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Cricket: Taking the ticks out of statistics: As the covers come off a new season today, Jon Culley reveals the pitfalls in a revolutionary method of keeping score

Jon Culley
Tuesday 13 April 1993 23:02 BST
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IF THE 1993 cricket season, which starts today, turns out to be the blandest on record, historians will still look back on it as an extraordinary one. Coloured clothing, a four- day championship, a new editor of Wisden; seldom can so much tradition have been dispatched in a single sweep. Yet perhaps the most revolutionary change is the one about which the least has been said.

From today, the official scorebook, the cumbersome ledger in which every six and every 'dot ball' of every county's past has been dutifully recorded, will itself pass into posterity. Without anything that could be called a decent courtship, cricket is being wed to the technological age, for better or worse.

In place of the scorebook comes the lap-top computer, with which, by dextrous use of a mouse, the county scorer will be able to do everything that he has before using paper and pens. Or so the theory goes.

This quantum leap is the result of a deal struck between the Test and County Cricket Board and Computer Newspaper Services, a data processor organisation that has made its mark as a supplier of listings and graphics to the press. From today, CNS will act as an offical agent for cricket scores, gathering them into a database at its headquarters on Humberside and selling them on to newspapers in the computerised form now universally required. CNS already supplies racing and football results in the same way.

So that this can happen the county scorer is being asked to record the action via a CNS lap-top. This has a screen that takes the form of an oval diagram of the field and with each delivery the scorer moves the cursor to the point to which the ball travelled and then follows the instructions presented by a series of 'windows' to input the information required.

The TCCB is promised a share of the profits - potentially big enough for CNS to be forking out pounds 140,000 in equipment cost - and was so impressed by the package of likely benefits CNS put to them last December that a deal was agreed by Christmas.

What was not, one suspects, given quite the same consideration is that if the scorebook is almost as old as the game itself then some of the scorers appear not to be far behind. And it is on this fact that the inevitable sceptics tend to dwell.

'The process is straightforward for a person who is fairly computer literate,' said Kevin Hill, administration secretary at Leicestershire. 'But it is not as easy as CNS are making out, especially when one considers the average age of the traditional scorer.

'These tend to be retired men with good numeracy but little knowledge of highly up-to-date technology. Yet the TCCB has said that the counties must operate the computers come what may, the inference being that if existing scorers cannot do it then they will have to be replaced. It is going to pose some counties with very delicate dilemmas.'

But if the threat to some of the game's faithful old retainers is one area of concern, there is no shortage of others. What happens, for example, when the equipment fails to function? And where is shining new technology left when a ground's only facility is a dilapidated pavilion, the scorers' pitch is a tent on the opposite boundary and there is not a sign of British Telecom until lunch-time on the second day (as has happened, in my experience)?

No problem, according to CNS. 'We have long-term arrangements for telephones at out-grounds and will lay on mains supplies,' Ian Leach, their product manager, said. 'And as one of BT's largest commercial users, we can expect our requests to be given suitable priority. As far as malfunctioning goes, each lap-top comes with a battery back-up and if one were to fail the match could be scored using the other on its own while a replacement was dispatched.'

Such confidence is not shared everywhere. Geoff Blackburn, the Leicestershire scorer, will take his scorebook anyway, just in case, while at Trent Bridge, the Nottinghamshire second XI scorer, Gordon Stringfellow, will operate the computer while his senior, Len Beaumont, fills in the book as usual. Even the Press Association, which actually owns CNS, will continue to pay local freelance journalists for scores as a fail-safe.

Like all revolutions, this one inevitably will be accepted and its consequences regarded as the norm. Cricket already thrives on statistics and computerised records will merely mean more and more detailed ones to digest. It is ironic, then, that the deepest trepidations lie with the statisticians themselves.

Peter Wynne-Thomas, cricket author, Nottinghamshire committee man and secretary of the Association of Cricket Statisticians, says that his members fear the very future of their art is at stake.

'I keep the library at Trent Bridge and among 6,000 books the ones that are genuinely unique are the scorebooks. They go back to 1862 and could be used to score a game today if you wanted. Visitors come to look at the scorebooks for their historic value. Are they ever going to look at a computer print-out in the same way?'

(Photograph omitted)

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