Let’s fast forward to tonight and indulge this hypothetical for a moment.
After winning the toss, Australia bat first in their final group stage clash of the World Cup. Needing a win over South Africa to finish atop the table, they start strongly as David Warner and captain Aaron Finch put on 150 in the first 25 overs. Both, however, fall in quick succession and the incoming Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith begin a mini repair job.
The pair start somewhat slowly but pick things up gradually, until Australia reaches 2/230 after 43 overs. Khawaja and Smith are still, at this stage, going at less than a run-a-ball, and are yet to clear the men on the rope.
It is at this point that Khawaja’s job as an anchor is arguably done. But he remains in the middle, hitting the odd boundary along with ones and twos. Australia’s time at the crease, however, is whittling away as Glenn Maxwell sits in the rooms, padded up, helmet on, waiting.
They need Maxwell’s power to propel them past 300, so a wicket wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing at this stafe. In fact, it could even be a blessing. But Khawaja remains at the crease.
In that moment, though, Finch could take matters into his own hands. He could enforce a tactical retirement, inserting Maxwell for Khawaja. A substitution, if you will.
Conventional cricketing wisdom suggests this is a no-no. ‘Retired’ batsmen are forced from the field through illness or injury, not choice. Plus, the rare act of pulling a batsman from the field would be embarrassing or even emasculating, to some.
But why? The move is perfectly legal under MCC laws. Players are swapped or substituted for better-equipped teammates in almost all team sports, so why not cricket?
In an age of ‘one percenters’ and marginal gains, the decision to insert your biggest hitter appears straightforward. In fact, a good indicator of its effectiveness would be a quick straw poll of the opposition’s death bowlers: Who would you prefer to bowl to?
None would say Maxwell.
So by extension, leaving Khawaja (who, by the way, is still a helpless pawn in this hypothetical exercise) at the crease is assisting the opposition in their quest to keep the score as low as possible. It is undermining, albeit to a small extent, the batting team’s ability to press for its highest score and further, its chance of winning the match.
Arguments in favour of ‘tactical retirements’ have been made on social media this World Cup but perhaps more prominently by cricket writers and broadcasters in Adam Collins and The Roar’s Geoff Lemon on their Final Word daily podcast.
Notably, the pair raised the topic again after England’s win over India on Sunday where, in the host’s innings, Joe Root was dismissed in the 45th over for a 54-ball 44.
“I think it should become part of the orthodoxy in one day cricket,” Collins said of tactical retirements. “Root actually became an anchor on the side, through no fault of his own. It’s just his point in the game had ceased to be relevant anymore when it’s into the last ten overs and you’d get far more out of a [Jos] Buttler or [Ben] Stokes.”
The move is not without risk, of course. Had England replaced Root with Buttler, the keeper-batsman might have been dismissed first ball and England would have lost two batsmen essentially in one ball. But that misses the point.
The only instance this tactic would be used by the batting side is a) late in the innings, and b) with considerable wickets in hand. That is, when the reward outweighs the risk.
In press conferences we hear, almost ad nauseam, of cricketers ‘playing their role’ and ‘doing whatever they can do for the team’. Tactical retirements would certainly be a test of the rhetoric.
While some, perhaps even most, batsmen would be annoyed, understandably, to be pulled from the middle, the game is not just about them. It’s also about ten teammates, staff, and in the case of the World Cup, millions of fans. Know your role, play your role, or so footy-speak dictates.
Perhaps this goes to the heart of why tactical retirements are yet to even reach public conversation. Cricket is an individualist sport masked as a team sport. It is also a game steeped in (mostly positive, and sometimes humourous) traditions and conventions that appear hard to break from.
But objectively, a move like this is merely a step away from what is ‘normal’ and expected. It doesn’t mean it’s not right.
So why can’t we pull a nudger and nurdler back into the rooms and unleash an explosive hitter? Tactical retirements make tactical sense. It’s also a ploy that has the propensity to further annoy traditionalists. But then again so has many of the game’s advancement.
They’ll get over it.