A combination of endless rain and dull pitches made for a pretty dull England v Sri Lanka series. But the players should take some of the blame too, for contesting the three test matches at virtually a snail’s pace. As former Wisden editor Scyld Berry pointed out last week, their over-rates were the slowest in test history.
Up till around 1950, at least twenty overs were bowled every hour in test cricket. That’s how Bradman was once able to score 300 in a single day. The professionalisation of the game then slowed it down, and since 1980 the over-rate has never reached 15. The slowest year ever was 1990, when players could only manage 13.62 overs every sixty minutes. But if the rest of 2011 pans out like the Sri Lanka series, we’ll sink to a new low. England managed a paltry 13.26 overs an hour, and the Lankans 13.4, achieving a combined rate of 13.3.
Does it matter? As a spectator or TV viewer, I don’t find myself keenly noticing the speed of play. Poor over-rates are traditionally more of a commentators’ than a punters’ gripe – the kind of issue Jack Bannister would get very excited by. If you think about it though, slow play is a real problem. Too many matches end in draws, and too many potential cricket fans think the sport is boringly slow. True, the longeurs and rhythms of test cricket are to be cherished, but how many of us would not prefer to see more action in a day’s play? Wouldn’t we rather witness the match progress futher, and endure less inertia caused by meandering drinks breaks and lethargic field changes?
What’s the fix? One option is meaningful penalties. Players are never deterred by match-fee fines, so instead the fielding side should be penalised 20 runs for every over they fail to bowl below the required rate. That should put a spring in their step. Alas, it’s unlikely to work, partly because match referees are cowardly types, and also because the fielders could cite so many mitigating factors – such as injury to a batsman, changing the ball, moving the sightscreen – that it would be impossible to determine who was to blame. Plus, in a match scenario of a large gulf in runs and one side battling for a draw, 20 runs would be far less valuable than having an over fewer to bat out.
Another approach involves outlawing practices which waste time. These include drinks-breaks (unless it’s very hot) or anyone coming on to the field – for example, physios to treat fielders, or twelfth men to change gloves. It’s not obvious, however, how much time that would save, as the main reason for slow over-rates is fielders dawdling and the captain fiddling around.
That’s why the simplest solution is also the most radical: increase the number of balls in an over. The less time spent shuffling from one end to another, the more time there is to actually play. At present, 90 overs – or 540 balls – are scheduled for a day’s play. If we had ten-ball overs, only 54 would be required for the same quantity of cricket – at a stroke saving the time involved in 36 changeovers.
There’s no intrinsic reason why six is any more the ‘right’ number of balls then ten, or any other number, within reason. Australia and South Africa used eight-ball overs, quite happily, for many years. No doubt there are some strong arguments against – the flow and tempo of the game would change – but surely it’s worth at least a trial. Right now, cricket needs to think laterally – and if it can’t, the consequences could be tragic.