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Howlers, Bulls and Bears
a proposal for a DRS economy
I used to have a weekly newsletter over on Revue called ‘Friday First Drafts’, in which I spewed forth longer pieces for your comic perusal. Elon killed Revue, of course. But here’s a taste of the kind of stuff I did over there. If it’s at all interesting, feel free to subscribe here for when I start back up.
One of the very best things about twenty-first century cricket is DRS (the Umpire’s Decision Review System). After some blunderfart beginnings and world-class intransigence from the India side (B.K.), international cricket has stumbled into just about the perfect system for reviewing decisions.
The brilliant innovation of DRS is not any of the underlying technology. Sure, a lot of that is ingenious stuff. Hats off to the boffins and nerds involved (assuming hats are being worn - if not, put a hat on, then take it off). However, the true breakthrough that DRS offers is not the projection of ball trajectories beyond the moment it struck a batter’s oafish legs. Nor is it the split-screen alignment of visual representations of audio sound waves to the defeated defensive stroke of some seam-addled batter. And it’s definitely not slow-motion, zoomed-in replays of low catches where the presence or otherwise of fingers under the ball can only be properly decided by whether the player in question claiming the catch is a member of the team you support.
No, DRS is a triumph not for any of these reasons, but rather for its precious ability to transfer the blame for awful decisions away from umpires and onto the players.
The goal of any sport should be to ensure that the outcome is resolved by the efforts of the competitors involved. That any form of match official intervention does not alter the result. Cricket has, thanks to DRS, mostly accomplished this.
In modern cricket, if a terrible decision changes the direction of the match, DRS ensures it is no longer the fault of the umpire. Or, at least, not the entire fault. A sensible cricket team should have saved themselves a review precisely to overturn such a mistake, and their failure to do so is poor play from them.
Cricket has, magnificently, transplanted DRS strategy on top of its existing bat-and-ball fundamentals, like a balding ex-cricketer availing themselves of the Advanced Hair Studios offerings, or one of those aforementioned ball-tracking nerds donning a stylish stetson.
DRS is an extra meta-game that adds an entirely new element to the sport of cricket. A meta-game that still requires teamwork (“you there at point, was that ball going over the stumps or not?”), but further combines:
power dynamics (given your standing in the team, do you have the courage to tell your idiosyncratic and petulant star batter not to burn a review on a blatantly out LBW?)
Bayesian probability theory (how likely is it really, given all our prior information, that the umpire has made a mistake here?)
risk-reward analysis (the batter probably isn’t out, but we may not have another chance to get them - and if we get lucky, a successful review will change the direction of the match)
resource management (given how few reviews we have, under what circumstances do we deploy them to optimise our likelihood of winning)
Furthermore, we conduct the whole thing under rigid time constraints that adds a whimsical element of panic to the entire process.
The meta-game of DRS review strategy makes cricket a smarter game. A more strategic game. And, by happenstance, a fairer game.
Nevertheless, it could be even better.
When you have such a strong augmentation to the sport - one that has enriched the levels on which it can be engaged - you’d be a fool not to see if you can enrich it still further.
What if a review was a form of currency? We already partially think of them in this way. You spend a review to get another look at the decision.
But what if reviews could be spent across more decisions, rather than the relatively few they are currently permitted to impact?
What if, for example, reviews could impact the toss? Cricket can be disproportionately impacted by the result of a coin flip. The decision to bat first or second can fundamentally alter a team’s chances of winning the match.
If a team calls incorrectly, therefore, why not give them a chance to have a do-over with the coin? Spend a review, get another toss.
Reviews could likewise resolve one of the tiresome aspects of modern cricket. Namely, the bowling side complaining that the balls have gone out of shape whenever they struggle to get any movement with the bloody thing. Men recovering from vasectomies have fewer ball complaints than such desperate teams.
The legitimacy of these team’s soft ball grievances could be properly tested by requiring a review to be spent in order to have the shape of the ball tested via the umpire’s Rings of Spherical Purity.
Teams could also review wide calls. Or no balls based on height. Or a myriad of other decisions.
Reviews could also be used purely for individual stat-padding. Wicketkeepers annoyed at having leg byes mistakenly given as byes could have those looked at, for example.
We don’t have to just look forward either. Let’s look back as well. Why not revert to umpires eyeballing run out and stumped chances? It would save time for those decisions which, under current protocols, are invariably sent upstairs regardless of how clear-cut they are. No. Make a call and if the players don’t like it, let them use a review.
And, much as with the coin toss example above, we should no longer limit the use of reviews to just the overturning of decisions. Want to bowl an extra bouncer in an over? Spend a review to do so. Want a drink outside the scheduled break? Spend a review to do so. Want to avoid the press after a frustrating day in the field? Spend a review to do so.
Obviously, with these increased options for spending reviews, we’re going to need better than the two or three that tend to be on offer. (As an aside, the whole Covid business essentially saw teams trading neutral umpires for a bonus review, which just goes to show that everything I’m discussing here can work. Reviews are already being spent. They’re already being traded for changes in the way the game is played (or officiated at least). Let’s lean into it.)
But teams should not just start with extra reviews handed to them. We should instead force them to earn more with their choices during the match.
If you walk, for example, you should get a bonus review. Imagine how thrilling that would be as the dismissed player tries to leave the field before the umpire raises the finger.
An obvious concern with this would be that a review for walking would almost certainly also change the nature of declarations. After all, why declare when you can have your remaining batters stride to the middle, walk at the first delivery faced and earn a review for it? But, again, let’s lean into it. Maybe declarations should be rewarded. Why not give the declaring team an extra review for each not out batter left in the shed? Talk about adding a fresh tactical dimension to the currently-tired field of declaration speculation.
And if you think that sounds like too many reviews, remember that we can always recalibrate the cost of spending them.
One obvious option would be to make umpire’s calls costlier.
Under current DRS rules, an umpire’s call decision results in the original onfield decision being upheld, but the review being kept.
We can do better than that. An umpire’s call ruling suggests that the decision is tight enough to go either way, so why not allow the players to determine which way it goes?
If the reviewing side really wants to overturn an umpire’s call decision, let them burn a second review to tilt the umpire’s call projection in their favour. Let their opponents likewise burn a review to tilt it back again. Let the bidding go back and forth. How crucial is the wicket? The players will soon tell us.
Again, such an innovation gives us access to additional levels of strategy that previously didn’t exist, as brinkmanship and bluffing can force opponents into bidding ever higher for the borderline decision to go their way.
There could be other methods of earning reviews as well. Indeed, it’s a way for the ICC to incentive the game to move in an aesthetically (or, let’s get real, financially) pleasing direction. Does the sight of a stump cartwheeling out of the ground get fans excited? Give teams a review for it. Those two-player batted-back-from-over-the-rope outfield catches? Give ’em a review. Wearing retro kits? Extra review. Breaking your bat? Review. Pretty much whatever is deemed the most thrilling aspect of any cricket at any point in time can be incentivised by the prospect of reviews.
Nor do we have to be limited to the ICC’s largesse. Why not allow reviews to be traded? This could start with a couple of simple tweaks. First, let teams keep any reviews they have left over at the end of the match to be used in any future match.
Second, and this is the key point, broaden the concept of ‘any future match’ to be ‘any future match’, including ones in which the team is not playing.
Now we begin to have a review economy. Imagine Tim Southee on day three of a Test, short of reviews, getting on the WhatsApp to Pat Cummins, hammering out a deal in which the Australian captain lends some of his excess reviews to his New Zealand counterpart. They could negotiate interest rates. Repayment terms. And so forth.
Soon, the teams that are frugal with their reviews, savvily using them only when necessary, could dictate terms to those sides more profligate with their use. Review economic superpowers might arise. Who wouldn’t love to see the Ashes ultimately decided by detailed contractual negotiations over the number of reviews willing to be lent to each side from, say, the West Indies?
But why stop at individual nation-to-nation deals? There would be nothing to prevent the cricketing nations of the world forming a Review Bank, in which they could deposit their excess reviews and borrow against when times got tough. Interest rates could be set for both deposits and borrowing.
Those interest rates would soon lead to speculation. Short selling. Options trading. Review derivatives. The whole shebang.
And then, of course, India would no doubt use their real-world fiscal might to demand all the reviews be handed over to them in exchange for more lucrative touring schedules and television rights, plunging the cricket review economy into a depression. And that’d be the end of it.
But, heck, what a ride.