D Sampath Kumar

Balancing risks and rewards in cricket

D SAMPATH KUMAR | Updated on November 25, 2017

Cricket needs to be an engaging contest between bat and ball, rather than an engineered, if not contrived, spectacle

Philip Hughes’ death on a cricket field in Australia is a tragedy of monumental proportions. Cricket can no longer escape the odium that it is a dangerous sport and on a par with professional boxing. There will be the inevitable soul searching and calls upon the cricket administration to come up with new measures to make it safer for players involved in the game.

But is that the only take-away from this tragedy? Is his death not also a pointer to the fact that the game of cricket had somewhere along the way, broken a cardinal principle common to all sporting encounters -- that there should be a fine balance between risks and rewards, in this battle between a ball weighing five and a half ounces and a bat that is 38 inches long and 4.25 inches wide? Has this balance been broken over the years and something had to give which in this case, meant the loss of a precious young human life?

‘Gulli-danda’

The concept of a risk-reward and how this ties in with actions of players engaged in a sporting contest can be best illustrated with reference to the native Indian game of gulli-danda. The batter takes strike with a danda in his hand. The gulli is placed on a short and shallow pit. The batter’s task is to scoop the gulli from the pit to set the game rolling.

But his opponents are standing in front of him waiting to pouch the gulli before it falls to the ground. The batter has a choice. He can play it safe by simply pushing it along the ground and thus escape being declared out as ‘caught’. But he runs another risk with this gambit. His opponents could stop the gulli close enough to the pit and pitch it back such that the batter is declared out because he had failed to stop it landing within one danda length from the pit. Closer the pitcher is to the batter, lesser is the reaction time available to the latter.

Think of a batsman in cricket having to defend his wicket when the bowler is hurling the ball not from a 22-yard distance but from only say, 10 yards! But scooping it with a mighty heave over the heads of fielders waiting to pouch it has its own share of risk.

The batter might mistime the heave and the ‘gulli’ instead of soaring off into the far distance ends up as a spooned offering for the opponents to pouch with relative ease. In any case the opposing team might position fielders at strategic distances that the batter ends up being declared ‘out’ caught. The rules of the game are so inventive there are many other situations where players have to take calculated decisions balancing the risks and rewards inherent in them.

Losing it

The game becomes enjoyable because the odds are even and the risk-reward ratios are within acceptable limits. Outcomes of sporting encounters are then reduced to intrinsic differences in skills exhibited by participants at any particular moment of time. Cricket started out as a game where the risk-reward equations for both bowlers and batsmen were finely balanced.

But somewhere along the way players and administrators (who must, in this context, be viewed as players) decided to alter the equation in their favour to the disadvantage of others in the game. For instance, batsmen began to experiment with heavier bats so that even mishits began to clear the boundary ropes. In other words, the situation has been altered to provide for higher rewards even as it reduced the risk.

The bowlers too, on their part, with some generous help from their colleagues on the field let it be said, resorted to ‘sledging’ with a view to unsettle batsmen. They too, were engaged in altering the risk-reward equation in their favour. It was called ‘mental disintegration’ as if that somehow made it more acceptable.

The administrators were not keeping quiet either. It somehow dawned on them that spectators want to see ‘sixers’ being hit and so obliged the batsmen by bringing in the boundary ropes further in, which accentuated the advantage already available to the latter with their heavier bats.

Should pitches be covered or not covered against ingress of moisture is another way of altering the risk-reward relationships. So too are rules aimed at restricting the number of bouncers per over or altering the definition of what constitutes ‘intimidatory’ bowling.

In short, every effort was made by every player involved with the game to alter the fine balance between risk and reward. The point is not that Philip Hughes was reckless in his shot selection because the odds favoured him and which eventually led to his untimely death. The point is even if players are themselves not motivated to push the envelope further and further to reduce the odds and increase their payoff, nature has its own way of ending such imbalances. A ‘black swan’ event occurs.

Let skills clash

Who knows, had batsmen not been allowed to experiment with heavier bats and administrators not permitted to shorten the boundary distances, the world of cricket might well have evolved as a sporting contest between batsmen and spinners rather than one between a battery of fast bowlers and batsmen as is the case now. Before one shouts “Shane Warne’ the statistics on the number of wickets captured by spinners and those by fast bowlers speak for themselves. The South Africans didn’t get to be the number one team because they relied on the wizardry and artistry of spin bowling by JP Duminy.

The English gave the world, the game of cricket. But they also gave the world, its language. There is a reason why the English say, ‘Honesty is the Best Policy’. They could have said, “Honesty is Godliness’ or that it is spiritually uplifting. Honesty is neither a virtue nor its anti-thesis, dishonesty, a vice. If neither the passage through the gates of heaven nor being consigned to the flames of hell is certain, why then, is it the ‘best policy’?

As the English reasoned, as behoving a nation of shopkeepers, in situations where honesty-dishonesty choices exist, outcomes in the long run, are favourable if the choice is made consistently in favour of staying honest.

To use the language of probability theory, the expected value of rewards of acting dishonestly is far inferior to the expected value of punishment likely to be meted out for such behaviour. Honesty as a behavioural choice thus connotes a reluctance to artificially alter the odds in one’s favour.

Cricket would do well to go back to what sporting encounters ought really to be: A battle between skills of two sets of people without artful embellishments.

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Published on December 01, 2014
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