Increasing Rationality in the Referral System?

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[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 30 March 2011]

Further to Brad’s earlier post, the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup in the subcontinent is nearing its zenith. Today’s semi-final between India and Pakistan will be a highlight – nobody needs reminding about the history between these two bitter rivals. Whoever wins will meet Sri Lanka, who accounted for New Zealand in the other semi last night, ensuring that the winner will be one of the tournament co-hosts.

Other highlights have included Ireland’s upset win over England, the stunning 338-338 tie between India and England, the end of three-time reigning champion Australia’s 34-match World Cup unbeaten streak, and New Zealand’s unexpected quarter-final rout of the highly-fancied South Africa.

Having watched a limited amount of the action, only one facet has stood out for me as an economist.  I suspect that cricketers have become increasingly (albeit gradually) rational in their use of challenges since the sport’s first trial of the referral system in 2008.

There are a few such instances, but the one that demonstrated it most was that of Australian (now former) captain Ricky Ponting, who in the Group A game against Sri Lanka in Colombo, authorised two (ultimately unsuccessful) challenges in the over before the players were forced off the pitch due to rain (it proved to be the final phase of play, as the match was ultimately abandoned).

With the rain already falling, one suspects that we can apportion some of his decision to the fact that, had the challenges been upheld (and taking the imminent loss of playing time into account), Australia’s Duckworth-Lewis revised target in the second innings (had the rain stopped eventually and Australia batted with reduced overs) would have been amended downwards, purely on the basis of Sri Lanka having lost an extra wicket.  [Disclaimer: I am going to give Ponting the benefit of the doubt that he at least has half-a-brain.]

A similar phenomenon seems to have occurred in tennis, since the first time the challenge system was in operation in the 2007 Australian Open (players had three unsuccessful challenges per set initially), where everybody seemed most reticent to use their challenges.  Now, they appear to use them liberally, recklessly so when they are close to losing the set, viewing them (correctly) as a resource that is essentially sunk if the set ends and the number of unsuccessful challenges re-set.

I am interested to canvass the views of TSE readers on this one.  Furthermore, it is surprising that no-one has yet put this hypothesis to the test formally.  Any thoughts?

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