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DLS: Just one more variable?

One of the prime sources of the discussion during the India- New Zealand match was about the incomprehensible animal called the Duckworth Lewis Stern system, which could potentially have come into play had the game continued on the first day. Almost every scenario thrown up by this system seemed to be to India’s disadvantage, which led, not surprisingly, to a chorus of collective moaning by many thousands of Indian fans.

To illustrate the possible scenarios that could have emerged had the rain not wiped out chances of any further play, India would have had to have scored twice as many runs as New Zealand had at that stage if only 20 overs been possible. More strangely, if play was scheduled for 46 overs, but if only 20 were possible, then even 70 odd runs would have been enough for India to have won. As it turns out, every bit of calculation has some logic behind it. For instance, the truth is that had this been a 20 over game from the start, then New Zealand certainly would have scored at a faster rate. Since there is no way of estimating what might have been, a surrogate approximation is used using a complex algorithm. Similarly, the reason why the target in the same number of overs can vary so much (148 vs 70 odd) is that a run chase is structured very differently depending on the number of overs a team believes it has at its disposal.

Of course, play was washed out completely and thus many difficult questions did not need to be answered. And yet, simply because the match resumed from where it had stopped, both teams got to bat under significantly different conditions. Arguably, had rain not intervened on the first day, the outcome of the match might have been different.

Cricket is a game that is full of an exceedingly large number of variables. The pitch plays an inordinate role in determining the course of the game. Not only is the nature of the pitch itself a variable, but it has a way of changing its character mid-game, it can ease out, dry up, begin to wear, become damp, and each of these conditions can change the course of a game while it is in progress. The weather plays a huge role, as does the direction of the wind. The ball behaves very differently depending on how old it is. The toss is often vital, and can sometimes pretty much determine the outcome of a game. The idea that both teams operate under similar conditions is never true in any real sense.

This is an impossibly large number of variables to account for and no wonder the DLS struggles. Currently, it reduces the variables to just two- the number of overs left and the number of wickets remaining, the logic being that these are the resources at both teams’ disposal that need to be deployed to reach the revised target. There might be a better way of doing this, and tomorrow perhaps artificial intelligence could find a way to juggle many more variables than is currently possible, but chances are that it will make the system no less baffling, for what is being attempted is itself the problem.

Conditions are ecological in nature, and one simply cannot be equal to another. The more complex a game, like cricket undoubtedly is, the easier it is to acknowledge this, but really this is true of all sports, and indeed of life itself. In any sport, we see the same players play very differently depending on time, whether the game is played in front of a home audience or not. Indeed, within the same game, there are times when for any player the sun burst through the clouds, angels sing in divine harmony, the world hums as one. Ball comes off the racquet at impossible angles, glorious passes melt into incredible finishes, the body moves in blurs of light, and the players seems otherworldly in their skill. And then suddenly, nothing works. One becomes a mass of clumsy limbs and awkward timing; the mind inept and the body forgetful.

We use pretend-words to try and explain this. Good form, being in the zone, operating at one’s peak, these are all ways of telling ourselves that we know what is happening when in fact when we haven’t the slightest clue. It is another way to shrug our shoulders, and point upwards and marvel at the inexplicable nature of the world.

At its heart most sport is about rival teams or individuals using the best resources they can muster, working with the same constraints and operating under the same degree of difficulty trying to fulfil one task better than the other. Try as one might, one can only endeavour to provide the same arena for everyone. Perhaps it might be better to embrace the unevenness of the operating conditions, for sport gets its magic precisely because top seeds perish, rankings can become a joke, and on the day, anything can happen. In cricket, for instance, if we find it easy to accept the randomness introduced by the toss, or by injuries, then why not of the DLS? After all, as long both sides have sides have the same chance of encountering a new constraint, why should it matter?

Traditionally it is believed that sport exists to acknowledge the excellent amongst us. it is a showcase for human beings outdoing themselves constantly. What if it were also a theatre meant to illustrate the power of nature, of time and its contrariness and of the eventual limits of human ambition and ability? Sport holds our interest because the expected does not always happen, and the stronger do not always triumph. That is why sport is so engaging. To remind us that human beings can constantly surprise us and be constantly surprised.

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