Tied up

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
7 February, 2020

I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with a tie. Why are we always trying to break them?

We left Friday’s T20 match between the Black Caps and India after the 16th over. New Zealand needed only 26 runs from 24 balls with plenty of wickets in hand. The WASP had New Zealand almost certain to win. It was well past 11 pm, and our 9-year-old was dozing off.

I read CricInfo’s commentary aloud to my rather more awake son and his friend as we walked to the car. Back at the stadium, the roars we heard from a crowd heavy with India’s supporters during the final over probably meant wickets rather than boundaries, as CricInfo eventually confirmed.

So they were off to another Super Over that would take the game to a too-familiar outcome, well past midnight. And we were off to get the kids to bed.

The drive home had me wondering about tiebreakers.

If both teams end a match with an identical score, is there any fair way of determining which side deserved to win?

Deciding a match on the number of boundaries tends to reward the flashier team over a patient one grinding forward on ones and twos. Is the former really better than the latter?

Equally, handing a win to the team with more wickets in hand says that it’s worse to run out of wickets than to run out of overs in a limited-overs game. Both are surely valuable, so why set the one above the other?

But going to a Super Over is plainly a mistake – not simply because of any recent and repeated unpleasantness. You might think that, because an extra over in a twenty-over game gives us 5% more information about which team is really the better one, it is a fair way of resolving a tie. But this format privileges the team with top-heavy talent over the side with talent spread across its order.

Ties are more likely to happen when both teams have comparable skill, so it is no surprise that picking a winner between them involves some arbitrariness. Worse, every method of choosing can skew the pitch.

Yet nothing in cricket demands every match have a winner or loser. We could just accept that both teams were equally decent on the night.

At least that's better than being forced to consider New Zealand’s performance in the Super Overs.

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