Tuesday 13 March 2012

What cricket tells us about... regulation

In Ed Smith's What sport tells us about life he regales a set of familiar sporting stories to pontificate about the world as he sees it. It's lovely writing and the kind of armchair-academic fun that made Malcolm Gladwell a millionaire. England's recent 3-0,0-4 desert turnaround against Pakistan probably doesn't tell us much about life but it did get me thinking about the peculiar nature of economic regulation.

After England's catastrophic second-Test defeat in Abu Dhabi, Andrew Strauss wondered whether his side would have fared better if they had fewer overs to chase the 145 needed. As it was, they had around 130 overs, spread across two days and a target that was neither close to dash for the line nor far off enough to resist trying. With no scoreboard pressure to force their hand, the batsmen floundered and Pakistan were able to spring a stunning victory.

In the one-dayers, England's task was much more defined. They twice set and twice chased targets successfully. The lack of close-in fielders and the 10-over limit to Saeed Ajmal helped unclutter their minds, but the main reason they coped so easily was that the rules and regulations of ODI cricket did most of the mental hard work for them.

The limit of 300 balls, two (newly restricted) Powerplays and a clutch of other rules meant the batsmen had all the tools they needed to guide their innings. Unlike in Tests, where the match spreads out in front of you as a vast, uncharted terrain, the regulations of the limited-overs game map out the land ahead of you and hands out a compass for the journey.

That's not how mainstream economists see things though. In a world dominated by their dubious beliefs, regulations are viewed as restrictive: pesky obstacles on the path to the free market at the end of the rainbow. To them limited overs mean limited freedom.

The opposite is in fact true. Though it may not seem it, what regulations help direct us towards matters far more than what they stop us doing. Think of drinking games. Yes, the rules control when you can't drink, but much more importantly, they decide exactly when you should. Similarly when lobbyists and governments design regulations they shape what businesses can do much more than what they can't.

Take England's batting in the opening ODI. They had to decide what a decent target was but after that the rules almost dictated the correct approach to take. Halfway through England's innings if Alastair Cook had targeted 270, he knew England needed 157 more from 150 balls, with eight Ajmal overs to go and eight wickets in hand. There's a lot there with which to develop a strategy. If Cook's innings slowed, for example, the 'asking' rate was on hand to remind him it's probably time to risk that slog-sweep.

Long-form cricket offers no such relief. You're left isolated, trying to decide when to do what. In the one-day series Cook's strike rate was 88.98, in the second-Test chase Cook's seven runs took 15 overs. Everyone watching knew paralysis would be fatal. England's batsmen may have known it too; Pakistan's captain, bowlers and fielders certainly did. Yet against inspired opponents in unfamiliar conditions England's minds scrambled as taming the great empty space of Test cricket proved too demanding.

Regulations – whether in sport or economics – help people make decisions. It's why Test cricket – a game with fairly few - is less predictable than the shorter forms. It's also why 'experts' like the Economist miss the point so spectacularly when they moan about prohibitive regulation.