Outside Edge: The art of pricing no-balls

4th September, 2010

First published on ft.com
If the problem is corruption in cricket, where to turn for the solution? Surely, my beloved field of economics.
For those whose attention has been distracted, the sad story is that two of Pakistan’s bowlers, and their captain, have been suspended on suspicion of bowling no-balls, or illegal deliveries, to order in a five-day Test match against England. (Betting on the outcome of a particular ball is, for some reason, oddly popular in certain gambling circles.)
Many cricket lovers would like to see such offenders banned for life, if guilt is established. This is where the theory of optimal punishment comes in. It began to occur to the Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker, as he contemplated whether to park illegally while running late for an important appointment. (When I interviewed him a few years ago, he parked illegally for the duration of our lunch.) At its core is the idea that if the waste and misery caused by a crime cost society the equivalent of £100, then a suitable fine for deterring offences is £100 – if all offenders are caught, that is. If one in a thousand is caught, then the appropriate fine is £100,000. If the offender doesn’t have £100,000, then less efficient punishments such as prison – or worse – must be considered. Prison is costly, but a length of rope is cheap. If hanging or flogging strike you as problematic punishments – I am not aware that Mr Becker has endorsed them either – then perhaps you care about more than efficiency.
Setting such niceties to one side, even the simplest version of the theory of optimal punishment forces us to ask a splendidly awkward question: how serious is the crime? To observe the hand-wringing in cricket circles one would assume a few allegedly staged no-balls have ruined not only the entire series but civilisation itself.
Hardly. In a five-day Test match about 3,000 balls will be bowled and a thousand runs scored. Bowling a no-ball means a one-run penalty and a chance to dismiss the batsman is forfeited. It is unlikely to affect the outcome. It’s the equivalent of throwing less than a thousandth of a Test match.
“I hope that 99.95% of the cricket I see is entirely genuine,” agonised Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent. I can reassure him. If a single deliberate no-ball is bowled in a Test match, then 99.95 per cent of that particular match is genuine.
Cricket fans will spend several million pounds on tickets for a popular Test. If 0.05 per cent of the match is crooked, then 0.05 per cent of five million pounds is £2,500. Or is the mental anguish caused to cricket lovers beyond price?
I’m no fan of cheats. Such crimes are so hard to detect that punishments must be much more severe than £2,500 to achieve optimal deterrence. But should the offending players be forever banished from the pavilion? I am not so sure about that.
The writer does not play cricket

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