The Ashes series is decided. Australia have overwhelmed England at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. England’s squad is gathering itself for Melbourne and Sydney depleted by the withdrawal, retirement and impotence of first choice players.
Those of us protective of Test cricket laud the extended narrative of long series. We don’t hesitate to point out the unsuitability of the increasingly frequent two-off Test format that leaves so many contests undecided (two Test series = oxymoron). Yet, with the luxury of lengthy series comes the risk of one-sided contests rendering later matches irrelevant to the series outcome. It’s worth considering whether this lessens the significance and impact of the matches played. Firstly, though, a few numbers to evaluate how common the dead rubber is.
I looked at the progress of the 99 most recently completed series up until September 2013. 43 of these were two Tests in length; 41 lasted three Tests; ten of four Tests; and five of Ashes-length five matches. I extended the sample of four and five match series to 25 by adding the next ten most recent longer contests. It is worth noting an important bias in the data: longer (four/five Test) series are unequally distributed across Test playing nations. England contested 16 of the 25 series in the sample; Australia 11; New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh 0.
The frequency of dead rubbers is shown in the table below.
|Series length||Series (no.)||Dead rubbers||Dead rubber %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||13||52%|
Over half of longer (i.e. four or five) Test series ended with matches that had no bearing on the series outcome, compared to one-quarter of three Test series. Only one series had the ‘double dead rubber’ we are about to experience – England’s last but one visit to Australia in 2006/07.
One step back from the dead rubber in terms of predictability of outcome, is the series which reaches the stage where only one team can win and the other draw (‘2 result rubbers’). This analysis draws in the two-off contests.
|Series length||Series (no.)||2 result rubbers||2 result %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||16||64%|
The vast majority of two-off contests saw a positive result in the first Test meaning that only one team could win the series. A much lower proportion of three Test series had one team going into the final match with a lead of a single victory.
Many Test rivalries are played out for a trophy. The convention that the most recent winner only has to draw the current series to retain the trophy means that encounters where only one team can win the series and the other draw it have the potential for great excitement. The Oval Test of 2005, with England needing a draw to regain the Ashes and Australia a victory to retain the urn, was an exemplar of this kind from recent years.
Series that enter their final chapter with all three outcomes possible can be the most prized.
|Series length||Series (no.)||All 3 results poss||%|
|4 or 5 tests||25||3||12%|
This eventuality is as equally unlikely a culmination to a five Test series as it is to the abbreviated two-off contest. The three Test series most frequently delivers the ‘everything to play for’ finale. Cricket is a confounding sport, so it’s worth recording that not all series that enter that last match with everything at stake should not be cherished. Two high scoring bore-draws can presage an equally turgid third and indecisive Test match.
To consider whether matches in dead rubbers are a dead loss or are fought to the death, I’ve looked at the actions and outcome of the 23 dead rubber matches in the sample.
The majority (13) were won by the team that had already secured the series victory (included here was the match awarded to England in 2006 when Pakistan refused to take the field after being penalised for altering the condition of the ball). While that provides evidence that the winning team remains motivated to pursue the win, it does suggest that the dead rubber adds little to what we already know about the relative strengths of the two teams.
Four of these matches were won by the team that had lost the series. In early 2009, Australia and South Africa played home and away three match series – virtually a six match series across two continents. In an unexpected symmetry, the host lost the first and second matches of both series before recording a home win. The home teams also gained consolation victories in the other examples: England defeating South Africa in 2008 at the Oval in Kevin Pietersen’s first match as captain; and a thrilling victory for India in Mumbai in 1994 when Australia were skittled for 93 and a 13 run defeat.
The remaining six dead rubbers produced draws. There were some notable matches, including: Lara’s 400* for the series losers; Sri Lanka running out of time 101 runs shy of a world record 4th innings target with six wickets in hand. There is also the strong rebuttal to the notion that dead rubbers don’t matter from November 2011 in Mumbai. India, series victors, were set 243 to win the third and final Test. The match went to the last ball of the final over with India’s tenth wicket pair managing a single to bring the scores level.
While dead rubbers have been the occasion of some very notable cricket, on the whole, the sport would be better without them. In this sample, series comprising three Test matches provided the most sustained uncertainty over the series outcome. Nearly half of longer (four and five Test) series, fulfilled the final fixture with honours already awarded. My recommendation would be that three Test series should be the norm. Longer series should be reserved, as they are now, for the traditional marquee series, but also any contest between, say, two of the top three ranked teams in the world. This would require some flexibility in scheduling, something the BCCI has shown in 2013 is very feasible. Two-off contests should be limited to match-ups between teams separated by five or more places in the rankings.
Later this week, the first of two Tests starts with the Ashes already decided and the rubber, strictly, dead. The onus is on England to breathe some life back into the contest.
Do leave a comment, or tweet me, with your views of preferred Test series lengths and also of memorable dead rubbers.