OUTSIDE EDGE: WET BEHIND THE TEARS

Published September 12, 2021
Rain played havoc at Sabina Park, Jamaica, as second day of the Pakistan and West Indies Test got washed out on Aug 22 Inset: Wet ground | Photo courtesy AP | Reuters
Rain played havoc at Sabina Park, Jamaica, as second day of the Pakistan and West Indies Test got washed out on Aug 22 Inset: Wet ground | Photo courtesy AP | Reuters

In his classic Anyone But England, Mike Marqusee noted that for a sport caricatured as stuffy and sclerotic, cricket has shown a remarkable openness to innovation. Few sports introduce entire formats or as many rule changes. Cricket was among the first to incorporate television for line decisions, a decade before most sports and a full quarter century before football. Today there is almost no equivalent of ball tracking or snickometers in other sports — the technology may exist, but it is certainly not used for umpiring or refereeing calls.

Yet for all this inventiveness, one simple problem continues to vex cricket: rain.

We are all aware that retractable roofs are not possible for stadiums as big, and governing bodies as poor, as cricket’s. But the issue with cricket and rain is not so much about archaic technology as it is an arcane mindset.

Take the process for restarting play after rain, one that is absurd to the point of performance art. Let us count the steps involved, shall we?

First, the rain has to completely stop — not as obvious a step as you may think. Remember, when players are already out there, a little bit of drizzle is not an impediment to play. But if players have been taken off the field, then drizzle is treated as an insurmountable hurdle. Whatever the reasons for this paradox, the bottom line remains that umpires won’t even hint at restarting a game unless the air is bone dry.

Second, the ground staff — depending on the host’s GDP, these are either portly middle-aged men driving German-engineered golf carts, or malnourished children working with their hands — have to remove the covers. This exercise is more arduous than it first appears. The very fact of rain, after all, means the covers are considerably heavier than when they were put on. The staff also have to avoid spilling any accumulated water on the playing surface, a task that was evidently beyond the Sabina Park ground staff in Pakistan’s most recent Test.

Third, the umpires will schedule an “inspection.” This inspection is usually scheduled an inordinate and infuriatingly long time after the rain has stopped, generally long enough for your resident No. 1 or No. 2 seed to win an early round of Grand Slam tennis.

For all its inventiveness, cricket continues to be deeply vexed by rain. Can anything be done about it? Here are some suggestions

Fourth, the umpires will conduct the said inspection which, despite its scientific-sounding name, is really nothing more than them walking around the ground, tap dancing on the grass, and asking each other “So, whadya think?”

Fifth, depending on the answer to this question, the umpires will either (a) schedule play, albeit an inordinate and infuriating length of time in the future, or (b) return to step 3. Note, of course, that if it rains during any of these steps, we must in fact go back to step 1, like the world’s worst game of Snakes and Ladders.

This is all, frankly speaking, stupid and insane. Administrators have no right to complain about the financial viability of cricket when such practices fall under their jurisdiction.

The ‘Outside Edge’ column is here to help. Perhaps some of the ideas below are non-starters or impractical. But it all comes from a place of love: I harbour the radical and revolutionary belief that if it is not raining and cricket is scheduled, then cricket should be played. Call me crazy.

Suggestion 1: Get covers that cover most of the ground, not just the square. Sri Lanka’s board, hardly the paragon of financial muscle, has them. Is this really beyond all other boards (cough, West Indies, cough) that suffer from similar problems?

Suggestion 2: In countries where grounds drain slowly because of the soil, lay the outfield with AstroTurf or artificial grass. As it is, many outfields have practice pitches on them, making it impossible for fielders to dive, or are shaped in strange and non-geometric ways (hello, New Zealand). My point is: let’s not pretend the outfield is some sort of sacrosanct zone to be left untouched and uncorrupted.

Suggestion 3: Make it legal to play with a wet outfield, as long as the main square is dry. Should a puddle at deep extra cover or deep midwicket really stop play for hours? How many times does the ball go to such positions in a session of Test cricket? Once? Twice? If it goes out there and gets drenched, change the ball.

Suggestion 4: Raise the bar for what is considered “dangerous” for fast bowlers. Cricket is a little bit too frail and, in my humble opinion, a little bit too respectful of fast bowlers’ nakhras. Even during torrential downpours, Kylian Mbappe will hare up and down the wing. Soil, grass, and footwear may well be different among different outdoor sports, but are fast bowlers’ run-ups really that much riskier than the rigors of other top-level athletes? If Formula 1 drivers can have a “rain” mode — slower but still enthralling viewing — is it really so bad if quick bowlers have to drop 10-15 mph for an hour or two until the run-up area dries up completely?

Suggestion 5: If the run-ups are genuinely too dangerous, allow the fielding side to bowl with a spinner at both ends, the same way they do for bad light. This may force captains to play more spinners if rain is scheduled, adding a selection subplot to rain predictions.

Suggestion 6: If more than half the overs on the first three days are lost to rain or bad light, allow the umpires the discretion to add a reserve day. The usual objection against reserve days revolves around television contracts, which are worked out months in advance. That is, if ESPN/Star/Sky has Tuesday afternoon reserved for Wimbledon or a hot dog-eating contest, you cannot ask them to displace that on Monday. This is fair enough, but it ignores that every sports channel worth its salt now has streaming options. So keep the first five days as scheduled and, if you need to televise a reserve day, slap it on to your website or app.

Part of my frustration comes from personal experience. Last month, I wasted eight days and an undisclosable sum of money on the world’s worst trip, to Guyana. This was due to bouts of inspired logic such as “everyone deserves a vacation after the pandemic” (strictly speaking, not true), “if there’s no cricket, I’m sure Guyana will still be a great holiday” (definitely not true) and “there’s no way it’s going to rain for four days straight” (true, the actual number was seven).

Of course, I have many warm memories from Georgetown, including gifted tickets, water and Oreos, each from a different source; the money-changer downtown waxing lyrical about Babar Azam; and friendly banter with fans at the ground.

But that’s all when the cricket actually happened. Unfortunately, my primary memory associated with the country is two umpires wasting 90 minutes of dry weather gently wandering the turf like ancient Greek philosophers, until the rain started falling again precisely at their chosen time for a restart, and later calling off the game because of a “cut-off” of 2pm when there was sunshine the rest of the day.

Even if your rain experience isn’t as bad as mine, every cricket fan can agree that the way the sport deals with the issue is deeply unsatisfactory. We must do better, not for the sake of converting the cricketing pagans of the world (such as the Americans or the Chinese) but for keeping those already in the community of believers from abandoning their faith.

The writer tweets @ahsanib

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 12th, 2021

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