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Keith Rankin: Tactics and Bonus Points

Tactics and Bonus Points
Keith Rankin, 6 February 2002

In all the fuss about Stephen Fleming's tactical decision to concede a bonus point to South Africa in a recent cricket match, the discussion failed to address a couple of important issues. One such issue relates to the use of tactics in general, in sport and in life. The second involves an appreciation of the laws of probability.

Tactics apply when players (or politicians, or voters, or consumers, or investors) consider the bigger picture.

Athletes who are favoured to win gold medals are not cheats if they do not try to win their qualifying heats. Tennis players concede occasional love games within a match without controversy. We don't expect the Formula One world champion to try to win the last Grand Prix if he only needs to come fourth.

21 years (to the day) before the Fleming incident, Australian captain Greg Chappell ordered his brother to bowl underarm in order to prevent New Zealand's Brian McKechnie from hitting a six off the last ball to tie the game. There was no realistic chance that McKechnie, who had just arrived at the crease, would hit a six. Chappell had other concerns. It was to his advantage to distract media attention from an incident earlier in the game, when he was caught in the outfield but not given out by umpires who claimed to have been unsighted.

The tactic worked. Chappell's "catch" incident was forgotten in the media furore about the underarm incident. But there was no "bigger picture". Chappell's actions were more puerile than disreputable.

In sport, tactics apply at the end of a series of qualifying matches whenever there is a possibility of a tied result. The tactics that are devised focus on the system that will be used to break a tie. Changing the count-back system merely changes the tactics that will be used. It does not remove the need to play tactically.

Accepted forms of tactical play include resting key players for matches that a team can afford to lose.

Much of the debate has been about the tactical use of bonus points in cricket and, by implication, in other sports.

In the cricket series at issue, New Zealand made a tactical blunder in going for an unachievable win in the penultimate game against South Africa (on 27 January). It could have focussed on the need to deny South Africa a bonus point. After the big win over Australia on 26 January, New Zealand did not need to win another game. It just had to ensure that it conceded no bonus points.

Bonus points have been introduced into many sports for at least four reasons: to hold spectator interest in a game which the margin of victory is likely to be large, to reward the losers of very close matches, to provide incentives for attractive rather than defensive play, and to reduce the chance of a tied result in a round-robin series of matches.

All of those reasons are valid. But it's the last that I wish to comment on.

In a tournament like the cricket tri-series, there is a high chance that two if not all three teams will win the same number of qualifying matches. Hence the likelihood of a tie is very high.

With bonus points, the probability of a tie is significantly reduced. Nevertheless a tie is still possible. The controversy relating to the present cricket tournament happened despite rather than because of the existence of bonus points.

Had there been no bonus points, all three teams would have been tied on 16 points. The outcome would have been a lottery in which the team that did not play in the last game (New Zealand) would have been tactically disadvantaged.

As it was, New Zealand was able to set Australia a difficult target in its game against South Africa. Australia failed to meet that target, so was eliminated.

For future tournaments, there is a good argument for more, not fewer, bonus points. For example, if teams that lose by very small margins are awarded bonus points, there will be even less chance of a tie in the qualifying rounds.

We cannot judge a points system by a single chance event.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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