects less important relative to the actions of the coaches and captains.

I’m certainly struggling to find a compelling argument for why Cricket Australia believe bonus points based on the scores after ten overs would be a good idea. If the team batting first scores 200-6 (Or, being in Australia, 6-200), their opponents are more likely to score an extra point if they are all out for 105 after eleven overs than they are scoring 199 from their allotted twenty overs. Why would you potentially reward losing by 95 runs more than losing by 1 run?

The ECB’s arguments in favour of The Hundred are even more egregious in this behaviour. To take just one example, one of the few snippets of the extensive research that the ECB have actually released to the public states that ‘75% of families would prefer a game that is under 3 hours in length and finished by 9pm’. That’s a fair enough point to make, but misses out two fairly obvious flaws. The first is that T20 Blast games already last under three hours (barring rain delays). Their own playing conditions state that games should last for 2 hour and 45 minutes. The second is that ten of the thirty-four games of the men’s Hundred scheduled this year were due to finish at 9.30pm because they could only start after Test matches against Pakistan had finished for the day. So, regarding the ECB’s own arguments for why The Hundred is needed as a format, the first part shows it to be unnecessary and the second part doesn’t apply to either competition.

3) Will It Still Work In An Imperfect World?

It’s very easy to make plans on paper which appear flawless but come apart very quickly in real life. To take a recent(ish) example, look at the 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup final. Even the most one-eyed England fan must admit that having the game and the overall winner decided by boundary countback was a little unsatisfying. The fact is that the tie-breakers were agreed by every cricket board involved, who almost certainly thought that there could never be a situation where both teams would be tied after the super over. It really helps to consider these scenarios before they happen, rather than complaining about them after the fact.

With cricket, whether in England or Australia, the most common issue competitions face is the weather. One shower of rain and everyone’s on their computers trying to work out the DLS scores and how to come out ahead in a shortened game. Ten games were rain-affected in last year’s Big Bash, so it is not something which should be overlooked. With that in mind, how well do Cricket Australia’s proposals handle rain delays and reductions in overs?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is not well.

The ‘Bash Boost’ bonus point for being ahead after ten overs becomes a nightmare if rain occurs at any point between the start of play and the midway point of the second innings. Imagine a game where Team A scored 80 runs in their first ten overs and batted for the full twenty before it rained for an hour during the mid-inning interval. Team B then face a DLS target of 120 from ten overs. How many runs do they need to win the bonus point, and after how many overs?

If the rain occurs during the first innings, it becomes more complex still. Let’s say that Team A scores 80 in the first innings in ten overs when it starts raining, leaving Team B to chase a DLS target of 70 from six overs. Is the target for Team B to beat based on what Team A managed to score in ten overs or five? I get a migraine just thinking about the complexity required to keep things even remotely fair to both teams with such a system in place.

4) Can You Hold A Trial First?

Even after you’ve cleared all of these hurdles, it must be worth playing a few trial games with the proposed rule changes to see how actual cricketers and fans feel about them. The Big Bash League are basically committed to these new rules for 61 games this winter. Almost two solid months. If Australian fans start whinging (and we all know that goes against their national character, but it could happen), then that’s a lot of unnecessary resentment and strife for the players, coaches and administrators to deal with. It also potentially risks tens of millions of dollars if cricket fans decide to stop watching altogether.

With so much at risk, surely it’s worth seeing how it plays in real life before committing so much money and effort? A week of games, with players trying several scenarios as well as full games. If everything goes well, they act as further promotion for the competition and new rules. If things go poorly, you have only lost thousands of dollars instead of millions.

In the ECB’s defense, something I rarely say, they did actually hold some trials of The Hundred in 2018. The general consensus appeared to be that it was very, very similar to T20. The problem there is that it was supposed to be to a distinct and entirely new format which would attract people who found T20 too long and boring. Trials don’t serve a purpose if you ignore the results, unfortunately.

5) Are You Being Honest About Your Motivations?

All of the above points assume that cricket boards are fundamentally truthful and open organisations whose statements can be taken at face value. Both Cricket Australia and the ECB talk about making cricket more exciting, more popular and more modern with their new formats. What neither mention in their press releases and interviews is a desire for cricket (or at least their portion of it) to become more profitable. With three new rules, each with their own branding, the proposed changes to the Big Bash give Cricket Australia at least three more opportunities per game to add extra sponsors, making the BBL more profitable. For the ECB, they seem annoyed at T20’s popularity around the globe because they think they invented it and deserve some licensing money from the global leagues. They genuinely believe that other countries will pay them for the rights to host competitions using The Hundred as a format, if it can be a success here.

Regardless of whether they are right or wrong (Spoiler: They are wrong), it seems at least some of these public relations issues are caused by their disingenuity. If Cricket Australia had said, “In the current circumstances, we need to make more money this season or risk further job cuts,” then people might have been more understanding about the whole thing and willing to give it a go for a season. Telling people who already enjoy cricket that these nonsensical rule changes will make cricket more fun, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster.

I don’t consider myself a cricket traditionalist. To be honest I find the idea a little amusing when it comes to a format like T20 which has only been played professionally for eighteen years. There are many rule changes I would like to see, or at least try. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that governing bodies try to think things through before putting the contents of their brainstorming session on national television.

Thanks for reading, if you have any comments about this post or anything else please add them below.

Wealth of Nations

Amid the early stages of the county cricket season, and away from the bizarre debate about Alastair Cook’s choice of helmet in which to bat, the IPL continues.  It is of course hidden away on Sky, as is pretty much all cricket bar the odd tournament on BT Sport, but it is unquestionably the daddy of all T20 domestic tournaments.  As such it attracts the very best players, commands the highest fees and is alone in genuinely causing issues around international tours in terms of availability of players – specifically in England, but also in the Caribbean to some extent.

It is a riot of colour, noise, explosive action and comprises a definite segment of the cricket watcher’s bucket list of events to attend.

So why is it that I just can’t get into it?

Now, there needs to be some disclosure here – I am certainly one of the more old fashioned of cricket fans in that for me Test matches are the pinnacle of the game, which is why there have been so many blogs I’ve done expressing concern and fear for the direction that particular format is heading in, but I’ve always been a cricket tragic, able to stand and watch a club game quite happily, let alone higher levels of the sport.  Equally, I rather like T20 cricket; for all the organisational issues, the treatment of the Associate nations and so forth, the recent World T20 was thoroughly enjoyable to witness.  Test fan or not, the shortest format has plenty to offer a cricket supporter.  It may be disposable, it my not live long in the memory except in exceptional circumstances (Carlos Brathwaite, take a bow), indeed in culinary terms T20 generally has all the appeal of a McDonald’s Meal Deal – you look forward to it, devour it as fast as possible and then feel both sick and guilty in the immediate aftermath.  But you still go back for another a month or two later.  Anyone admitting to more frequency on this needs to have a word with themselves.

Thus it certainly isn’t some kind of inherent disdain for the format, indeed the English domestic T20 tournament is watchable, as the crowds going to it can attest.  Here is not the place to analyse how it could be improved,  or the thorny question of whether city franchise cricket would be a step forward or the onset of the apocalypse, suffice to say it’s part of the season and as such receives attention.

So it could just be parochialism perhaps?  Except that the Big Bash is not too bad, and given that the timezones involved aren’t always terribly friendly to the UK watcher, it still gets me tuning in more than perhaps I expect, especially at the weekend.

OK so, it’s not purely domestic interest.  In fact, the Caribbean Premier League is quite good fun to watch as well, especially given that the scheduling of it means that evening channel hopping can be rewarded with that joyous “oh there’s cricket on” feeling when you come across it.  The ultimate expression of that incidentally is during the New Zealand season, where 9pm means flicking over and these days marvelling at their apparent internal competition to build the most beautiful grounds possible.

But the IPL is by far the biggest and most important of any of these competitions, the one where even if you are being entirely parochial, you can watch the English players and will them to succeed (unless it’s Kevin Pietersen of course, in which case certain sections of the British media and public will be sticking pins into a doll throughout – peculiar, but not surprising).  English players who do go learn a lot, and bring it back into the domestic game – a player in the recent past may have advocated just that – and if you succeed in IPL then you’re on the fast track to both the international level, and indeed all the other T20 tournaments around the world.  It matters, especially to players who need to earn a living.

Of course, franchise cricket struggles to build any kind of affiliation for the teams, despite the weaknesses of county cricket, Premier League football or similar structures, they do at least have the advantage that longevity has lent them; if you’re from a specific county for example, chances are that you have an interest in their progress.  The same does apply to geographically based franchises too, but with a much higher prevalence of shifting around, the emotional bond is going to be more fragile, as might be deemed the case in US sports.  It is still there of course, but for overseas viewers it’s much harder to build in the first place, which makes the support of Premier League football teams from the other side of the world a slightly curious phenomenon.  In that instance, at least they aren’t likely to up sticks to a different city, MK Dons notwithstanding.

Yet active support of a specific side isn’t remotely a requirement to either enjoy a competition or pay close attention to it.  The IPL has everything you could want in a tournament even if you don’t care in the slightest who wins – in that sense it’s the purest of sports enjoyment, in that it’s for its own sake. Certainly it’s highly popular and not just in India.  Friends of mine make a point of watching it, and talk about it on a fairly frequent basis – usually in terms of “Did you see…..” to which the answer is invariably “No”.

Now, this is not to say that the IPL is specifically ignored for those reasons, I couldn’t give a stuff who wins the Big Bash either, and actually I’m not even that fussed who wins the domestic T20 Blast (ugh, what is it with these names?  Marketing departments all too often belong in Dante’s lowest circle of hell) either.  My affiliation to county cricket is, and always has been extremely weak, partly because of mixed county heritage, partly because of a view that the county structure is inherently parasitical both from above and below.  No matter, my opinions don’t coincide with all that many people.

Perhaps above all it is the sheer naked commercialism on display that is the problem.  Sporting events over the last 20 years in particular have become excuses for the already wealthy to become even more wealthy, mostly at the expense of the ordinary fan. It is not sport for the sake of it, it is an excuse to make money.  Certainly the Premier League football has become the plaything of billionaires to the point that mere multi-millionaires struggle to compete on a regular basis, but the history and heritage of the game does lend a degree of respectability to the competition, even if that isn’t really what they deserve, and which they may well lose in years to come.  But the IPL is different in that it was conceived specifically and solely as a means of generating profit and income.  The sport is entirely secondary to that, in fact it’s nothing more than a crutch on which to balance the entire edifice.  I love sport, I adore competition.  I can rationalise and accept the rampant commercialism when it’s buried within the sporting context, no matter how much it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.  But when the rampant commercialism is the sole purpose for it, that’s harder to do.  The Big Bash is actually no different, except in scale and degree. That scale and degree is probably the only thing that elevates it to paying any kind of attention.

And therein lies the specific problem.  The IPL is the epitome of the theft of sport by vested interests in order to enrich themselves.  The amateurish ineptitude of the ECB has inadvertently lent a slight degree of charm to the English T20 game, one that organisation would walk over hot coals to get rid of.  The Big Bash is simply a lesser IPL and has a degree of attraction more or less solely on that basis – although at least Cricket Australia plough back some of the revenues into the game for the sake of the game.

The IPL takes it to the point where the sport is not just secondary, not just incidental, but where it actually doesn’t matter at all.  It is no more than a fig leaf, nothing else but an abrogation of the central tenet that the sport is in itself the point. And when the sport has no purpose as sport, then there’s no love in it.  All sports need that love of the game.

I have tried, and I have failed.  I’ve watched bits, I’ve seen players do what they can do so brilliantly, and if others can take enjoyment from it, then may it profit them.  But if I cannot care about the game, then I cannot care about the competition. For those that do – enjoy.