As we approach the end of a day at a Test match, one of modern cricket's most tedious rituals commences. Some days it involves praising the fielding captain for getting through the overs in time. On most days, it involves complaints about "tardiness". These complaints are usually accompanied by a graphic that shows how many overs the fielding side was short. This graphic contains three numbers - the number of minutes of play during the day, the number of overs bowled, and the "over rate", which is a simple division involving the first two numbers. This is followed by commentators complaining about how "paying customers are being cheated" and how "the ICC has to be strict about this".
The over rate described on TV is not the same as the over rate that is calculated by match officials in accordance with Law 16. The latter involves allowances for the fall of wickets, drinks breaks, injury delays and other technical delays.
For example, if a team loses two wickets in a session in which one drinks break is taken, the over-rate calculation changes by eight minutes - four for the drinks break and two for each wicket. If 28 overs are bowled in the two-hour session and there are no other stoppages, the over rate for that session would be calculated as 28 overs bowled in 112 minutes and not 120. It would be exactly 15 overs per hour, and not 14 as the television broadcast would tell you. In other words, an over rate of 15 overs per hour has been achieved if a team bowled 28 overs in a session in which it gets two wickets with one drinks break.
Complaints about present day over rates are accompanied by nostalgia about bygone epochs in which teams bowled 20 overs an hour without looking as though they were rushing things. It is not easy to calculate over rates for all Test matches, but the number of balls bowled in each Test is easily available. Based on this, I calculated the average number of overs bowled in a drawn Test and in a result Test in each year. The chart above shows this average for each year since 1946. The line corresponds to the ten-year moving average in each year. The average drawn Test featured about 420 overs from 1946 to about 1975. The average outright result featured between 360 and 390 overs. Since then, these have declined by about 60 overs. Taken over 30 hours, this amounts to about two overs per hour. For the last 40 years, over rates have been more or less the same. They've been about two overs per hour lower than they were in the 1950s.
Drainage facilities have improved recently. More Tests are being played and some are scheduled during the rainy season. The ICC has introduced a requirement that play should begin early and continue after the scheduled close of play to make up for lost time. The use of the TV review by the on-field umpires for low catches and run-outs has introduced a new type of stoppage, as has the advent of DRS. Forty-eight player reviews were requested in the first series involving DRS in 2008. In a 12-month period from June 2011 to June 2012, 340 player reviews were requested in 30 Tests and 38 ODIs.
The net result of these new rules and facilities is that the average draw in the 2000s featured about 20 overs more than one in the 1980s did. For games that didn't end in draws, the over rates are irrelevant, since there was, by definition, sufficient time to achieve an outright result.
Run scoring has picked up in recent times. The average draw in the 2000s features about 150 runs more than the average draw in the 1980s. This slows down the over rate. Even the era of the great spin bowlers could not improve over rates in Test cricket. Except for on the subcontinent, Test teams rarely bowl spinners in tandem. When they have, over rates have been spectacular. With Ravindra Jadeja bowling, India have completed 33 overs in a session many times in the last year. Sri Lanka bowl at about the same rate when they are attacking with Rangana Herath.
The argument for which I have the least amount of patience equates 90 overs in a day with value for money. By such logic, spectators should be charged by the wicket, since they comprise the only finite, discrete resource in a Test. In the 2013-14 Ashes series, the four first sessions on the first days of the Tests that were not rain-affected featured 29, 27, 24 and 26 overs respectively. All five Tests produced results.
Many have argued that over rates have little to do with who is bowling and everything to do with the time it takes for some teams to change ends between overs. This is an overstatement at the very least. A look at the over rate achieved by Australia when Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris were bowling during the Ashes in Australia would show this. Keeping in mind the television commentators' method of calculating over rates, Harris and Johnson were always behind the clock. By comparison, Herath and Dilruwan Perera ran through their overs at a rollicking pace on the final day in Galle recently. The length of a bowler's run-up and the setting of the field makes for worthwhile watching for those who follow the game closely. If the batsman isn't ready to face up, the bowler has to wait. Sometimes this upsets the bowler. At other times it doesn't. The batsman might be nervously prodding the pitch on a length, or look around suspecting a late field change. There may or may not be one, but the fact that the batsman surveys the field tells us something about the contest. These are interesting things that clock-watchers don't seem to care for.
"[w]ith failing light always going to be a factor, Pakistan captain Moin Khan adopted desperate delaying tactics, for which he was fiercely criticised, after his side were bundled out for 158 on the final afternoon, leaving England a target of 176 in a minimum of 44 overs. His bowlers took 40 minutes to send down the first seven of these before tea, and almost three and a half hours to bowl a total of 41.3 intense, nail-biting overs. Moin, who was warned for his go-slow strategy by the match referee Ranjan Madugalle during the tea interval, made three unsuccessful appeals for bad light to umpire Steve Bucknor as Thorpe and Hussain resolutely stood their ground."
Tellingly, the over rate was not a problem because the spectators were getting bored; it was a problem because the batting side was being robbed. This is the spirit of the over-rate rule. It ought not to be applied bureaucratically.
Over rates in Tests have been more or less constant for nearly 40 years now. There is little evidence to suggest that they have become worse recently. Placing unnecessary restirctions on bowling sides often results in teams bowling bad bowlers with very short run-ups simply because they have to keep up with the over rate, which is bad for the game. Isn't cricket skewed in favor of the bat enough already?