That's not cricket: Why elite-level sports need to embrace innovation

Image credit: Chris Brown

For a second year in a row, Italy did not muster a single point from any of their Six Nations fixtures. However, they could not have come much closer than with their performance against England, during which they wreaked havoc for the first 70 minutes by exploiting a particular loophole in the scrummaging rules.

By not committing any men to the ruck, the Italian forwards were able to stand in positions that would otherwise be considered offside, preventing England scrum half Danny Care from spreading the ball out wide. Unable to play their natural game, England struggled to come up with an answer to this innovative tactic and only came out 36 - 15 victors thanks to late tries from Jack Nowell and Ben Te'o.

Speaking after the game, England coach Eddie Jones could scarcely contain his anger, comparing the Italian tactic to the infamous 1981 cricket match where Australian bowler Trevor Chappell rolled the final ball of the match along the ground, thus leaving New Zealand no chance of scoring the six that they need to win the game. “If that's rugby, I'm going to retire”, he fumed, before adding that all dspectators should be refunded because “no one's had rugby yet”.

However, there is a key difference between the 'underarm ball' and the Italian job at Twickenham. Both were legal actions, but that is somewhat beside the point. What Australia did was clearly unsporting behaviour, because it did not give their opposition any opportunity to win according to their own merit. Yet with Italy's unusual strategy, England were presented with a sporting challenge, one which called on all their ability as reigning Six Nations champions to solve, which, eventually, they did, by taking a more direct approach in the second half.

Eddie Jones' choice of words was no doubt influenced by the emotional intensity of the game, and indeed in the past the England coach has called for the importance of creativity in rugby. “Creativity”, he argues, “is another area where I have seen a decline in modern-day players”. Clearly then, the cunning plan that Italy's coaches Conor O'Shea and Brendan Venter devised against England did not constitute creativity, but rather chicanery. Admittedly, the boundary between the two is not clearly-defined, but nevertheless there is a risk that overzealous attempts to maintain the integrity of the game may uphold traditional modes of thought that reduce the excitement of sporting encounters.

Take the cricket switch-hit as an example. This controversial shot — which involves the batsman changing stance to that of a left-hander during the bowler's run up — first came to the world's attention in 2008 when Kevin Pietersen scored two sixes in the space of three overs using this technique in a game against New Zealand. Despite inevitable criticism from the strong purist contingent, who claim the batsman gains an unfair advantage over the fielder side from exploiting gaps left by a field set up for a right-hander, the shot has gained in popularity ever since, adding a new and exciting element to a game at times considered too dull for today's generation. And, this innovation looks set to say, following an official 2012 statement made by the International Cricket Council (ICC), who declared it to be a legitimate shot.

In other cases, the line between gamesmanship and poor sportsmanship is not clearly drawn out, since it is accepted that success in professional sport depends not only on actual ability but also on psychological factors. The away dressing room at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea FC's stadium, was deliberately designed so that the tactics board is hidden behind a fire door, and at the Riverside, home of Middlesbrough FC, the long L-shape means not all players can be seen during the pre-match team-talk. Even when such hostility is not deliberate, the effect of a strongly partisan home crowd is enough to transform the performance of an otherwise fairly mediocre side. Premier league strugglers Burnley seem a case in point — unbeaten since November at Turf Moor, the Clarets are yet to win on the road this season. The Times once reckoned that in the Premier League, the side playing at home tended to score almost 40% more goals than their opponents — a staggering statistic that goes some way to highlight the fundamental importance of gaining the psychological advantage over an opponent in the modern game.

With this in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that an increasing number of players and teams from a variety sports have recently called upon the services of Dr Steve Peters, sports psychologist par excellence. Five-time snooker world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan called him out for particular praise following his victory in the 2017 Masters final, and Liverpool FC were inches from winning the Premier League title in 2014, just two years after Peters' appointment. Sadly however, he did not manage to have the same sort of impact on the perennially average England side, and was released as part of the inevitable fallout following the dismal campaign in Rio. Mind you, with Harry Kane inexplicably chosen for corners, it is pretty clear that the blame lies elsewhere.

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