‘Old Urn’ Itself Could Alter Aussie Ashes Tactics

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[Archived from: The Sports Economist, 10 July 2013]

The oldest prize in Test cricket is once again up for grabs. Commencing earlier today, Australia is taking on England away from its own backyard in an attempt to regain the Ashes. Michael Clarke’s men have shown transparently that this one is the series they have the greatest desire to win, despite the old urn’s grossly underwhelming aesthetic stature.

Following its creation as the spoils of victory in series between these combatants in 1882 (though curiously never designated as such formally), its place in the sport as a bilateral trophy (one that can be won only by either of two teams) was unique for almost 80 years.

This changed only during the remarkable 1960/61 West Indies tour in Australia, which was capped with the minting of the Frank Worrell Trophy, to be contested thereafter between those teams. There has more recently been a real proliferation of these trophies, especially since the mid-1990s.

Currently, with 10 Test playing nations involved in World cricket, there are consequently 45 bilateral sets of opponents, and a total of 11 different bilateral trophies (effective since 2008) are now actively played for periodically, with Australia being the ‘worst offenders’, playing for 6 such trophies out of its 9 Test rivals.

Cricket fans – please feel free to disagree, but one’s personal view is that with the Ashes an obvious exception (given its history), many of these other bilateral trophies are surplus to one’s interest above and beyond the simple significance of the Test series and its ultimate result, and often play a role of little more than a shameless gimmick, and a diminution of the actual cricket.

Nonetheless, in any individual Test series, the simple tactical objective is generally to win the series, and if that becomes mathematically impossible or even improbable, a series draw is still better than a loss.

A complicating factor in cricket, however, is that there is no universal consensus – the ICC ranking system aside – on the value of a draw relative to a loss, unlike other sports where league points make this explicit (one-half in many sports, one-third in modern soccer). The existence of a trophy, assuming that ‘holding’ it really matters to players and fans, muddies the tactical waters, as the holder has to be beaten for the ‘silverware’ to change hands.

There is relevance in this setting of interest to microeconomists through incentives and strategy. Sporting contests have much potential to tell us economists more than a thing or two about the way firms behave in duopolistic industries where the competitors are not equally resourced.

Assuming there is some value to holding the trophy, potential follows for this value to skew attacking and defensive tactical decisions of both captains, comparative to the identical series scenario where there is no trophy on the line.

This upcoming series can be used to illustrate a textbook case of how a bilateral trophy being at stake may just alter team behaviour at the margin. However unlikely you think it, suppose the series is level at 1-1 after four Tests, and that late on day five of the fifth test, the final and deciding game is on a knife’s edge (and that a draw is still a comparable possibility).

Since 1-1 is not good enough for Australia to return home with the prize (England currently holds the Ashes), it is easy to envisage how Michael Clarke would throw caution to the wind to give his XI every possible chance of winning the decider, not to mention what Alistair Cook’s ‘game theoretic’ tactical response might be.

In the counterfactual that there exist no Ashes for him to regain, rather it’s purely the series outcome that matters, one might imagine how he may turn defensive to suffice for a draw and (arguably) claim a moral victory in levelling an away series against a significantly more favoured team. The inclination for him to do this might be accentuated if his captaincy and/or personal form were under scrutiny during the series, with equal honours perversely providing him some measure of vindication.

Even if you summarily reject any possibility that Clarke would ever sway toward that tactical inclination, you might be willing to accept how Zimbabwean skipper Brendan Taylor would analogously almost certainly opt for any stalemate within reach at the death of an away series to their neighbours – the World top-ranked South Africans.

At any rate, I suspect that fans of Australian cricket will have a wide range of views about how they will feel about a drawn series. Many will consider it equivalent to a series loss, since the Ashes are not regained either way. Others like me, with the recent 4-0 whitewash in India still fresh in the mind, will still take some matter of pride in averting a third successive series loss against the old enemy.

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