August 10, 2011

Clocks be damned

The seemingly outdated concept actually makes perfect sense in deciding the Test championship

There's no one left alive - must be a draw
So the Blackcap Barons toss a coin to settle the score
- "The Battle of Epping Forest", Genesis

Bring back the guillotine. How about the stocks, the ducking-stool or the jolly old witch trial? Or even, if you're Indian, third man. On the face of it, reviving such time-dishonoured practices would make no less sense than restoring the timeless Test. Consider the commercial ill-logic, the endless headaches for TV schedulers and box offices, the propensity for insufferable caution, the far from remote possibility that the contest would be about as stimulating as a hot date in a freezer.

Test cricket is the only major ballgame not to deploy some form of tie-break, most commonly extra time, overtime or, as instituted and beloved by Americans, sudden-death overtime. Then again, golf apart, other sports have plenty of scope for elongation. Baseball and tennis aside, imagining a sporting event of no fixed duration is almost as fanciful as envisaging a Twenty20 hundred by Chris Martin. An extended version of the planet's most languorous game is about as much in tune with 21st century rhythms as the waltz.

The history of the timeless Test, meanwhile, is long and spotty, and possibly a wee bit potty. With two exceptions, all Tests in Australia, where conditions rendered pitches less prone to decay, were played to a finish until 1937 (up to 1927, indeed, even Sheffield Shield matches were timeless; in 1925, New South Wales took six days to beat South Australia by 541 runs). A few Tests elsewhere were also free of temporal restrictions, including the 1912 Oval final of the Triangular Tournament between England and Australia, the Kingston nine-dayer of 1930, and most notoriously, the Durban conflab of 1939, a ten-dayer incorporating two rest days, 1981 runs and the equivalent of 909 six-ball overs, the last two records both untouched and, one fancies, untouchable.

Prior to the Second World War, moreover, even allowing for considerably zippier over rates, six Tests finished on the seventh day, one on the eighth. Such was the state of the pitches, nevertheless, five days were normally sufficient (the only draws in Australia before 1947 were in Melbourne in 1881-82, once because of rain, once because the MCC boat was due to set sail for New Zealand).

Developments in groundsmanship and machinery changed all that, the upshot being more durable surfaces and, in turn, an unwelcome shift in philosophy. There was "no need to get on with the scoring" according to Dudley Nourse, grinder-outer of one of the six centuries in that Kingsmead bloater. Small wonder the timeless Test died as the tourists boarded their homebound ship, without which timely interruption the game might have stretched into a fortnight.

No fewer than 74 Tests, meanwhile, have finished on day six, some designated as timeless, others as six-dayers; no fewer than 34 - and 11 of the last 14 - have been stalemates. Occasionally, matters were prolonged to settle a series, most memorably in Adelaide in 1978, when India made a marvellous fist of chasing 493 and fell 48 short, most recently in Kanpur in 1979. Inclement weather, though, was the cause in the 1980s and 1990s, when rest days were incorporated, including in the 1993 encounter between Sri Lanka and West Indies in Moratuwa, the last to go into a sixth day. There have also been extensions under exceptional circumstances, most famously at Sabina Park in 1968, where a spate of bottle-throwing cost 75 minutes on day five; when the time was tacked on the next morning, England, having scented an innings win before the riot, sank from 19 for 4 to 68 for 8 and almost lost.

Without unfettered Tests there would be fewer legends. Think Adelaide 1925, where England, set 375, began day seven on 348 for 8 and lost by 11 runs. Think Melbourne 1929, where England hauled down a target of 332 on the seventh afternoon, or Adelaide the next month, where Australia, manfully pursuing 349, were eventually repulsed 13 runs short as the game approached its second week. Think, above all, of Sydney 1894, where England followed on 261 behind yet won by 10 runs two minutes before lunch on day six.

SO MUCH FOR THE BACK STORY. As daft as it sounds, given the nature of the game and the times, there is a case to be made for reviving the timeless Test. Sadly Haroon Lorgat resisted making a coherent one during the recent Lord's Test, contenting himself with a tantalising "It's a thought" and sparking a bout of global guffawing. I yield to no one in my passion for the hard-fought draw, but the circumstances demand a reappraisal. After all, if any match has ever deserved a conclusive result it will assuredly be the inaugural World Test Championship final.

Say that the Test championship final was confined to five days. How, in the event of a draw, should we resolve the destiny of the title? By crowning the higher side in the rankings? Interest could evaporate after day two. By restricting each first innings to 120 overs? Worth examining for the long term but too big a leap for now. By first-innings lead? Perish the thought

An ICC working group, we understand, will address "the realities" of timelessness. When it comes to the public musings of Sourav Ganguly, many doubtless adopt the Groucho Marx approach - "whatever it is, I'm against it" - but when Lorgat grinningly reveals that the man who gave Indian cricket its snarl "thinks it's a wonderful idea", the sheer improbability of his enthusiasm compels respect. With Lord's as the slated venue, I'm with him.

In all probability, this will prove strictly academic. Pluvius permitting, there might not be any need for a fifth day, much less an nth. Fast becoming as fashionable as a bubble perm, the occasionally noble draw is languishing in a recession even the poor Greeks might blanch at. In the 10 years up to the end of the latest Lord's affair, just 116 of the 448 Tests had been left undecided - 25.89%, compared with the overall share of nearly 35%. Lord's, though, means England, which means an even chance of a sopping disruption or two.

On the other hand, so hectic is the pace of the contemporary game and so much spicier British conditions, the ratio of drawn Tests here since the outset of the third millennium - 19 out of 83 as of the end of the second Test against India - has actually been lower than the norm. At Lord's, following a dismal run of six featherbedded draws, not one of the five Tests prior to June's drenched visit by Sri Lanka lasted beyond tea on the final day. In terms of runs per wicket, of the 56 venues to have staged a Test over the past three years, St John's Wood (34.11) ranks 34th. Mick Hunt's tracks are becoming a byword for durability while being even-handed enough to guarantee results. Batting time, furthermore, is now as hip as the cassette. In England only two men - Gary Kirsten at Old Trafford in 1998 and Rahul Dravid at The Oval four summers later - have dug in for 10 hours since 1990, and neither survived into an 11th.

But just say that Test final was confined to five days. How, in the event of a draw, should we resolve the destiny of the title? By doing as Peter Gabriel's Blackcap Barons did in Epping Forest, concluding the match as it began? Not unless ridicule is the aim. By crowning the higher side in the rankings? Interest could evaporate after day two. By restricting each first innings to, say, 120 overs? Worth examining for the long term but too big a leap for now. By first-innings lead? Perish the thought. With all due respect to the Sheffield Shield, to favour one innings ahead of another would defy every principle of the two-innings format. A bowl-out would be even worse. Preferable would be a small-print determinant, such as run rate or over rate, but not by much. That way lies plasticity and perversity.

Which leaves a rather more enticing option: damn the logistics. In fact, while we're at it, let's make the semi-finals timeless too. Yes, excruciating longueurs would be almost inevitable, but imagine smelling that tension. Imagine the potential for plot twists and soapy operatics. Let the carpers carp and the romantics romanticise. Let nature take its course. Let the biggest games, the sternest tests, be played to a natural finish. Let the best men win. Let justice be done.

If convincing young people of Test cricket's unique attractions is the thorniest of the many challenges facing our grand old game, better, surely, to add to that uniqueness. In my experience young people are nothing if not curious (as in inquisitive rather than peculiar). They know, as their elders do, that the best scripted dramas available nowadays are not movies or plays but goggle-boxers such as The Sopranos, The Wire, 24 and Mad Men, protracted epics that grip and twist and unfold over months, offering sudden unexpected shifts, relishing the non-rush. Had their pockets been flush enough, they would surely have appreciated that riveting post-lunch passage on the Saturday of the Lord's Test, when Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid touched the heights before Graeme Swann came on and Stuart Broad came back, turning the mood inside out and upside down. Get the pricing right and, as those queues that snaked around the back streets of NW8 on "People's Monday" suggested, they will come.

The young, moreover, are as mistrustful of caution and convention as they are fond of the outrageous and the out-there. And 21st century life doesn't get much more out-there than a leisurely game without a clock.

Be brave, ICC, be brave.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton