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Concussion, and Cricket’s Love-Hate Relationship with Substitutes

India used Chahal as a concussion substitute for Jadeja in the T20I series-opener vs Australia, sparking debate.

Updated
Cricket
6 min read
India used Chahal as a concussion substitute for Jadeja in the T20I series-opener vs Australia.
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If there is one thing the Aussies definitely took away from the first T20 match against India, it was a masterclass in diplomacy. While most chose their words very carefully after the game, Justin Langer’s face throughout the second innings was a sight to behold.

If there was one thing which match referee David Boon would secretly not have wanted at the innings break was Chahal putting in a match-winning performance post his unexpected introduction into the proceedings. Expecting to be carrying around drinks and a towel for the day, Yuzi couldn’t quite hide his sheepish grin as he spoke to the media holding his Man of the Match award.

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Cricket’s tryst with the substitute has been a long one. In fact, the sight of a substitute fielder taking the place of one of the ‘healthier’ members of the team for a few overs is considered routine in all formats of the game. As was the concept of the runner, which allowed a member of the playing XI to run between wickets for an injured batsman. The runner rule, now scrapped, was subject to much misuse, with Inzamam Ul Haq becoming the poster boy for the same, perhaps somewhat harshly.

One of the more recent (failed) experiments was that of the super-sub, introduced in 2005, with obvious inspiration from football, and with an attempt at making the ODI format more exciting. While it did provide a new conversation topic for some time, the rule was flawed at many levels, with the toss almost always proving key in which team actually benefited from the rule. It also seemed forced, providing a solution for a problem that didn't really exist. And as far as making white ball cricket more interesting is concerned, T20 more than made up for that.

The last time that a rule of the ICC playing conditions was under so much scrutiny was after the World Cup final in 2019, when England were declared winners based on the number of boundaries they had hit. The rule was swiftly changed after much uproar, but it proved little consolation for NZ hearts, broken to this day.

While the stakes were significantly lower in the first T20I between India and Australia on Friday, it has led to passionate debate throughout the cricketing world.

Did India cheat? Should Chahal have been allowed as Jadeja’s concussion substitute? Is it ethical to take advantage of a loophole? Is there a loophole at all?

Let’s get something straight – this article is purely focused on the academic merits of the debate and not passing judgement on the specific incident. We have no evidence to prove that Ravindra Jadeja did not or could not have suffered a potential concussion and one wishes him a speedy recovery in time for the test series.

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In Whose Reasonable Opinion?

Perhaps the key to this entire debate is the grey area surrounding eligibility. A concussion substitute, much like the substitute runner, is only allowed if the player is deemed unfit to continue playing/running. But deemed by who and on what grounds? For a batsman to get a runner, the umpires (based on the opinion of the batsman and his medical team) would need to allow it, leading to rampant faking of muscle strains in the game. It was this loophole, which made the rule redundant back in 2011, which ensured that a genuine case of injury would mean a batsman could effectively no longer take part in the game.

The concussion rule is similar in some sense – if the medical staff of the player’s team, in their sole discretion, determines that a player, after being hit on the head, is suffering or is in ANY danger of suffering a possible concussion going forward, they can report the same to the match referee, who under ordinary circumstances would need to allow the player being substituted for the remainder of the match.

The degree of ambiguity in the rule leads to significant gaps in how it may be implemented and opens the door to becoming a serious loophole, one which can be regularly taken advantage of.

As it stands, the only pre-requisite to triggering the rule is that a player is hit on the head on the field of play. The rest is all based on the reasonable, informed and expert opinion of his own team doctors. Realistically, one can’t see a match referee ever dismissing the recommendation of the medical team, as he/she shouldn’t. However, given the open ended nature of the rule, stemming perhaps from the lack of medical markers to indicate risk of potential concussion, invite some warranted questioning.

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Like for Like

This is where it gets interesting. When Marnus Labuschagne replaced Steve Smith as international cricket’s first ever concussion substitute in 2019, there was little opposition from the English side or the media, given that it was, to put it bluntly, an obvious downgrade. No one, Labuschagne included, reasonably expected him to have anywhere near an impact on the game as Smith would have.

Jadeja’s case, however, showed that a literal interpretation of the rule could certainly ‘excessively advantage’ the team making the switch. The responsibility of allowing only like-for-like replacements has been placed at the door of the match referee and he has been equipped with a yardstick of determining ‘the likely role the concussed player would have played during the remainder of the match’.

While seeming fair on paper, judging the likely role to be played in cricket purely based on past involvement seems rather naïve.

It is no secret that 4 overs in a T20 game can prove to be game changing, simply based on who bowls them. It is well accepted that Jadeja would have bowled his entire quota during Friday’s match as well, and Chahal would technically qualify as a fair replacement. However, simply put, the impact that Chahal can have on any game of cricket in 4 overs, is in no way “like-for-like” with that of Jadeja. The fact that Jadeja had already played a crucial knock just moments earlier, just makes it seem more and more like India fielded a Playing 12 against Australia.

As mentioned above, the rule was applied correctly, but the definition of like-for-like is based on past involvement and not of potential impact based on playing and match conditions, and one which can have a defining impact on the game, which certainly isn’t the spirit in which the rule was written.

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The Way Forward

So where do we go from here? Scrapping the rule is not an option. The world of sport is jointly moving towards accepting the risks of head injuries and implementing suitable measures. However, making sure that the rule is implemented fairly and for the right reasons is equally important.

As a start, given the resources at the disposal of the ICC, it's a no brainer (excuse pun) to have an ICC medical team at all international matches. The team to work under and report directly to the match referee and based on their sole recommendation, the match referee may allow the use of a substitute. Issues of medical liability, particularly those from the national boards, regarding players’ health would be an obvious roadblock, and a collective signoff would be crucial for its implementation.

It may also be time to revisit the concept of a substitute in the game. One without reason, conditions, restrictions or justifications. A player who can take the place of another, and perform ANY role that the substituted player could have played. For example, if the player was yet to bat, the sub could bat, or if the player had 5 overs left to bowl, the sub could bowl five overs.

This not only allows accounts for situations of medical emergency but acts as a genuine tactical tool in the hands of the coach/captain. On the same lines as football, the sub can be any player from the squad, introduced at any time. A more conservative team may choose to keep the substitution up their sleeve till later in the game, given the possibility of an injury, while more adventurous ones may make use of the same right up front (if you’re 10-2, you replace Pandya with Pujara). Once used however, there are no more subs available to you and if a player is subsequently deemed unfit to continue by the ICC medical expert, the team is down to 10 men.

The above recommendations are unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon, and one hopes that the kind of advantage India gained on Friday was a one off. But one thing is certain – if there exists a loophole, no matter how small, the modern day cricket team will find it and they will milk it. Cheers to a game well played, Mr Shastri!

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(Saurabh Mehta is a lawyer by profession, a sports management consultant by chance and a lifelong sports fan by choice. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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