A good way of explaining the Comrades cutoff controversy is using cricket as an analogy. You needed to run at an average pace of 8:13/km to finish the 2023 Comrades Marathon in 11:59:59. The average pace required could be seen as our required run rate, the 87.7 kilometres to cover as the total runs required and the 12 hours to do it in as the maximum overs available.
For simplicities sake, I am going to convert everything into round numbers and I thought the greatest one-day cricket match of all time would be a suitable metaphor. So here’s the scenario – Australia batted first and scored 434. Therefore, we need to score 435 in 50 overs. Our 8:13/km becomes a required run rate of 8.7 per over, a kilometre is about 5 runs (4.96 to be precise), and an over equates to just under 15 minutes (14:34) in race time.
Note to the serious and volatile reader: This article is meant as a light-hearted and theoretical analogy to explain the Comrades cutoff controversy to the layperson. The overarching idea is that runners who were ahead of the required run rate were prematurely pulled from the pitch and declared losers.
But don’t worry too much about the finer details, the simple equation is that if we score at a rate of 8.7 per over or faster, we will win the match, slower than that and we lose. It’s a tough ask but we’ve put in the hours on the training ground and we’re confident in our ability to steadily knock off the target.
Starting at the back of the pack in H batch is like opening the batting with Hendrik “Boeta” Dippenaar – you’re going to take a while to get going. After the better part of an over, you’re finally off the mark and cruising along before Boeta Dippenaar hogs the strike again at the 3.5km mark and you crawl along for another couple of overs (at Comrades this was the course alteration run down dangerous and narrow roads).
The nature of the Comrades Down run pitch is such that the first half of the innings will have much trickier and more difficult batting conditions than later in the day. The early part of the innings is also when the Australians will use their wiliest bowlers. However, with a cautions and conservative approach, we know we can negotiate whatever the Australians throw at us.
Unfortunately, cricket is governed by the ICC (or Illogical Cutoff Committee) who want to do everything in their power to avoid a dramatic final over finish and tip the scales in favour of the Australians who they feel are the ‘real cricketers’. As custodians of this great game, the Illogical Cutoff Committee want to avoid the embarrassment of cricketers with questionable techniques sharing the limelight with ‘real cricketers’. Therefore, they put in place specific “game over” cutoff points along the run chase.
The first of these cutoffs is at Cato Ridge at the 19 over mark, the Proteas need to score at a minimum of 7.91 per over (150 runs or more) to be allowed to continue their run chase. Just past the halfway mark in the innings (26 overs), our gallant men in green need to have scored just under half the runs (215) at an average of 8.5 per over or Australia wins the match. All good and fair so far.
If the Proteas hit Drummond having scored 215 runs in 26 overs, they’ll need to score at exactly 9 runs an over to win. A tough ask but if we’ve managed our run chase well, have batted sensibly and still have plenty of wickets in hand, the odds are in our favour. Batting conditions are going to be a lot easier over the second half.
The next cutoff comes 8 overs later at Winston Park, provided the Proteas have kept a steady overall pace of 8.42 per over they’re still safe. The required run rate has now climbed to 9.3 per over but Australia have been holding back their fifth bowler, Mick Lewis*, and South African can capitalise with free scoring and easy boundaries down Botha’s and Fields Hill.
* You might not remember the name Mick Lewis as this was his last international game. He was blasted for 113 runs off his ten overs which is the most ever conceded in a one-day international.
The Illogical Cutoff Committee proactively realise that this gives the South Africans an advantage so they’ve hatched a cunning plan around the braai after three too many beers (where I understand their craziest and most malevolent plans are hatched) and surreptitiously slip a rule change into the fine print before the game.
Aside: Polly’s Missing Pacing Charts
Official pacing charts never made it to the expo. Those enquiring were told that they were “held up at customs”. Other than the question of why a proudly South African event would need an international supplier for pacing charts, the lack of pacing charts at the expo adds credence to the theory that they were not available because they would have exposed the impossible pacing.
Sounds like a conspiracy? Maybe. But let’s take a look at the pacing on the official Comrades app. Many runners reported being cutoff despite having a predicted finish time below 12-hours on the official Comrades app. I just took the screenshot below using the pacing functionality within the official Comrades app. As you can see, if you followed the officially recommended pacing, you would indeed be cutoff at Sherwood.
One of the many moments of Protea’s cricket trauma at World Cups was in 2003 when the rain came down in the do-or-die batting chase against Sri Lanka. South Africa thought they were one run ahead but were in fact one run behind the required rate to win. Math is hard but the Comrades cutoff calculations are so fundamentally flawed that even Shaun Pollock would have realised that something was gravely wrong had he been given a pacing chart in 2003.
Over the next 5 overs, the Proteas need to up the tempo significantly and score at a whopping rate of 11 runs per over between Winston Park and Pinetown just to stay on the pitch. This means that by the time the Proteas get to Pinetown with 39 overs bowled, they need to have upped their overall run rate to 8.8 runs per over. For the first time in the game, the run rate required to stay on the pitch (8.8) is greater than the original ask (8.7). Not really fair but what can you expect from the Illogical Cutoff Committee?
By this stage in the Illogical Cutoff Committee’s decision making process, the beers have been replaced with double brandies and Coke, meaning South Africa still needs to score at a rate above the overall required run rate (8.82 per over) over the next 7 overs to Sherwood. For Comrades runners this meant that they had to continue to run significantly faster than the average pace required to finish the race.
Our original ask was 8.7 runs per over but we needed to have scored faster than this rate (8.8 per over) or we’ve lost the game with 4 overs to go. Those final 4 overs would require a paltry run rate of just 7.9 per over. Even for cricketers of questionable technique, this is an absolute doddle.
Just like in cricket, Comrades athletes are able to pull out the big shots and up the run rate significantly once the finish line is in sight*. Unfortunately, the Illogical Cutoff Committee’s injudicious brandy and beer fuelled calculations deny us the possibility of seeing Mark Boucher and Makhaya Ntini score the winning runs with a ball to spare.
* There is a ton of statistical evidence to show that Vic Clapham medallists get faster, not slower, over the final split. This is even more so for runners under time pressure, many of whom run their fastest split from Sherwood to the finish.
No South African likes losing to Australia. The only thing worse is being screwed over by the system and bumbling bureaucrats. Another cricket game, the 1992 World Cup semi-final provides a vivid and traumatic memory to all South Africans of a certain age. South Africa needed 22 runs off 13 balls with an in-form and firing Brian McMillan at the crease. After a short rain delay, the viable 22 off 13 became an impossible 22 off 1 ball.
The cricket writer John Woodcock provides a quote after 1992 semi-final debacle which could just as easily be applied to Comrades 2023, “South Africa’s chances of reaching the final floundered on a rule which no-one had bothered to think through. For so important an event to be reduced at times to a lottery must have been a source of great embarrassment to the organisers, though to the best of my knowledge they came nowhere near to admitting it.”
South African have had some bad luck at the Cricket World Cups. In the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final, the nation wondered why Allan Donald didn’t run. At the 2023 Comrades Marathon, the nation is still left bewildered as to why the athletes were pulled off the road and prevented from carrying on running.
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