What is 24 balls more?

What is 24 balls more?

When Steven Smith shook hands with MS Dhoni with 4 overs left in the game at the MCG on December 30, 2014, the heads of many fans exploded. I danced a little jig. I thought it was a great decision. What's more I thought, here is something to be explained about Test cricket. I thought this because this is a unique feature of Test Cricket. Instead, Smith's decision has been widely panned. It has been called "unaustralian" - the ultimate insult for an Australian cricketer.

The narrowest, most utilitarian argument in favor of staying out there for four more overs is that there was no downside to doing so. There was no way Australia could have lost. The only possible outcomes of significance were that Australia would take 0,1,2,3 or 4 wickets in those 24 balls. Even if, by some bizarre twist, Dhoni and Ashwin hit 24 sixes, that would still leave India about 70 runs short. So why not continue?

Why not indeed? Here is something that begs to be explained. When you describe cricket, you have to describe cricket. And cricket is played over 5 days. But it is not a game played to a clock. Time lost due to rain is not made up indefinitely. Games which end after 3 days and 50 overs, end after 3 days and 50 overs. So cricket is not like football or hockey, where a buzzer determines the end of play. It is not a race, in which a pre-determined distance has to be covered by all competitors, and the one who does it fastest, wins. In baseball and a few other sports, a mercy rule is enforced at some levels of competition, but usually not in the big leagues.

Cricket is different. 16.1.6 of the Standard Test Match Playing Conditions(pdf) applicable to the Melbourne Test state the following:
"On the final day, if both captains (the batsmen at the wicket may act for their captain) accept that there is no prospect of either side achieving a victory, they may agree to finish the match after (a) the time for the commencement of the last hour has been reached OR (b) there are a minimum of 15 overs to be bowled, whichever is the later."
The rule also states that on the final day, the 15 overs must be bowled in the final hour, or, that the final hour will be said to begin after 75 overs have been completed on the day. Umpire Kettleborough signalled the beginning of the final hour of play just as Ravichandran Ashwin joined Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the wicket. Smith and Australia tried to get them out for 11 of those 15 overs. After a nervy start, Dhoni and Ashwin settled and looked very comfortable once they were focused on keeping the ball out. They didn't look like they were going to get out even against some probing Australian bowling. As Smith said afterwards,
"I don't think there was a win still there to be honest," Smith said after play. "All our bowlers were pretty cooked and it was time to finish. There wasn't much breaking up in the wicket, there wasn't much going on. I think that was it."
By shaking hands, Smith basically conceded that Australia would not be able to beat India in that Test. It was a reasonable cricketing conclusion.

Lets turn to the reaction. Some people think they were cheated out of their money because those last 4 overs were not played. To them, I'd simply say, read the rules. They have no case. To the suggestion that they were cheated, you'd have to believe that a team which tried hard to win for almost 5 full days, played a tactically hard nosed game on a wicket which proved just too good to force a result, was not trying to win. When all along, Smith was trying (successfully) to win the series. The only thing he shied away from was from providing the professional press with a sensational story in the next days papers. In this, he cost the media a lot of money. This may sound cynical, but it is true. The media in cricket is systematically concerned with excitement - manufactured or otherwise. Why else would anybody get worked up about things a 25 year old batsman might say about a 30 year old bowler? Why else would anybody desperately want to know every little detail of every little thing which players say to each other on the field, all the while ignoring basic points of law?

Still others provide bad arguments to support their idea. In and of itself, it is not a bad point, if made narrowly. It is true that Australia had nothing to lose, except the small chance that one of their players might get injured. Might break a finger trying to field a ball, or pull a muscle. But that would be a small chance. Brydon Coverdale pointed out that India's last 3 wickets have not lasted very long in this series.
In the first innings in Adelaide, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 20 balls.
In the second innings in Adelaide, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 18 balls.
In the first innings at the MCG, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 16 balls.
In the second innings at the MCG, India's last 24 balls did not get bowled.
This is anecdotal and includes a very small sample size. None of those instances came with India trying to save a match. Even at Adelaide, as we've been told by the Indian captain, they were going for the win until the very end. Shami was caught at mid-off trying to clear the infield, Aaron was LBW to a really good fast straight ball, and Ishant Sharma was stumped. For most of this year, India haven't faced too many situations in which they had a chance to save a Test on the 5th day. But even conceding all these points, Coverdale's facts are simply wrong. Virat Kohli was 7th out off the 4th ball of the 82nd over. The new ball was in play, by the way.

Even on that Adelaide wicket with its tailor-made rough for Nathan Lyon, and new ball for Mitchell Johnson, with India playing a strange game chasing runs for victory to the very end, the last 3 wickets survived 33 balls (81.5 to 87.1). In the first innings at Adelaide, Saha was 7th out off the 2nd ball of the 111th over. The last 3 wickets survived 37 balls (110.3 to 116.4). Again, this was when they weren't batting with the clear goal of survival. In the first innings at Melbourne, the last three wickets played out 62 balls after Ashwin was 7th out, but Virat Kohli was one of the batsmen at the wicket until he was 8th out. So Coverdale's data points should be
In the first innings in Adelaide, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 37 balls.
In the second innings in Adelaide, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 33 balls.
In the first innings at the MCG, India lost their last three wickets in the space of 62 balls.
In the second innings at the MCG, India's last 24 balls did not get bowled.
Smith was right. As for the people who agree with Coverdale and use his facts to buttress their point, shouldn't they at least get their basic facts right before advancing to the more sophisticated bit about arguing from facts?

If numbers are to be taken seriously, it can be argued that a player's recent record is a better indicator of what he might achieve that his record in just 3 games. This is especially true for tailenders, whose innings are playing in a wide range of situations, and whose skills are limited. Sometimes, they bat with a specialist at the other end in a competitive situation. At others, they bat in utterly hopeless situations. They play accordingly. Chris Martin, test average 2.36, survived 11.8 balls per dismissal over the length of his career. Lets just take the performance of India's available tailenders this year. This is a good measure. All of India's Tests have been played Away, outside the sub-continent, India have typically been behind in these games (sometimes hopelessly so) by the time the tail came in to bat.

Ishant Sharma has 8 dismissals in 209 balls in 2014, Mohammad Shami has 8 in 197 balls and Umesh Yadav has 3 in 65 balls. It is the flavor of the month to deride India's tail, and India's tail is poor when compared to Lyon, Starc and Harris. But even so, 4 overs is a ridiculously small number of overs to play. And I haven't brought up the fact that Ashwin and Dhoni were in at the start of the 4 overs. Even if they fell on the first two balls of the 1st of those 4 overs, the remaining 3 batsmen would have to play out 22 balls, against the old ball, on a good wicket. As bad as they are, they'd have a good chance to do so. Of course, it didn't even look like Dhoni or Ashwin were going to get out. It didn't look like they were remotely interested in anything but keeping the ball out.

Smith was right. The journalists are wrong. An inquiry into manhood (or "the desire to win") is not necessary here. It is not even remotely merited. Fidelity to the facts might be a better place to start. Smith did the correct, classy thing which one would expect of an international Test captain in such circumstances.

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