Lord Ted’s mission to save the tour
The cornerstone of international cricket competition, the Test match tour, has been transformed in recent decades. The pandemic of 2020 has left little in the relationships between nations untouched and it has pushed the international tour to a new extreme. The West Indies are more billeted than on tour: confined to two grounds with hotels on site, with Tests taking place only at those two venues and a single other tour game, contested by two teams made up of their own squad members.
While change has been recent – the West Indies played eight 3-day tour games in 2000 – the decline of the season-long tour was apparent much earlier. At least it was to those with an eye on cricket’s drift away from forefront of public attention. Ted Dexter had welcomed the introduction of one-day cricket to the English county game in the early 1960s. He led Sussex to the inaugural Gillette Cup final where he managed to defend a total of 169 and then retain the title the following year.
Eight years later, retired from the game (barring some Sunday Leagues appearances), Dexter wrote Wisden’s preview of Australia’s Ashes visit to England in 1972. He acknowledged the bold plan to hold ‘three one-day Tests’ in August, but was concerned that those were the only reference to one-day cricket.
The trouble with the Australian itinerary is that for more than half the time they will be playing what can only be considered friendly games with the counties. Not so long ago this gentlemanly basis of sporting competition was sufficient to keep the crowds amused but with the advent of sponsorship, win-money, man-of-the-match awards, etc., etc., the old format now seems hopelessly outmoded. Honour and glory, artistry and skills are now only given their due by your potential spectator if something depends on the outcome thereof. Not necessarily money; an extra point or two towards some goal may be quite acceptable. On the other hand a dozen or more games following one another in a pattern, each one played in a vacuum as on this tour, gives your cricket fan far too good an excuse to stay away if the weather is poor, if the star players are being rested or for any other minor reason.
The writing was on the wall last time Australia toured England. Since then Illingworth’s team in Australia has signally failed to halt the trend of dwindling gates for State matches. In fact it seemed that neither the State sides nor the M.C.C. could do more than go through the motions when there was literally nothing to play for. In no time at all the lack of interest on the field communicated itself to the watchers and I honestly think they swore to a man that they wouldn’t be taken for suckers a second time.
Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to involve a visiting team in the hurly burly in our own competitions. Points would need to be averaged up to decide how the maverick side was placed in relation to the others — either this or a concerted attempt made to find sponsors to put up prize-money–or, the ultimate in daring, to put up the prizes and promote the matches from within cricket and thus gamble a little on achieving a better return.
Otherwise I fear a situation where already hard-worked county players will be ever more content to take it easy against the tourists; the tourists will be just practising for the Tests and only the hardiest of cricket-watchers will pay to see them do so.
(Wisden 1972, “Welcome Australia”)
It was another seven years before Dexter’s recommendations were addressed. The touring team didn’t get an invitation to the County Championship; nor did cricket put any of its own money at stake to coax interest and excitement from the visitors and their county hosts. But sponsorship was found and Dexter appears to have taken it on himself to secure it.
For those who followed English cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, the names of its sponsors can probably be recalled as easily as those of our political leaders, chart-topping groups and Saturday night television programmes of that era. Gillette, Bensons and Hedges, John Player and Cornhill benefitted from an absence of commercial clutter on the BBC and in the first three cases from being the name of the respective competitions from their introduction. Schweppes, who paid for their name to complement the un-televised County Championship (1977-83), would be a easy-fair standard quiz question.
The name of the sponsor of the 1979 Indian team’s tour matches with the counties is far less well-remembered. Partly, this is because, unlike the other county competition sponsors they were not a household brand, pushing their product in supermarkets and newsagents. It might also reflect the lack of success of the ‘competition’ they sponsored. The name was Holt – not Holt’s the Manchester brewery – but a car care and chemical manufacturer. Wisden in 1979, welcoming the relationship, noted that “The scheme was devised by Ted Dexter and Mr Tom Heywood, chairman of Holt Lloyd International.” In the absence of further detail, I imagine Dexter, former England captain and PR executive, working away at the cricket-enthusiast Heywood until, after one particularly long lunch the corporate cheque book was produced.
That cheque carried the figure of £20,000 (£100,000 in 2020 terms), which would be shared by the Indian touring side and their county opponents, depending on results. The county judged to have given the best performance was awarded a trophy. There were also individual awards for outstanding players. India, across ten county matches, had almost £6,000 to aim for. A county could win £6,000 if it was the only side to defeat the tourists. To place this in its context, the West Indies won £10,000 as World Cup champions in the tournament that immediately preceded India’s tour.
Norman Preston had featured the details of these incentives to the touring team and hosts in his Editor’s notes to the 1979 edition of Wisden. The following year, the Almanack’s coverage of the India tour failed to mention Holt, or the existence of peformance rewards. Preston’s initials are printed at the foot of this tour review. He notes that ten first class games, including three of the Tests, were drawn, that India had a single victory – over Glamorgan – and lost to two counties. Wisden’s encyclopaedic reputation is in this narrow case undeserved.
To find the winners of the Holt Trophy in 1979, I have relied on the Lord’s Museum and its on-line catalogue. Within two folders of material relating to that tour – “Scoresheets, newspaper cuttings, statistics, press releases, correspondence, photographs” – the following examples of content are provided:
Includes spider diagram showing I T Botham’s innings of 137 in the third Test for England vs. India at Headingley, copy of Radio Times article on S M Gavaskar, press release relating to Holt Products’ sponsorship of tourists vs. counties matches, and photographs of the Holt Products Trophy and M J Procter, Gloucestershire captain, receiving the trophy from Holt Products after being chosen as winners of the award in 1979 for the best result against India.
Gloucestershire were the fourth county to play India, with the match at Bristol taking place on July 21-23, one week after England had amassed 633-5dec in their First Test victory. Gloucester fielded a first choice team – Sadiq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas, Mike Proctor, as well as their home-grown players well-known for their one-day performances. India held the upper hand: underpinned by 137 from Gavaskar, the tourists were 200 runs ahead with Gloucester six wickets down in their first innings and all their overseas players dismissed. Phil Bainbridge and MD Partridge then put on 116 and Proctor declared 100 behind with the former in sight of a maiden ton. In murky light, Proctor took three quick wickets on the second evening and returned the next day to take four more. “Proctor allowed them no respite, bowling below full pace, but to a testing length and line,” Wisden reported on his analysis of 15.3-8-13-7. The home team’s top order then chased down the target of 203 at more than four runs per over.
That must surely have delighted Dexter: a see-sawing game, enterprising captaincy, marquee names performing to a high standard and contributions from county pro’s. Whether the prospect of a bonus had an influence, we don’t know. Nor do we know if the game was well-attended. Scanning the scorecards of the other nine matches, it appears that counties put out strong sides. The tourists came up against: Allan Lamb, Malcolm Marshall, David Gower, Viv Richards, John Wright, Ken McEwan, Clive Lloyd, Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Whether they were taking it easy is harder to tell.
Despite Wisden’s silence and India’s lack of success, Dexter’s initiative may have incentivised the counties to make a contest of their tour matches. Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire were each £3,000 the richer for their efforts. By comparison, Somerset had collected £5,000 for their four match campaign to win the Gillette Cup.
The following year, the West Indies toured and Holt Products continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the county tour matches. This time there was an eye-catching headline to the deal: the West Indies could net £100,000 if they won each of their 11 first-class county matches. One might wonder if the company bought lottery insurance, or took a calculated risk that such an outcome, faced with motivated opponents and the English weather was improbable. As a twelve year-old, absorbing cricket wherever I could find it, I validate Wisden’s assessment that “interest grew” in the county matches. The existence of the six-figure jackpot is the memory fragment that triggered the research for this article.
The tourists’ quest started, as tradition requires, at Worcester, where they secured a seven wicket victory, with most credit to Malcolm Marshall who took 7-56 in the the home side’s second innings. A curiousity of the game, the description of which takes up almost half of Wisden’s report, concerned Glenn Turner:
Worcestershire were desperately short of resolution in their second innings, which began with an out of character display by Turner, who stepped back and “slogged” at almost every delivery as he made 45 from 24 balls before stepping on to his wicket. The general interpretation was that Turner’s approach was linked with his strong criticism of the West Indians’ conduct on their tour of his native New Zealand in the previous winter. There were also suggestions that he had asked not to be selected for the match because of a back strain. The county’s cricket committee chairman, Mr Roy Booth, later interviewed Turner but an official statement was no more informative than that the club was satisfied that Turner has no grievances with them.
Leicestershire were defeated by an innings inside two days, with Greenidge scoring 165. In the maiden first class match at Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire lost early on the third evening; Richards and Lloyd both recording hundreds. The tourists then paused their challenge to take part in four county one-day matches (Prudential Trophy warm-ups).
Derbyshire, dismissed for 68 in their second innings, were the fourth victims in a nine-wicket defeat. The West Indies moved to Leeds and Lord’s for an international interlude, in the shape of the Prudential Trophy. They had reached the end of May with their hopes of claiming the £100,000 prize alive.
The county challenge was rejoined at Canterbury. A day was lost to rain, but captains Alan Knott and Clive Lloyd made first innings declarations to claw back time. The West Indies bowlers then got to work, dismissing Kent for 84 and setting up a target of 103 which was achieved, not without difficulty, with five wickets down. Another interruption for international cricket followed: the 1st Test at Trent Bridge. The West Indies won a close match by just two wickets. It was both the closest England would come to matching or beating their visitors and yet their only defeat of the series.
The middle game (number six) of the Holt Industries Trophy Challenge was at Hove. More bad weather and, in Wisden’s opinion, “the understrength home side” who had an attack of Imran Khan, Garth le Roux, Ian Greig, Jon Spencer and Geoff Arnold, brought an end to the quest on 16 June.
Three more draws, two rain-affected, left the tourists with a 7-4-0 record, and a string of entertaining innings and incisive bowling performances that entertained spectators immensely and may have raised the sponsor’s profile through radio and newspaper reports of the games.
The following summer, Holt Products again continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the counties’ games with the tourists: the Australians. I cannot find a record of the incentive structure in place, but it appears not to have motivated the visitors, who managed just two victories. The second of which came late in the summer at Hove, which was again the scene of a significant match in the short life of the Holt Products Trophy. John Woodcock’s Editor’s Notes in the 1982 Wisden were very critical:
Less happily, following a match at Hove in which Sussex fielded a discourteously weak side against the Australians, Holt Products, whose sponsorship had been aimed at making these games between counties and touring teams more competitive, withdrew their support. If Sussex’s action was only partly responsible for Holt’s decision, it was still a pity, in what was a fine season for them, that on this occasion they misjudged their obligations.
Sussex had omitted six players from the team fielded in their previous County Championship match: captain John Barclay, Imran Khan, keeper Ian Gould and bowlers, Garth le Roux, Geoff Arnold and CE Waller. The match fell at the end of the third week of August, one week after the 5th Test at Old Trafford where England’s victory ensured they completed the series turnaround and retained the Ashes. The 6th Test at the Oval was to follow – not only an indulgence, but a dead rubber. Sussex had four matches remaining in the County Championship – a competition they had never won, but for which in August 1981 they were in contention. It appears that they preferred to conserve their star players and captain for that objective. Sussex won all of those four games, but fell two points short of the title which was won by Nottinghamshire.
Sussex were, of course, Ted Dexter’s own county team, which may have made this an uncomfortable denouement to his experiment. Was Dexter critical of his own county’s choice of priority – I suspect not? I also find something odd about Woodcock, a traditionalist, writing so harshly of a county showing such commitment to the County Championship. Barclay wasn’t saving himself and his bowlers ahead of Lord’s final; it was a tough run-in to the first class season that was his focus. The Sussex v Australia game encapsulates the problem Dexter had sought to solve and the dilemma that cricket continues to struggle with: balancing a domestic game with international commitments.
Dexter’s intention had been to incentivise interest and commitment through monetary reward. There is some evidence from these three seasons that the outcome was achieved, but there were also unintended consequences. From the perspective of behavioural economics (1), Dexter’s plan to make the counties’ games with tourists more competitive handed Sussex the permission to be less committed. Woodcock complained about obligations being unfulfilled, but those cultural and emotional ties that bind behaviour are loosened once a financial transaction is introduced. Unwittingly, by offering a performance bonus, Dexter enabled Sussex to, in effect, turn down the financal reward in favour of their other objective.
Touring teams continue to play counties, although with a reducing number of fixtures – Australia met just with Worcestershire and Derbyshire in 2019. The emphasis has shifted to the tourists gaining match practice, but rarely if ever against full-strength opponents. I am not aware of any initiative similar to Dexter’s that would provide context and incentives to perform in these games, whether in England or for Test teams touring other countries. With the benefit of hindsight, Dexter was less a visionary than an unsuccessful conservationist, unable to stem the current of change to international cricket tours.
- See the Haifa Day Care Centre Study, chapter 1, Freakonomics (Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner)
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
Rewilding England’s bowling
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.
Warm-up matches. It’s just the way it is.
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.
The running of the (white) balls
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.
Context, quality and competitive structure in Test cricket
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.
Getting the point: County Championship bonus points
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.
I (with the help of Twitter correspondents) have identified three objectives against which the bonus point system can be tested:
- acting as a tie-breaker between teams with similar records
- rewarding teams for their performances in matches which do not reach a positive result
- 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.
Bonus 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.
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.
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.
105 overs a day (helps work, rest and play?)
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.