We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.
Four-fifths of the way through the Ashes series and England’s bowlers have taken 51 wickets. At Brisbane, not only could they not defend a target of 170, but they couldn’t dislodge the Australian opening pair in a game where hitherto, bat and ball had been in balance, with a wicket falling on average every 28 runs.
At Perth, Australia amassed a record 662-9 on a pacy pitch that could reward bowlers – fast and slow – who are able to harness its extra bounce.
At Melbourne, Australia batted out 124 overs on days four and five for the loss of four wickets to secure a draw and nullify England’s strongest position of the series.
England’s bowling attack didn’t lack quality, nous or endeavour. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, supported by Craig Overton, Chris Woakes and Tom Curran often made the Australian batsmen work hard for their runs. The attributes that England had lacked can be summarised as diversity, variety, dissimilarity, points of difference. This was never more apparent than when the team did encounter, under the lights at Adelaide, conditions for which it is supremely well adapted. Ten wickets fell in 58 overs of penetrating seam and swing bowling; contrasting with the 750 overs bowled for the other 41 wickets to fall – barely five wickets per full day’s bowling.
And so the fuel was provided for every England follower to bemoan the flaws of the game in England; to open up the arguments that had only perhaps been closed shut in the ECB’s business plan about formats, competitions, traditional structures and new enterprises.
The lack of meaningful diversity in England’s otherwise admirable bowling attack brought to my mind another source, far from cricket, distant from discussions of historic counties and franchise teams. What I had seen operating in England shirts, whether toiling at Perth or prancing at Adelaide, was the product of a monoculture.
The drive towards monoculture causes a dewilding, of both places and people. It strips the Earth of the diversity of life and natural structures to which human beings are drawn. It creates a dull world, a flat world, a world lacking in colour and variety, which enhances ecological boredom, narrows the scope of our lives, limits the range of our engagement with nature, pushes us towards a monoculture of the spirit.
George Monbiot’s Feral is the most thought provoking book that I read in 2017. What Monbiot saw when looking across the barren Welsh uplands – ‘dismal.. devoid of life’ – provided an analogy for the over after over of steady fast-medium bowling delivered by England’s bowlers. There’s also a tempting parallel between how he contrasts the countryside with his experience of London, and cricket’s own post-modern, metropolitan dynamo of T20:
The fragmented eco-systems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest
So, it is through the frame of rewilding that I have attempted to understand what might restore colour and variety to England’s cricketers.
The working definition of this process, adopted by the organisation Rewilding Europe, is:
Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species play a much more prominent role in the land – and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.
Monbiot describes some of the key steps that need to be taken – by motivated humans – to create the conditions for rewilding. Under my appropriation of his ideas, the England cricket authorities take the place of motivated humans.
Keystone species provide a starting point. A keystone species is:
..one that has a larger impact on its environment than its numbers alone would suggest. This impact creates the conditions which allow other species to live there.
The identification of the native keystone species and, if absent from that environment, their reintroduction is a critical intervention. For Britain, the archetypal and almost completely absent keystone species is the beaver.
Beavers radically change the behaviour of a river. They slow it down. They reduce scouring and erosion. They trap much of the load it carries, ensuring that the water runs more clearly. They make it more structurally diverse, providing homes for many other species.
As a by-product, beavers’ actions reduce damaging flooding downstream and prevent the spread of illness caused by the flow of bacteria through populated areas. All this is starting to be empirically demonstrated. I don’t have any scientific studies to identify English cricket’s keystone species, but have a strong hunch, nonetheless.
English cricket is not as far from salvation as England’s rivers, because its keystone species hasn’t been wiped out and doesn’t need reintroduction, although protection and encouragement is required.
The spinner – right and left arm, finger and wrist – fulfils the role of keystone species for cricket. The spinner, by using little energy to bowl long spells, enables other bowler types to rest and recuperate. When their time comes to bowl, they can commit more effort, confident that the spinner will return when they tire. This is particularly important to the out-and-out fast bowler, who should be used in short spells of high, shocking pace.
The spinner demands a greater diversity of skills of his fielding teammates. Close fielders need to be able to swoop on balls dying from bat-pad deflections and dodge full-blooded blows. Boundary riders come into play as wicket-takers, if able to judge, move nimbly underneath and handle lofted drives, pulls and sweeps. Adaptability is needed to fulfil roles required for specific batsmen in specific conditions: short gulley, leg slip, short mid-off ‘on the drive’. Wicket-keepers are tested standing up, where the skills of a transplanted goalkeeper are not sufficient. Even the slip and fielders on the single have different challenges from the shot played to the spun ball.
The spinner’s prey benefits, too. Batsmen must develop footwork to prosper or even survive against the spinner – down the wicket to nullify spin, back onto the stumps to play the ball late, along the crease to use turn to create angles for scoring strokes. The diversity of shot-making should increase, with almost any shot played to a seam bowler available, as well as sweeps – conventional, slog, paddle and reverse – and chassees. Observation skills improve to detect changes to the orientation of the bowling hand, of the ball’s flight or direction of rotation.
The playing surface is another beneficiary of the spinner, whose walking or trotting approach to delivery, causes much less damage to the wicket ends than the pounding ball-after-ball of a seam-heavy attack.
Another step in rewilding is the promotion of trophic cascades. This isn’t the momentum gained by a trophy-winning team, but the natural process that occurs when an environment has top predators present. Human activity, long before industrialisation, depleted many ecosystems of their major predators, with perhaps a counterintuitive effect of reducing the diversity of nature.
A trophic cascade occurs when the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.
The most celebrated example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Under pressure from a predator, deer kept away from valleys; their absence allowed trees to grow beside rivers, providing cover for animals who proliferated in range and numbers, and reduced soil erosion, so supporting the growth of other plants. There is even evidence that other predators – bear – profited as well.
English domestic cricket, almost as much as its hills and valleys, has been shorn of its big beasts. The national team’s regulars now make only rare appearances in the county championship. Over the last three seasons, Joe Root has played four matches for Yorkshire, Ben Stokes six for Durham. When they do appear, it can often be tentatively, on the road to recovery from an injury, when tooth isn’t bared and claws quickly withdrawn. The absence of the country’s best players from its national competition has a damping effect on the standard of play. To be successful, players don’t need to prove themselves against the very strongest of their peers. Players who are just ‘good enough’ can thrive and, with bowlers, extremes of pace and spin – required to dismiss the best batsmen – are not so valued because of the risk they pose to the fielding team keeping control of the scoring rate.
Applying the analogy of rewilding, England must let its top players – the regular internationals – frequent the domestic game to sharpen the other players, create turnover where mediocrity might be enough for a player to cling onto their place and encourage the development of the diverse range of skills needed to dismiss the best batsmen and repel the best bowlers.
In Monbiot’s analysis, humans have a deadly ally in their dewilding of Britain’s uplands, which have been ‘sheepwrecked‘ by the “woolly ruminant from Mesopotamia.. Because they were never part of our native ecosystem, the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.” Restoring diversity requires that the hegemony of this non-native species in the uplands (shown by Monbiot to be uneconomic anyway) is ended.
English cricket has featured many non-native participants. While, at times, their success has seemed as pervasive as the sheep flocks in the English countryside – Australian batsmen of the 1990/2000s; West Indian, South African and Pakistani players in the 1970s – they have played the role of the big predator, raising the standard of the game and stretching the native players. An exception might have been the few county teams recently packed with Kolpak qualified players, who may for a time have displaced local cricketers, without adding greatly to the standard or variety of the game.
The pointing to the ‘non-native’ as the culprit can see rewilding veer towards regressive and backward politics. Monbiot acknowledges this, showing how some of the most dramatic rewilding has happened following the forced removal of populations by oppressive and racist regimes. There is no positive lesson for English cricket here. Players from other countries and of different ethnicities add diversity, interest and culture to the game played in this country. Unlike English flora, whose evolution takes thousands of years, English cricketers have no excuse for not adapting to new challenges introduced to their domestic game.
Keystone species and trophic cascades provide, by analogy, some clues as to how to rewild English cricket. But the deeper we go into Monbiot’s thesis the harder to apply it becomes.
Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding.. does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.
There is a relevant warning that English cricket should not be backward-looking, trying to ‘re-create’ a particular Golden Era. Perhaps we should be open to the notion that there is not ‘a point at which it can be said to have arrived’, but most England followers have a strong sense that an Ashes victory or World Cup triumph would provide that fulfilment. The ECB website does appear to have shelved its objective of ‘winning a global ICC tournament’. It now expresses its priorities a little less inflexibly as being to ‘Develop clear strategic plans for sustained success in Tests, ODIs and international T20s’.
Cricket in England – and possibly anywhere – is too encased in formal structures to allow the game ‘to find its own way’. Diversity – rewilded players – may be good for the game for its own sake, but our longing for them is purposive: to compete and win against the best teams whatever the playing conditions. For many – certainly those in authority – there is probably a quiet dread of what might happen to cricket if it isn’t constantly stewarded. Others might argue for an end to the interventions and grooming of the game for the twenty-first century. But they can’t know where the game would go if it was allowed to find its own way and may end up carrying out their own conservation activity if what they value about cricket is threatened.
I sincerely hope that Monbiot’s vision of rewilding can be given the opportunity to work in the UK. While it provides some handy tools for understanding how diversity might be reintroduced to an activity where it is withering, the forces that want to tame and control cricket will continue to hold sway.
It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.
(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)
When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.
Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.
I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.
Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.
What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.
A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.
But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.
As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.
On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:
- Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
- Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
- Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
- Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).
Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.
7 July 2017 – festival in northern Spain
The annual running of the bulls in the city of Pamplona pits several dozen men and women against a dozen bulls. The latter are released into the narrow streets, where they find the bull runners between them and their destination, the municipal bullring. Nobody died on the opening day of the festival this year. Five people were hospitalised, with injuries including the goring of one man in the chest and another in the scrotum. A third man suffered serious head injuries after being lifted and tossed by a bull.
Medics line the streets in a 21st century nod to human welfare as a tradition, of hundreds of years standing, continues to attract thrill-seekers and those with a need (and audience) to prove their mettle. So refined is the medical attention that, it is boasted, a victim of a goring will be stabilised within ten minutes of the incident.
7 July 2017 – festival in south-western England
2,000 people gather at the sports ground of a 176 year old college, where they double as spectators and targets for the twenty-two cricketers. The five and a half ounce missiles, cork encased in dyed white leather, have a long heritage, although not in their current hue. Much more recent is the dual role of those who stand and sit at the perimeter of the field. For decades, cricket fans have simply appreciated the action in front of them. Now they play an active part in the drama.
The day’s first casualty finds a ball narrowing in on him as he sits on a plastic picnic chair one row back from the fence. Two people ahead of him jump out of the ball’s way. He rises from his seat parrying the ball from his chest and is knocked backwards over the back of his chair. He lands heavily on his back and is carried away, strapped to a scoop stretcher.
Minutes later a ball sails over the boundary fence, skips off an awning below which diners are recovering their appetite and smashes into the tray of empties being carried by a waitress. Shards of glass tear at her hand and wrist. The ball is dried from the dregs it landed in and tossed back onto the field.
The spectators are now alert. When the next missile heads their way, it is caught competently by a local club cricketer. His view of the ball was cleared by a large man, from the local rugby club, sidestepping its path and landing heavily on the foot of a lady in sundress and sandals. She is lifted away from the incident, visible swelling suggesting a metatarsal fracture.
New Zealand’s former captain plays a short innings. He applies his famed strength and timing to just one delivery. It travels low, hard and fast through a gap in the field, bounces once inside the boundary, clips the top of the boundary board, which diverts it upwards in a direction unanticipated by those braced for its arrival. It catches its victim below the chin, breaking his jaw an instant before his teeth clamp and sever the tip of his tongue.
A high, long hit claims the afternoon’s last casualty. It soars to the back of the temporary stand, where a beery group rise to greet it, but succeed only in deflecting it onto the forehead of their neighbour who is treated on site, before exiting for concussion tests.
This Cheltenham College bloodbath is, with the exception of the concussion case, a fiction, departing from reality at some point after the ball is described crossing the boundary. It is not a fiction that has required a lot of imagination. One of these five incidents happened. The other four very nearly did.
The injured bull-runners at Pamplona do not attract much sympathy. They have willingly entered into a dangerous activity and suffered painful, but predictable consequences.
We do feel sympathetic for anyone injured watching a cricket match. “Should’ve kept their eye on the ball,” some might quibble, flinching as they remember turning to talk to a friend, or looking down at their newspaper, as the crack of a middled slog-sweep is heard.
But with sixes hit at a rate of one per 25 deliveries in professional T20 games, haven’t we reached the point where the need to evade or gain protection from balls smote over the boundary has itself become predictable? And if a risk is predictable, where does responsibility for its mitigation, or liability for its occurrence lie?
A little internet research reveals opposing views to this question in the UK and USA. In the judicature that covers the city of Cheltenham, case law points to sports clubs having responsibility for taking steps to counter reasonably foreseeable risks to the safety of the public.
Across the Atlantic, courts have sided with sports organisations, concluding that spectators understand and accept the risks of attending baseball or ice hockey matches. To place the liability with the franchise would, it is argued, increase their insurance costs, and push the price of tickets beyond the reach of those sports’ core fans.
Gloucestershire County Cricket Club may envy the legal protection enjoyed by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they operate under the less forgiving legal code. What then, should the county club be doing to fulfil its duty of care?
I have three proposals which relate primarily to cricket played at occasional or festival venues, such as Cheltenham College. Spectators at purpose built professional grounds are less at risk. The playing areas are larger and the rows of fixed seats facing the middle help to keep spectators’ attention on the action. The ECB, with its plan to move to an eight team T20 league in 2020 may have the ultimate solution. These proposals are for interim precautions.
The pitch at Cheltenham was located off-centre. The distance to the nearer square boundary probably only just exceeded the minimum distance required by ECB playing regulations: 50 metres. That short boundary, opposite the college buildings, is where the majority of spectators were sat or stood. Sixes hit over the longer square boundary were highly unlikely to cause harm as so few people were in the line of fire. I would recommend that pitches at grounds like Cheltenham are central and certainly not closer to the square boundary where most spectators are gathered.
Protect areas where spectators mill
One of the pleasures of festival cricket is the promenading, dining, or standing and chatting in sight of the action. People thus occupied are distracted from the game and so less likely to be able to evade a ball hit towards them. Preserving the traditional pleasures of festival cricket needs to be balanced with the modern artillery of limited overs cricket. Protective netting can allow the two to coexist. Occasional grounds lack stands with roofs or double tiers, which could be used as a frame for protective netting. But a temporary net could be raised between the playing area and the concentrated zones where spectators expect to have sight of the match, if not their eye permanently on the ball.
Pad hard surfaces
The really unnerving moment at Cheltenham was when McCullum’s pull shot ricocheted from the lip of the boundary boards. Its pace and sudden change of direction would have defeated anyone but the sharpest slip-fielder. Grounds should ensure that the fittings erected between the players and the spectators do not exacerbate the threat to spectators. Padding around the top of boundary boards and other hard surfaces would absorb the ball’s momentum.
Unlike Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the running of the (white) balls is unlikely to last into the next decade at grounds such as Cheltenham College. The event’s passing will happen whether or not the safety of spectators from flying balls is given a higher priority. In the meantime, do not turn those spectators into unwitting bull-runners; or the players into bulls. John Simpson of Middlesex launched the six that hit the head of the man at the top of the temporary stand. Simpson held up play and walked towards the boundary, concerned for the injured spectator. He only allowed the game to restart when he saw one of the teams’ medics run across the outfield and climb the steps of the stand. The very next ball, mind perhaps not fully returned to the game, Simpson judged a quick single poorly, and was run out.
Cricket, 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.
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.
Colin 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.
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.
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.
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.