25 Years of the Bowl-Out

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Penalty shoot-outs attract plenty of mixed opinions in football circles. For everybody who relishes the schadenfreude derived from watching highly-paid professionals sclaff their attempts into Row Z, there are others who wish the game could devise a less haphazard method of resolving the outcome after so much sweat and toil.

Similarly, in tennis, and much as Andy Murray has thrilled the nation during the last few days, en route to his second Wimbledon triumph, the tie break still seems like a slightly unsatisfactory means of bringing any set to a conclusion and particularly during a major final. Not that the Scot would have been denied by whatever rules were in force at SW 19 last Sunday.

Cricket, though, has struggled with this concept even more and is hardly any closer to settling the issue of how best to replace the dreaded bowl-out without going back to the days when teams used to resort to tossing a coin. I was involved in one of these exercises back in the mid-1980s and although our captain called correctly and we won, the episode still left a bitter taste.

Yet, on reflection, what process would work any better? It’s 25 years this summer since the ECB first introduced the bowl-out at senior level in the NatWest Trophy, when the scores that evening – Hertfordshire 2, Derbyshire 1 and Surrey 3, Oxfordshire 2 – made it sound as if the combatants had chosen to switch sports to football for a few hours.

In the intervening period, the authorities have tacitly accepted the weakness of the bowl-out, not least by organising a “Super Over” in certain events – where matches finish in a tie – but it remains part of the script in Scottish cricket and, given the rain which has engulfed the country in the past month, there have to be fears that the growing fixture backlog might have to be whittled down through players being asked to hit the stumps or face elimination from events.

Indeed, there have already been controversies sparked by the behaviour of one or two clubs in Scotland and Ireland. Freuchie reached the national stages of the Village Cup competition by beating Meigle in a bowl-out, only to subsequently concede to their opponents, Hawk Green, in the next round of the competition which they won in 1985. Cue much opprobrium and anger.

And, only last weekend, in circumstances which still slightly beggar belief, Limerick were eliminated from the Irish National Cup by Woodvale, who advanced to the semi-finals because their rivals failed to produce a Duckworth Lewis print-out in the allotted time – they were all of two minutes late!

The Limerick captain, James Spencer, was understandably furious at this state of affairs and didn’t mince his words in reacting: “By the letter of the law, they are correct. However, integrity, honour and sportsmanship mean so much more. I’m absolutely disgusted.”

The reality is that rain comes with the territory for those who love the game in Britain, but couldn’t there be a smarter approach to arriving at a denouement which is more reliant on skill than luck?

I’ve even attended a “virtual” bowl-out at Mannofield, where the players screened their efforts to their Grange counterparts – and it was as soggy and uninspiring as you might envisage, although there was nothing wrong with the technology.

But, of course, that experience highlighted the problems connected with a part-time pursuit. It would be crazy asking Grange to travel to Aberdeen – or vice versa – for the sake of five players from each side bowling two balls at an unguarded wicket. Yet, where clubs are able to start the proceedings, surely it would make more sense to launch a shoot-out structure whereby both teams picked five batsmen and five bowlers to face one ball or send down one delivery against their adversaries and the 10 players who ended with the most runs were declared the winners.

That has the merit of requiring skill in both major departments of the sport, which isn’t the case with a bowl-out, but, of course, it couldn’t be achieved via a computer screen.

If there was still a National League in Scotland – as there should be – clubs could organise a bowl-out in advance of any league fixture, the results of which could be “banked” in case of rain should they be subsequently hit by the elements. But none of this would have helped matters in the protracted Scottish Cup saga between Greenock and Carlton from the last few weeks which came so close to being settled by a call of Heads or Tails.

Ultimately, the Edinburgh personnel reached next Sunday’s semi-finals, yet, given the gloomy forecast for the weekend, who knows how soon the same scenario might arise?

So here’s the challenge to CricIndex readers: can you devise a system which is better than the current one?

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