It’s the end of the 21st over of England’s first innings at Edgbaston. The Australian quick James Pattinson is finishing his seventh. He’s been rapid, moved the ball through the air, threatened constantly. He bowls the England captain, Joe Root, a combination of all three. Angle in towards the stumps, a hint of swing. Straightening off the seam to beat Root’s shot as he steps across to try to cover the line. A wooden sound, and the umpire gives him out caught behind.
Root’s review reveals a spike on the waveform sound-tracking graph. But not when the ball passes bat. When it passes off stump. Another angle shows the stump moving sideways and back as the ball passes. The spigot of the bail slides in the groove of the stump but the bail does not fall. Root is bowled, but not out.
Commentators watching this sort of scene fall over one another in disbelief. Goodness gracious, whatever has happened there? Who could have expected such a thing? Except it’s a freak occurrence, just as breaking the hottest summer on record every year is a freak occurrence. This year had the hottest June on record, which also contained a World Cup where five batsmen weren’t out when their stumps were hit.
South Africa’s Quinton de Kock helped take four runs off England when Adil Rashid bounced the ball from off stump to the boundary. The Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne carried his bat after Trent Boult couldn’t get him. The West Indies opener Chris Gayle was given out caught behind after Mitchell Starc clipped off stump. Mohammad Saifuddin of Bangladesh chopped Ben Stokes on to leg stump with a solid clunk. David Warner deflected Jasprit Bumrah back off his boot. None saw their bails disturbed.
Perhaps this has been happening for ever and it is only with current television coverage that we notice it. But either way, it’s time for the custodians of crickets laws to think it over. It’s time to move past bails as the means of determination.
On a stint in the United States in 2016 I was often enough asked to explain cricket. Those who love it like to see it as supremely complicated because it makes us feel smart, but at heart it’s very simple. My 10-second version was that a player armed with a ball tries to hit a target while a player with a club tries to protect it. The latter also tries to hit the ball away to score. Easy.
But with that simple tension between attacker and defender at cricket’s heart, we still have this situation where the attacker can triumph, beat the defence and not be credited with the result. That makes no sense in the modern professional sport.
One response would be that we’ve always done things a certain way. Dislodging the bails is the means by which you bowl someone. It’s there in the Laws: “The wicket is put down if a bail is completely removed from the top of the stumps, or a stump is struck out of the ground.”
But bails are there for a reason. Wind back the clock far enough and they didn’t exist, only the vertical stumps. The bails were added to help an umpire know when the stumps were hit. They were centred in the Laws as the only means of divination.
In the present day we have more than enough technology to know when stumps are hit: waveforms, heat sensors, slow-motion cameras from a dozen angles. If we know the ball has hit, why must bails hold the power?
That doesn’t mean that bails have to disappear. They can stay for the aesthetic effect of scattering in the air. They form part of the wicket, and a ball hitting them is a dismissal too. But if they existed only to decide whether a dismissal was effected, then they are not integral to the dismissal itself.
It’s like obeying a pedestrian crossing on a deserted road: the light is there to achieve a purpose, but at times when the purpose becomes redundant then a society should not bow before the authority of the light.
Fixating on bails doesn’t make sense. Leg before wicket is given based on whether umpires think the ball will hit the stumps, not whether it will hit the stumps hard enough. A DRS projection with the ball trimming by a micron is still out if the umpire has so ruled. Yet a real ball trimming the stumps may not.
Of course, cricket has its charming idiosyncrasies that people want to protect. England just won a World Cup trophy thanks to one of them. But bowlers work so hard for these moments. It takes hours of toil and split seconds of consummate skill for someone like Pattinson to beat someone like Root. The foundation of the game is the battle of the target, attack and defence. Those who win that battle deserve their reward.