The climactic last overs of the 2016 County Championship were made possible by a thrilling afternoon of cricket, by the captains’ horse-trading and by a tense passage of play that took place one day earlier.
Yorkshire, in the form of Tim Bresnan and lower order partners, were batting on Thursday, trying to set as high a first innings total as possible. How high? At least 350 runs high.
Run number 350 was the 16th run of the 10th wicket partnership between Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom, which, to emphasise the drama, had included an hour’s break for rain after 15 of those runs had been scored. With it, Yorkshire accrued their fourth batting point, and so the ability to overhaul Somerset, should both Somerset and Yorkshire win their final matches of the 2016 season. Without it, that singular bonus point, Yorkshire could not have won the title and so would not have risked all on chasing the win in a manner that could gift the match to Middlesex. Somerset would, in all likelihood, have become County Champions.
Since 1968, the County Championship has been decided by a scoring system comprising: points for match results, combined with points for runs scored and wickets taken in each side’s first innings. The system has been tweaked – draws not scoring points in some seasons, alterations to the thresholds for first innings runs and wickets and the overs in which they can be earned, and fluctuations in the value of a victory. The rules for the 2016 season can be read here.
The bonus point gained when Sidebottom flicked the ball to fine-leg on day 3 was essential for the drama to unfold at Lord’s on the final day of the 2016 season. This post considers how important bonus points are in the County Championship and whether they fulfil their objectives.
Bonus points accounted for 44% of the points scored across the two divisions of the County Championship in 2016. The chart below shows the bonus points earned by each side in the 2016 County Championship (net of penalty points). It shows that bonus point totals are only loosely correlated with the position counties achieved. While one bonus point can swing the season, a season’s worth of bonus points will not necessarily decide the title.
I (with the help of Twitter correspondents) have identified three objectives against which the bonus point system can be tested:
- acting as a tie-breaker between teams with similar records
- rewarding teams for their performances in matches which do not reach a positive result
- incentivising positive cricket in the early part of the game.
Scorecards and conventional records allow some analysis of the first two of these objectives.
Bonus points as tie-breakers
Most tie-breakers in sports are secondary assessments, happening after the tie occurs (e.g. super over in T20 knock-outs) or on a count-back basis after the primary scoring system delivers a draw (e.g. goal difference in football). In the County Championship, the points for first innings performance are aggregated with those for wins and draws as primary determinants of league position.
It’s feasible that bonus points can be tie-makers (or unsuccessful tie-breakers). This has happened once in the 49 years of their use in the County Championship: 1977. Middlesex and Kent both won 9 games (as did Gloucestershire), but Middlesex lost three more games than Kent. There were no points for draws in 1977, and with an identical number of bonus points (119), the title was shared.
Nearly forty years later, with the County Championship operating as two divisions, as well as fewer matches being played, there is potentially more need for a tie-breaker to help decide champions as well as the relegation and promotion places. To assess the impact of bonus points as tie-breakers, I have re-scored the championship, without bonus points and using three different points allocations for wins/draws/losses: 3/1/0; 6/1/0; 5/2/0. The occurrence of end of season ties over the last ten years, had points only been available for match results, is shown in the table below.
Bonus points have successfully prevented ties in key end of season positions, which would have occurred occasionally, not routinely.
Re-scoring the championship in this way shows another significant impact of the bonus point system – how it produces different outcomes to a result-only points system. Most notably, in 2010, under two of the alternative points systems I used, Somerset not Nottinghamshire would have been Champions. The Cider-men once again denied by bonus points. Promotion and relegation outcomes would also have been different in several years.
Bonus points to reward teams for performance in drawn matches
Drawn matches occur frequently (51% in the County Championship in 2016; up from 35% in 2015) and can leave a game at its conclusion anywhere from one team clinging on nine wickets down, 200 runs behind to a deadlock of two long, high-scoring first innings and on again to matches washed out before any telling advantage has been gained. There is a case for rewarding teams, whose hard won advantage cannot be converted into a victory, particularly when the weather is responsible.
I picked at random ten drawn matches from the 2016 season, to see if bonus points fulfilled this role.
I found that in the majority of this sample of drawn games (7/10) the allocation of points was fair when weighed against the state of the game at its close. Where it wasn’t, it was because the balance of the game altered after the 110 over bonus-point period of each first innings, often in the third innings. For the same reason, the absolute number of points gained, was not strongly related to the likelihood that a team would have won from the position gained at the close of play.
Bonus points to reward positive play
The Editor’s notes in the 1969 edition of Wisden recorded that:
the introduction of bonus points for positive batting and successful bowling during the first 85 overs delivered by each side, produced keener cricket in the early stages of the three-day matches. The batsmen discovered the freedom that has been there all the time.
An early success, then. But, as long-in-the-tooth cricket watchers now witness daily, positive batting has become the default approach for most players. Perhaps bonus points are no longer needed to tease it out.
In conclusion, bonus points prevent teams ending the season tied, although ties would be quite unusual if points were only available for match results. Bonus points have, from-time-to-time, delivered league positions that don’t accord with the positions of teams had they been based on match results. On these occasions, bonus points have been going beyond the role that I have imagined for them as tie-breakers. Bonus points have been needed as tie-breakers as often as they have directly influenced league positions when not required as tie-breakers.
The sample of ten drawn matches suggests that bonus points, more often than not, provide a fair reward for performance in matches without a positive result. But, the allocation of bonus points, based on first innings runs and wickets, understandably does not always reflect the state of the game when time is called.
Nearly 40 years ago, soon after their introduction, bonus points were recognised in Wisden for promoting more positive play. With most modern batsmen committed to attack, they may no longer play a useful function as incentives to play positively.
Bonus points are often superfluous and yet sometimes telling. Points based on match results alone would, in most seasons, be sufficient to identify champions, promoted and relegated teams. Given match results are the solid currency of the sport, I would recommend points awarded on that basis should be the primary determinant of league position. A tie-breaker would still be necessary. Bonus points, recorded as a secondary measure, could play that role – but so could other, simpler systems.