Come in No 3, your time is up: super subs find their way on to ICC’s agenda

We may be about to enter the era of cricket super subs, whilst there is also some good news for bowlers in the “batsman’s” game.

The world of football is well used to tactical substitutions. For some players, it has even defined their careers. Manchester United’s baby-faced assassin, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored perhaps the most famous super sub strike to win his team the 1999 Champions League Final; David Fairclough of Liverpool was most deadly in the last half hour of any match, with 35 goals scored from the 60th minute on. He was known as super sub because he spent the first 50 minutes of matches warming the bench.

There was a time when just one sub was allowed in football. Now, multiple subs sit swathed in quilted track suits – one playing sub became three and in exceptional pandemic times it is now five.

But is cricket about to embrace a new era of tactical substitutions? Not a sport renowned for rapid regulatory change, it took 120 years to introduce concussion substitutions into the first-class game. Australia famously discovered their own super sub in Marnus Labuschagne when he stepped into the firing line in the 2019 Ashes series, replacing Steve Smith it seems not just in limpet-like immovability, but in agitated mannerisms too.

A retrospective footnote to that story of course, is that Justin Langer subsequently revealed that when they had to make the decision over who to replace Smith at Lord’s after the batsman suffered concussion, they were unsure whether to choose Marnus Labuschagne or Mitchell Marsh.

On October 20 last year, Ben Lister became cricket’s first Covid substitute when he stepped into the Plunkett Shield encounter for Auckland in their match against Otago, replacing Mark Chapman. Now it seems that further change may be forthcoming.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the ICC is about to break with tradition and approve a radical move that could lead to a change in how substitutes are used in the international game. Under the new rules, teams would be able to make changes not just for injuries but also for tactical and strategic reasons. If the rules are approved, “unqualified use of replacement players” will be trialled in first-class matches, with the door left open for Test-level evaluations.

The potential of this is huge and cricket fans will be very quick to see the likely application and impact. Changing the make-up of a bowling attack mid-match for instance; all seamers in the first innings, but a spinner for a deteriorating pitch later in the game. Or replacing a weak fielder with a specialist (does anyone have Gary Pratt’s number?).

“The recent introduction of replacement players for both concussion and Covid-19 prompted a discussion at the Cricket Committee on the more general use of replacement players in the international game,” the ICC said in a statement. “To better understand the implications of allowing players to be replaced during a match, the definition of a first-class match will be changed to allow the unqualified use of replacement players.”

As yet, though, there is no further information on when and how this might take place and it is unknown if Cricket Australia will consider bringing the rule in for next year’s Sheffield Shield or if the ECB have it in their sights.

Other outcomes from the ICC discussions are certainly more immediate. Despite the protestations of Shane Warne and Virat Kohli, ‘Umpire’s Call’ will remain. But there are changes to how lbw decisions will be adjudged by the video umpire, with the “wicket zone” to be extended from the bottom of the bails to the top. As white ball cricket is loaded so heavily in the batsman’s favour, this represents a victory, albeit a small one measured in millimetres, for bowlers.

In other welcome news for bowlers, players will be able to ask the umpire if they believed a genuine attempt had been made to hit the ball before deciding whether to send an unsuccessful lbw appeal upstairs. Prepare to see some lively conversations with the likes of Kohli and Stuart Broad making polite inquiries as to a batsman’s intent.

Jingle by Jeff Perkins