By the editor, Aug 7 2016 08:39AM
Eleven years ago today one of the finest ever games of cricket reached its climax. England beat Australia by just 2 runs when the last wicket was taken, the Australian Michael Kasprowicz caught behind off the bowling of Steve Harmison. At least, he was given out. Replays have showed that the ball glanced off Kasprowicz's right glove while it wasn't in contact with the bat. So, in fact, according to the laws of the game, it was not out: the umpire got it wrong. Had the technology of the Decision Review System been in place, it's often been said, the umpire's decision would have been overuled. Most likely, then, Australia would have scored the extra 3 runs needed for victory, and they would have gone 2-0 up in the series. If they'd been 2-0 up, it's very likely they would have gone on to win the 2005 Ashes.
The last forecast is probably accurate. But the first one is completely wrong, and worth putting right, as it crops up so often; not only worth it for those who follow cricket, but also as a good illustration of similar counterfactual fallacies.
As "Superforecasting" by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner put it: "History is a virtually infinite array of possibilities." Imagining how the past might have developed differently by altering one component of it does not lead to one simple, accurate alternative version of how the past would have panned out. Any one tiny change might have had billions of different immediate consequences, and then billions of different chain reactions resulting from those consequences. None of these consequences can be reverse-predicted with the slightest degree of confidence. The butterfly flapping its wings might have a part to play in affecting major weather events, or it might not, and it might have all sorts of other consequences instead. History could also be described as a virtually infinite array of apparently highly improbable events, whether the creation of life on earth, or the chances of your parents getting together and conceiving you. The billions of other potential events would have been been highly improbable too, but they just didn't happen. This, incidentally, being one of the main flaws of the Intelligent Design argument.
But back to cricket. Had DRS been in place for the 2005 Ashes, we can only guess at what the consequences would have been. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that the games would have been entirely different: different balls would have been been bowled, and different consequences would have flowed from them. And despite not knowing the exact sequenece of events, we can make some educated guesses at how the shape of the games might have been altered. For example, DRS has tended to increase the number of leg-before-wicket decisions given, because whereas before DRS umpires tended to give batsmen considerable benefit of doubt, the digital tracking system seems to have shown that more balls bowled are likely to be on their way to hit the stumps than was thought previously. This has particularly benefited spin bowlers.
Another educated guess we can make is that the genuinely freak incidents that happened in the real past would be very unlikely to have happened in our alternative past. Given that history would have been knocked off course, the chances of exactly the same incident happening are extremely small. Other freak incidents might have happened instead, in fact are quite likely to have happened, statisically. But not those that did.
So it was very unlikely that the Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath would have suffered the freak trip on a rugby ball in training that ruled him out of the Edgbaston Test. (Obviously this trip in itself had nothing to do with DRS: but that is irrelevant.) And so his replacement, Michael Kasprowicz, would not have been playing. And quite apart from that, the chances of that particular ball being bowled and catching his glove in that way, once history has been interfered with, are so vanishingly small that they can be considered in effect impossible.
So DRS wouldn't have saved Kasprowicz, who probably wouldn't have been playing, let alone playing that particular shot at that particular time. But McGrath probably would have been playing, and probably would have been in better form throughout the rest of the Ashes. Since he was one of the best Australian fast bowlers ever, that is likely to have been significant. Also significant would have been the particular advantage DRS would have given to spin bowlers, and Australia's Shane Warne was one of the two best spin bowlers of all time; with all due respect to Ashely Giles, significantly better than England's spin bowler in the same Test series.
DRS may well have won Australia the 2005 Ashes, but this would have had nothing to do with Michael Kasprowicz, and everything to do with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.