The Mankad problem: a pre-match warning from captains

Mike Atherton

The Times. Thursday, 27 February 2020.

As captain of Australia, Ricky Ponting would routinely ask his opposite number whether they could come to a pre-match arrangement regarding low catches, wanting both teams to take the fielder’s word rather than relying on umpires or technology. Ponting usually went away empty-handed, as opposition captains were reluctant to play ball: the days of trust had long gone.

Ponting was on sure ground. He knew, as every broadcaster knows, that catches close to the ground are deceptive on television because of the foreshortening effects of the camera lens. What looks like a grounded catch is often anything but. With umpires sometimes badly sighted or too far from the action to make a correct judgment, Ponting wanted the players to take matters into their own hands. It was a shame that no other captain felt the same way.

The Laws of the game were not written with the 21st century in mind. They were written for a simpler, less intrusive time, and what is often forgotten is that they are designed as much for the amateur game, where no cameras pry, as the professional. That is why international matches have Playing Conditions — booklets that runs to many tens of pages — that lie side by side with the Laws.

Another complicating factor is the preamble to the Laws, known as the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. Written 20 years ago, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ has become one of the game’s great strengths and weaknesses. A strength because it reminds everyone that the Laws are found wanting from time to time in a game that has travelled far from its roots, and that fundamental decency and respect lie at the heart of a good contest. It is a weakness because, with that vibrant flowering, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ has come to mean different things to different people.

I’ve written before about the games of night street cricket in Chennai, for example, played over shorter pitch distances because of limitations of space, where every inch of ground is fought for and where, therefore, Mankading (the running-out of a backing-up batsman at the non-striker’s end) is accepted as a fundamental part of the game.  It is often said by the supporters of the preamble to the Laws that you may not necessarily be able to easily define the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ but, like manure, you know when you smell it.  

Sadly, this is far from the case, as the polarised responses this week to Katherine Brunt’s non-Mankad during England’s opening T20 World Cup defeat by South Africa suggest (PTG 3036-15036, 24 February 2020).  Brunt’s generosity may or may not have had any impact on the match. We shall never know what effect a Mankad at that critical moment would have had on Brunt or the South Africans at the crease.

My sympathies, in this debate, always lie with the bowler. For some reason it is the bowler who flirts with the status of villain when contemplating a Mankad, even though it is usually the batsman stealing ground. Such is the power of the ‘Spirit of Cricket’, Brunt would have been very wary of the potential backlash and smear against her name, hence her decision to warn, rather than run out, the non-striker.

As the word “Mankad” suggests — the dismissal was named after the fine former India cricketer Vinoo Mankad, whose name is now more associated with dark arts than great cricketing exploits — it is not a tag that is easily forgotten. In this instance, the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ actually undermines the Laws and makes life more complicated for the players.

The debate is well rehearsed by now, and most people have a clear stance on Mankading (PTG 2055-10405, 21 February 2017). That said, it is not always so black and white. Whereas Brunt would have been well within her rights to dismiss the non-striker, another recent example in the Under-19 World Cup between Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the bowler looked to be actively trying to deceive the batsman, was less clear cut (PTG 3015-14939, 1 February 2020), and prompted James Anderson, the England bowler, to query the law.  The issue is certainly growing in prominence and it is surely not long before it will play a decisive factor in a key game, with all the fallout that would ensue.

While it was barely spoken about when I played, nor can I remember an example in 15 years of professional cricket, now barely a tournament goes by without this debate raging. This is partly because of the ubiquity of televised cricket and the snowball effect; partly because of the increased rewards; partly because, in T20, every run is vital, and with fielding so spectacular across the board, every inch counts too.

It was also partly because the Marylebone Cricket Club changed the Law in 2000 to allow the non-striker to leave the crease as soon as the bowler’s back foot had landed, which actually encouraged the problem of the batsman stealing ground. Three years ago, the Law was changed again thankfully, with the responsibility now clearly on the batsman to stay in his/her ground from the moment the ball is live (the start of the run-up) to the moment it is expected to be released.

It is time to put the tiresome debate to bed, though, and this is where captains have a huge role to play. Before the next match, Heather Knight, England’s captain, could do everyone a favour and take a leaf out of Ponting’s book. She should go into the opposition dressing room, engage with her opposite number and the captains should put each other’s team on notice. Give, in other words, the warning that so many observers think — wrongly — is the batsman’s due. Then they should instruct their own players not to leave the crease until the ball has left the bowler’s hand.

Such an approach would immediately make everyone aware that a Mankad is a possibility and, by doing so, it would eradicate the problem swiftly. Everyone would know they are fair game and, therefore, would stay in their ground if they had any sense at all — as they should.  At the moment, the problem flourishes in the gulf between the Law, by which a run-out at the non-striker’s end is a possibility, and the ‘Spirit’, which somehow has come to frown upon that possibility. Until that confusion is put to bed, the problem will not go away.

The Cricket Toss … No more ‘heads’ or ‘tails’

The decision by the Big Bash marketers to replace the coin toss with a flip of a bat has brought a smile to the faces of backyard cricketers across the country.

Rather than calling “heads” or “tails”, team captains will be guessing if the bat will land with its flat side upwards (called “flats”) or downwards (“hills”) in BBL8.

Most seasoned veterans of backyard cricket tend to favour a call of “hills”, thinking that the bat will more likely roll over if it lands on its uneven side, compared with if it lands flat.

The Big Bash League’s Kim McConnie is confident predictability will not be an issue. She said bat-maker Kookaburra had developed a special bat for this purpose:

“You’d be surprised at the science that’s gone into this. It is a specially weighted bat to make sure that it is 50-50”.

Although the flip will bring a different look, the philosophy behind the toss remains unchanged. The new method though raises questions over the fairness of the process.

Howzat for fairness?

Professor Stephen Woodcock (Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at Sydney University Of Technology says even a standard coin, whose two sides are far more evenly weighted and shaped than any cricket bat, can never be said to be truly a 50-50 proposition.

The simple fact is that there is no such thing as a coin that is absolutely fair. Even a completely symmetrical coin could be biased towards one outcome – whether deliberately or otherwise – by the action of the person tossing the coin.

Some people’s technique will push the coin higher. Others might give the coin more rotation.

In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of British Columbia concluded that even a regular coin could easily be made to produce biased outcomes when the person tossing it was told “how to manipulate the toss of a coin” and incentivised to make it so.

Of 13 participants, each flipping the coin 300 times, all managed to produce more heads than tails. Overall, of the 3,900 tosses, 57% landed heads. One participant was able to obtain heads more than twice as often as tails.

Put to the test

In the haphazard and improvised spirit of backyard cricket, I decided to see how a cricket bat would land when flipped. I, of course, did not have access to one of the new Big Bash League bats so had to make do with the old battered bat from the back of the garden shed.

With a nod to procedural fairness, I decided to try two different techniques: low rotation (aiming for two of three flips while in the air) and a high rotation (as many flips as I could manage). Each of these techniques was applied 100 times to the bat being flipped from “hills” up in my hands, and 100 times from “flats” up.

I’ll be the first to admit that this resembles serious scientific rigour about as much as the browning patch of grass next to your parents’ Hills Hoist resembles the MCG.

A greater sample size would have been preferable, but this was as much as I could muster in fading light in a suburban backyard.

Keeping score

Based solely on the results of my backyard testing, you can likely chalk this one up as a win for conventional wisdom.

Especially when the bat was flipped with high rotation, it appeared to exhibit bias towards landing “hills”: 68 times from a “flats” up and 63 times for “hills” up position.

For the less vigorous flipping technique, its initial orientation influenced the outcome more and the results were closer to 50-50: the “hills” 58 times from a “flats” up and 48 times for “hills” up position.

In fairness to the league and its equipment suppliers, I would imagine that the bats used will be a little less prone to bias than the one available to me.

Nonetheless, whatever results Kookaburra’s testing machine produced with its bat, it is difficult to believe that a large, asymmetrical bat will be less susceptible to bias by the flipper’s technique than a simpler, smaller coin.

Finishing off the tail

Even if the bat flip is indeed not as unbiased as confidently claimed, it probably doesn’t matter. The decision to ditch the coin flip for its more unconventional counterpart is not one driven by a desire for sporting equity.

It’s a move designed to further distance the loud, brash, big-slogging and brightly dressed T20 league from traditionalists’ cricket, and to generate hype for the forthcoming season. With all of the international headlines that followed the surprising announcement, the decision already appears to be a huge success for Australian cricket.

The Baggy Green

   The Baggy Green

Did you know? On the Veterans Cricket Australia Baggy Green, the word Australia appears on a scroll below a Coat of Arms. But it is not the Australian Coat of Arms as popularly thought. The Coat of Arms on the Baggy Green is often referred to as the Australian Cricket Coat of Arms and predates the Federation of Australia. It is thought to be the only pre-Federation to have symbol of Australia still in use.

The Cricket Coat of Arms comprises (1) a crest – the rising sun, (2) a shield divided into quarters by the southern cross with wool, wheat, mining and shipping in the quarters, and (3) the supporters, kangaroo and emu, which in the original, were on the opposite sides. The Cricket Coat of Arms is used only on the Baggy Green cap and the helmet.

Victorians Bill Blair (32), Craig Gislingham (34) and Darren Hill (36) donned the Baggy Green in 2018 with their selection in the Australian Over 50s World Cup team. Victorian Over 60s players to have represented Australia in ODIs are Arthur Pritchard (11), Alan Stephens (16), Bob Phillips (27), Rex Bennett, John Scales (29), John Costello (30), Ian Rowland (35), Ian Marks (37), Ian Pritchard (47), Ron Kasputtis (48), Rex Bennett (58), David Cordy (59), Ian Southall (64), Robin Court (66), Kevin Lanigan (70), Trevor Selby (71), Les Quarrell (74), Wayne Stokes (78), Trevor Saker (81) and Chris Carr (82).

Vic Over 70s players honoured with a Baggy Green are Norm McLeod (3), Peter Flack (7), Des Lloyd (11), Terry Dunn (14),  Bruce Hotton (16), David Tomlinson (17), Rex Thompson (18), Graham Freshwater (22), Bob Hopkins (32), Ron Kasputtis  (33), Graham Cuddon (39), Peter Dell (40), Ian Hammet (43), Dick Stumbles (51), Greg Johnson (55), Ron Lovell (56), Wavell McPherson (57), Arthur Pritchard (58), Tim Spear (59), Ian A Gibson (62) and Robin Court (67).