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cricket news: On Common Sense And The Rules Of Cricket

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India bowled South Africa out for 118 in 32.2 overs in the 1st innings of the 2nd One Day International of their ongoing six match series in South Africa. This left them 119 to win. India’s run chase began immediately after a 10 minute interval since South Africa’s innings ended with more than 30 minutes left for the scheduled break. When it was time for the scheduled break, 15 overs of India’s innings had been completed and India were 26 runs away from their target. The Umpires decided to exercise rule 11.4.4 of the 2017 standard ODI playing conditions, and extended play for a maximum of 15 minutes (or a minimum of 4 overs). This rule is as follows:
“The umpires may decide to play 15 minutes (a minimum of four overs) extra time at the scheduled interval if requested by either captain if, in the umpires’ opinion, it would bring about a definite result in that session. If the umpires do not believe a result can be achieved no extra time shall be allowed. If it is decided to play such extra time, the whole period shall be played out even though the possibility of finishing the match may have disappeared before the full period has expired.”

It took more than 15 minutes to complete the four overs. There is no provision in the rules to start a new over if the 15 extra minutes have already been played. India were 2 runs short of their target after four overs. The umpires duly took the players off for the scheduled break.

This decision was universally condemned. It is worth examining the substance of this condemnation because this is an instance in which the umpires were condemned for following the rules correctly and precisely. In other words, those who condemned the umpires were completely wrong, and the umpires were completely right.

Essentially, the argument was that even though they followed the rules, the umpires were wrong because their decision defied “common sense”. Further, it was suggested that the rules were archaic, the decision was ridiculous and the situation was a farce. As the players walked away for the break, observers (commentators on television, various journalists on twitter) were darkly predicting that there would be nobody left at the ground when the players returned from their break. On a video show for ESPNCricinfo the former India wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta even invented a provision in the rules to the effect that if both captains agree, play can continue! Such a provision does not exist in the rules. He was not alone. Dozens of ex-players and journalists were unanimous about how the ridiculousness of the decision and awfulness of the situation.

Who exactly was being inconvenienced by the umpires’ decision? The television broadcasters, who got to run innings break programming and the commercials which go with it? The press in the press box, who were served lunch as per the usual custom by the hosts at the ground, and got an extra talking point which they otherwise might have been short of in a one-sided game? The spectators who had come prepared for a leisurely day at the cricket, expecting a 100 overs game which would last until evening? The vendors at the ground who got to serve customers over lunch? Who exactly was inconvenienced by the umpires decision?

The decision was perfectly correct according to the rules, and apart from the fact that the game was run correctly, everybody associated with the game did better thanks to the decision compared to what they might have done had the umpires ignored the rules and played extra overs.

The one testable prediction in all the outrage, that nobody would be around at the end of the game, turned out to be wrong. As ESPNCricinfo’s live ball-by-ball commentator reported, “My colleague Sid Monga tells me there is still a decent crowd hanging around at the stadium”

Rarely has there been such an unanimously held view which was based on no observable external reality. The conventional wisdom in this case was absolutely certain that the decision was “farcical”, “ridiculous”, “stupid”, “unbelievable”. The basis of this certitude is this notion of “common sense”. It was the common sense decision to play the extra over(s) even though the rules did not permit this. It is worth examining the notion of common sense.

Laws govern and bring order to our lives. But life would still exist even if there were no laws (or some completely different set of laws). It would not exist in the way it exists today, but it would still exist. Games are different from life. Games are not governed by laws, they are constituted by them. Without the rules of a game, there is no game. Life precedes laws, while laws precede games. Games are completely defined, closed systems. Any move by a participant in a game (be it cricket or chess or football) can be identified unambiguously as being either a legal move (i.e. something permitted in the game) or an illegal move (i.e. something not permitted in the game). The goal of the game is predefined. This means that conditions which have to met so that the goal can be said to have been achieved, are known in advance. Games begin and end. This distinction between games and general life is important because it places a strict limit on the applicability of things which might be applicable to general laws to the laws of games.

There is no concept of “natural justice” in a game. Games are structured as a competition - someone is supposed to lose by design. The set of rules which constitute (again, not govern, but constitute) a game is arbitrary. This set does not exist for any reason, other than the fact that it constitutes the game. The laws of games are not supposed to have silences. Whenever events occur whose legal status is truly disputable, the laws of games are amended to end such disputes (for example, the switch hit, or Ajay Jadeja’s exploitation of a loophole in the short run rule when batting with a tailender).

Common sense is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” It consists of “common sense consists of knowledge, judgement, and taste which is more or less universal and which is held more or less without reflection or argument.” Webster’s dictionary defines it as “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” This is distinct from the idea of conventional wisdom which refers to ideas or explanations which are considered to be true.

In games, there is no underlying order which the rules attempt to encode. The idea of the merit or goodness of a rule exists only in the sense that the rule might contradict or be redundant in relation to some already existing rule. In life, the idea of "common sense" is necessary precisely because it refers to some underlying order which can be adopted even without explicitly written instruction or rules. There is no basis for such common agreement about a game. Cricket does not occur in nature. Games themselves are not social or natural phenomena which the rules attempt to explain, they are completely formal entities which rules construct.

The common sense view is that the umpires should have relaxed the rules and allowed the extra over to be played. According to those who hold this to be the common sense view, the umpires decision was not just ridiculous adherence to archaic laws which should have been avoided, this was obviously so. Those who hold this common sense view misunderstand the basic idea of what a game is.

But even if one were to see the mistaken terms adopted by the adherents of this common sense view, they are wrong. Had the umpires relaxed the rules, they would have explicitly favored India, even if both captains agreed to continue to the game (lets ignore the fact that agreement between captains is irrelevant in the situation at hand). This is something umpires are not supposed to do. The veteran cricket statistician Mohandas Menon observed that “[w]ith only 19 overs bowled, South Africa can still save this ODI match, if it now rains the whole day!” It is not clear if Mr. Menon intended this observation to be in support of the common sense view. But it proves the exact opposite. Objectively, had the umpires ignored the rules and extended play beyond what is permitted in the rules, they would have eliminated this possibility. The remoteness of this possibility is irrelevant. The whole point of having an umpire - an entity which is (a) disinterested in the outcome of a contest, and (b) expert in the rules governing the contest - is to avoid favoring one team or another in any way.

An essential point of a game is that while the game is in progress, the contest is technically always on. The fact that one side may be significantly closer to a win compared to the other side, even if this is overwhelmingly the case, is irrelevant. To say that the umpires should have relaxed the rules and allowed the extra over(s) necessary for India to score the 2 runs is identical to saying that they should have stopped after 15 overs (or 16 or 17 or 14), since it was it was clear (or common sense) that India were going to win. Yet, nobody would think that this would be an acceptable common sense decision, would they?

Now, one could argue that the ICC should revise the rules and give the umpires some extra discretion. Instead of specifying a maximum of 15 minutes and a minimum of 4 overs, the rule could leave this entirely up to the umpires. But we all know how well observers react to umpires exercising discretion. The reason why the ICC has made the rules so explicit is to protect umpires from being accused of bias or “inconsistent application of rules” when they exercise any discretion which the rules might grant them.

The conventional wisdom about the common sense view of the umpire’s decision is wrong. The rules are not archaic. They came into force on September 28, 2017. The rules were applied correctly. There was no reason, none at all, to think that the situational was farcical, except that lots of people who either did not know the rules or did not grasp the implication of what they were suggesting created an echo chamber which said that the situation was farcical. Mockery is wonderful when it is underpinned by some significant truth. In this case, the only truth it revealed was not about the game, but about its pundits.

The umpires, as they usually do, got it exactly right.
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