New scoring system? Not again!
Following poor scheduling of the first round matches at the recent All England Open, Badminton England’s CEO Adrian Christy called for a re-think of the scoring system. Christy claimed the scheduling of matches had been affected by long matches which had resulted out of badminton’s current scoring system, and suggested a ‘tie-break’ for the third game if the match was tied at one game apiece.
Badminton’s traditional scoring system of 15×3 (points played for 15, and over a maximum of three games) lasted over a century before demands began for a less time-consuming points system. The biggest problem with the 15×3 was that, in theory at least, a match could go on forever. A player would earn a point only on his serve, so if the serve changed hands every alternate point, the score would remain unchanged endlessly.
The first change to the scoring system came in 2001, when the 7×5 was introduced. This shortened the duration of matches but never found favour within the community and it was shelved. After a brief lull, the ‘rally’ system of 21×3 was introduced in 2006 and despite occasional complaints by top players, the Badminton World Federation stuck to it and it has lasted for six years. The change has shortened the average time of every match, and is easier on organizers who have to accommodate the demands of television.
One reason why so many different scoring systems have been suggested is the implicit assumption that badminton suffers in popularity because of an inappropriate scoring system. Here, the references are all sports that have a mass following: basketball, football, tennis, etc.
But is badminton’s scoring system responsible for its lack of global popularity? Are there other factors that are equally responsible?
Before we proceed, we have to acknowledge that not everybody is happy that the traditional scoring system was changed. There are still purists who argue for the old 15×3 system, and hold no brief for the argument that audience attention spans have come down. As Ahmad Bakar, former Singapore international, told me: “If people can watch a four-hour match between Federer and Nadal, why wouldn’t they watch a one-hour badminton match?” Ironically, this was said on the evening before the Djokovic-Nadal classic in the Australian Open final, and global adulation for that six-hour masterclass would’ve solidified Bakar’s conviction.
The other criticism of the 21×3 is that it has made some strokes extinct. Most players have sacrificed the delicate arts of singles play in search of attacking options to gather the quick point, and traditionalists believe that badminton as an art is now more or less dead.
Which brings me to the one question I’ve harboured all these years: if cricket can live with three formats, why can’t badminton live with two?
When One-Day cricket began, it was seen as the death of Test cricket, but administrators, to their credit, kept Test cricket alive. The same happened when Twenty20 arrived on the scene. All three forms thrive now, and each has a dedicated following. Specialists have emerged in each form, and the sport has grown.
A similar argument can be made for tennis: most tournaments around the world are best-of-three sets, but organizers reserve the stiffest tests – best-of-five – for the premier tournaments: the Grand Slams.
Why can’t badminton do the same? Why must one scoring system give way for another?
Cricket has managed to balance the pristine (Test cricket) with the glitzy and fast-paced (One-Day and T20) by giving context to each form. Purists may bemoan that cricket has become unrecognizable, but at least the original form of the game is still visible. With every change in scoring system, however, badminton risks becoming ever more distanced from its original form. As a sport that evolved over a hundred years, badminton deserves better.
Instead of tweaking the scoring system, the demands of television and viewership can be taken into account by re-thinking the nature of tournaments. Is it necessary for all tournaments to have all five events (men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles)? Cannot some tournaments have only singles events? Consequently, with organizers not stretched for time, perhaps these tournaments can try out the 15×3 to bring back a form of badminton in which skill had as much place as rapid scoring ability.
Scoring systems are the lifeline of sport. Badminton deserves broad consultation from within the community before a hasty conclusion is reached.