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Context, quality and competitive structure in Test cricket

not-venn-page-001Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.

To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.

Spirit.

Momentum.

Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.

A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.

The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.

The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.

I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.

International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.

Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.

I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:

  • Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
  • Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and  Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
  • The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
  • From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.

My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.

But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.

I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.

International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.

England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.

India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe. 

South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.

The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:

Option 1 Option 2
H v England A v England
H v New Zealand A v New Zealand
A v Pakistan H v Pakistan
A v Sri Lanka H v Sri Lanka
H v South Africa A v South Africa
H v Australia A v Australia
A v Bangladesh H v Bangladesh
A v West Indies H v West Indies

In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?

I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”

If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.

Getting the point: County Championship bonus points

lords-pavilion

The climactic last overs of the 2016 County Championship were made possible by a thrilling afternoon of cricket, by the captains’ horse-trading and by a tense passage of play that took place one day earlier.

Yorkshire, in the form of Tim Bresnan and lower order partners, were batting on Thursday, trying to set as high a first innings total as possible. How high? At least 350 runs high.

Run number 350 was the 16th run of the 10th wicket partnership between Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom, which, to emphasise the drama, had included an hour’s break for rain after 15 of those runs had been scored. With it, Yorkshire accrued their fourth batting point, and so the ability to overhaul Somerset, should both Somerset and Yorkshire win their final matches of the 2016 season. Without it, that singular bonus point, Yorkshire could not have won the title and so would not have risked all on chasing the win in a manner that could gift the match to Middlesex. Somerset would, in all likelihood, have become County Champions.

Since 1968, the County Championship has been decided by a scoring system comprising: points for match results, combined with points for runs scored and wickets taken in each side’s first innings. The system has been tweaked – draws not scoring points in some seasons, alterations to the thresholds for first innings runs and wickets and the overs in which they can be earned, and fluctuations in the value of a victory. The rules for the 2016 season can be read here.

The bonus point gained when Sidebottom flicked the ball to fine-leg on day 3 was essential for the drama to unfold at Lord’s on the final day of the 2016 season. This post considers how important bonus points are in the County Championship and whether they fulfil their objectives.

Bonus points accounted for 44% of the points scored across the two divisions of the County Championship in 2016. The chart below shows the bonus points earned by each side in the 2016 County Championship (net of penalty points). It shows that bonus point totals are only loosely correlated with the position counties achieved. While one bonus point can swing the season, a season’s worth of bonus points will not necessarily decide the title.

cc-bonus-pts-page-001

I (with the help of Twitter correspondents) have identified three objectives against which the bonus point system can be tested:

  1. acting as a tie-breaker between teams with similar records
  2. rewarding teams for their performances in matches which do not reach a positive result
  3. incentivising positive cricket in the early part of the game.

Scorecards and conventional records allow some analysis of the first two of these objectives.

Bonus points as tie-breakers

Most tie-breakers in sports are secondary assessments, happening after the tie occurs (e.g. super over in T20 knock-outs) or on a count-back basis after the primary scoring system delivers a draw (e.g. goal difference in football). In the County Championship, the points for first innings performance are aggregated with those for wins and draws as primary determinants of league position.

It’s feasible that bonus points can be tie-makers (or unsuccessful tie-breakers). This has happened once in the 49 years of their use in the County Championship: 1977. Middlesex and Kent both won 9 games (as did Gloucestershire), but Middlesex lost three more games than Kent. There were no points for draws in 1977, and with an identical number of bonus points (119), the title was shared.

Nearly forty years later, with the County Championship operating as two divisions, as well as fewer matches being played, there is potentially more need for a tie-breaker to help decide champions as well as the relegation and promotion places. To assess the impact of bonus points as tie-breakers, I have re-scored the championship, without bonus points and using three different points allocations for wins/draws/losses: 3/1/0; 6/1/0; 5/2/0. The occurrence of end of season ties over the last ten years, had points only been available for match results, is shown in the table below.

ties-page-001Bonus points have successfully prevented ties in key end of season positions, which would have occurred occasionally, not routinely.

Re-scoring the championship in this way shows another significant impact of the bonus point system – how it produces different outcomes to a result-only points system. Most notably, in 2010, under two of the alternative points systems I used, Somerset not Nottinghamshire would have been Champions. The Cider-men once again denied by bonus points. Promotion and relegation outcomes would also have been different in several years.

altered-result-page-001

 

 

 

Bonus points to reward teams for performance in drawn matches

Drawn matches occur frequently (51% in the County Championship in 2016; up from 35% in 2015) and can leave a game at its conclusion anywhere from one team clinging on nine wickets down, 200 runs behind to a deadlock of two long, high-scoring first innings and on again to matches washed out before any telling advantage has been gained. There is a case for rewarding teams, whose hard won advantage cannot be converted into a victory, particularly when the weather is responsible.

I picked at random ten drawn matches from the 2016 season, to see if bonus points fulfilled this role.

draws-page-0013

I found that in the majority of this sample of drawn games (7/10) the allocation of points was fair when weighed against the state of the game at its close. Where it wasn’t, it was because the balance of the game altered after the 110 over bonus-point period of each first innings, often in the third innings. For the same reason, the absolute number of points gained, was not strongly related to the likelihood that a team would have won from the position gained at the close of play.

Bonus points to reward positive play

The Editor’s notes in the 1969 edition of Wisden recorded that:

the introduction of bonus points for positive batting and successful bowling during the first 85 overs delivered by each side, produced keener cricket in the early stages of the three-day matches. The batsmen discovered the freedom that has been there all the time.

An early success, then. But, as long-in-the-tooth cricket watchers now witness daily, positive batting has become the default approach for most players. Perhaps bonus points are no longer needed to tease it out.

In conclusion, bonus points prevent teams ending the season tied, although ties would be quite unusual if points were only available for match results. Bonus points have, from-time-to-time, delivered league positions that don’t accord with the positions of teams had they been based on match results. On these occasions, bonus points have been going beyond the role that I have imagined for them as tie-breakers. Bonus points have been needed as tie-breakers as often as they have directly influenced league positions when not required as tie-breakers.

The sample of ten drawn matches suggests that bonus points, more often than not, provide a fair reward for performance in matches without a positive result. But, the allocation of bonus points, based on first innings runs and wickets, understandably does not always reflect the state of the game when time is called.

Nearly 40 years ago, soon after their introduction, bonus points were recognised in Wisden for promoting more positive play. With most modern batsmen committed to attack, they may no longer play a useful function as incentives to play positively.

Bonus points are often superfluous and yet sometimes telling. Points based on match results alone would, in most seasons, be sufficient to identify champions, promoted and relegated teams. Given match results are the solid currency of the sport, I would recommend points awarded on that basis should be the primary determinant of league position. A tie-breaker would still be necessary. Bonus points, recorded as a secondary measure, could play that role – but so could other, simpler systems.

 

 

Danger areas and dead pitches

protected areaTest cricket, you will have noticed, is assailed on all sides. Commerce, other sports, post-industrial society, the BCCI, ticket prices, the overcroweded international schedule, the allure of T20, archaic match regulations, the absence of ‘context’ for fixtures – are all sapping its life-force. With so many enemies or predators circling the sport, it is particularly disappointing that mortal wounds may be inflicted by something at the dead centre of the Test match game.

Over the last 18 months, Test match pitches in England (Trent Bridge, Lord’s and Cardiff), UAE (Abu Dhabi), the West Indies (Grenada, Antigua) and Bangladesh (Chittagong) have been denounced as being capable of killing the sport. Their deadly property? That they (the pitches) are themselves lifeless. It is feared that the absence of vitality in the 22 yards at the core of the game may seep into the whole multi-national, 130 year old sport, killing first its bowlers, then its fans.

Dead pitches absorb the velocity applied to the ball by fast bowlers and stun the spin imparted by slow bowlers. They provide no grip for the seam for medium pacers. Wicket-keepers have to cope with balls bouncing before reaching them and watch edges drift to the ground metres in front of them. And, unlike most dead things, pitches of this nature don’t decay, even when stretched out under four or more days of hot sun.

Batsmen rack up scores but innings are not fluent and easy on the eye. Front foot shots have to be played with unusual caution and bottom hand is needed to make up for the lack in the ball’s kinetic energy.

The groundsmen responsible for these dead pitches are not undercover assassins set on the destruction of the five day game. They are horticulturists working with tired, heavily used organic matter, from which moisture drains quickly.

Dead pitches may not be a bigger feature of cricket than in the past. Wisden commented on England’s 1981/82 tour of India:

Yet the major factor was the deadness of the pitches. Even Madras had become a perfect batting surface by tea on the first day, while at Bangalore (second Test), New Delhi (third) and Kanpur (sixth), the conditions were loaded so heavily in favour of the bat that a first innings was still in progress on the final day.

But in those days, before T20, before the general dread of Test match cricket’s demise, dead pitches were not considered fatal.

I have a solution; something that could counter the threat of lifelessness. I must warn you, though that it is dangerous, possibly reckless.

Commentators call the area highlighted in the picture at the head of this piece ‘the danger zone’. The Laws (42.11(b)) call it the protected area:

An area of the pitch, to be referred to as ‘the protected area’, is defined as that area contained within a rectangle bounded at each end by imaginary lines parallel to the popping creases and 5 ft/1.52 m front of each, and on the sides by imaginary lines, one each side of the imaginary line joining the centres of the two middle stumps, each parallel to it and 1 ft/30.48 cm from it.

Further, in Law 42.12 (a)

A bowler will contravene this Law if he runs on to the protected area, either after delivering the ball or, if he fails to release the ball, after the completion of his delivery swing and delivery stride.

The solution to dead pitches could be found in the introduction of a playing regulation that suspends Law 42.12 (a). Bowlers would no longer be prohibited from following through into the red danger zone (although any damage to the protected area by activity other than the bowlers’ normal follow through, would remain unfair play – Shahid Afridi, take note).

Two advantages would come to bowlers. 1) It would be easier to bowl close to the stumps, giving bowlers a wider range of angles from which to deliver the ball – even making it possible for a right arm over the wicket bowler to angle the ball, very slightly, away from a right-handed batsman. 2) More controversially, during the course of the match, the bowlers’ feet following delivery would rough up the pitch within the protected area. This would provide target areas to bowlers from the other end, in line with and just outside the line of the stumps, where the pitch was scuffed and so likely to take spin.

Fielding teams would have to assess the tactical benefits of taking advantage of this suspension of the usual law. There would be a delayed benefit of scuffing the pitch and so a risk that the actions of one team’s bowlers would benefit the other side. There is a risk that in bringing some life to a dead pitch, it might place too high a premium on batting first.

So with a single amendment to the Playing Regulations, over-ruling one of the Laws of the Game, a potential foe of Test cricket could be negated. Simple to legislate – perhaps – but more difficult to apply in an actual match. That’s an issue I will return to in a future post about Test match pitches.

105 overs a day (helps work, rest and play?)

overs per attack per day-page-001Colin Graves becomes ECB Chair in May 2015. Prior to taking office, and being burdened with its responsibilities, Graves has used media interest in his appointment to state that old orthodoxies and recently reinforced decisions won’t necessarily hold sway under his leadership. KP, county T20 and Test match duration have all had their existing status opened up by Graves.

The new Chair has made the case for 4-day Test matches, with 105 overs played each day. Out would go the financially loss-making fifth day.

There has been some well-informed scepticism, responding to the suggestion that 105 overs could be bowled in a day. The current minimum – 90 overs – is usually only reached with play extending beyond the core six hours. How long would it take our glove-changing, drinks-sipping, field-tinkering cricketers to complete an additional 15 overs? And would the audience want to be there until the end?

I have parked that concern for this piece. Instead, I have tried to model the impact of 4-day Tests in the UK, with the following issues in mind:

  • would shorter Tests impact on results?
  • would longer days increase the burden on bowling attacks?
  • would 4-day Tests provide international players with more time for recuperation, or county appearances?

To explore these questions, I have applied Graves’ proposal to the last 14 England home Test matches – i.e. the summers of 2013 and 2014. I have assumed that each match, under these new conditions, would have played out in exactly the same way that it did in reality. I have simply distributed the overs actually played across the four days available – at 105 overs per day (less two overs per change of innings). Graves wants games to continue under lights and so where a day was halted for bad light, I have let the match continue. Graves has no proposal to combat rain, so those stoppages hold.

An example of how an actual game has been reconfigured according to the Graves conditions is shown below.

Overs per day comparison-page-001

All figures represent number of overs. The days are colour coded and the overs for each innings split up between the days occupied. The first coloured row is the actual distribution of overs per day. The second is the ‘Gravesian’ adjustment.

The example is from the 1st Ashes Test of 2013 at Trent Bridge. Under the adjusted method, Australia’s first innings is 23 overs further advanced at the end of day one. By the end of day two England’s second innings is 40 overs further advanced than it was in reality. In 2013, day three was entirely taken up with the rest of England’s second innings. In the alternative reality, Australia are 37 overs into their second innings. Day four saw Australia 71 overs into their fourth innings chase, but under the accelerated version the game ends around tea-time of what would be the final day. The real final day saw 39 overs of cricket before England’s dramatic victory.

The 4-day 105 over variant (theoretically) delivers 30 fewer overs per match than the current 5-day match. Of the 14 Tests examined, only one would have reached a different outcome with overs reduced by the Graves method: England v Sri Lanka at Headingley. In that match, the final wicket of Anderson fell in the final over of the fifth day. Using the Graves rules, that game would have been shorn of 18 (not 30) overs (owing to days 1-4 averaging 87 overs). In the real match, England were 229-9 18 overs from the close.

There is a risk that the fourth day would become the new fifth day – i.e. advance ticket purchase a risk. Three of the fourteen Tests would not have lasted until the fourth day (another only would have done so due to a wash-out earlier in the game). Two more matches would have had less than half a day’s play on the fourth day.

What would be the impact of 105 over days on the bowling attacks? The chart below shows the proportion of days that a bowling attack would bowl at least a given number of overs under the two regimes.

overs per attack per day-page-001

Currently, on one-fifth of days, a bowling attack delivers zero overs; because its side bats all day, the day is cut short due to weather, or because the match comes to an end. In 4-day tests, that would fall to one-in-seven.

At the top end, a very similar proportion of days (18-20%) would involve attacks shouldering 80+ overs. However, one-in-ten days would see an attack bowling 100 overs or more in 4-day tests, which didn’t happen at all in the real sample (but could do on occasions when time is made up for stoppages earlier in the match). Based on this sample, across a closely matched five Test series, each side could expect to spend two days in the field bowling over 100 overs.

Part of Graves’ support for 4-day Test cricket is the time it frees up for players away from international duty. He also stated that all Tests should run from Thursday to Sunday. I have compared the scheduling of the last Ashes and India series – both of which were compressed into seven weeks – to a series of five 4-day Tests.

test schedule-page-001

 

At its most compressed (Graves 1), a five Test series could be wrapped up in five weeks. There would be three days downtime between the scheduled end and start of each game. A more likely option would see two pairs of ‘back-to-back’ Tests (Graves 2). Because of the constraint of starting all matches on a Thursday, this would extend the series to seven weeks, providing no reduction in elapsed time on the Australia series of 2013. The breaks between second and third Tests, and fourth and fifth Tests could allow international players to appear for their counties in one-day fixtures.

In summary, if it proved possible to motivate players to bowl up to 105 overs per day, holding Tests over four days would not effect the outcome of the majority of matches. With most matches taking fewer than 350 overs to reach a result, there is a risk that the fourth day would be unattractive to spectators.

Bowling attacks would occasionally have days in the field lasting 100 overs or more, but the daily burden of a bowling attack would not vary greatly from that experienced in 5-day Tests. I speculate that batting first would become more desirable because of the advantage gained if the first day is survived. The bowling attack would start day two with a ball 25 overs old, and so less likely to be able to strike back than with the ten over old ball of a 5-day Test.

Series of 4-day Tests that run from Thursday to Sunday, unless played over successive weeks, will not take less time to complete than 5-day Tests that start of different days of the week. If Graves is to reduce the demands of international cricket during the English summer, he will need to address the overall number of fixtures played.