The world Cup has shown why the 50-over game remains an exciting format. Here are three ways that ICC can ensure that the World Cup becomes even better
Three mornings after the forehead-slapping anguish of Indian fans seeing their team lose the 2023 ODI World Cup final in Ahmedabad to Australia, it’s time to look back at cricket’s premier show. What was great and what could be better?
Minimise the impact of the toss: When the final is to be played at a venue where four out of five results have favoured the team batting second under lights, then it’s a problem. Australia were the only side to win a game batting first at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad in this tournament. That was a narrow win on 4 November against England, who were far from their best. No wonder the Aussie skipper, Pat Cummins, leapt at the chance to bowl first in the final against India.
The underprepared, patchy pitch on 19 November was even more skewed against the team batting first. The sorry spectacle of Suryakumar Yadav trying in vain to swat off-cutter off-pace bouncers like pesky flies illustrated this difficulty.
India’s new ball bowlers did get swing and three early wickets under the lights later. But soon the deviation vanished, the ball came on to the bat nicely, and a heady Aussie run chase ensued with a 192-run 4th wicket partnership. Australia won with 7 overs to spare, and that’s hardly a contest in cricket’s showcase event.
Nobody made a fuss when India similarly thrashed Pakistan on this ground on 14 October, with 19.3 overs to spare, batting second. It seems churlish to complain now just because India found itself on the receiving end. But this needs remedying for future tournaments.
Organisers started the game half-an-hour earlier in this World Cup to minimise the effect of dew. But equally important is asking the curator to ensure a firm batting wicket, to level the playing field, at venues where the second half will see the pitch ease up considerably. The Ahmedabad pitch could have been rolled a lot more to make it better for batting from the very outset instead of only at night.
Mind you, in several instances, captains were clueless on taking advantage of winning the toss. Afghanistan chose to bat first against South Africa in Ahmedabad, just a week before the final, and paid the price.
Time to move Umpire’s Call to the bin: The logic of Umpire’s Call in the Decision Review System (DRS), is that ball-tracking technology has a margin of error. So, on marginal calls, the split-second decision taken by the field umpire has the final say. Sounds reasonable until you take into account just how erratic those split-second decisions can be.
A study at the Chicago Booth of Business, University of Chicago, by economist Ram Shivkumar, found that the percentage of on-field decisions challenged and then reversed upon review, is as high as 26 per cent. His analysis had a sample size of 1,201 challenges from 126 cricket matches, between 2009 and 2014. It demonstrated the obvious—the human eye can be fallible.
Is it time to remove the Umpire’s Call?
So why should we attach so much importance to the Umpire’s Call? Take, for instance, the English umpire Richard Kettleborough, who officiated in Australia’s semi-final against South Africa, as well as the final. In the semi-final, he gave Marnus Labuschagne the benefit of the doubt to an LBW shout from South African spinner Tabraiz Shamsi. This was challenged and the review showed more than half the ball outside the line of off-stump when it struck the pad. A fretting Labuschagne was saved by the tiniest margin.
To the naked eye, on replay, when you see the ball striking the inside of the right pad, it appears the on-field umpire should have given it out. Perhaps he got influenced by Labuschagne’s quick skip to the off-side, followed by emphatic gestures to the umpire that the ball struck him outside off-stump. Later in the innings, Kettleborough upheld another Shamsi LBW shout against Labuschagne, and this time it was barely clipping leg stump. The umpire could have easily given that ‘not out’ on the field, but maybe he was feeling guilty after seeing replays of his first call.
Cut to the final, and Labuschagne, who likes to hang back in his crease, got struck near his ankle by a full-pitched ball from Jasprit Bumrah. Kettleborough didn’t raise his finger and DRS showed the ball hitting leg-stump, but not by more than half as required under this rule. Another umpire may well have given that ‘out’ on field, seeing the batsman’s position and where the ball landed. But the field umpire sees it all in a flash or misses it in the blink of an eye.
Time was, when the third umpire’s decision on whether the ball had touched the ground in a claimed catch, was influenced by a ‘soft signal’ from the on-field umpire. It used to look shady, with the umpire lifting his finger near his navel. Anyway, after umpteen complaints on the arbitrariness of relying on the judgement of the on-field umpire for this, the International Cricket Council (ICC) junked the rule. It’s time to do the same to Umpire’s Call which has caused unnecessary heartburn in this World Cup.
Peeved Australian opener David Warner questioned the competence of on-field umpire Joel Wilson on 16 October, and demanded that stats on the performance of each umpire should be put up, just as they are for players. But the most painful Umpire’s Call was the turning down of Haris Rauf’s LBW appeal against South Africa’s 11th man, Shamsi, in Chennai on 27 October. If ball-tracking had shown another millimetre of the ball hitting the leg stump, Pakistan would have won that match.
In real life, you’re out when the ball clips the stump without needing to hit it flush. That should also apply in DRS. Surely, most players would rather accept the margin of error in technology, than the arbitrariness of Umpire’s Call. Besides, if the margin of error suggests the ball could be missing, it’s equally possible for the error to be on the other side. It’s illogical to admit the case for one and not the other.
It’s worth saving 50-over cricket: ODI cricket had got a bad rap before this tournament. Pundits claimed the middle overs had got predictable, with batsmen scoring in risk-free singles and bowlers also being defensive. But the ebb and flow of 50-over cricket in this World Cup showed what a fantastic format it remains. ODIs are in fact far less predictable than T20s, because teams have a much better chance of recovering from a bad start, or collapsing after a good one.
India recovered from 2/3 against Australia in Chennai on 8 October, and Australia recovered from 47/3 against India in Ahmedabad on 19 November. Conversely, Sri Lanka were 218 for 2 in the 29th over, with a run rate over 7.5, against Pakistan in Hyderabad, on 10 October. But they ended on 344/9 with a run rate below 7, and Pakistan could chase that down on a good batting wicket. Mohammad Rizwan’s cramps during his match-winning 131, was as dramatic as Glenn Maxwell cramping up halfway into his double century, to rescue Australia from 91/7 against Afghanistan, in Mumbai on 7 November.
The tactical battle between Australia and South Africa at the Eden Gardens showcased the brilliance of ODI.
A templated approach to be aggressive right through the innings works in most T20s and on flat tracks in ODIs. But this tactic can come apart in the varying conditions of a 50-over game, and that was one reason for the disintegration of England in this tournament.
India slowed to a run rate of 5.66 in 27 overs from 9.1 in 10 overs, as Virat Kohli and Shreyas Iyer decided to see off the spin threat from South Africa on the slow Eden Gardens wicket on 5 November. Then they accelerated to finish strongly on 326/5.
Two weeks later, Kohli and K.L. Rahul adopted the same approach in the final against Australia, but this approach failed when Kohli fell in the 29th over. It was a folly, in this case, to let Australia’s part-time spinners Travis Head and Maxwell get away with bowling at 3 an over. Strategically, then, ODIs are more challenging.
Low-scoring ODIs are often more interesting than the mindless hitting of fours and sixes in most T20s. Australia eking out a win with 215/7, after bowling out South Africa for 212 in the semi-final at the Eden Gardens, was as good as it gets in tactical cricket.
As for ODIs being predictable, you only have to look at Afghanistan’s victories over Pakistan and England. The Afghans had a solitary win over Scotland in two previous World Cups. They might have beaten the mighty Aussies too if they had bowled smarter to a cramped Maxwell.The 50-over format is alive and well. The onus is on ICC to nurture it by scheduling more ODIs between the quadrennial World Cups.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.