To a scientist, there is a romance associated with the laboratory; a cradle where some of the most invaluable discoveries are conceived and nurtured, where spectacular failures haunt every corner. But the two go together on the path towards evolution. Failure is the pit-stop on the road to success, wrong is a step up the ladder of right. It isn’t quite so with the philosopher, not for him the mandatory observation before the inference.
Cricket sadly has been in the midst of philosophers, rather than scientists. The moment change is announced, it gets denounced, an oracle pops up at every street-corner to pronounce doom, observation becomes irrelevant and the cricket ground as a laboratory suffers harm. It was the ancestors of this breed that castigated Galileo when he suggested that the earth may not be the centre of the universe!
And so it is with the two innovations to one-day cricket. They look good, on the scanty evidence of three one-day matches in certain conditions they seem to have the odd limitation but they need to be given a chance. A chance to succeed and indeed a chance to fail. We need to see, in the laboratory of cricket, whether they work. If they don’t, we can go back to the original method of playing; but knowing that they don’t work is a learning too. Knowing that carbon dioxide doesn’t support burning was a valuable conclusion.
Already we have some interesting knowledge and that can only evolve as one-day cricket is played in different conditions. We can already tell that the power play initiative (two sets of five overs with field restrictions at any time after the first ten overs) will prove more decisive on the sub-continent or on flat batting pitches. In our part of the world, captains waited, often desperately, for the fifteen over mark to spread out the field. Now they can do so after ten but slotting in the remaining ten overs will be very tricky. In relatively easier bowling conditions, like in England or, I suspect in New Zealand, fielding captains can use all twenty overs at once.
What is true as well is that power play rewards teams with wicket-taking bowlers. On the acceptable assumption that a fielding captain wants to get rid of the twenty overs as soon as possible, a wicket taking bowler setting the batting side back will be invaluable. The more the wickets gained the quicker the overs consumed and to that extent the power play innovation actually rewards aggressive bowlers which is what cricket was meant to do. Brett Lee did that consistently and set it up for Australia in the last two games.
It is clear though that power play will eventually lead to more runs and that means good fielding and catching will, if anything, become even more critical. You will notice as this argument builds up that the two innovations actually reward better teams. That is particularly true of the supersub and it is interesting that neither captain in the three games we have seen seems particularly enamoured by it.
I say ‘interesting’ because it helps Australia and against any team other than Australia, would help England as well. Indeed, it will help any team that has a complete eleven and can do without the twelfth. Teams that bank on the supersub to lend completeness to their offering will be the ones in most trouble.
It has been suggested that the supersub rule helps teams that bat second. That need not necessarily be true but what it definitely does is to reward teams that win the toss and that is a limitation. If for eg a team has picked five batsmen, a keeper and five bowlers with a batsman as a sub, they can win the toss, bowl first and then sub a bowler for a batsman. If however they lose the toss and have to bat first, they have to decide whether to go ahead with only five batsmen or sub early and give up a bowler for the additional batsman. In that case they need at least two of their batsmen to bowl and so teams that do not have that flexibility, that do not have enough all-rounders, will suffer.
Indeed the supersub rule makes all-rounders invaluable and that will help England, Pakistan and South Africa and, with the strong presence of Andrew Symonds, give Australia some help too. India and the West Indies would seem likely to be the worst hit, Sri Lanka would struggle in seaming conditions and New Zealand on tracks that need spinners. More and more the game will move towards multi-skilled players and that cannot be bad.
The interesting variation would have been to announce the twelfth man after the toss. The team that batted first would play seven batsmen and sub one in the break, the team that bowled first would play five bowlers and sub a bowler for a batsman later. It would allow batsmen to be up against good bowlers all the time, marginally reduce the importance of the all-rounder and allow specialists to be picked and, to that extent, equalise all teams.
Time may point out more flaws or might conclude this to be a master stroke. But we need to give it time, to observe and then to draw conclusions. Otherwise, like the church in Galileo’s time, we will stifle innovation and fresh thought. And remember, the church was proved wrong then!!
Tailpiece: If you want to know where the Ashes will go look out for the weatherman. A hot summer and Australia will be unbeatable; damp and windy and England will be a handful.