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September 5, 2013

Do fans really care about over rates?

Dave Hawksworth
What's the big issue here? Umpires going off for bad light or spectators being short-changed?  © Getty Images
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Question: How long do you think the ball is in play during an average day's cricket? I doubt many of us have undertaken a formal time-and-motion study to work it out, so I'll have a go at a guesstimate.

For the sake of argument let's count the ball as being active from the moment the bowler starts his run-up to the point it either crosses the boundary or is back in the hands of the wicketkeeper or bowler. There can be a lot of variation in that - a dot ball from a spinner will be completed far quicker than an all-run three off a pace bowler with a long run-up - but after timing a few clips on Youtube I'll take a guess that on average the ball is in play for six or seven seconds per delivery.

Over the course of the 90 overs you get in a day of Test cricket that works out to about an hour of play. One hour of actual cricket, with the other five hours in the day filled with umpires handing the bowlers their sweaters back, captains moving long-on to mid-on, changing their minds, then moving them back again, and Jonathan Trott taking guard.

Put in those terms it's easy to see why people who don't "get" cricket complain that it's too slow. They have a point. Compared to many other sports, cricket moves at a glacial pace. But then for those of us who love the game, that's part of the appeal. A day's play leaves room for you to do other things: read the newspaper, catch up with friends, have something to eat and drink, and most importantly, study the game as it unfolds in front of you.

Whether you're watching a Test match, an ODI, or a game of T20, you become sensitive to its rhythm. You know when a crucial passage of play is accelerating the game forward, and you can feel when the fielders are dragging their feet to slow down the opposition or are just taking too damn long to get through their overs.

That issue of slow over rates has been discussed a lot since the final Ashes Test at The Oval. Understandable given how slow play contributed to a farcical situation where the match was called off within ten minutes or so of a result being reached - professional cricket's apparent determination to do anything but stay out in the middle and entertain the paying public being yet another reason why some people don't "get" the game.

Subsequent media discussion of how to deal with slow over rates has largely framed the issue as one of value for money for the public, although from my experience frustration comes more from the unpredictability of knowing when play will actually finish and you can start the journey home. Call me cynical but I suspect that's the motivation behind media interest in the issue as well. Play continuing till seven in the evening means journalists are filing copy and getting out of the stadium much later too.

But then slow over rates have been a talking point for as long as I've watched the game and the reason they have been such a hot topic hasn't always been the one advertised. Thirty years ago it was an issue that followed the great West Indian side as they toured the world. It was dressed up as concern for the public being short-changed, but in reality was little more than a stick to beat them with, there being precious little chance you could beat them any other way.

In 1984 I paid £5 at the gate at Headingley to watch that West Indian side. Their over rate wasn't great, but when the bowlers included Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, it felt like I was getting reasonably good value for money.

Almost three decades later and slow play is still an issue. What has changed is that the £5 I once paid to watch a day's Test cricket has now become a minimum of £40. When I think about value for money as a spectator, it's the price of a ticket I think of first. Yet that's something that isn't covered nearly as often by the media, perhaps because it's not an issue that directly affects them.

Slow over rates need to be addressed and that debate ought to be covered fully. But for the paying spectator, the only issue in town isn't whether the one hour of actual play they see during a day at a Test is lost in six rather than five hours of field placements and umpires picking their nose. If the cricket media are so keen to demand value for money for the ordinary fan they should be at least as vocal about the exorbitant price of tickets - in England at least - to see international cricket.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses

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Posted by   on (September 6, 2013, 8:24 GMT)

Definitely an issue. I paid £55 a tcket in the Compton stand at Lord's in 2005. This year it was £90. That is a 63% increase in 8 years. Surprisingly, my income has not not gone up anything like that much...

Posted by   on (September 5, 2013, 21:49 GMT)

The most basic principal of economics is supply and demand. The ECB can sell out matches at the current prices so they will. Simple.

Posted by   on (September 5, 2013, 17:07 GMT)

I'm not so concerned with value for money (I watch on TV at home, and feel cheated when a captain adopts the stratagem of time-wasting despite not paying a cent) as I am with the modern phenomenon of time-wasting as a tactic. In my opinion, it should be made a tactic which cannot gain. If a team is hoping to save a test by wasting time, then the penalties must exceed this in magnitude.

These penalties might include: (1) The non-offending team has the option (but not obligation) to play additional overs on a sixth day (2) A ban for the offending captain for a number of tests, perhaps equal to the number of overs his team is behind. Apply this also to any complicit players in the team. (3) A fine for the captain and any offending player of 200% of his match fee, and 10% of his annual retainer.

Additionally, there should be a blanket ban on anything initiated from the dressing room - no messages, no gear. If it's not initiated on the field, it doesn't happen.

Posted by Speng on (September 5, 2013, 15:28 GMT)

In context 40 quid for a day of test cricket isn't too bad. An NFL football game where I live (and my local team is pretty average) is $70 minimum. Given that test fans in England get maybe 8 tests a year for a total of 40 days the supply of the sport is limited. For an Ashes series where all the days are sold out I suppose that is reasonable. For a lesser team hopefully the tickets would be priced differently. As pointed out above cricket isn't the only sport where high ticket prices are a problem but this is due partly to the investment in better (or at least more lavish) stadium facilities. Even in the Caribbean the days of board benches in uncovered stands are long gone and when you add in things from playing lights to far nicer bathroom facilities you see what you're paying for.

Personally the thing I would change is to move start times forward by perhaps an hour so the game doesn't go so late in the evening.

Posted by PBHshaircut on (September 5, 2013, 15:21 GMT)

It's interesting to watch fielding sides as they try to keep the over rate up. When I first started watching cricket the fielders never ran to their fielding positions between overs as they do now and yet there were regularly 120 overs in a six hour day. Indeed, playing conditions required 20 overs in the last hour and bowling sides had no trouble reaching it. Now the requirement seems to be 15 overs yet rarely do teams bowl 15 overs in any hour. If ever a side should have slowed down the over rate it was Essex when Bradman's Australians scored over 700 in the day, but Essex bowled more than 120 overs that day I believe. I find it difficult to work out where the time goes these days.

Posted by DaveMorton on (September 5, 2013, 13:06 GMT)

I believe the ECB needs to exercise great care if Test Cricket is to continue to enjoy popular support in England. Cricket lovers are put off by the prices, not only of tickets but for services inside the ground, and by large, unruly and often inebriated crowds. An arrogant and churlish England team does not help.

Next season will be illuminating. Cricket followers know India to be a good side, but they were pathetic last time over here and we beat them in India, so I'm not sure the general sporting public perceive them as strong. Get the pricing wrong and there will be some empty grounds in 2014.

And I will be sitting in a deckchair at York or Stamford Bridge, watching Yorkshire 2nds, surrounded by fellow cricket nuts, with not a sponsored-up hooray henry in sight.

Posted by   on (September 5, 2013, 9:56 GMT)

These comments are really interesting. Although I think professional cricket comes out pretty well in any 'value-for-money' argument, my basic 'take' with all professional sports is simply this - if people keep paying the prices, they'll keep charging it. I wait and wonder if the paying public will ever wake up to the influence they actually have.

Posted by robheinen on (September 5, 2013, 9:25 GMT)

I believe I have been going on about the bad influence money has had on cricket. It is the investors who wanted everything swankier and as a consequence ticket prices have been going up. I don't believe the public asked for better accommodation at the cricket grounds. When they saw the steep prices they had to pay for a seat they just stayed away. And now those poor, old shareholders are left in the lurch. Well, poor old shareholders, that the risk you take with investment.

Posted by   on (September 5, 2013, 9:05 GMT)

Much has been made of England's slow, cautious play on Friday (and yes, I do think it was turgid), but I don't think it follows that "slow play contributed to a farcical situation where the match was called off within ten minutes or so of a result being reached".

The credit for there being the possibility of a result goes to Michael Clarke, with a nod to England for being willing to chase it. My point though is that Clarke's decision was based on the situation of the match, he was desperate for a win and - given the runs required/overs remaining calculation - made a gamble. Had England scored quickly in their first innings and either made a bigger total or been all out for a lot less then it would not have been the same match, and different decisions would have been made. You could therefore argue that it was England's slow play that made the chance of a result possible. I know that's counter-intuitive, but every decision made in a match affects every decision made afterward.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Hawksworth
Dave Hawksworth has been in a relationship with cricket for over 30 years. During that time he's seen Ken Rutherford score 300 before tea, Geoff Boycott hit the first ball of the day for a boundary, and drunk a lot of beer. He's never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses.

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