Monday, 19 March 2012

INDIA, EVOLUTION, AND D.R.S.


BCCI: revolutionary or reactionary?

The fear of change. At one time or another, it afflicts us all. Imperceptibly, the audacity of youth becomes the trepidation of middle-age, only willpower preventing our curiosity from congealing into timorous conservatism and an future spent beating psychological retreat from the ominous shadows and the unlocalizable noises, withdrawing, defensive, into creasebound shotlessness and the perverse comfort of its at-least stable apprehensions. 

Cricket and conservatism are familiar bedfellows. Notwithstanding the superficially radical trappings of Twenty20 – its off-the-peg razzmatazz a ‘meme’ replicated worldwide and thus already an establishment of sorts – cricket, at the administrative level, is a culture disinclined to change (not off its own bat, anyway). Ask cricket supporters anywhere in the world to conjure forth an image of the sport’s establishment and chances are they’ll still picture the MCC members at Lord’s, the jowly, patrician personification of fusty traditionalism. 

ruling class
While this traditional view of traditionalism is itself perhaps now something of an archaism given India’s rise, it remains important to enquire whether such conservatism is institutional – part of the territory of the game’s elite, as it were, intrinsic to the game’s decision-makers across cultures and ages – or confined to an English old guard trapped in the post-Imperial aspic, fearfully trying to control and check an environment that just won’t sit still. Are all boards averse to change, for the simple reason that genuine innovation always threatens to pull the rug from under their feet? Most pertinently, is the BCCI – de facto leader of the global game – really a bastion of trenchant conservatism? Judging by its steadfast refusal to adopt the Umpire Decision Review System (DRS), the answer would seem to be affirmative; then again, it has been in the vanguard in embracing the all-singing, all-dancing, Brave New World of Twenty20. So, which is it: revolutionary or reactionary? 

cricketing arms race
Before trying to answer these questions, it is absolutely crucial to bear a couple of things in mind regarding the concept of evolution, be that cultural or natural. First, not all innovations are necessarily advancements, nor are they inevitable – things might have always happened differently, or not at all. There is no master plan. Second, despite popular misconceptions around Darwin’s notion of the “survival of the fittest” – in which evolution was seen as a process of adaptation leading to “optimal design” – neither biological nor cultural processes are governed by linear progress on an ascending line of improvement. Both are undirected, just as liable to stand still or go backwards as improve. When looking at the events and processes that move cultures and species along, these nonlinear dynamics can be seen in such phenomena as “arms races” that lock adversaries into mutually reinforcing, tit-for-tat paths of development in which advances on one side of a relation stimulate advances on the other, creating the snowball effect of ‘positive feedback’: ever-sharper fangs create ever-harder armour; a dilscoop leads to a slower-ball bouncer… But the key point – and the one that matters in relation to T20 and DRS – is that these advances may be suboptimal in relation to other selection pressures, other components in the ‘adaptive landscape’: for instance, a bird’s bright plumage might attract mates (advantage) but it may also reduce camouflage (disadvantage). In sum, whether one is talking about skill-sets for the competitive environments of sport, society, or nature, there is no fittest design at the end-point of linear evolution, because the criteria for optimality are changing in step with the dynamics. This is abundantly clear in the accelerated ‘evolution’ of societies, with the continual obsolescence of carefully acquired skills and the constant need to re-train sectors of the workforce.

Returning to cricket, then, the BCCI’s tight embrace of the Twenty20 golden goose is merely a line of development, not ‘progress’ per se. Perhaps the MCC and Test cricket are to feudalism as the BCCI and T20 are to capitalism, for in all ages the emergence of a new ruling class comes from seeing and harnessing the cutting edges of wealth and power that will submerge the old order. Simplifying a little, capitalist power is increasingly a matter of brute quantities and the BCCI is duly erecting its dominance upon India’s gigantic population and the depth of its affection for cricket, exploiting the huge domestic revenues from the economic boom (boom) created by this made-for-TV spectacle, and in so doing submerging the old order, yet all the while stabilizing and taming the revolutionary force of these flows that achieved the dominance in the first place.

BCCI executives consider DRS

the ostrich must evolve

It is too early to tell whether the shift in cricket’s geopolitical centre of gravity will lead to the slow withering of Test cricket, but the problem in this regard has less to do with the quantity of T20 being played as it does a (perhaps connected) general depreciation of Test cricket – certainly not something the BCCI deliberately sought out, but, all the same, a side-effect of their and Lalit Modi’s (inescapably semi-blind) behaviour in cricket’s ‘adaptive landscape’. There is still widespread bewilderment that the BCCI have been so obstinately anti-modern in their stance on DRS, particularly when its introduction was provoked, in large part, by umpiring mistakes in the infamous and contentious Sydney Test of 2008 that cost India (cost in the old currency of prestige, not the new one of currency). It is even more perplexing given that neither of the two most obvious ostensible reasons really stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, their misgivings about the accuracy of ball-tracking technology (Hawk-Eye or Virtual Eye alike) are either a simple smokescreen concealing a powerful lobby within the team, or, more likely, a sincerely held yet tenuous and barely plausible stance, one that’s causing them to play a good way down the wrong line, as it were. As with evolution, DRS, at present, need not be ‘perfect’, a fittest design. It is merely a resource. Basing your opposition to DRS on the fact that it isn’t foolproof is akin to sticking to a homeopathic potion because the $10 billion medical facility up the road doesn’t cure 100 per cent of patients. 


Anyway, despite the alarmists’ caricature, the umpires are not obliged to devolve agency wholesale to the technology. In cases in which the video evidence is drastically contradicted by the virtual reconstruction of Hawk-Eye – generally off the bowling of spinners when there is little distance between ball pitching and striking the pad (as happened with Phillip Hughes in Sri Lanka last August) – surely they can, as arbiters, choose to rely on a combination of their eyesight and the camera. And if Hawk-Eye does have a blind spot, then at the very least a TV replay helps umpires decide where the ball pitched: not perfect; an improvement. And let’s not forget that, in the context of cricket officiating, the human eye is but an imperfect ball-tracking device.

Secondly, the absolutist belief that the umpire’s verdict is final is symptomatic of what might, in a manner of speaking, be called a ‘theological attitude’. Around the time of the launch of DRS in 2009, Ian Chappell wrote that the unquestioned acceptance of the umpire’s decision was the foundation of the game (certainly, his compatriot, Simon Taufel, a five-time winner of the ICC’s Umpire of the Year award, is cutting an increasingly crestfallen figure as more of his decisions are overturned). But surely the point is the one lucidly made by the late Peter Roebuck, that “nothing is more calculated to reduce authority than allowing obviously erroneous judgement to stand”. Ultimately, Chappell’s is an absurd stance, tantamount to saying he would rather have ‘honest mistakes’ than greater justice – truly, it belongs in Lewis Carroll. What sort of judicial system deprives its accused of the right of appeal if there is further evidence to be considered? Well, one that confines authority to the will of an sacred and/or incontestable individual, like the absolutist monarchies or totalitarian dictatorships. Such a blind insistence on the sanctity of the Umpire’s thunderbolt judgement disingenuously denies a basic human obstinacy on the part of the principles of justice, the unwillingness of those less fatalistic souls simply to acquiesce in a culture of (eminently avoidable) human errors that could prove decisive, could radically alter your career, your life. Everything in our instincts protests. 

umpires and the judgement from on high
One obvious compromise, at least on the face of things, would be to allow the umpires themselves to refer upstairs any decision they wish to, which shows that Authority per se is not being undermined, only that the means for arriving at decisions is being broadened. However, the likely consequences of this move would be that umpires would tend – much as happens with line decisions – to refer all decisions in which there was even a scintilla of doubt (which, given the fallibility of humans’ perceptual apparatus, would be many). If a Darwinian perspective views behaviour as fundamentally the striving after an advantage, there is simply nothing for an official to gain, and everything to lose, by making decisions based on fallible sensory evidence alone. Umpires wrongly failing to refer decisions would soon be ‘rested’. Moreover, this approach would do little to foster a culture of self-policing and restraint – for many observe that the players being invested in the decision-making has helped engender a more cordial, less suspicious atmosphere – since players would be ‘incentivized’ to appeal for everything, duly preying on the umpire’s doubts.


DRS = advantage India?

Clearly, the successful implementation of DRS – and the assent of the game’s stakeholders thereto – requires an adequate number of cameras shooting at an adequate number of frames-per-second to ensure the ball-tracking technology functions as it should, which itself raises serious cost issues that the ICC’s general cricket manager, Dave Richardson, recently said he expected would be factored into broadcasting tenders. There are also improvements to be made to Hot Spot – Vaseline might be best avoided if we are to lubricate the wheels of justice – whilst DRS needs to be universally applied for the much trumpeted Test Championship to have any credibility. Failing this, players with the newly acquired habits and behaviours that DRS inculcates in nations that have embraced it will face deep culture shock when they visit other, sceptical lands such as India – with all the potential for incomprehension, rancour and rifts that one already gets in other walks of life when moving between traditional and modern forms of authority, or vice versa.

Leaving aside whether or not the Indian reservations are legitimate, here’s the thing that no one seems to have recognised: DRS could be precisely the mechanism that revives India’s fortunes in the Test arena. Think about it. The single biggest change it has brought about is the number of lbw decisions going to spinners (which in itself provides an excellent example of the nonlinear dynamics outlined above – for the increase was evident before DRS was formally introduced, prompted by umpires watching Hawkeye footage and seeing how many previously rejected front-foot lbw appeals were actually going on to hit the stumps, the technology bringing about a qualitative shift in perception). Reciprocally, this tendency to uphold more appeals – not least because a mistaken ‘out’ decision can be rectified by review – is already affecting batsmen (as would a predator’s behaviour its potential prey), bringing about modifications in previously well-honed and well-adapted techniques (not to mention in tactics and perhaps even selection). One such batsman, Kevin Pietersen, even ascribes this qualitative change to a precise moment: when, on debut in Nagpur in 2006, Monty Panesar snared Sachin Tendulkar lbw on the front foot. 

Monty got a Raw Deal? No. DRS is a boon for spinners
At any rate, in the recently concluded series between Pakistan and England, 43 out of 110 wickets fell to lbws, 32 of those to spinners (in part attributable to the characteristics of the pitches). And India is, of course, the land of producing spinners. Anil Kumble’s 619 wickets and Harbajhan’s 406 are not negligible hauls (although one wonders how many more victims the former, particularly, would have snared under DRS) and the national side are very rarely without top-class twirlers and tweakers – one only need mention the great quartet from the 1970s: Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. It should be borne in mind that it is not a simple case of bowling straight at 60mph, and that you still need to deceive the batsman in flight and off the pitch, but it would seem that India is a country well equipped to prosper from DRS. 

Not only is India the fecund (crumbling) soil from which sprout many an autochthonous twirler, it is also the land in which batsmen grow up most adept at playing spin – with the bat, not the pad. And therein lies the point: there is no need for any high-mindedness or some noble gesture ‘for the good of the game’ for India to U-turn and adopt the DRS. It can be done on the entirely pragmatic grounds of it increasing their potency and gaining them an advantage: survivalist logic, if you will. Sure, India will still have to go to South Africa, Australia and England, and will need to develop players suited for those challenges, but we shouldn’t be too hasty to draw conclusions about their current playing strength from recent travails on the road.

DRS: an opportunity in the 'space of possibilties' for India's Test fortunes

DRS, T20 and feedback in a competitive milieu

As we said at the outset, cricket administration is, by and large, defensive and wary of novelty. India is not the sole country where an anti-modern outlook can be found (to anticipate a possible rebuke, please note that anti-modern is a strictly literal and value-free description). A good many celebrated Australian voices share this view of DRS, including Chappell and several other ex-players, as well as such esteemed writers as Gideon Haigh and Greg Baum, the latter even arguing recently in The Age that “DRS has come to be accepted as infallible… For players, to walk is no longer an ethical issue.” No longer! This can only be nostalgia. When survival (I mean livelihood, rather than innings) is at stake, players – people – tend to try and get away with things. The only modern player to make a virtue of walking was Adam Gilchrist and he was about as secure of his place in the team as is Table Mountain on the Cape.

Yet for every skeptical Baum asserting that cricket needs to wean itself off an almost infantile dependence, there is an Osman Samiuddin who understands the economic pressures and political kowtowing underpinning the refusal to push for the compulsory adoption of DRS: “The problem is the way [the BCCI] have bullied member boards behind the scenes – at the risk of damaging lucrative bilateral ties – into making DRS implementation non-mandatory. And in that, the bullied are as culpable for allowing it to happen. It is not up to that much-imagined but non-existent, independent decision-making supra-ICC body to enforce DRS. It is up to individual member boards.” 

Dave Richardson has seen the future
Now, it is perhaps na├»ve, or romantic even, to suppose that the primary goal of an individual national board – much less the profit-monitoring businessfolk that own IPL franchises – would be the holistic husbandry of the game for the benefit of all its stakeholders. That would be the ICC’s role. Even so, while India’s reasons for embracing T20 are transparent enough from an evolutionary standpoint, but the logic for eschewing DRS remains opaque indeed, and seems to be swimming against the tide of history. In the prophetic words of Richardson: “technology ishere to stay. If the broadcasters are going to continue to use it, we have touse it”. The ostrich’s head must eventually come out from the sand.

Whatever their motivations for rejecting DRS and yet simultaneously backing the T20 form (particularly its ‘domestic’ competition), together it amounts to a double abandonment of the common sphere of Test cricket and a blow, moreover, for the notion of the collective health of the game. It is difficult to shake off the feeling that the BCCI and the IPL is now – perhaps semi-consciously – leading a sea change, an evolutionary line that will eventuate in the oft-predicted slow diminishment of the Test format in the eyes of players increasingly drawn to the bright lights of T20. And it is here that the parallelism between natural and cultural evolution – the same abstract dynamics, albeit on a vastly different time scale – is instructive. Given that, in the shared ‘adaptive landscape’ of players and other national boards alike, the BCCI’s economic power is both a resource and a constraint, we can see the modern cricketer’s rationale increasingly taking shape along the lines of: it’s a short career – therefore, short game, big money, no brainer. (And the likes of Keiron Pollard have shown that large T20 contracts do not depend on status carried over from the Test arena.) If that is the case – and that remains a big if – then Test cricket, sustained on prestige alone, becomes increasingly archaic and prey to extinction. 

Pollard (L) and Gayle: Twenty20 freelancers
Fear often prevents us from peering into the hurly-burly of a historical moment and taking the adaptive steps that must be taken. But the open present and its ‘space of possibility’ is as much a question of opportunity as risk. DRS presents the chance, in a thoroughly competitive milieu (although, in cricket the stakes are low compared to, say, football with its threat of relegation; but cricket-as-a-whole’s environment is hugely competitive), to maximise the efficacy of their predominant cricketing cultural traits – playing spin, bowling spin – in order to gain an advantage. However, so too, in a more fundamental way, does turning their back on Test cricket and shoring up their hold over T20, while drip-feeding that format into the grass roots, cementing those traits in the techniques and imaginations of new generations of cricketers. After all, if you are the apex predator in a particularly resource-abundant and seemingly stable environment, why seek to turn back the clock and relinquish control? Why not simply push ahead, reinforce your dominance, rip the meat from the skeleton of Test cricket and hoover up your competitors’ greatest assets? Or would the cricket community and the BCCI powerbrokers be well served remembering that, no matter how dominant a predator, it still needs some prey on which to feed?

* An abridged version of this piece was published on sportingintelligence.net.




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