June 17, 2014

How to solve the over-rate problem

Enough of the dawdling. It's time to make 15 overs an hour mandatory

England's players were aghast to learn they'd have to buy 15,000 spectators a couple of drinks each to make up for overs bowled short © PA Photos

Test matches are often compared to novels, with their sinuously evolving plots, their elongated development, and, let us be honest, their varying quality. For every Moby-Dick, there is a Basil the Goat Grazes in a Field With Some Other Goats. The Lord's Test, which concluded in such dramatic mayhem yesterday, would have made a very strange book - mostly interesting enough, occasionally dull, apparently heading nowhere in particular, riddled with flaws, all leading to a mind-blowingly brilliant final chapter that brought all of the disparate plot and character strands together in one of the finest endings to a story ever written. Overall: 8 out of 10. A recommended read, but not a prize-winner.

The explosive conclusion to a quite-interesting contest played out on a dull pitch was a glorious moment of cricket at its riveting, soul-gripping best. England, led by the rested and rejuvenated James Anderson, did superbly to come within an inch of forcing a result on a somnolent surface; Sri Lanka, led by Kumar Sangakkara, who touched perfection in a masterclass of batsmanship, and Angelo Mathews, resolute in defence, majestic in attack, did superbly to save the match after conceding 575, and despite having a fragile tail.

England played some excellent cricket. There were notable individual successes from both new and old players. But essentially they threw away a victory. They could have declared earlier in their second innings. They could have bowled their overs faster. They did neither, and in doing so, probably denied themselves an almost certain win.

Did it make any difference to how impressive Gary Ballance's second-innings performance was, or how firmly established his position in the team, that he ultimately scored 100-odd not out rather than 75 or 80, out? I hope not. The last 20 or 30 runs were the least important. England, I think, should have accelerated, and declared, slightly earlier on the fourth evening, to give themselves at least four or five overs to try to make the first breakthrough. It might not have made any difference. It might have won the match. For a side that has recently fired a player seemingly for being insufficiently team-oriented, it was curious, and ultimately counterproductive, to place a personal milestone above the collective need. (This is no criticism of Ballance, it was not his decision.)

The over-rate issue, however, really irritated me. Seventeen overs were lost in the match. On day three, England, in a position of dominance, bowled for the entire day, and managed only 84 of the possible 90 overs in the six and a half hours of play allowed. Why the missing overs are simply discarded from the game is inexplicable - the most logical justification for the jettisoning of a significant portion of the match is that it is a covert signal to summon an alien invasion. But England knew the regulations, and chose not to be bothered about them.

There are a number of reasons why slow over rates, and the rampantly ineffectual quarter-arsed regulations that surround them, irritate cricket fans.

1. It is borderline theft. If you have paid, say, £60 for a ticket, expecting 90 overs of cricket, and you are only given 84 of those overs, Cricket has basically stolen £4 from your wallet/purse/piggy bank/secret stash under the floorboards / offshore bank account/chainmail tabard made of £1 coins. Perhaps if cricket's administrators were forced to pay for their own tickets to matches every now and again, particularly at the prices charged in England, they might (a) notice, and (b) care that the endemic dawdling in their sport is deeply annoying. They might also stop deducting two overs for no logically explicable reason at the change of innings. And tell the umpires to stop walking as if they are carrying a favourite goldfish to a premature funeral in the local lake.

2. It is completely unnecessary. It is true that there are many more breaks in play in modern cricket, compared with bygone days when over rates of 20 per hour were commonplace, and 23 or 24 per hour not unusual. Also, a higher proportion of overs is bowled by pacers, and run-ups are generally longer. Some of these breaks are now unavoidable - DRS referrals are now part of the game, as, it seems, are sponsored, advertisement-filled drinks breaks, even on non-thirst-inducing days. However, there is also a formidable amount of what might technically be termed "needless fannying around", from tortuous chats over minor field- placement alterations, via random incursions by 12th men, 13th men and 14th men, to fielders putting shin pads on underneath their trousers, as if putting padding on the lower legs is so shameful and cowardly that it must be hidden from the vengeful eyes of Zeus. And the umpires. Why can players not put those shin pads on outside their trousers? England should not be heavily faulted for their failure to bowl all their available overs - the general absence of urgency and dilatory tempo has been ingrained in professional cricket for decades now.

And tell the umpires to stop walking as if they are carrying a favourite goldfish to a premature funeral in the local lake

Which leads to reason three:

3. It is strategically insane. Genuinely tactically deranged. For a team trying to win the match, at least. Sri Lanka were, in essence, rewarded for their tardiness, and, more pertinently, for the umpires' failure to make them bowl their overs at the required rate (or, given the extra half hour allowed, at slightly below the supposedly required rate). England, in essence, punished themselves for their own failure to ignore the temporal lassitude given by the umpires and administrators and to drive the game forward.

To bowl 90 overs in six and a half hours, you only need to bowl 13.5 overs an hour. England's tardy over rate on Saturday was, strategically, the equivalent of bowling six overs of underarm daisy-cutters. It made as much tactical sense as letting off all the fire alarms in the stadium six overs before the scheduled end of play.

If England had just marched off six overs from the end of the game on the fifth day, they would have been sectioned. Yet that is effectively what they did on Saturday, when in control of the match, on a wicket that screamed: "You will need as many overs as possible to win this match."

Fifteen overs per hour should be an absolute minimum, and given what previous generations proved was possible, it should be easily achievable. It should be legislated and officiated in such a way that it is not a matter of choice, as it currently is. But in the likely event of continued apathy by the cricketing powers that be, surely there will come a time when teams will realise the strategic advantage that could be had in bowling, say, 95 overs in a day instead of 85. Or even of bowling 90 overs instead of 89.

Since the start of 2009, teams have finished nine wickets down in the fourth innings to salvage a draw on five occasions, and eight wickets down in three other Test matches. There was also the scores-level, nine-wickets-down draw between India and West Indies in Mumbai in November 2011, and the 2009 Cardiff Ashes Test, when England finished nine down in the third innings, just 13 runs ahead. On most of these occasions, even one extra over earned by a faster over rate - or not lost by a sluggish one ¬- could have changed the outcome of the match, and in most of these cases, the series.

As Stuart Broad showed yesterday, and as Ryan Harris demonstrated in Cape Town in March, one over is enough to take (or, in Broad's case, almost take) the final two wickets of a Test. An extra six overs - one over per hour faster on just one of the five days - would surely have turned some, perhaps most, of those draws into wins.

In a sporting world in which science, computers, analysts and coaches are in perpetual search of the mythical "one per-centers", it is baffling that such an obvious and easily attainable potential marginal gain should be actively (and universally) overlooked.

A possible solution to the over-rate issue
If a side does not bowl 15 overs in 60 minutes of play (excluding referrals, injuries, drinks breaks and wickets), it should lose a fielder for the next hour. Exceptions could perhaps be made for the latter stages of a match - say, the final two hours of a fifth day, or the last 50 runs of a chase. No fielding team would want to leave itself shorn of a fielder. It would be a law/regulation that should work in the same way as timed out - as a deterrent that never, or almost never, actually has to be applied.

England's new generation report
Chris Jordan had a promising all-round debut, contributing with bat and ball at important times. With his oddly lop-sided run-up - probably the most athletic hobble ever seen in world sport - he also rocketed straight to the top of the Test Bowlers Who Most Look As If They Are Coming In To Bowl With One Pocket Full Of Fabergé Eggs.

Moeen Ali played beautifully for a couple of hours in the first innings, and sumptuously for one glorious ball in the second. His two dismissals were loose, but his strokeplay could wake the dead. He bowled adequately on an unhelpful surface without suggesting he can be more than a fifth bowler. Which is fine, for now.

Liam Plunkett was decent if not especially wickety on his second debut, and if he bowled too short too often, it seemed to be in accordance with team orders, rather than a unilateral decision based on the fact that, since the ECB had paid for the whole of the pitch, he might as well make sure the middle couple of yards was well utilised.

Sam Robson was unimpressive on his first debut, although little can be surmised from his two short innings, other than that he is unlikely to provoke too many poets to pick up their quills and scribble out a sonnet about his ravishing strokeplay and Laxmanian finesse.

Ballance, in his debut-in-a-team-not-in-a-state-of-advanced-meltdown, suggested in his first innings that he was anything but a Test No. 3, as he prodded uncertainly from strangely deep in his crease. He suggested in his second innings that he was a natural Test No. 3, able to withstand pressure, accumulate deftly, and unleash a more expansive range of shots when necessary. From strangely deep in his crease. He calmed the second-innings carnage, and, with Jordan, batted England into a winning position, and explained his stellar first-class stats.

Pointlessly obscure stat of the day
Kaushal Silva, with his excellent innings of 63 and 57, became just the third right-handed opener to reach 50 twice in a Lord's Test against England. The previous two were Stewie Dempster (53 and 120 for New Zealand in 1931) and Vinoo Mankad (72 and 184 for India in 1952). All three instances happened in the month of June. Seven visiting left-hand openers have achieved the feat, most recently Bangladesh's Tamim Iqbal, in 2010. Please do not use this stat in everyday conversation. It could cause social awkwardness.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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