English cricket has an interesting relationship with the spirit of the game.
Cast your mind back to the uproar against Ashwin Ravichandran — Jos Buttler during the run-out controversy in IPL 2019, and how James Anderson, for one, made his displeasure evident by ‘shredding’ the thought process. Eoin Morgan tweeted that it set a bad example for kids following the game. That is just one example, but it would not be an exaggeration to say England, generally over the years, have perceived themselves as the guardians of the spirit of cricket.
But now, it’s England turn to be questioned about that intangible cricketing phrase that often rears it head when something unconventional pops up.
During the recent T20I series between South Africa and England, camera crew for official broadcasters Supersport — not for the first time in recent memory — picked up something interesting. During the third match at Newlands in Cape Town, television coverage captured images of England team’s analyst Nathan Leamon with numbers and letters displayed on the team balcony.
Predictably, questions were raised, and Michael Vaughan — usually at the forefront of such spirit-related discussions — raised objections.
But World Cup-winning captain Eoin Morgan was unfazed, and said on Thursday that he would continue to make use of signals from the team balcony.
“There has always been constant communication, verbal or physical, from the change room to us the field to help improve my decisions as captain and Jos Buttler’s decisions as vice-captain,” said Morgan.
He said the England team did its research before a game and any signals were intended to show how the data might have changed during the match. “It’s something we’ve used a lot pre-game and are now experimenting with in the game to see if we can improve our performance on the field.”
Morgan revealed that signals had been used in all three T20 matches.
“There weren’t many decisions that varied from mine. I think there were three in the first game, two in the second and a couple in the third,” said Morgan ahead of a three-match one-day series against South Africa, starting at Newlands on Friday.
And expectedly, Morgan was questioned about the ethical aspect. His response, with a smile, was that this was “100% within the spirit of the game”.
“We’re definitely going to continue with it to give it enough sample size to see whether it improves our decision-making on the field,” said Morgan.
The ECB has told media outlets that the system that was used in this T20I series was “a live informational resource that the captain may choose to use or ignore as he wishes. They are not commands or instructions and all decision-making takes place on the field.”
The International Cricket Council mandates that “the use of electronic communication devices and equipment of any kind to communicate with players on the field of play shall not be permitted.” The infamous incident at the 1999 World Cup involving Hansie Cronje and then coach Bob Woolmer is something cricket fans are well versed with. The ICC eventually banned such communication and it is perhaps likely to remain that way because of the potential that the use of such equipment could be exploited by those wanting to rig the game.
Interestingly, the man apart from Morgan who is in focus is Leamon — the analyst who co-founded popular statistical platform CricViz. He is currently working with England and also part of franchises around the world.
“Without giving too much away, we did this with Multan during the recent PSL. We ran models of the game and fed that information out to the captain in real time with a system of signals. It is the first time I know of it being done in cricket, but I suspect it will become more and more common,” Leamon had told former England captain Michael Atherton, during an email interview with The Times back in April.
But Leamon immediately recognised the importance of being a tool to help the captain and not become a source of instructions. In the day and age of match-ups, it is important to keep the balance between tactical innovation and intervention. It is something we saw the likes of Morgan, VVS Laxman, Trevor Bayliss address during IPL 2020. It is not to be overdone.
“There is an important caveat, though, because this is the sort of thing that can easily give people the wrong idea. Ultimately, players win games of cricket. Players win games of cricket by executing their skills under pressure, by holding their nerve when it counts, by making good decisions in the split-second they have to react. I also believe that in any effective cricket team, the decisions must be made out on the field by the captain. A cricket team can’t be run from the side-line by a coach or an analyst or an owner,” Leamon had said.
“The signals we are sending out are just another source of information that the captain can use to make better decisions in the moment. We have a scoreboard so that the players don’t have to keep track of the score in their heads, this is no different.”
The American football league NFL sees, perhaps, the most extensive coach-player communication system for tactical reasons (apart from Formula One, maybe). The quarterback — the man who is in charge of calling every play on the field — is constantly fed information by coaches and offensive coordinators. There are instances when the quarterback makes a last-minute call to bluff the defence.
The future, in T20 franchise cricket especially, might well be a tempered version of that. In the 19th or the 20th over of a match, all the captain or the bowler at the top of his run-up would need to do is make a play-call that will automatically push the short-third fielder back and bring in the fielder from mid-on if decides to bowl a wide yorker. One instant to make the decision, delayed as late as possible, so that the batsman has the least possible time to process the change in his mind and react accordingly.
The game already has its means for coaches to communicate with captains: messages from 12th man, interacting at the boundary line and what not. This, in essence, is a streamlining of that thought process.
Cricket, especially at a time where matches hardly ever end on stipulated times, needs to embrace tactical signals and play-calling of this nature going forward. It makes the game more exciting, interesting, fast-paced. And most of all, it is evolution in the right sense of the word and not changes to game-play for the sake of it.
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