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How Test cricket can be improved: Part I

Roar Guru
19th October, 2010
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3519 Reads
England's Graeme Swann takes the final wicket of Australia's Brad Haddin. AAP Images

England's Graeme Swann, right, takes the final wicket of Australia's Brad Haddin, 4th right, to dismiss Australia to win the Ashes on the fourth day of the fifth Ashes cricket test match at the Oval cricket ground, London, Sunday Aug. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

“You cannot say, or guess, for you know only. A heap of broken images, where the sun beats. And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

Eliot wrote the Wasteland in 1922 and is one of the most important literary works of the 20th century. He says the cricket was “no relief” and there was only the County championship to look forward to. His despair was understandable as England were trounced in Australia and then again in England in 1921. Warwick, the Big Ship, Armstrong and his fast bowlers Gregory and MacDonald were too fast and good for England.

Now into the 21st century cricket needs to look itself in the mirror.

Slow over rates and time wasting by teams detracts from the enjoyment of the game. The front foot no ball rule distracts umpires from concentrating on the crucial decisions like LBWs and snicks. The rules governing bad light are outdated and contradictory. Cricket in the end is a contest between bat and ball and, unfortunately, the balance is tilted heavily in the favour of the batsman. Shorter boundaries, heavier bats, increased levels of protective equipment and bland pitches all contribute to a spectacle that is predictable and in the end self defeating.

I believe the spectator is being shortchanged. TV broadcasters are not too worried if the overs take longer and the day’s play is extended – more ads. To counter this I suggest we speed up the game.

Dead ball rule: The biggest blight on cricket is the wastage of time and inability to bowl 90 overs in a day. This is also short changing the paying punter. The concept of dead ball is an anachronism and needs to be erased from the rule book. I am proposing the ball is “live” at all times except in the case of a serious injury. This will keep non-striking batsmen from being half way down the pitch as the bowler delivers. It will stop batsmen patting down imaginary bits of loose turf. It will stop batsmen having mid pitch conferences where they talk about the good looking woman in row 55 in the Sheridan stand.

If teams can bowl 120 overs in a day then four-day tests would be a good idea. You could start on a Thursday and finish on Sunday, thereby appealing to a broader cross section.

The front foot no ball rule: If the umpire is concentrating on the no ball then he has little time left to focus on LBWs and snicks. Six inches over the line is no big deal. In any case there is a UDRS in place to pick this up. The umpire should be told to concentrate on the lbws and snicks and leave the no ball to the third umpire.

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The light rule is a joke. Any ground that has floodlights should make use of them. Light should never be offered. The batsmen have enough protection.

I also feel we must have pitches with a minimum level of bounce. There are instruments that can measure this. I have mentioned the use of a Stimpmeter in golf which determines the speed of a green. It should not be too difficult to apply this to determine the “speed” of a 22 yard cricket pitch.

Greg Russell: For many pundits the problems of (test) cricket are largely associated with the so-called dominance of bat over ball. For two reasons I have nothing against this phenomenon per se. The first reason concerns its origin: primarily it has arisen from the advent of new forms of protective equipment, most notably helmets. Some therefore suggest that the use of such equipment should be limited.

This is a detestable suggestion to those of us who are old enough to remember truly horrific incidents such as England bowler Peter Lever felling New Zealand tail-ender Ewen Chatfield. Neanderthals who want their sport to have a real risk of death should not defile the cricketing ranks and should instead spend their time following boxing.

Greater safety is not the only reason that I do not mind bat lording it over ball. Perhaps even more so is the reality that most viewers prefer to see good batting. This phenomenon is well captured by a famous story about W.G. Grace. The great man is reputed to have said, when once he was dismissed early, “They’ve come to see me bat, not you umpire”. This highlights a peculiar imbalance in cricket: if a great batsman is dismissed early, then an adoring crowd cannot see him bat at all. However a great bowler can have a bad day at the office, and yet the attendant masses will still see him send down 20 overs.

Even for most Australian spectators, a perfect day of test cricket would be to see Tendulkar score a century and then Warne dismiss him.

Of course the problem with bat dominating ball is that it can lead to turgid tests. The way around this is not to standardize pitches. One of the true delights of cricket is the great variability in conditions, as reflected in climate – how amusing it is to see the Sri Lankans pile on the sweaters when they are condemned to playing in Dunedin! – and even more so in pitches. In any case, variation of soil and climate makes it impossible to standardize pitches.
Besides all this, there are many ways to skin a cat.

The Adelaide Oval has a wonderful record of high first-innings scores followed by calamitous collapses on days 4 and 5 as the deteriorating pitch delivers an exciting finish. On the other hand, grounds like the WACA and Headingley seem to be difficult to bat on at first, but then get better and better as time goes on. This variety – which fundamentally derives from very different pitches – is fascinating and is in marked contrast to most sports.

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As implied by the above, a changing nature is often the key to a good test pitch. Rather than seeking forms of pitch standardisation, the ICC would do better to look out for those pitches that are notorious for not changing during the course of a match. For example, the Antigua Recreation Ground is where Brian Lara twice set world record test scores, and where even the talented but fickle Chris Gayle managed a triple century, against South Africa no less. Needless to say, none of these matches ever looked like generating a result. Why, one might wonder, has the ICC continued to allow tests to be played on this ground? Similarly for SSC Colombo, where Sangakkara and (Mahela) Jayawardene are serial scorers of double centuries.

This, then, is my proposal for better test pitches: that the ICC’s Cricket Committee should monitor results, and any ground that is regularly host to skittles or to batting festivals should have its “licence” withdrawn until such time as first-class results show the pitch is more conducive to good cricket with a decent balance between bat and ball.
Providing greater reward for spin bowlers would solve a lot of test cricket’s ills.

For example, it would almost automatically achieve over rates of 100+ per day, and bad light would become far less of an issue, because gloomy conditions could be countered by an instruction from the umpires for a captain to bowl his spinners. No-balls and wides would become much less common. The game would more become a contest between ball and bat, as opposed to ball and bat plus protective equipment.

Would it be right for the ICC to give advantages to spin bowling? Those who have read Steven Jay Gould’s book Life’s Grandeur will be aware that American baseball authorities have constantly monitored MLB batting averages throughout the history of the game, and whenever batting or pitching has become slightly dominant, rules have been tweaked – primarily the height of the pitching mound – to bring the average batting average back to the desired value of 0.26. Why should cricket authorities not do the same?

How might spinners be aided? One obvious way is to loosen the LBW restrictions, for example by allowing LBWs when the ball pitches outside leg-stump (for spin bowlers only). Thinking of episodes like Phil Tufnell bowling leg-side to Mark Waugh, some might find this unedifying. But really what it would do is put the onus on batsmen to develop ways of dealing with such a bowling line. This is not unreasonable given that the ball is arriving at a speed of less than 100 km/h (the criterion that might be used to define a ‘spin’ bowler).

The Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) should also help the cause of spin bowlers. The recently retired Rudi Koertzen has stated the obvious: that Shane Warne was the hardest bowler to umpire, because of the pressure he applied. What Rudi does not seem to realize is that there was an excellent reason for this: because his exceptionally conservative umpiring to spin bowling meant that he turned down many appeals from Warne which were actually out. The UDRS should attend to injustices like this.

On the topic of the UDRS, it is a no-brainer that it should be used for monitoring of no-balls, so that the on-field umpires can concentrate more fully on the more difficult and more important tasks of an umpire. Of course this proposal requires that the Luddites of Indian cricket accept the universal adoption of the UDRS I have always agreed with Martin Crowe’s idea that leg byes should be scrapped. A rule change like this will speed up the game and will avoid making umpires decide if there was intention to hit the ball (in which case leg byes are allowed) – this is often difficult.

For better or for worse, today’s sporting Zeitgeist is very much at odds with cricket’s practice of not allowing injured players to be replaced. Sometimes this is critical – through plain bad luck, a side suffers a crucial injury early in a test match, and then suffers greatly from this player’s absence.

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Steve Waugh has also commented on the asymmetry of this rule: an injured batsman can usually still bat to some extent, but an injured bowler cannot bowl at all. Waugh’s suggested solution for this inequity is to abolish runners, so that a batsman who cannot run has to score his runs in 4s and 6s (and ditto, I guess, for the fully fit batsman at the other end).

Waugh is correct that this would provide exceptional entertainment.

Part II will appear on The Roar soon