Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Cowdrey Lecture 2007

It gave me great pleasure to note that a cricket commentator was invited to deliver the Cowdrey lecture by the MCC this year. Chris Martin Jenkins takes pride of place as the first non-cricketer to deliver the lecture in its seven year lifetime so far. In retrospect, it is quite surprising that this is a first. But that is not the focus of this piece.

The full script of the lecture is available on the Lord’s website, but let me pick up a few excerpts to comment on.

When a batsman is bowled; he walks; when a batsman hits the ball in the air to mid-off and is caught; he walks. When a batsman snicks Monty Panesar to slip via the wicket-keeper’s glove and is caught by slip; he walks. But when a batsman snicks it into the keeper’s gloves only – and not into a fielder’s hands – he doesn’t walk – in the hope that the umpire might not be certain. Again, when he snicks it off the inside edge via his pad to short leg and is caught, generally speaking these days, he doesn’t walk either, for the same reason. Where is the logic, or the honour in that?

The argument is a bit like Swiss cheese, I’m afraid.

A batsman walks when he is bowled because he knows the ball has hit the stumps and the bails have been dislodged, and the spectacle is visible to every one. A batsman walks when he hits the ball in the air to mid-off because he knows he has hit the ball in the air, and the evidence is there for all to see. A batsman walks when he snicks Monty Panesar to slip because he knows he has snicked it, and the world knows it too. (Though I’m not sure every one will walk if the snick went off the wicket-keeper’s gloves, but that’s not quite the point.)

However, when a batsman snicks to the keeper or inside edges to short leg, he does not walk. The reasons are one of two – he does not know whether he has actually snicked it, or he is not sure whether the rest of the world, especially the umpire, has caught him snicking it. The first is a question of logic, and the second, that of honour, if you will. We can appeal to the honour of the batsman perhaps, but if, “at the professional level players’ livelihoods are at stake”, honour is more often than not likely to come a poor second. It’s perhaps the harsh reality of professional sport, but reality it is.

Now let me turn the argument around. How many times do fielding teams appeal for leg before decisions on inside edges and on obvious down-the-leg deliveries, and on bat-pad decisions where the bat and the pad were a cricket ground apart? How do we appeal to their collective honour? If the umpires need help from the players, they do so from both sides, don’t they?

And even if we want to implement Jenkins’ suggestion, how do we do it? Fines for dishonour? Penalty runs or wickets? Warnings and bans?

On to a different point. To begin with, Jenkins argues that the overrate in test cricket has to be improved: “90 in a six-hour day HAS to become a minimum for a game.” Stepping up the pace, he advocates that we should stretch it to 100 overs a day and make test matches four day affairs.

The beauty of test match cricket is its slowness, in a relative sense. You have one-day cricket if you are in a hurry; and Twenty20 if you're just passing by. Speeding up a test match means you lose on the nuances. The spinner adjusting his field minutely; the batsman doing a bit of gardening to let his mind forget the dropped chance off the previous ball; the fast bowler walking ponderously back to the top of his mark – these are the non-active images that fuel the test match.

There are more such interesting and provocative suggestions and arguments in the lecture, none more than the reference to a bidding system suggested by David Harris, a coach from Herefordshire, to replace the toss. I’ll let you access the original lecture to read it.

And Jenkins ends with the ominous prediction that every one has been cavilling about:

“They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing” (The Merchant of Venice)

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