Aussie Cricketers, Sandpaper and Game Theory

You will no doubt have heard of the ball tampering episode at the third cricket test in Cape Town between South Africa and Australia. Australian cricketer Cameron Bancroft was caught by a TV camera roughening up the ball with some yellow sandpaper that was kept in his pocket. He was seen later getting rid of the sandpaper down his trousers so that when the umpires asked him about he produced a sunglasses bag. Later on that day at the post play press conference Australian captain Steve Smith came clean with what was a premeditated plan to roughen one side of the ball and so that the Australian bowlers could take advantage of reverse swing. Tampering with the ball is illegal in cricket and the ICC (cricket’s governing body) banned Steve Smith for one game

I have blogged previously on game theory in sport looking at – Penalty Kicks in Football and How doping impacts Athletes, Organisers and Supporters. As prize money and sponsorship deals get bigger, so do the incentives for coaches and players to find ingenious ways to cheat. So how would the sandpaper incident at the third cricket test in Cape Town lend itself to game theory?

Game theory deals with differences of opinion between groups who know each other’s inclination but not their genuine objective or choice. It then concludes the optimum course of action for any rational player. In this scenario the parties involved are the competing cricketers and, although both are better off if neither tampers with the ball, they cannot trust each other so both engage in ball tampering – Prisoners Dilemma. If you introduce an authoritative figure – the International Cricket Council (ICC) – to observe cricketers with many camera angles, the fear of getting caught should ensure that no ball tampering takes place. This is referred to as the inspection game. However as you know it wasn’t the ICC who took strong action over the video footage but Cricket Australia.

Another party that is crucial to cricket is sponsors and the spectators. Their critical role is the potential withdrawal of support which could see the cricket’s demise. Wealth-management company Magellan has terminated its three-year sponsorship agreement with Cricket Australia in response to the ball-tampering scandal worth around AUS$20 million.

A withdrawal of one of these three parties can trigger the withdrawal of the other two. Cricket cannot survive without sponsors, withdrawal of the media restricts the access to the customers, and finally cricket is only attractive for sponsors as long as there are customers. Therefore the strategies of the three parties looks like this:

Cricketers – Ball tamper or Don’t ball tamper (B D)
ICC – Video or No Video (V N)
Sponsors / Spectators – Stay or Leave (S L)

The assumptions are as follows:

Cricketers

B-N-S > D-N-S = cricketers prefer to ball tamper if not videoed.
D-V-S > B-V-L = cricketer prefer not to ball tamper and be videoed = customers stay, over being ball tampering and videoed = customers leave (assuming that customers don’t like ball tampering scandals)

Organisers

B-N-S > D-V-L = a scandal combined with a loss of customers is worse for organisers than undetected video where customers stay.
D-V-S > D-N-L = videoing and non ball tampering actions with customer support is better for the organisers than not videoing other cricketers when customers leave.

Sponsors / Spectators
B-V-L > B-V-S = customers prefer to withdraw support after a scandal
B-N-S > B-N-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.
D-V-S > D-T-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.
D-N-S > D-N-L = customers prefer to stay if there is no scandal.

Ball tampering & Video = Scandal
Ball tampering & No Video, Don’t ball tamper & Video, Don’t ball tamper & No Video = No scandal

Final thought
The vast majority of authorities in today’s sports events would state that their regimes to combat cheating are very stringent. However the likelihood of human deceitfulness is very realistic and in some cases it’s not those that tamper with the cricket ball who are the real cheats but those who have generated an environment where players would be foolish not to.

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