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The insidious evolution of Test cricket – and who's to blame

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Roar Guru
10th July, 2019
16

The ICC recently decided to have Test players wear numbers, starting with the Ashes series in August.

This has been met with a chorus of condemnation, with many claiming another bastion of Test cricket, the (predominantly) white uniform, is disappearing.

This may well be the case, but what many are failing to realise is the serious damage being done to Test cricket by the players and umpires, as well as the traditions of the game itself.

A complaint from the ‘newer’ generation is Test cricket is too slow. Most take this to mean the pace of play is too slow, that there’s not enough excitement as there is in short form cricket.

The reality is, the whole game operates at a snail’s pace – which is completely inexcusable from the full-time cricketers and umpires.

The warm-up these athletes do is far more energetic than the pedestrian pace of actual play – but they’re allowed to get away with it.

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Let’s talk about what happens at the fall of a wicket.

A batsman gets out and there is almost always a replay of some kind to watch, mostly because umpires no longer worry about checking the bowler’s front foot for overstepping.

Once past that stage, which can take ages, the incoming batsman has two minutes to get onto the field and it’s expected they’re ready to face up a minute or so later.

Nowadays, by the time the fielding side has hugged everyone not involved in the wicket, tried to rub the bowler’s sweaty head, had a(nother) drink, watched the replay, chatted, then sauntered back to their fielding positions, a good four minutes or so has elapsed.

This is when the batsman starts to get ready – surveying the field, marking guard by taking 30 seconds to repeatedly dig a trench at the striker’s end, face up, then pull away because the fielding captain decides on a last-minute change, then face up.

When it’s all said and done, five or six minutes have passed.

Bear in mind, this happens when a player is given out, but can also happen four times per Test innings for batsmen reviews, all of which follow the same process mentioned above, but don’t always include the new batsman part – still significant time wasters.

And how many pairs of gloves does a batsman need in a two-hour session? There is something incongruous about seeing a dozen pairs of batting gloves lying beside the boundary rope – all for one batsman.

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These appear to be changed at least three or four times per session, regardless of how hot or humid it is, which is yet another excuse for a drink, and a yarn between the bloke in the high-viz jacket and the two batsmen ( presumably because it takes three of them to help put on one pair of gloves).

The batsman facing (it’s always they who need new gloves) then has to take guard by digging another 30-second trench, check the field, wait for a late fielding change, then get ready to face up.

And you rarely see both batsmen change gloves at the same time. The second guy will go through the same process an over or two later.

Occasionally batsmen will play the ‘helmet and cap game’, where they switch between the two because a spinner or two might be operating.

In fairness, this usually only happens at the end of an over, but always coincides with a drink, a yarn, etc.

Batsmen are rarely ready when the bowler is set to go, because many have the fidgets. Many seem to have to go through a routine that wastes time. Why? Look at guys like Steve Smith and David Warner between deliveries. They have almost the same routine, regardless of whether they face a faster bowler or a spinner, and it takes ages.

Steve Smith David Warner ODI

David Warner and Steve Smith (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Fielders must be far less fit than 50 years ago, because they take forever to move to positions between overs! They also seem to suffer from memory lapses, as captains find some reason to change people around several times an over, which presumably means they don’t know where to stand.

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Curiously, bowlers are not really to blame in this charade, although they’ve copped the most stick over the years. Most move back to their marks quickly, come on at the start of an over without fuss, and generally try to get on with the game.

Drinks breaks are a tradition that was huge when I was playing on long, hot Saturday afternoons, when there were no drinks allowed, outside prescribed breaks.

Are these breaks really necessary now in Test cricket? Guys in hi-viz jackets stream on and off the field, almost whenever they like it, bringing drinks to batsmen and fielders, while bowlers have an unending supply if they’re on the fence.

The breaks are a terrific advertisement for Victorian England, when players often sat down to a lavish lunch and afternoon tea. The concepts made sense in that era, but is this tradition still required given the slowness of play, as well as the drinks and food constantly being run onto the field?

Remember too, cricket traditionally started late morning, or even noon, then went on until 6 or 7 o’clock, with few if any interruptions. Nowadays, Tests can start at 9am or as late as mid-afternoon, making the whole break concept complete nonsense.

Day-night Test cricket Adelaide Oval Australia New Zealand

AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Injuries also seem to take way longer to resolve. In years gone by, a physio or doctor would come onto the field to treat a player. It was fine if te treatment could be done quickly, otherwise the player was replaced.

In the modern era, injured players stay on for minutes, which makes sense if it’s a serious injury which requires stabilising or the player needs transport off the ground. Otherwise? Why not revert to older methods to keep the game moving?

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The umpires are as much to blame as the players for this mess. The umpires have two roles in a day’s play: apply the rules and administer the game so play continues at a reasonable pace.

Sadly, most Test umpires struggle with both roles. They not only fail to stop a lot of the practices that slow the game, they actively contribute.

Rarely do we hear a no-ball called, though there’s plenty of video evidence to suggest they’re bowled regularly. This means we often have play stopped for a possible wicket because the umpire wants to check the very thing they should have been looking for, as part of their rules adjudicator role.

They too have drinks breaks at fall of wickets, they take their sweet time when a break in play occurs – getting players ready again – and they call upon DRS referrals for obvious decisions.

The best of the lot though, and a personal bugbear, is that they have to move from square leg to square leg when a left and right-hander change ends. Why? It doesn’t happen often, but is one practice guaranteed to annoy.

Many years ago, I asked the great Australian umpire Col Egar about this and his answer was simple – this is how we were taught. In an era of DRS and multiple cameras, is this silly practice still really necessary?

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The ICC has its priorities wrong when it wants to introduce numbers onto Test shirts, yet won’t address practices and poorly administered traditions that are white-anting Test cricket.

Perhaps there needs to be some sort of moment, like the sandpaper issue last year, to force member nations to agree they all have allowed players and umpires to trash any notion of giving spectators 90 overs of cricket in a day’s play.