My week away has coincided with a packed week of sport. Between football (FA Cup action), the surprisingly surprising group stages of the Cricket World Cup and the final day of the six nations, the only thing that could have dragged me away from the television would have been sun and the promise of cold beer. And the beer was soon dragged infront of the television.
And so watching the last day of the Six Nations a poser was popped up. In the football league, all the games on the last day of the season are played at the same time. This is to prevent a cynical team playing for the result they need rather than playing with the excitement that other games could have some effect on your final place thus going for an out and out win. Clearly the smaller a league is, the more it is that this likely this will happen. So it is a boon to the television schedulers, but not to the game, that the final day of the Six Nations has three staggered starts. Because going in to these games France, Ireland and England all had the same number of league points. And there were only four points between France and Ireland (England were a good thirty odd points asunder and frankly were lucky to be in the position they were). Ireland vs Italy was up first, and Ireland won emphatically. But knowing that they needed as many points as possible, they went for what turned out to be an ill-advised stab for a final try in the last seconds. Ill advised as they lost the ball and conceded one to Italy. They won by twenty eight points, but it could have been thirty three or thirty five.
France started their game against Scotland just after and knew the margin they needed to win by. And despite a tightly fought game, they got it, in the last second with a desperate struggle for a try. Now consider the two games had been the other way around. France winning by the same margin, Ireland to play Italy. The game reaches the eighty minute mark, waiting for a dead-ball situation for the referee to blow his whistle. Would they have pushed for that final try, knowing that putting the ball out would have won them the game? Of course not. Equally if France were winning to the extent that Ireland needed to beat an in form Italy by twenty eight points, would they have pushed for that final, desperate try.
The teams can’t complain, they know the rules when they sign up and are well aware of the importance of the television money such a schedule allows. But it was interesting watching it considering the one day cricket going on in the West Indies. The pitches so far have remained remarkably constant, near indestructible and pretty unchangeable. So far there has been no ostensible difference in performance in individual games between teams batting first and second. Except, of course, that the teams batting second know what they need to get. They can monitor their run rate, can play the bowlers with a degree more impunity. And the two giant-killing games on Saturday worked in exactly that way. Both Bangladesh and Ireland bowled well enough to restrict their seemingly better opponents to gettable scores. At which point their batsmen could dig in, and not need to be extravagant.
As ever in cricket, winning the toss becomes remarkably more important than in many other sports. Botham joked that practicing the toss would be the secret to winning this world cup, and with the exception of the absurdity of the suggestion statistically he is right. As in life, sport is easier to play when you know what you need to get. Give me an open ended deadline at work and I’ll flounder. Tell me you need a three thousand word report on your desk in an hour, and I’m there with an hour to spare. But I am getting to the point where I have to try and forget before each game that winning the toss is tantamount to winning the game.