"The essence of the one-day game is a close finish, and this was by far the most significant to finish in the closest way of all — with both teams all out for the same score. But it was a compressed epic all the way through, and it ended in a savage twist," wrote Tim de Lisle in the millenium edition of the Wisden Almanack back in 2000.
Although he was referring to the semi-final between Australia and South Africa in the 1999 Cricket World Cup, the words rang true even on Sunday, when England and New Zealand participated in the one of the most — if not the most — remarkable cricket match in the history of limited overs cricket.
"It was the game. A game that could have changed history, it could have gone either way. History could have gone either way. Reminds me of a great film called Sliding Doors. It could have gone on either door, and you didn't quite know what was going to happen," said the late Bob Woolmer, again about the 1999 semi-final, but his words too are equally applicable to last night's events at Lord's.
To recap: Set a target of 242 off their full complement of 50 overs, England, in dramatic fashion, scored 241, with No 11, Mark Wood run out off the final ball, leaving scores level. In the Super Over that followed, the hosts and pre-tournament favourites posted 15 runs and the Kiwis, in an allegory for the evenly-matched contest witnessed over 100 overs of 'normal time', equalled their opponent's score in 'extra time'. As per a quirky rule, England were crowned champions on account of having hit more boundaries than New Zealand.
Before getting into the technical aspects, it's important to answer two questions:
Did England deserve to win? Absolutely.
Did New Zealand deserve to lose? Certainly not.
The somewhat strange result, it can be argued, gained some credibility because of the sporting and graceful manner in which the Kiwis accepted it. One shudders to imagine what would have happened if it was India and not New Zealand on the receiving end of the boundary rule: Loud calls for boycott, reversal of result, replaying of the fixture from the BCCI, equally rancorous outbursts from hyperventilating anchors on Indian news channels and assorted bile being spewed by all and sundry over social media, at the very least.
That said, it isn't as though the result was biased in favour of one team — after all, the rules governing what happens in the event of a tied Super Over were made clear to all teams before the tournament began. Umpires Kumar Dharmasena and Marais Erasmus — who were panned, for other reasons, by fans — also took the time to explain to both teams what would happen in the event of a tied Super Over.
In 1999 too, the rules were set in stone before the tournament began. They dictated that in the event of a tied knockout fixture, the head-to-head record between the two teams would be taken into account. And since Australia had won the Super Six stage match against South Africa, a tie at the knockout stage would result in an Australian win — which is precisely what happened in their semi-final fixture at Edgbaston, that was dubbed, until Sunday night, the 'greatest cricket match of all time'.
The need for equity
Equality assumes that all things are the same for everyone at all times, while equity takes into consideration circumstance and, for want of a better phrase, shifts goalposts accordingly. This widely-distributed image points to the difference between equality (left) and equity (right):
One of the better examples of equity in cricket is the Duckworth–Lewis–Stern (DLS) method of calculating revised targets in the event of rain. While still far from perfect, the rule is a lot more equitable than the rain rules in the past that ignored circumstance, wickets and other factors of the game. For instance, if the second innings of a limited overs match is curtailed to 19 overs, the target is not the overall run rate of the team batting first multiplied by 19 — which would have been fair from the standpoint of equality. Instead, a series of equations (that take into account wickets lost, state of play etc) simulate a par score for the team batting second to achieve in 19 overs — which is fair from the standpoint of equity.
Why the boundary rule ignores the essence of the sport
Cricket presents both teams with wholly different circumstances — even if we eliminate weather conditions from the equation. The team batting first seeks to set a target and as such, faces different challenges when compared with the team chasing a target. And in doing so, each team employs its own tactics in both scenarios: While one may seek to bat the opposition out of the game with a flurry of sixes and fours, the other may seek to quietly build its innings and consolidate with quick singles, twos and the occasional threes.
None of these methods is inferior to the other. That both teams playing Sunday's final ended up on 241 runs is a testament to that fact.
It is also instructive to examine the fact that by scoring more runs off boundaries, England also let through more dot balls than New Zealand. Regardless, whether through a combination of singles and twos, or through fours and sixes, both teams scored exactly 241 runs. As 'legendary' cricketer-turned-commentator Ranjit Fernando has frequently (probably) pointed out, "The team that scores more runs will win." Neither team on Sunday scored more runs. For a point of comparison, even baseball doesn't give more weight to runs accrued off home runs than those scored via a series of base hits.
What the boundary rule do, inadvertently, is to indicate that four runs scored off a single hit are more valuable than the same four runs scored off four separate hits. To use a hypothetical example, the bizarre nature of this boundary rule also sends the message that the contribution by a batsman scoring 50 off 50 balls (that include 30 dot balls) is in some way more valuable than that by another batsman, who also scored 50 off 50 balls, but only saw off 10 dot balls. The bowlers' contribution goes unmentioned. This goes some way in confirming the sneaking suspicion that not only is this a batsman's game — evident in the fact that wickets taken are not considered when appointing a winner — but this is very much a big hitter's game.
Nothing else matters
The other flaw in the rule that merits examination is the consideration of boundaries that were scored in the course of 'normal time'. That both teams scored the same number of runs over the course of 100 overs should mean that the contest now comes down to only what happens in the Super Over. Imagine if the 2005 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United (0-0 after extra time) was decided on the basis of shots on target (United had eight, compared to the Gunners' solitary effort) and not the penalty shootout that ensued.
In 1999, the decision to award Australia, and not South Africa, the win after their tied semi-final game, was based on the results of a prior and entirely unrelated encounter. While it isn't wrong per se for the best team overall to win a tournament, it casts aside the magic of a knockout fixture, where anything can happen. Just ask the Pakistani World Cup-winning team of 1992, that endured a terrible first half of the tournament, only to turn it around and personify the phrase 'cornered tigers'.
In any tournament that features a knockout structure — that by its very nature suggests that the past is immaterial and only what happens on that day matters, the concept of a track record or head-to-head should not matter. Neither for that matter should technicalities from 'normal time', when the game moves to penalties or a Super Over. Otherwise, what is the point of having those tiebreakers?
Tiebreakers in other sports
Cricket administrators would have done well to look over to SW19, where the Wimbledon men's final was being played between Roger Federer and eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Heading into the tiebreaker, both players had two sets apiece under their respective belts and all that mattered was the scoreline in the final set. It didn't matter how many aces Federer had served or how many unforced errors Djokovic had sustained. Neither did the number of games won by each player en route the final make a jot of a difference. All that mattered was the scoreline in that final set. As it turned out, the Serbian won his sixth Wimbledon title by seeing out the final set 13-12.
In the event of a tied score after 'normal time', ice hockey, basketball and American football see teams play out a period of extra time. If no winner emerges, another period of extra time (extra innings in baseball) is initiated and so on until a victor emerges. Football employs, as noted earlier, a penalty shootout that goes into sudden death (first team to miss loses, provided the other team scores) if scores are level after each team has taken five spot-kicks each.
All of these methods disregard the events that came before and rely solely on the tiebreaker... to break the tie.
What is the ideal situation?
The Super Over was introduced in cricket to replace the bowl-out — a strange system that attempted to adopt the penalty kicks format, but reduce a contest to a glorified nets session. While the bowlout took batsmen out of the game, the Super Over came in as a far more equitable and equal solution to breaking a tie. The boundary rule returns cricket's tiebreaker (in the extremely unlikely event of a tied Super Over) to a monopoly — in favour of the batsman this time.
So whether it's in terms of wickets lost in the Super Over or the imposition of another Super Over (and another until a winner emerges) or even having both teams share the trophy, it's clear that cricket's tiebreaker needs a rethink, because while 'number of boundaries scored' may be fair when viewed through prism of equality, it's far from fair when you consider notions of equity and the essence of the game.