LONDON: His name appears on TV screens and scoreboards as much as cricket’s superstar players like Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and Ben Stokes.
He decides matches and is the subject of much discussion and debate. Yet he doesn’t swing a bat, bowl a ball, or take a catch in the field.
Frank Duckworth plays an integral role in the world of cricket, as the man who pioneered the scoring method that has settled rain-interrupted limited-overs matches for the past 22 years. And there have been plenty of them at the current Cricket World Cup in England, which just two weeks in is already the most rain-hit edition in the tournament’s history.
Yet the ‘D’ in the so-called DLS method (which stands for Duckworth-Lewis-Stern) says he wouldn’t be recognised if he walked through the gates of the home of cricket at Lord’s, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
“People think Duckworth and Lewis are Einsteins, deep in the world of academia,” Duckworth, a 79-year-old retired statistician, said in a telephone interview. “People very often find it quite revealing we are actually human beings who just like the game and can actually talk one man to another. We are ordinary people.”
Duckworth describes himself as an armchair cricketer. He never really played the game, except as a school-kid “on playing fields, using piles of jackets as the wickets.”
He fondly recalls his highest ever score, 11 not out in a junior school house match.
Yet he’ll leave an indelible mark on the sport through his scoring formula which confounds the casual cricket fan but, according to Duckworth, is actually fairly straightforward.
One-day cricket was adapted from the longer format of the game in the 1960s, with the first international match coming in 1971. To ensure a result from a game affected by bad weather, cricket’s authorities initially used the teams’ average run-rate from each over played.
It was a simple yet unfair method that did not take into account the number of batsmen a team still had to come in.
“If the first side makes 250 in their 50 overs and the second side are 126-9 after 25 overs and the game is washed out, clearly the second side were not going to get anywhere near their 250,” Duckworth said. “But they would be declared the winners.”
By the start of the 1990s, another method was being used the ‘Most Productive Overs,’ which removed the lowest-scoring overs from each team’s innings and its flaws were exposed in the Cricket World Cup semi-finals in 1992.
With 2.1 overs remaining of the match, South Africa needed 22 runs to beat England. Two overs were lost due to a brief flurry of rain and when the South Africans came back out to bat, the revised target was an absurd 21 runs off one ball.
An appeal went out to statisticians all over the world: Please come up with a better scoring system. Duckworth obliged.
In the mid-1980s, he had already written out the basis of his own scoring formula and sent copies of it to cricketing authorities.
“It more or less fell on stony ground,” Duckworth said. “Because they said the method is too complicated.”
The World Cup shambles of 1992 changed all that. A few months afterward, Duckworth made a presentation at a Royal Statistical Society conference of a formula to settle rain-reduced one-day cricket matches and it caught the attention of a university lecturer called Tony Lewis. They began to work together and presented it at Lord’s to first English cricket’s governing body and then the ICC.
The Duckworth-Lewis system, which uses a ‘run-scoring resource’ that takes into account the number of overs remaining and the number of wickets that are down, was first implemented on Jan 1, 1997, when Zimbabwe played England in Harare.
It survives to this day, a universally recognized and respected if not completely understood method.
“It’s already outlived us and I see no reason why it shouldn’t carry on,” said Duckworth, who is filled with a sense of pride every time he sees his name, or initial, next to a cricket result.
“My wife and I were sitting in a bar in Australia watching a match on television and it said, ‘DL method,’” Duckworth recalled. “I looked at it and said, ‘Here I am in Australia and it says ‘DL method’ and the ‘D’ is me.’ I do feel great pride.”
Duckworth and Lewis were honoured by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, both becoming a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and have been rewarded with various medals and other honors.
Duckworth accepts the method is not foolproof, particularly because it cannot make allowance for the identity of players still to bat after a rain delay.
“What you can’t do is have a method whereby the captains have to provide the scorers with a ranking of their players before every match, whether it’s going to be rain-affected or not,” he said. “You can’t let the method dominate the game. It has to be totally objective.”
Data from one-day and Twenty20 games are reviewed every two years, as are the parameters of the formula to allow for rule changes (Powerplays, for example) and the fact that the way the game is played keeps changing.
Duckworth and Lewis gave up looking after their method about six years ago and handed it over to Steven Stern, a university professor of statistics on Australia’s Gold Coast. Hence the switch of the name from the ‘DL method’ to ‘DLS,’ with Stern making a few refinements here and there.
Duckworth, who lives in Gloucestershire, 100 miles west of London, pronounces himself ‘fully retired’ but still gets pulled in by cricket. During this World Cup, he has been working at Bristol’s County Ground, which hosted three matches. Two of them were called off without a ball being bowled because of rain, meaning the DLS method wasn’t even required.
“It was very depressing sitting there in the scorers’ room, watching it rain,” Duckworth said. “I’m now sitting at home watching the games or what there is of them.”
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019