Cricket for the Masses

Draws in First-Class Cricket discussed two respects in which long-form cricket is a tough sell for many sports fans – it takes too long to play a match, and those matches often end in draws. Since the middle of the twentieth century, cricket have been evolving to address these issues, slowly at first, but rapidly more recently. The invention of short-form cricket is an interesting case study in how a competition can be reshaped to improve its value as spectacle.

Perhaps the most salient difference between cricket and baseball is that an individual at-bat can take a long time. The cricket batsman is not obliged to run every time the ball is struck, so he can (and often does) block the ball into the ground and wait for something better to hit. And when he does hit the ball and scores runs, his turn at bat continues. So a cricket batsman who is good at defending his wicket can stay at the crease for hours. That’s the main reason that cricket matches take so long.

So matches are shortened by limiting the number of overs played. An over is a set of six fair deliveries by one bowler. In one-day cricket, the longer of the two short forms, each side is limited to fifty overs (i.e., 300 balls), and the game takes about seven hours. In T20 cricket, each side gets 20 overs (120 balls), and the game tends to last about three hours.

Limiting the number of overs, however, has a profound effect on the way the game is played. To some extent, the rules that govern short-form cricket have been altered to force the play to better approximate long-form cricket.

For example, in long-form cricket, the fielding team knows that each of the opposing batsmen will need to be put out, and the most common way to do this is by catching the ball off the bat before it bounces. But a competent batsman who hits the ball with the flat face of a cricket bat can almost always direct it away from and fielder, or at least down into the ground so that it cannot be caught on the fly.

Thus, the fielding team positions themselves so as to catch the mistakes – the balls that glance off of the edge of the bat. It’s common for there to be three of four “slips” standing in a line where they have a chance to catch a ball that tips the outside edge of the bat. Sometimes there are fielders standing within a few feet of the batsman who’s main role is to catch balls that strike the bat and then bounce off some part of the batsman’s body (or, one hopes, protective padding).

In short-form cricket, fielders are placed very differently. When the number of overs is limited, the fielding team is free to put fielders in places where the batsman might try to hit the ball, not where it might go on pathologically bad strokes. Every ball on which the batsman does not score a run uses up one-sixth of a precious over. So fielders can be placed deep along the boundary, where they may catch a few long shots that are not quite long enough, and in any case will likely limit the gain on well-struck balls to a single run.

In response, short-form cricket has developed rules that prohibit the fielding team from placing too many fielders in deep, defensive positions. For example, for the first ten overs of a 50-over game, the fielding team is allowed to station only two of its eleven players “outside the circle” – the other nine crowd into a central area analogous to the infield in baseball.

This rule is widely justified on the ground that without it the play would be dull. I’m not so sure. If teams were allowed to place fielders as they wished, the game would develop a whole different set of strategies, but it would still, I believe, be a fascinating game – perhaps even more subtle than standard cricket.

But it would, without doubt, be a game that looked less like long-form cricket. And this, I think, is the main point of the fielding restrictions. Those rules are in place in order to make the shorter form of the game look and feel a little more like first-class cricket. The legitimacy of the short form seems to depend on limiting those differences to some extent.

Tomorrow I’ll conclude this short series of posts on cricket by returning to the original issue, explaining what cricket has done to avoid drawn matches in the shorter forms of the game.


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