The case for substitutes in test cricket
Russell Degnan

Pattinson, Cummins, Harris, Johnson, Watson. It is hard to say if that would be Australia's first choice bowling lineup because for most of the past two years the choice has been so limited as to be irrelevant. What is clear, is that there is a problem with injuries to fast bowlers that afflicts world cricket.

Numerous articles have been written about workload, arguing that modern bowlers have more or less than their predecessors, and ought to therefore have more or less work today. I don't want to go into those, except to note that, by and large, injuries have always been a problem in cricket - we merely tend to forget players crippled early in their careers - and that they are far more severe problem for a professional cricketer than an amateur one.

What I would like to do is make a comparison with the closest sporting equivalent to a fast bowler: a baseball pitcher. Despite closer management and more focused training, professional baseball has also seen a gradual increase in the number of injuries, however they have also seen an increase in career length. The latter is almost certainly more important. A pitcher will be cut for weak performance or career ending injuries, with the former often being a function of the former. The longer the average career, the less impact those injuries are having, even if the total number of injuries remains constant.

There is a lot written about proper pitcher management, because it matters a lot to multi-million dollar baseball players and the franchises that purchase their labour. Except in particular circumstances pitchers follow a strict program of rest and recovery, mindful that (according to this article) the highest skeletal muscle stress levels occur 2-4 days after significant effort. A finding supported by this study that there is an optimum bowling load of neither too many, nor too few overs, and of breaks neither too short nor too long; and this study that shows a massive risk ratio increase of 1.94 for fast bowlers in the second innings.

A starting pitcher therefore operates on a strict schedule. Lincecum, a pitcher San Francisco would use every day if they could, has a pitch count by day of the season (excluding spring training) that ticks like clockwork. Cricket's problem with injuries almost certainly stems in part from doing the opposite. During the first class season (the first half of the year) Mitchell Johnson's total workload is lower, but his day by day ball count shows clumps of peak activity, with no chance of minor stress recovery, followed by two (or more when rested) weeks of inactivity that can only serve to lower conditioning.

Cricket Australia have claimed in the last two days that Pattinson would have been rested for Perth as, by the end of the Sydney test, he was exceeding the workload needed to avoid injury. Too little, too late to rest a player for two weeks after pushing 450 balls out of him in 11 days. A pitcher would never exceed 360 pitches in that space of time.

The only way to manage a player sufficiently closely to prevent that sort of overload is to have no back-to-back tests (a nightmare for schedulers, but common in the distant past) or to give teams the right to substitute players.

The danger with substitutes is that they can give an unfair advantage to one team if they are unconstrained. In other sports - and cricket is unique amongst major sports in not permitting substitutes - both offence and defence must be maintained as the game switched regularly between disciplines. Cricket does not, however, having only three changes, and only one where both have been played, and will be played. The ICC's ill-thought-out ODI substitute rule in 2005 floundered on this problem, acting more like a "designated hitter" rule than substitute, helping the team batting second with no benefit for the team batting first.

If implemented in first class cricket, a substitute rule would need to be resticted to between the second and third innings, maintaining parity between disciplinary needs (although teams ought to be free to lessen one in favour of the other).

Weirdly, we don't have to look far to see a successful implementation. In the ICC XI vs England game, Hamid Hassan's untimely collision with the long-on fence saw George Dockrell replace him for the second innings. It was a seamless transition. The ICC XI always had 11 batsmen, 11 fieldsmen, and five bowlers. They gain, slightly, for introducing a spinner and stronger batsman for the second innings, but only tactically, not structurally. Statistical records, measured in runs and wickets per innings, not by the game, are almost unaffected by the change.

Tradition will make people oopposed to change, but the no-substitute rule operated for 70+ years in football before it was changed, and now it is hard to imagine the game without it. Traditions change. Done properly, noone really cares.

Aesthetically, a substitute rule would add, not detract from the sport.

  • It allows scope for tactical change, the introduction of a spinner for a paceman, a more aggressive batsman for a plodder, a bowling all-rounder for a batsman; making the game richer.
  • It prevents a team being heavily disadvantaged by early injury, although some disadvantage is still inevitable, while they wait for the change. As much as we admire Cowdrey, Marshall, or McCosker, playing injured is also stupid, and can do more damage.
  • The tactical scope would allow aspects of the game to reverse their decline such as out and out pacemen or spinners working in tandem. Similarly, any improvement to bowling quality helps redress the current dominance of batsmen, as well as improving the standard of cricket being watched.
  • Players currently unable to handle the physical strain of test cricket could have had longer careers bowling half-games. A short-list of players in this category would include Malinga, Bond and Flintoff, all crowd pullers sadly missed.
  • In theory, allowing players to rest while the game continues would also reduce the need for week-long breaks, allowing the scheduling of back-to-back-to-back games.

But mostly, it is about keeping players on the field, where they ought to be. If Pattinson and Cummins had been able to share the load while they matured, both would probably have turned out in Perth this week. Similarly, Harris is unlikely to have a fruitful career through his mid-30s, being maybe one injury from ending it completely. Being able to play half a game at a time woulg significantly reduce the probability of that injury happening.

Cricket - Articles 10th January, 2012 07:47:02   [#]