Why slow-scoring sessions are exciting
"It's been a gripping session of play, even though we saw only 50 runs and two wickets in 28 overs of play." If you read match reports as often as I do, you will often come across statements like this. This method of observing cricket bothers me. The idea that quicker scoring generally means better, more interesting cricket comes from the increasing dominance of limited-overs cricket.
In limited-overs cricket it is probably true that quicker scoring means better cricket. There are asking rates at the beginning of chases and required rates during chases, so quicker scoring is, quite literally, better for the chasing side. It follows that the scoring rate also matters to the fielding side. The game is fairly simple. Get as many runs as you can in a given number of overs and prevent the other side from getting one run more than you did in the same number of overs.
In long-form cricket, the scoring rate is a symptom of the contest, not the goal of the contest. Whatever Steve Waugh might have said about scoring at four an over, scoring at 3.8 an over would not have broken any rules, nor would it have made Australia's position in a match any worse. Under Waugh, Australia not only had terrific bowlers who ensured that the side rarely batted against big totals in the first innings (and thereforewith a deficit in the second), but also brilliant, free-scoring batsmen right down the order. Only Waugh and Justin Langer could be described as conservative players with a limited favoured scoring area. But it is the match situation that is arguably the central determinant of the scoring rate.
All Test teams tend to score quicker in wins than they do in defeats. Teams that are behind in the game tend to score slower. It is not surprising to see, for example, that scoring rates in very small fourth-innings chases are usually high. In the 21st century, the overall scoring rate in fourth-innings chases of 150 or less is 4.07 runs per over, compared to the overall fourth-innings scoring rate of 3.14.
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Take the example of the 284-run stand between Steven Smith and Chris Rogers in the first innings of the recent Ashes Test at Lord's. These runs came at 3.52 runs per over - a healthy, contemporary scoring rate. Look inside and you'll find a classical structure. The first 20 overs of the stand produced 48 runs, the next 63, the third set of 20 overs produced 94 runs, and last 20.4 overs 73 runs. This on a superb batting pitch, against an attack decidedly not suited to the conditions.
Would the Rogers-Smith stand have been less gripping if it had produced, say, 234 instead of 284 runs in 81 overs? Scoring would have been more difficult against a more varied English attack. Graeme Swann might have challenged the batsmen. Given Smith's inclination to step out against spinners, this might have produced an exciting battle, albeit fewer runs. Swann would also have troubled Rogers.
Even considering the attack England had at Lord's, Alastair Cook could have taken the bloody-minded approach against Smith. He could have had his bowlers bowl on the fifth or sixth stump outside off stump to a 7-2 or even 8-1 field and challenged Smith to score. Would Smith have taken the challenge? Or would he have waited? On the first day of a Test, Cook was understandably hesitant about this approach.
Take another example. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly made 249 together at four runs per over at Headingley in 2002. India batted first despite the conditions (having played two spinners) and Sanjay Bangar, Rahul Dravid (with a superb 148) and Tendulkar had brought India to the security of 328 for 3. You might think that the Tendulkar-Ganguly stand was a case of a pair of brilliant strokeplayers taking a tired attack to task against an old ball. You would be wrong.
Ashley Giles bowled 22 overs for 66 runs with a negative line to the well-set Tendulkar. Andrew Flintoff conceded 19 runs in 11 overs, bowling Bodyline from round the wicket to Tendulkar. The last 90 runs in that stand came in eight overs against the third new ball, which Nasser Hussain took to try and force the issue when the batsmen refused to take the umpires' offer of bad light.
Up until those last eight overs, the cricket had been decidedly dour. Hussain's bowlers were settled into a negative line and length. And Tendulkar and Ganguly seemed uninterested in doing anything about it. Over after over from Flintoff went by with Tendulkar studiously focused on avoiding everything he didn't absolutely have to play at. Over after over went by with Ganguly tapping Giles to the midwicket fielder.
Until those last eight overs, Indian fans were nonplussed by India's risk-averse approach. One shudders to think what the reaction on Twitter might have been had it existed in 2002. The scoring rate was irrelevant to the proceedings that day. It was merely a symptom. On display were a blinding range of skills and judgement. Hussain has been criticised for using negative tactics against Tendulkar, but it is extremely difficult to sustain these as successfully as he did. As Tendulkar acknowledged in India during the 2001-02 series, it took a lot of skill to bowl as Giles had done.
Dourness is as gripping, if not more so than fast-scoring sessions. In fact, sessions where 100 runs are scored in about 27 overs without too much trouble are often rather boring. Such periods of play suggest that the batting has mastered the bowling and the bowling lacks the quality to control the scoring. Sessions where the bowlers are able to make the batsmen think are far more exciting.
Of all Tendulkar's battles against Glenn McGrath during the 1999 and 2001 series, the one I remember most is the first one in the first innings in Adelaide. Tendulkar played out half a dozen consecutive maidens. It was riveting, though the wicket was benign. In their first encounter of the series, Tendulkar was willing to wait and watch. It told us about both players; in a sense, one gets to really "know" players in this way. Periods when they have to be cussed and bide their time, either with bat or ball, reveal their nerve far more than their ability to score at four an over when the bowling is poor and the bad ball is regularly available.
Slow-scoring sessions are exciting because they are slow scoring. Not despite it.