A reader, Kanishka Kacker, writes to me about Cricket:

Now, very often, there are certain decisions to be made regarding whether a given batter was out or not, where it is very hard for the umpire to decide. In situations like this, some players are known to walk off the field if they know they are “out” without waiting for the umpire’s decision. Other players don’t, waiting to see the umpire’s decision.

Here is a reason given by one former Australian batsman, Michael Slater, as to why “walking” is irrational:

(this is from Mukul Kesavan’s excellent book “Men in White”)

“The pragmatic argument against walking was concisely stated by former Australian batsman Michael Slater. If you walk every time you’re out and are also given out a few times when you’re not (as is likely to happen for any career of a respectable length), things don’t even out. So, in a competitive team game, walking is, at the very least, irrational behavior. Secondarily, there is a strong likelihood that your opponents don’t walk, so every time you do, you put yourself or your team at risk.”

What do you think?

Let me begin by saying that the only thing I know about Cricket is that “Ricky Ponting” was either the right or the wrong answer to the final question in Slumdog Millionaire.  Nevertheless, I will venture some answers because there are general principles at work here.

  1. First of all, it would be wrong to completely discount plain old honor. Kids have sportsmanship drilled into their heads from the first time they start playing, and anyone good enough to play professionally started at a time when he or she was young enough to believe that honor means something. That can be a hard doctrine to shake.  Plus, as players get older and compete in at more selective levels, some of that selection is on the basis of sportsmanship.   So there is some marginal selection for honorable players to make it to the highest levels.
  2. There is a strategic aspect to honor.  It induces reciprocity in your opponent through the threat of shame.  If you are honorable and walk, then when it comes time for your opponent to do the same, he has added pressure to follow suit or else appear less honorable than you.  Even if he has no intrinsic honor, he may want to avoid that shame in the eyes of his fans.
  3. But to get to the raw strategic aspects, reputation can play a role.  If a player is known to walk whenever he is out then by not walking he signals that he is not out.  In those moments of indecision by the umpire, this can tip the balance and get him to make a favorable call.  You might think that umpires would not be swayed by such a tactic but note that if the player has a solid reputation for walking then it is in the umpire’s interest to use this information.
  4. And anyway remember that the umpire doesn’t have the luxury to deliberate.  When he’s on the fence, any little nudge can tilt him to a decision.
  5. Most importantly, a player’s reputation will have an effect on the crowd and their reactions influence umpires.  If the fans know that he walks when he’s out and this time he didn’t walk they will let the umpire have it if he calls him out.
  6. There is a related tactic in baseball which is where the manager kicks dirt onto the umpire’s shoes to show his displeasure with the call.  It is known that this will never influence the current decision but it is believed to have the effect of “getting into the umpire’s head” potentially influencing later decisions.
  7. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that a player walks not because he knows he is out but because he is reasonably certain that the umpire is going to decide that he is out whether or not he walks.  The player may be certain that he is not out but only because he is in a privileged position on the field where he can determine that.  If the umpire didn’t have the same view, it would be pointless to try and persuade.  Instead he should walk and invest in his reputation for the next time when the umpire is truly on the fence.