The Implicit Wicket

In Ins and Outs I began to consider the relationship between formal rules, implicit rules, and background rules. Today, I’ll discuss some of the same issues in a particularly rich and interesting context: the function of the wicket in the game of cricket.

On a cricket field, there are two wickets, one at either end of a carefully-tended strip of ground known as the pitch. The bowler, who is analogous to a pitcher in baseball, delivers the ball, usually on a bounce, toward the batsman, who’s standing in front of the wicket, defending it.

One of the main ways to get an out in cricket is to “bowl” the batsman. The bowler attempts to deliver the ball in such a way that it eludes the batsman and goes on to hit the wicket hard enough to dislodge at least one of the bails from its shallow groove on top of the stumps.

The cricket wicket is a triumph of implicit rule making – it enforces its rule even more clearly than the table enforces in and out calls in table tennis. In table tennis, there can be a question about whether the ball nicked the edge of the table or not. In cricket, the state of the bails provides a definitive answer to the question of whether the ball hit the stumps. The bails don’t weigh much, and they rest in shallow grooves, so that even the lightest contact by the ball will usually dislodge them. But sometimes the ball clearly hits the stumps without dislodging the bails, and in that case, the batsman is not out. Thus the question of whether or not a batsman has been bowled is a straightforward one, scarcely even requiring the presence of an umpire.

Leg Before Wicket

To do its job, however, the simple and self-executing rule must be supplemented with one of the most complicated and least self-executing rules in all of sport. You see, the batsman is allowed to defend the wicket with the bat, but not with the body. But the batsman is standing in front of the wicket, and if the bat misses the ball, the ball is likely to go on to hit the batsman, which usually prevents it from reaching the wicket. It wouldn’t do to let the batsman avoid being bowled simply by standing in front of the wicket and blocking, or kicking aside, balls that look like they might be headed towards the stumps.

For this reason, there’s a leg-before-wicket rule (LBW) that states that a ball that hits the batsman’s body (usually on a leg) in such a way that it would, but for the body hit, have gone on to hit the stumps is also an out.

There is some additional complexity to this rule, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go into those details to see that enforcing the LBW rule is an exceptionally difficult matter, and one that requires very sharp-eyed umpires to make highly nuanced decisions.

Batting, Front and Back

Let me add, for the benefit of a readership that I assume knows little about cricket, a little information about the tactics of cricket that are implicated by the LBW rule.

As mentioned above, cricket deliveries are usually made on a bounce. That makes them harder to hit, as the bowler has a number of ways of delivering the ball so that the ball bounces with a bit of a deflection left or right. This can be done by spinning the ball, or by bouncing it on its raised seam. And, as the pitch gets chewed up a bit over the course of the match, it will often acquire some irregularities that make the ball bounce in an unpredictable direction.

To make the most of the uncertainty this unreliable bounce creates in the mind of the batsman, cricket bowlers often seek to deliver balls on a “good” length. If the ball bounces too early, the batsman has a better chance to judge the new trajectory of the ball, and direct it away from fielders. And if it bounces too late, the batsman can strike the ball on the half volley knowing that no matter what deflection it made when it bounced, it hasn’t had enough space to move too far from the center of the bat.

Now, batsmen know this, too, and can respond by moving forward or backward a bit. They can lean forward, or even shuffle forward a step or two so that they can take a ball that was otherwise delivered on a good length on the half volley. Or than can lean back, allowing the ball a few extra inches of flight so that they can get a better read on the bounce. A batsman who’s good at both of these things can be very difficult to bowl to.

Here’s why this is relevant to the LBW rule. The more space there is between the point at which a ball hits the batsman’s leg and the wicket, the more difficult it is to be confident that the ball that hit the leg would have gone on to hit the wicket. The umpire, like the batsman, knows that balls often deflect on bouncing, and there may be just a few inches between the ball’s bounce and the time it hits the batsman’s leg, so it’s hard to be sure just where the ball would have gone.

Though it’s not one of the laws of cricket, there’s a well-recognized tradition in the game that umpires should resolve any uncertainty in favor of the batsman. So the batsman can move forward with little fear of an LBW call because they know that the umpire is unlikely to make a confident call of LBW. A batsman leaning back to play the ball off the rear leg needs to be much more careful to avoid LBWs.

Is this complicated enough for you? Well, I hope not, because I’m not finished telling you the story of the implicit wicket. There are at least two more layers to the interaction between explicit rules, implicit rules, and background rules yet to come.


At the elite level, the powers that be in cricket have responded to the problem or LBWs in much the same way the tennis authorities have on their problem with line calls. The same company that makes the Hawk-Eye system for calling the lines in tennis has created a computerized system for adjudicating LBW calls. As in tennis, the players have a limited number of appeals that they can use to challenge an unfavorable call by the umpire.

Even more than in tennis, cricket has seized on the Hawk-Eye system as an element of theater. Unlike most American sports, where the officials review replay evidence that only they can see directly, the interchange between the review umpire and the replay technicians is broadcast live, and the umpire talks through his decision making process while the television audience sees exactly what he is seeing.

The availability of Hawk-Eye has had an effect beyond the few elite games in which it’s used. Hawk-Eye has shown that many cases in which uncertainty was resolved in favor of the batsman, the ball would indeed have hit the stumps. Umpires know this. And they know that even if the aggrieved team does not choose to challenge, the television commentators have access to the Hawk-Eye results, and will often show the umpire up for failing to call LBW. And by watching the Hawk-Eye replays themselves, they’ve learned more about what is and isn’t a correct LBW call.

As a result, umpires have started to call many more LBW outs than they did in the past. It used to be that LBWs were much rarer than bowled outs. Now the two are, at the elite level, very nearly in parity, and there’s some evidence that LBW has overtaken bowled to become the second most common way of taking a wicket. (Balls caught in the air are still first by a comfortable margin.)


OK, that’s one additional layer of complexity. Here’s another.

Perhaps partly as a result of the difficulty of making correct calls, cricket has evolved with a number of traditions of sportsmanship that seem designed to improve the accuracy of the umpire’s call.

The most striking one has to do with the way outs are called. Nearly all of the outs in a cricket match are called on what would be called, in baseball, an appeal play. The umpire does not call the out directly, but only in response to a request from the fielding team. When the fielding team feels that it has taken a wicket, the convention is for a fielder to inquire of the umpire “How’s that?” This is commonly shouted, and elided to “Howzat?”, and it’s not uncommon for the actual shout to be an inarticulate roar, with no identifiable words.

Now, add to this the fact that good sportsmanship, in cricket, requires that a fielder believe that the batsman is indeed out before shouting Howzat. If the fielder knows that the batsman is not out, it is unsporting to invite the umpire to make an incorrect call.

The batsman has a corresponding duty. If the batsman knows he’s out, he’s expected to give up his wicket by walking off the pitch, regardless of whether the umpire has called him out, or even whether there’s been an appeal.

Many people feel that these sporting principles are in decline. And it is certainly true that most fielders, these days, will shout for an LBW call if they have the least suspicion that it might be granted. It’s also true that it’s rare for a batsman to walk – most seem ready to wait patiently for the umpire to call them out, even if they know the call would  be just.

To the extent that there is a decline in sportsmanship, real or perceived, many argue that this, too, is implicit in the new technology. Some of the burden of running the game fairly has been absorbed by the technology – crossing the boundary between background rules and implicit rules. That the availability of a definitive ruling from an impartial machine has made players less willing to walk or more eager to shout.

Beyond a Boundary

It’s not at all clear that there was ever a halcyon day when players behaved much better than they do now. This perceived degradation of standards can be found in even the earliest cricket writing.

But whether or not there ever was a time when cricket was played to a more exacting moral standard, the idea of the cricket game as an island of good conduct in a sea of self-serving corruption had a profound influence in the anglophone world of the twentieth century. Particularly in South Asia and in the Caribbean, playing cricket became a way of shaming the English for their ethical lapses in administering their empire.

Beyond a Boundary, by C.L.R. James tells this story. Some people consider the book not only the best cricket book ever written, but the best book on sports of any kind. Fire in Babylon is a documentary that develops this further.









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