Over rates – that topic of a bemoaning so vociferous that its debate will soon become as tedious as the delays that incite it. Before that point is reached, prithee humour one more monologue on its influence on the game of Test cricket. For slow over-rates, this author would suggest, pose a far more prevalent and immediate threat to the longest form than its younger, more raucous white-ball cousins.
During the first morning of England’s fourth Test against India at the Oval, the tourists bowled 21 overs within a period of 105 minutes, a rate of 12 overs, or 72 deliveries, every hour. England, on day one, took five hours to bowl their 61.2 overs, only a fraction quicker than India’s rate on Friday morning.
Of course, imbeciles running onto the cricket field attempting to squeeze any remaining life out of a long-expired joke do not help. Nor does the gamesmanship of the often culpable batters, who garden, tap down and chat should they wish to take time out of the game. Those wandering blissfully and inexplicably behind the bolwer’s arm regularly need a great deal of attention to be sat down.
But this issue, however more complex than running quickly and dutifully back to your mark, requires solving, and such is not impossible. The Hundred, although often taking longer than expected, pioneered a ‘cut-off’ point for the fielding side, who were then punished for their slowness by having to bring an extra man or woman inside the ring.
That particular sanction would not work in red-ball cricket, but it showed a willingness to change this burden on the game. In Test cricket, and indeed during this India series, the teams have had sizeable chunks knocked off their pay packets and points taken from them in the World Test Championship standings. That is concrete action, but it is a little too retrospective.
If a bowling team is being evidently slow, i.e. through no fault of the batsman, crowd or conditions, run deductions can be employed. That same regular tracking of overs bowled by a certain time from the Hundred can be mimicked with adapted punishments. Should the batters be influencing the speed of proceedings too lethargically, their calls for extra drinks as the English autumn commences should be firmly denied by umpires as they once were. Should their behaviour persist and border on the unacceptable, threats of docked runs can again be introduced.
Test cricket is totally unique as a sport in the significance of the here and now. Only in 2019 did it begin to gain tabled context via the ICC, and frankly it did not need it in many parts of the world prior to the WTC’s introduction . Every ball, to coin a novel phrase, counts, and every shot played is synonymous with some sort of endangerment, critical juncture or long-awaited release.
With that unrivalled, ethereal circumstance defining each passing minute of a Test match, the only way you can exact change on something like slow-over rates is by impacting the present. Subtracting points does that indirectly, but you simply have to put the issue at the forefront of the captains’ and players’ minds.
If they are made constantly aware of the importance of getting through their deliveries through fear of the potentially game-changing spectre of less runs on the board, they surely will speed up there and then. The problem will ease not in hindsight, but in the moment, within the heat of the battle.
The current gap between deliveries leaves too much time for newcomers to the format to change the channel, become detached from the contest, and enamored with a sport more free-flowing. There are so many outside issues complicating the growth of Test cricket. In order to tackle them with authority, we must first solve the internal ones.