August 2, 2016

Why we need in-game penalties for slow over rates

If the paying public isn't to feel short-changed, administrators need to consider effective ways of disciplining teams

Stumps were drawn on day one at Lord's when Rahat Ali fell on the last ball of the 87th over. How engrossing might three more overs of play have been for the spectators? © Getty Images

It's easy to dismiss complaints about slow over rates as the grumblings of a few non-representative malcontents. It's probably also true that many spectators are not bothered - at least not beyond brief shoulder-shrugging. Corruption, dead pitches, and (mis-) governance are certainly more pressing issues. Yet that isn't to say it's not a problem that shouldn't be fixed.

The way Tests are marketed works against spectators realising their loss. One is encouraged to buy a ticket for a day, not for the minimum number of overs scheduled for the day. The overs lost are almost imperceptible, unless one is keeping an eye on the progress. Even when overs are lost, the percentage of cricket reduced seems trivial. Three overs out of 90, the number that England failed to bowl on the first day at Lord's against Pakistan, is a mere 3.33%. Much ado about nothing?

A moment's consideration will, however, reveal the unacceptability of such short-changing. Would, for example, all in attendance at a football match be content if the players downed tools after 87 minutes? Would cinema-goers put up with the last four minutes of a two-hour film being chopped off? Would the audience applaud were an orchestra to pack up without playing the last few bars of the symphony?

Officially, 90 overs is a minimum, albeit more of a theoretical, aspirational minimum than a literal minimum. That it is well within the realms of possibility is highlighted by the fact that not only do recreational cricketers regularly fit 90 overs into an afternoon but also that it isn't completely unheard of for international teams to meet the target.

Six hours of 15 overs each should therefore not be viewed as too taxing, even without making use of the extra half-hour, which is supposedly a reserve, only to be used if needed. Unfortunately, it now appears that the extra time is viewed as an entitlement rather than an option to be used only in extremis. To run past the official close time may be regarded as a misfortune; to fail to complete the overs in the extra time should be regarded as carelessness.

Worse, it smacks of discourtesy. In much the same way that certain tins of chocolates appear to have quietly scaled down over the years, over rates are another example of almost invisible under-provision: the amount paid for the product stays the same, but less of the product is handed over.

To put some figures on this, take the example of England's 87 for 90 at Lord's. A top-price ticket cost £90, meaning one over held a value of £1. Therefore a ticket holder would have failed to see anything for three of the pounds that he or she handed over. Three pounds may not seem like a great deal, but it's not nothing. Not everyone at Lord's is a London high-flyer awash with cash.

Would all in attendance at a football match be content if the players downed tools after 87 minutes?

Now bear in mind 29,000 were at Lord's that day. Not all would have paid £90 - some tickets were down at £60, while some will have enjoyed hospitality in private boxes - so for purposes of argument, assume that the average ticket cost was £75, meaning the average "loss" would have equated to £2.50.

Naturally, no refund was offered; none is given if even a mere 25 overs have been bowled, 27.78% of the supposed minimum, yet again highlighting the flexible nature of the word "minimum". Twenty-nine thousand multiplied by £2.50 yields a collective loss of £72,500.

So much for the financial element. However, more is at stake. On the last ball of the 87th over, Pakistan had lost their sixth wicket. Three further overs, including one from the on-song Chris Woakes, would have been engrossing watching. Of course, it's not entirely correct to imagine the hypothetical overs as being added on to the end of the day; still, the more overs bowled during the day, the more chance of action for the spectators.

It would be impractical to force players to complete the overs regardless of conditions - playing in darkness would unfairly penalise the batting side - but if players are not going to be required to complete the scheduled overs even when conditions are suitable, then an effective way of policing it needs to be found, one that stands a chance of benefiting paying viewers.

The current system of policing over rates via the threats of forfeiting match fees, or in extreme cases, banning captains, leaves much to be desired. Suspending captains, while obviously more likely to concentrate the minds of the players, is liable to be gamed. During the World T20 in 2012, when Mahela Jayawardene was in danger of incurring a suspension, Kumar Sangakkara was named as the official captain against England. Yet it quickly became apparent that Jayawardene was still in command on the field.

Furthermore, suspending the captain perversely punishes the spectators at the next game, depriving them of seeing one of the team's best players, a point that has been made before. As far as match-fee fines go, while the threat of losing 20% of a £12,000 fee might be a significant restraint for mortals, it's hard to see how it would be anything but water off an England captain's back (water down the back being a common experience in that climate), and does nothing to compensate the ticket holders. In-game penalties, with immediate application, are the way forward.

In the 2012 World T20, when Mahela Jayawardene was in danger of being suspended for Sri Lanka's slow over rate, Kumar Sangakkara was named official captain but Jayawardene remained in charge on the field © Getty Images

It is curious that in England the form of the game that least suffers from running slightly overtime - T20 - is the one where teams incur the heaviest immediate penalty: six runs if the 20th over has not commenced after 75 minutes. This is despite the fact that, arguably, neither the batting side nor the spectators miss out. All the necessary overs will still be bowled. If only 114 balls are delivered before the 75-minute cut-off, rather than the required 115, the net effect is only to increase the average time taken for each delivery from 39.13 seconds to 39.47. It's hard to justify a claim that the intensity would appreciably suffer without such a constraint, although, in fairness, the introduction of the countdown clock adds an extra element of tension to a crowd-pleasing format.

Test match cricket needs such an in-game penalty much more than T20 does. A five-run penalty would be an obvious first step, but since five runs rarely makes much of a difference in a Test match, that appears too minor. Another possible approach would be to inflict a ten-over delay for the new ball - or, should the umpires determine that that would unduly benefit the fielding side, grant the batsmen ten overs with a ball of their choice: the old ball, a new ball, or an un-shined ball of comparable wear.

A more radical solution would be that should the over rate in one session drop below the threshold, one fielder is suspended for the following session, forcing the team to make do with ten men. Such a penalty would wonderfully focus the minds of the fielding team, especially if the suspended fielder turned out to be their strike bowler. While spectators would be momentarily deprived of seeing that player perform, they would be treated to the extra intrigue of the batting side attempting to capitalise on their temporary significant advantage - an 11.11% reduction in fielders, excluding the keeper and bowler - as they saw fit, quite possibly through higher scoring for that session.

Something similar could be arranged if the side at fault is batting in the next session. A player could be prevented from batting during that session, thus forcing a rejig of the batting order. If nine wickets were lost and one player was currently suspended, the team would be all out.

Whichever approach is considered preferable, it is time to make over rates an in-game rather than post-game issue, for the sake of the spectators. As a noted England skipper, of sorts, was once said to say after a humbling defeat: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." Were a few more captains to experience such sentiments, over rates and their associated debates might be relegated to the past.

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yes.No.Wait. on August 11, 2016, 16:13 GMT

    My suggestion for slow over rate in a test match is compulsory bowling of spin. For instance if 9 overs are lost in a days play then the next day the offending team (if still bowling) must, at minimum, bowl 9 overs of spin in the first 18 overs of play. This penalty can carry over to second innings if required.

    This would achieve two things - the fielding captain would have one of his strategic decisions taken from him as to who he bowls and secondly the spin bowler by his very nature gets through overs quicker.

    I think the prospect of a captain being told who he has to bowl would focus his mind on speeding up play. Can you imagine a captain being required to bowl spin with a brand new ball.

    Spinner(s) would be nominated at the start of play.

  • brian,leek on August 11, 2016, 14:46 GMT

    I wonder how slow the over rate would have to be for the authorities to consider it an issue. We were at Edgbaston, and felt the slow over rates were simply a sign of the players' discourtesy to the paying public. Test cricket is a great day out, but it is being damaged by the slow creep towards bowling fewer and fewer overs. If the players cannot put this right without sanctions, there need to be effective sanctions put in. As a first step, why not advertise a day's cricket as 3 sessions of 30 overs each? As an added incentive, the post lunch and post tea restart times could be fixed, ie if you take until 1.15 to bowl 30, you only get 25 minutes for lunch. I bet that would concentrate the captains' minds!

  • flickspin on August 7, 2016, 18:25 GMT

    I don't know what the big deal is.

    Most games you only miss 5 overs a day.

    Most teams bowl 13-14 overs per hour.

    Unless teams start bowling 10 overs a hour people should except it, fining teams and captains is stupid and suspending captains is an over reaction.

    Thier should be understanding, players need breaks for drinks and food and to talk tactics, the sight screen needs to be adjusted if right handers and left handers are batting, distractions in the crowd, drs, change of fields, batters taking thier time to face the bowlers and bowlers walking back to thier marks. And the need for tv ads at every stoppage. That's the complexity of modern professional cricket.

    All the complainers are being unrealistic to think it's possible to bowl 15 overs in a hour.

    The icc should analyse where the most time is wasted, is it moving sight screens, is it setting fields, is it batsmen taking time to face, is it 3rd umpire/DRS.

    After the researching where time is wasted people will relax

  • TheCricketeer on August 5, 2016, 13:00 GMT

    So I totally agree - but its not as simple as punishing the bowling side. Just watch the pre-break overs and see how much time a batting side can waste when they want to. Never mind on day 5 when they are 6 wickets down going into the last session.

    So there need to be mechanisms to punish both bowlers / fielders and batsman for time wasting.

    To be effective they should be harsh enough that they are nearly never invoked. A yellow card system for both batsman and bowlers could be applied. Two yellow cards for tardiness or intentional time wasting should result in the batsman being given out or the bowler being dismissed for the rest of the innings. Run penalties could also be worked in there somehow.

  • drinks.break on August 5, 2016, 6:03 GMT

    @P_B, it's not the length of the run ups that's the issue. As I commented below, Bob Willis's run up was as long as anyone's and yet he played in a team that achieved very healthy over rates (well over 90 per day). Also, pre-1980s (when over rates became farcically low) there were plenty of brilliant quality bowlers who didn't feel the need to dawdle back to the top of their mark like a school boy going to the headmaster's office.

    Take Aus in Eng in 1975, with Lillee and Thommo at their most lethal and exciting (and Max Walker providing able support): in Eng's 1st innings in the 2nd test the Australians bowled at 88.4 overs per 6 hours - they would have only needed 5 minutes of the extra half hour routinely offered to teams today to reach their quota. And in Eng's 2nd innings of the 4th test, Australia bowled at 96.4 overs per 6 hours.

    It's not about quality of bowling. It's about bowlers walking too slowly back to their mark, and captains taking forever over field placements.

  • P_B. on August 5, 2016, 5:11 GMT

    Personally I feel a test match should be about quality not quantity. I would much rather watch Michael Holding bowl ten overs in a day than say Plunkett bowl thirty even though Mr Holding used to walk most of the way back to the boundary for his run up I still consider myself privileged to have seen him bowl in his prime. If bringing in penalties for slow overs ribs us of talent like that then you can keep your over quotas.

  • drinks.break on August 5, 2016, 2:24 GMT

    @Cricfan081, I'm not sure what records you're looking at. I just looked at a few random scorecards, first from India's 1979 tour of England, when India only played 2 front line spinners and 3 seamers (England's 3 seam attack included Bob Willis, whose run-up started in the next county!). In the 1st and 4th tests of the series, the average over rate was more than 94 per day. And if you go back to the 2nd and 3rd tests of 1974, the rate was 95 and 101 overs/day respectively.

    Going back further, Aus in Eng in 1953, 2nd test, the rate was 105/day. And then pre-war, Eng in Aus in 1936/37, the first test saw 79 8-ball overs/day, which equals 105 6-ball overs. But they only played for 5 hours a day in that series, which means they bowled at a rate equivalent to 126 overs for every 6-hours of play.

    With better nutrition, fitness and professional training, I don't see why today's players can't match those rates.

  • CRICFAN081 on August 4, 2016, 21:06 GMT

    I cannot remember any team bowling 120 overs in a days play. Te record will show that in the 1970s India had 4 great spinners on their team, Bedi, Chandraseker, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan and they struggled to bowler more than 85 overs in a days play. I can see a discussion for 90 overs in a days play, if most of the matches were ending in a draw. but some matches end in 3 and 4 day and by mid afternoon on the fifth day the match is over. Most times when a match is drawn it's because of Rain interruptions and not because a side was bowling 85 overs in a day. this whole 90 overs in a day is crazy.

  • drinks.break on August 4, 2016, 15:53 GMT

    @Cricfan081, over rates isn't primarily about getting a result, but about putting on a decent spectacle for the paying and viewing public. I still remember watching the WI pace quartet in the 80s, and it could be painfully boring. They were sending down less than 80 overs a day, which meant 5% of the time we got to see action; the other 95% was spent watching the bowler amble back to his mark next to the sight screen. Even 90 overs is slow. Why do they need 40 seconds per delivery? Fast bowlers should be able to manage 30 seconds per delivery, let alone spinners. The target should therefore be 120 overs, like they used to regularly manage in previous generations.

  • Bekkie147 on August 4, 2016, 9:43 GMT

    I was at Edgbaston for the first day with my kids, one of whom ended up counting the number of balls being bowled in blocks of ten minutes - not enough basically. Over rates ended up being the main theme of discussion rather than the tense cricket on display. First and foremost cricket is a form of entertainment and if Test Cricket is to survive the competition of T20 then these issues must be addressed.

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