Catch-up Test Cricket
I have an idea for a change to the Laws of cricket to improve an aspect of Test match play. It would be an attempt to make (even) more Test cricket attractive to watch – more specifically, to restrict those passages of play that don’t feel vital, tense and keenly contested. It centres on competitiveness. For that reason, it goes wholly against the grain of the international game and, I accept, would not be adopted. It’s a political thing, it seems. But the idea came to me not as a challenge to the game’s status quo, but at home.
So, it starts personal: I am no longer always alone watching cricket. My sons join me and with their company comes responsibility and anxiety. Will the cricket.. will England’s performance.. sustain their interest? I’m not really worried about no.1 son. He is in too deep and has found the multiple layers of the sport, which can provide distraction from bad cricket or poor England. No. 2 son is more of my worry. Unlike his brother, he’s not an autodidact. What he knows is what we’re watching and how we interpret it for him. It could go wrong. And for that reason, I want Test cricket to show its better side.
The one aspect that I would change is a function of Test cricket’s tendency for one side’s advantage in a match to be exponential, not linear. This is routinely seen in the margins of victory between two closely matched teams. They are not the handful of runs that, on paper, separate them, but hundreds of runs, with the result and margin often reversed the following week. It’s not the margins of victory themselves that are the problem I want to highlight, but a particular passage of play that occurs as the team in the ascendancy turns their advantage into an unchallengeable lead.
The recent (2019/20) Trans-Tasman Trophy series was an archetype. In each of the three Tests, Australia held a first innings lead, amounting to 250, 319 and 198 (reduced from 203 after a penalty incurred by Australia in the third innings). From that commanding position, Payne’s team set out to bat again and build their advantage.
The outcome of this tactical ploy is a dissipation of competitive tension throughout the third innings of the match. The fielding team may attack briefly with the new ball, but if incisions aren’t made quickly, the innings proceeds with the teams at arms-length, not locked truly in battle. Runs are accumulated against either bowlers not exerting themselves or second and third string bowlers. The fielding team is trying to slow the scoring – by defensive methods – not in the interests of forcing an error, but simply eating up time, or just plain time-wasting. Batsmen may play attractive innings, but there’s a strong sense of cashing in on the situation rather than shaping the game. The match proceeds, like a car coasting down a hill in neutral – something may happen at the bottom of the hill, but there’s not much propelling it, or standing in its way.
‘Tune in later’, I’d advise a youngster trying to get to grips with Test cricket, ‘when the meaningful stuff starts’, hoping they will bother to return when the fourth innings begins.
A solution in Game Theory?
The problem of one competitor gaining an advantage that is detrimental to the spectators’ experience of the contest is not peculiar to cricket (although the duration of this period might be). From the academic field of game theory has arisen the idea of re-instilling interest in a contest by giving the team that falls behind a catch-up opportunity.
The first example is not just about maintaining competitive tension, but also equity. In football (soccer) knock-out matches that go to penalties, a heavy advantage is enjoyed by the team that kicks first. To level this playing field and promote tighter penalty shoot-outs, it is proposed that the sequence of kicks changes from ABABABABAB to ABBAABBAAB, so each team has the opportunity to take the lead. Baseball is another sport that has received games theory advice. In this case, the recommendation is to vary one of the fundamental components of the sport. The team that leads, it is proposed, should have its innings reduced from three outs, to two outs. This is catch-up theory at its crudest: limiting the scoring opportunities for the team that finds itself ahead. The ideas have not been adopted.
Game theory’s catch-up ideas remain just that. They do, though, provide material that might be applied to Test cricket if we want to rid it of its third innings malaise.
The problem analysed
Before outlining the options available to Test cricket, I have some data on the extent of the problem, drawn from all Test matches in the last decade.
Of the 427 Tests in the sample, almost two-thirds (65.5%) had first innings leads exceeding 100, and more than one-third (34.7%) exceeding 200.
The size of first innings lead closely correlates with the match result. Unsurprisingly, the larger the lead, the greater the prospects of victory and less likelihood of defeat. Once the lead tops 125 runs, the chance of defeat falls below 10%. That threshold is reached even earlier – above 100 – for sides batting first who gain a lead in the initial innings of the match.
Cricket has, of course, a provision in its Laws to prevent the aimless drift in two-innings matches which feature a dominant side at the half-way point. Law 14 states: “the side which bats first and leads by at least 200 runs shall have the option of requiring the other side to follow their innings.”
21% of the matches in the past decade met the conditions that would enable the side batting first to require their opponents to follow-on. Captains of the side with the advantage opted to do so less than half the time (46%). From the scorecard data, their decision was influenced by the size of their lead, and the number of overs they had they had been in the field to achieve their advantage. Other factors undoubtedly played a part as well: series situation, bowlers’ fitness, weather conditions, etc.
More than one-in-nine Test matches in the 2010s featured a dominant side choose to build-up its lead in an often successful effort to take the sting, the jeopardy and the interest out of the remainder of the game. It’s a significant minority of all matches. Had I not had access to the statistics, I would have guessed the proportion was higher. It seems such a common occurrence – a blight on the sport that has me in its grip.
Catch-up cricket – advantages and disadvantages
I want to argue that if one side establishes a hefty lead, then it is better for the game that the other side bats next – either to bring the game to a swift conclusion, or to straight away challenge the side that has fallen behind to stage a comeback. Either way, all of the cricket is vital and well contested. This is what happens when the side batting second has the hefty first innings lead. These suggestions then, only apply to situations where it is the side batting first that holds the advantage.
I can conceive of a range of options for avoiding the third innings cruise:
- the side with a first innings deficit always bats third
- set an arbitrary first innings lead that would require the side behind to bat third – a return to the mandatory follow-on law
- invert the follow-on rule, so that the captain of the team in deficit decides whether to bat next.
The downside of each of these is the potential for manipulation – gifting runs or wickets to gain a positional advantage: eg allowing the deficit to fall below 200 so that the follow-on isn’t enforced. Let’s park that objection and look at other arguments against forcing the team behind the game back out to the middle to bat again.
There is a strongly held notion that the side that has won the first innings advantage has won the right to determine the sequence of the match – eg avoid batting fourth on a pitch that is likely to be deteriorating. There are political echoes to this understanding of the sport, which I’ll return to later. For now, I’ll restrict my response to noting that this ‘deserved’ advantage may have been the result of a good deal of fortune: winning the toss, batting/bowling in more favourable conditions. More fundamentally, I would counter this objection with the assertion that the sport should be structured to foster competition, not reward a particular team for where they find themselves part-way through the game.
A second argument, which is I suspect more persuasive to the players, is that forcing a side into the field for back-to-back innings risks injuries and fatigue to its bowlers and fielders. The risk is real, but it applies also to the team against whom the opposition amass a score of 500 or more in a single innings over five or six sessions. We expect that fielding captain to manage his or her resources without offering them respite. Shouldn’t we expect the captain of the stronger team – with the sizeable first innings lead – to do the same?
In the knowledge that being the superior team could lead to longer stretches in the field, stronger teams may select more balanced sides, with more bowling options, to drive home the advantage won in the first innings. On winning the toss, they may choose to bowl first, avoiding the possibility of an enforced follow-on, giving the weaker team first use of the pitch. It may change the nature of pitches that home boards task their groundskeepers with preparing. The risk of injury and fatigue is genuine, but so is the ability of cricketers to adapt, possibly in ways that enhance the game.
It can further be argued that the enforced follow-on may shorten games, denying action to spectators with 4th day tickets, advertising revenue for broadcasters and providing sustenance to those wanting to lop a day from the scheduled duration of all Tests. The evidence of the 2010s is that matches where sides with deficits over 200 runs were required to follow-on did wrap up faster – by an average of 50 fewer second innings overs (in excess of half a day’s play). I am not persuaded that we need Tests to be any longer than it takes for one side to dismiss the other twice for fewer runs that it has scored. That is the essence of the sport.
I acknowledged earlier that forcing teams to do something they don’t want to do could bring about match manipulation – gifting of runs or wickets. To assess this risk, it is worth understanding what is at stake for the captain of the side on top, who prefers to bat again rather than enforce the follow-on. There is the concern, already mentioned, about the physical demands on bowlers.
Another factor in that captain’s thinking is wanting to avoid batting last when the pitch conditions will be most difficult for batting. Over the last decade, the fourth innings batting average across all Tests is 4.8 runs per wicket below that for the third innings. Applying that statistic to a first innings lead effectively adjusts a 200 run advantage to 152. It is this sort of calculation that could beget manipulation.
Imagine the team batting second is approaching the (now mandatory) follow-on score: 14 runs (the average 10th wicket partnership in the first innings of the side batting second in the 2010s) short as the ninth wicket falls. The fielding captain could subtly gift those runs to ensure his bowlers get a rest and he avoids the disadvantage of batting last. An average 10th wicket partnership would realise 14 runs, plus the 14 gifted – 28 runs more than the lowest total had the captain managed to take the 10th wicket without conceding any runs. Add four more runs to represent the average partnership score once 14 runs are made: 32. The advantage of batting third over fourth is quickly whittled away.
The reverse argument can be made for the batting team, who may want to manipulate proceedings to maximise their score without passing the mandatory follow-on score. Perhaps both sides would enter an ultra-attacking phase, one willing to risk conceding runs but accepting wickets falling; the other accepting the runs but willing to see their innings close.
It would be an audacious or desperate captain who deliberately reduced their first innings advantage, or increased their deficit. Their control of the degree to which they concede ground to the opposition would not be precise and could just turn out to be match-losing or win-forfeiting. Nonetheless, match-fixing gives us evidence that some players will under-perform for some future or other benefit. If the risk of changing the follow-on law were to introduce the prospect of tactical under-performance in the expectation of creating a superior match situation, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.
An alternative approach would be to leave alone the laws over following-on and innings sequences and take other steps to prevent the third innings drift. This could be done by giving the choice at the outset of the game of whether to bat or bowl, not to the winner of the coin toss, but to the weaker team and trusting them to seek the advantage of batting first (note 1). A number of ways could be employed to identify the weaker team: including the ICC rankings, score to date in the series. I would recommend, at the first test in the series, using away status as a proxy for ‘weaker’. Thereafter, the choice to bat or bowl first would devolve to the team behind in the series, or stay with the away team if the series score were even.
The political dimension
Making the game more competitive in most sports is an issue of equity and entertainment. In international cricket, it is squarely political. In trying to come up with solutions to the third innings malaise, with its passages of play that I would find hard to justify as worth my younger son spending his time watching, I came up against a far stronger barrier than health and safety concerns. International cricket is not run to be competitive. More than that, it is run to be uncompetitive. Catch-up proposals that could, ever so slightly, tilt the balance of a match, have no hope of success when the fabric of the game takes the advantage of some nations, institutionalises it and makes it a matter of active policy. If the health of the wider international sport is not prioritised then it is futile expecting changes that benefit weaker teams mid-match to find any traction.
The nations that participate in international cricket find themselves in the early twenty-first century unequal: population, resources, playing facilities, history, climate, etc. Advantage isn’t truly earned in Test and international cricket. It is an accident of geography, empire, national determination and economic development amongst many other factors. Onto that inequality we graft decision-making authority, match scheduling, access to competitions, distribution of funds and migration of players in ways that entrench relative advantage. But still we praise the strong for exerting their strength and pity the weak for not overcoming their disadvantages. International cricket needs something more fundamental than a catch-up device – a fully-articulated handicap system would be more suitable.
I referred earlier to the objection to the mandatory follow-on that the team with the first innings advantage had earned the right to decide whether or not they would bat next. Underlying it are two ideas that are joined by a golden thread to the politics of international cricket: 1) those with the advantage have decision-making authority; 2) the advantage they hold is deserved. The first idea is base realpolitik and as applied to match-play, relates to nothing intrinsic in the sport. In other words, cricket would lose nothing, if, at the stroke of a pen, the Laws were amended and the authority to decide who bats in the third innings of a match was invested not in the captain of the side with the advantage, but his or her opposite number. The second is the conservative sleight of hand that encourages the status quo to go unexamined: the wealthy and the powerful are deserving of their advantage, when even the shallowest digging below the surface would expose the combination of privilege and good fortune that really accounts for their status.
Back at home
If politics is to continue to prevent cricket becoming the best sport it could be, I don’t think I should shield this fact from my younger son. In future, as a team starts its second innings, aiming just to bloat its already hefty lead in the game, I’ll draw this to No.2 son’s attention. “Look. They have chosen to bat again, to take the game out of reach. It’s what the powerful do: they defend their advantage.”
If Test cricket cannot always be entertaining, let it be educational.
Note 1: for an assessment of the advantage of winning the toss (aka batting first), read criconometrics