In the UK, you may be paying £100 or more to watch the England team play in a one day international (ODI). Based on the ODIs of recent years, you have around a one in ten chance of seeing a match with a tight, even thrilling climax. On the other hand, you are three times as likely to see one of the teams trot to a comfortable victory (margin of over 100 runs or with ten or more overs to spare).
The spectating experience depends on much more than whether the match delivers jeopardy to the very end. But the competitiveness of the format is topical and a feature that the game’s administrators appear to want to promote.
The evidence for my assertion that there is a one in ten chance of seeing a thrilling finish to an ODI can be reviewed in my post ‘Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game’. In this article, I extend that analysis by updating the sample to February 2019 and by reviewing the competitiveness of ODI series.
In the 12 months since my earlier post, there has been something of a revival of the tight ODI. Spectators in this period have had a one-in-five chance of seeing a game with a thrilling finale. The criteria I use for defining tight matches comprise: a tie; a victory batting first by fewer than 10 runs; if chasing, winning in the final over or with eight or nine wickets lost.
On the other hand, there has been no let-up in the incidence of crushing victories: 34% by margins of over 100 runs or with more than ten overs to spare.
One-sided or closely matched series?
This analysis is based on the 79 series of three or more ODIs played between two teams since the 2015 World Cup and completed by the end of January 2019 (note 1). It omits shorter bilateral encounters and tournaments involving three or more sides – all of which are included in the match analysis chart above.
The table below summarises the results by series duration. One-half of series remained undecided heading into the final match. Sample sizes are small, but shorter series (three matches) were more likely to deliver a final match with everything to play for.
The unwanted spawn of the uncompetitive series is the dead rubber. Matches that had no bearing on the series outcome occurred 44% of the time that they could potentially have happened. Of the 52 dead rubber matches that went ahead, eleven ended up as consolation victories for the series loser. Six of the games (11.5%) produced ‘tight’ finishes, but 22 (42.3%) were crushing victories. The value of these games, other than selling air-time and bringing international cricket to more towns and cities is questionable.
A useful benchmark of competitiveness can be found in Test cricket. In Test series in the same period, 55% of the 36 series with three or more matches were wrapped up before the final game was played, creating dead rubber games. ODI series, therefore, have recently been more competitive than the Test match equivalent. Moreover, the Test match draw raises the probability of teams playing that format reaching the last game of a series with the result undecided.
Looking more broadly – at pure probability – gives further evidence that ODI series are not particularly uncompetitive. A ‘best of three’ coin toss would produce a definitive result with the first two tosses one-half of the time; five percentage points higher than that seen in three match ODI series.
The five (or more) match series, presents a more mixed picture. A definitive series result was obtained from the first three games in over one-third (34%) of match-ups – compared to 25% in a ‘best of five’ coin toss. The seven clean sweeps (18%) is three times the likelihood of five coin tosses ending all heads or all tails. Yet, 45% progressed to a fifth match decider, exceeding the expected 37.5% in the coin toss scenario.
In conclusion, ODI series sustain interest to their conclusion relatively frequently. The problem the format faces perhaps isn’t uncompetitiveness, but inflexibility of scheduling. On the occasions that a series is decided early, the remaining fixtures have been booked with broadcasters and grounds, who have sold ad space and tickets. The show must go on, even if intensity and interest decline.
Note 1: 3 match series in which either the first or second scheduled match was abandoned or cancelled are excluded (ie considered as 2 match encounters). If the third match was a victim of the weather, the series is included in the analysis.
The Ashes series is decided. Australia have overwhelmed England at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. England’s squad is gathering itself for Melbourne and Sydney depleted by the withdrawal, retirement and impotence of first choice players.
Those of us protective of Test cricket laud the extended narrative of long series. We don’t hesitate to point out the unsuitability of the increasingly frequent two-off Test format that leaves so many contests undecided (two Test series = oxymoron). Yet, with the luxury of lengthy series comes the risk of one-sided contests rendering later matches irrelevant to the series outcome. It’s worth considering whether this lessens the significance and impact of the matches played. Firstly, though, a few numbers to evaluate how common the dead rubber is.
I looked at the progress of the 99 most recently completed series up until September 2013. 43 of these were two Tests in length; 41 lasted three Tests; ten of four Tests; and five of Ashes-length five matches. I extended the sample of four and five match series to 25 by adding the next ten most recent longer contests. It is worth noting an important bias in the data: longer (four/five Test) series are unequally distributed across Test playing nations. England contested 16 of the 25 series in the sample; Australia 11; New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh 0.
The frequency of dead rubbers is shown in the table below.
|Series length||Series (no.)||Dead rubbers||Dead rubber %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||13||52%|
Over half of longer (i.e. four or five) Test series ended with matches that had no bearing on the series outcome, compared to one-quarter of three Test series. Only one series had the ‘double dead rubber’ we are about to experience – England’s last but one visit to Australia in 2006/07.
One step back from the dead rubber in terms of predictability of outcome, is the series which reaches the stage where only one team can win and the other draw (‘2 result rubbers’). This analysis draws in the two-off contests.
|Series length||Series (no.)||2 result rubbers||2 result %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||16||64%|
The vast majority of two-off contests saw a positive result in the first Test meaning that only one team could win the series. A much lower proportion of three Test series had one team going into the final match with a lead of a single victory.
Many Test rivalries are played out for a trophy. The convention that the most recent winner only has to draw the current series to retain the trophy means that encounters where only one team can win the series and the other draw it have the potential for great excitement. The Oval Test of 2005, with England needing a draw to regain the Ashes and Australia a victory to retain the urn, was an exemplar of this kind from recent years.
Series that enter their final chapter with all three outcomes possible can be the most prized.
|Series length||Series (no.)||All 3 results poss||%|
|4 or 5 tests||25||3||12%|
This eventuality is as equally unlikely a culmination to a five Test series as it is to the abbreviated two-off contest. The three Test series most frequently delivers the ‘everything to play for’ finale. Cricket is a confounding sport, so it’s worth recording that not all series that enter that last match with everything at stake should not be cherished. Two high scoring bore-draws can presage an equally turgid third and indecisive Test match.
To consider whether matches in dead rubbers are a dead loss or are fought to the death, I’ve looked at the actions and outcome of the 23 dead rubber matches in the sample.
The majority (13) were won by the team that had already secured the series victory (included here was the match awarded to England in 2006 when Pakistan refused to take the field after being penalised for altering the condition of the ball). While that provides evidence that the winning team remains motivated to pursue the win, it does suggest that the dead rubber adds little to what we already know about the relative strengths of the two teams.
Four of these matches were won by the team that had lost the series. In early 2009, Australia and South Africa played home and away three match series – virtually a six match series across two continents. In an unexpected symmetry, the host lost the first and second matches of both series before recording a home win. The home teams also gained consolation victories in the other examples: England defeating South Africa in 2008 at the Oval in Kevin Pietersen’s first match as captain; and a thrilling victory for India in Mumbai in 1994 when Australia were skittled for 93 and a 13 run defeat.
The remaining six dead rubbers produced draws. There were some notable matches, including: Lara’s 400* for the series losers; Sri Lanka running out of time 101 runs shy of a world record 4th innings target with six wickets in hand. There is also the strong rebuttal to the notion that dead rubbers don’t matter from November 2011 in Mumbai. India, series victors, were set 243 to win the third and final Test. The match went to the last ball of the final over with India’s tenth wicket pair managing a single to bring the scores level.
While dead rubbers have been the occasion of some very notable cricket, on the whole, the sport would be better without them. In this sample, series comprising three Test matches provided the most sustained uncertainty over the series outcome. Nearly half of longer (four and five Test) series, fulfilled the final fixture with honours already awarded. My recommendation would be that three Test series should be the norm. Longer series should be reserved, as they are now, for the traditional marquee series, but also any contest between, say, two of the top three ranked teams in the world. This would require some flexibility in scheduling, something the BCCI has shown in 2013 is very feasible. Two-off contests should be limited to match-ups between teams separated by five or more places in the rankings.
Later this week, the first of two Tests starts with the Ashes already decided and the rubber, strictly, dead. The onus is on England to breathe some life back into the contest.
Do leave a comment, or tweet me, with your views of preferred Test series lengths and also of memorable dead rubbers.