How’s that? A rambling post about cricket and codes

The four types of code

Most of my working life, I’ve worked with information in one form or the other. As more and more things became “digital”, I spent time trying to understand how all this would work in society, in the real world, in a physical context. What was different and why it mattered. What I could do about it.

Some of that time was spent reading; some experimenting, seeing what worked; and some talking to people. Learning all the time.

One of the lessons I found most valuable was to think of there being four types of “code” operating in any given space: the law; software; market conventions; social norms. This “lesson” was heavily influenced by reading, listening to, and chatting with, Larry Lessig, and underpinned by the works of and conversations with Howard Rheingold, Cory Doctorow and Amy Jo Kim, amongst others.

Applying the framework to cricket

If you’re reading this, then you know I love cricket. I’ve been travelling to Test matches for over 56 years. This past month alone, I’ve been at Lords for the Ireland match; then at the Oval for India v Australia; then at Edgbaston for the first Ashes Test, and finally at Lords again for the second Ashes Test, which finished last Sunday.

We’ve had two great Ashes Tests: thrilling, packed with action and heroics, speckled with incident and controversy.

I wish I could get away with just “speckled”. My fear is that one of the incidents — the Bairstow stumping — will discolour and overshadow most of the memories people have of the Test. More worryingly, I fear that the incident could have negative ramifications that last for some time, perhaps years.

Some part of me then immediately goes into “root cause analysis” and “prevention of recurrence” mode. Why did this happen? And what can be done to prevent it happening again?

The “facts”

Let’s look at what happened.

  1. Bairstow ducked under a bouncer, which was then collected by the keeper. He then went walkabout.
  2. Carey, the keeper, having collected the ball, lobbed it underhand at the stumps, and hit them.
  3. The Australian team appealed.
  4. The on-field umpires, who had both been distracted, sent the appeal upstairs.
  5. The off-field umpire decided to uphold the appeal.
  6. Bairstow was given out.

Those were the “facts”.

The root causes, as seen using the four codes framework

So we’ve seen the “what”. Let’s now look at the “why”. Why did this happen?

Code as Law: The “Laws of Cricket ” view

What happened could not have happened unless Bairstow left the crease. This leads to one of the commonest observations from experts everywhere. He should not have left the crease until after he had confirmed that the ball was dead. But. Let’s pause there for a moment.

How does a batsman confirm that the ball is dead? To answer that we need to understand how a ball dies.

According to the Laws, a ball “becomes dead” when it is “finally settled in the hands of the wicketkeeper or of the bowler”, or when a boundary is scored, or the batter dismissed, or becomes trapped in clothing or equipment, or if a penalty is due related to improper re-entry or fielding, or if it hits a protective helmet on the ground, or the match ended. (Law 20.1)

In addition, a ball is “considered to be dead” “when it is clear to the bowler’s end umpire that the fielding side and both batters at the wicket have ceased to regard it as in play”. (Law 20.1.2)

To compound matters further, only the umpire can decide whether a ball is “finally settled”. (Law 20.2).

To summarise, the ball can either become dead or be considered to be dead by only one person, the umpire at the bowler’s end.

That’s what the Laws say.

So, if Bairstow had waited until the bowler’s end umpire had signalled Dead ball before meandering beyond the crease, would it all have ended happily ever after?

Possibly. Except. Except that he might have waited a very long time. Godot may have arrived first.

It turns out that the umpire does not have to signal Dead ball. To quote the relevant Law, “When the ball has become dead under 20.1, the umpire may call and signal Dead ball if it is necessary to inform the players”. (Law 20.4.1).

May. If it is necessary.

Now umpires don’t call or signal Dead Ball every ball. For good reason. It would be tiresome. So it only tends to happen when there is doubt. This is not a Laws thing, it is a market convention thing. Informal agreements that make the world work, probably an arcane example of Erik Brynjolfsson’s Theory of Incomplete Contracts.

Was there doubt? Hmmm. The bowler’s end umpire was busy completing his cloakroom-attendant duties, preparing to return Cameron Green’s cap to him. At the point when the ball hit the stumps, his mind appeared to be otherwise occupied. The leg umpire was also busy doing something else, as he prepared to start his next stint at the stumps; he was walking over from square leg. So neither appeared to be watching the action. They were going about their business preparing for the next over. Soft signals that suggest the two of them had already considered the ball to be dead. Yet neither of them said so. Perhaps they weren’t asked. Perhaps what they were asked was a different question, whether “over” had been called.

The argument of whether “over” was called is neither here nor there, other than the fact that it would have proved conclusively whether the ball was dead or not.

The calling of “over” cannot be done until after the ball has been deemed dead. (Law 20.3). “Nether the call of Over (see Law 17.4) nor the call of Time (see Law 12.2) is to be made until the ball is dead, either under 20.1 or 20.4.”

It is theoretically possible that Bairstow had assumed the ball was dead due to the actions of one or both umpires, even though Dead ball had not been signalled and Over not called. But that’s a stretch. Bairstow had been seen going walkabout earlier, he appeared to have a habit of wandering, particularly after ducking. So let’s leave that as a stretch.

It’s not important. Because what Bairstow believed does not have any impact on the umpiring decision, which only had to do with two things. Was the ball dead? And if not, was Bairstow in his crease or not when the ball hit the stumps?

That’s where I hit my first problem. I can’t find evidence that the bowler’s end umpire was actually asked whether he thought the ball was dead. Since it was technically a stumping attempt, the referring umpire should be the square leg umpire, not the bowler’s end umpire. The only person who could have deemed the ball dead may not have been asked the question. I believe Ben Stokes actually raised this point later, but I haven’t seen a formal response.

That’s enough as far as the Laws are concerned. If the ball wasn’t dead (a point that is still in question) and if the batsman wasn’t in his crease when the ball hit the stumps, then the batsman is out. That’s what the off-field umpire ruled. To most people, that’s the end of the argument. And maybe it is. Maybe the off-field umpire did ask the bowler’s end umpire whether he deemed the ball dead and was told he hadn’t. I just haven’t got the info.

Code in the form of software: The replay of the event

There’s nothing much to comment on here. The frames showed what they showed. At the point where the ball hit the stumps, Bairstow was out of his crease. The TV umpire decided that the ball was not dead, and that was that.

A few nuggets of interest remain and are captured in the frames. Did Carey launch the ball at the stumps before Bairstow went wandering? Not an issue from a Laws viewpoint, but potentially of interest from a Market Conventions viewpoint. Was the Bowler’s End umpire in the act of preparing to hand over the bowler’s cap before the stumps were shattered? Could it be surmised that the ball had been considered dead as a consequence. Possibly of esoteric interest from a Laws viewpoint, as and when people work on improving the Dead ball Laws. Until then, it’s interesting but not of much use. The result cannot be changed.

Code in the form of Market Conventions

Let’s assume that issues of Law have been settled, even though they haven’t. Let’s now move to the Letter-versus-Spirit argument.

Most of the debates I’ve seen that go down this route descend into pure whataboutery: what about what Bairstow did earlier in the match, what about Dhoni and Bell, what about Stuart Broad’s snick, and so on. I’m going to avoid those rabbit holes, won’t solve anything.

There are already Laws in place about unfair play and player’s conduct, as detailed in Laws 41 and 42. They deal with unfair actions, threatening behaviour damage to pitch or ball, etc. Some of them lead to outright penalties, and others lead to warnings that precede penalties if the offending behaviour continues.

Where the Law was found to be inadequate, informal conventions arose. For example, it was expected that a bowler would warn a backing-up batsman, one who was too enthusiastic in his backing-up, before “Mankading” him. (I dislike the use of the term Mankad to describe this but have to use it nevertheless). Now, with recent changes to the relevant Law, this may no longer be necessary. Onus has shifted to the umpire, if I’ve interpreted the change correctly. (Law 41.16, Batters Stealing a Run).

This makes sense. Sometimes the Law needs work. And convention evolves to fill the gap until the Law changes.

The Dead ball Laws need a serious upgrade. Conventions have evolved: the informal eye-check between batsman and wicketkeeper; the tap of the bat in the crease before the walkabout; soft signals that evolve to fill gaps. But these signals are still informal conventions, and need validation and formalisation.

The warning mechanisms have hitherto worked on the basis of “mate, you’re taking advantage, and it’s not fair. It goes against the spirit of the game. Please stop or we will take the action available to us, however unsporting it may feel to you”.

It has been reported that the Australians had noticed Bairstow’s behaviour. If, as has been suggested, Carey took a shy at the stumps before Bairstow had left his ground, on the off chance that he repeats his prior behaviour, it suggests premeditation. Premeditation without a warning. That becomes a market convention issue. Are we now to see a Mankading in one of the remaining Tests, one carried out without warning? No! Why? Because the Laws have caught up.

Code in the form of Social Norms

We’ve now had a situation where:

A bowler has bowled a ball which had no possibility of hitting the stumps

The ball sailed over the batsman’s head and was easily ducked

The batsman facing the ball made no attempt to play it

The two primary actions of cricket are missing from the episode

And yet a wicket has fallen.

To make matters worse, there is no argument to be made that Bairstow somehow gained an unfair advantage by doing what he did. (At least with Mankading, or with Running On The Pitch, the perpetrator was seen to seek unfair advantage. No such accusation can be made against Bairstow).

Not cricket.

That’s why there was uproar. No one is arguing about the decision per se, even though some elements of doubt remain. The umpire ruled him out. And that is that. Game over. The argument is whether the appeal should have been rescinded. And that’s really about market conventions and social norms. Spirit rather than letter.

It is possible that the event led to some extra fire in Stokes’s belly, and we could all enjoy the fireworks.

It is possible that even if the appeal was rescinded, the Australians would have won the match. There was still work to do, and England’s performance so far has been patchy.

It is also possible that the event motivates the whole England team, and that we have an even more exciting Ashes series in prospect.

Time will tell.

What is important is that the rancour does not spread, that we don’t see the scenes we saw in the Long Room or in parts of the ground outside the stadium.

Prevention of Recurrence

As John Mayall famously sang all those years ago, The Laws Must Change. (Incidentally, if you’ve never heard this before, I envy you. What a treat you have in store for you. I can say that about the whole album. The Turning Point is one of the finest albums ever made. California. Thoughts About Roxanne. Room To Move. A triplet as worthy as the Deadhead favourite of Help Slip Franks).

Time to improve the Laws related to Dead ball. The umpire’s job is hard enough without all this ambiguity.

When doing the improving, it’s important to come up with mechanisms that don’t slow the game down. Over rates are already appalling, and only made worse by the new entrants such as ball-change shenanigans. I don’t think that the penalties for the second Test have been issued yet, but I was at the game. I think England closed at -8 and Australia at -8 or 9. There were only 12 points at stake in the first place, so the net take from that Test between the two teams might turn out to be negative. (Unless there is some miraculous way to zeroise the under bowled overs since there was a result).

Let me know what you think

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