Monday, November 10, 2008

Bowling up hill into the breeze

Is test cricket dead?

I ask because today was the last day of the Border-Gavaskar series. As I write Australia have just lost the test by 173 runs thus have lost the series 2-0. Australia and India are the two best sides in the world; they have had a run of fantastic test series over the last 7 odd years; and India were looking like winning the trophy for the first time since 2004, and yet if you saw a picture of the stadium, you would have seen that virtually no one was there to watch.

Indians, supposedly the most "cricket mad people on earth" don't give a stuff. Now look I know the ticket prices may be high by comparison with the average wage of Indians. And India certainly still is poor - its GDP per capita is about US$2600 (Australia's is around $36,700). And I couldn't find an average weekly earnings figure, but if we divide $2600 by 52 we get US$50 on average a week (a VERY rough guestimate). But the lowest price for a day at the cricket at the 5th test is 150 rupee (about US$3.15), or about 6.3% of the weekly earnings. By comparison using this measure, Australia's weekly earnings would be $705, and an equivalent ticket to the cricket would be around $44. In reality, the price to go a day of the Boxing Day test match is $98.

Now this isn't to have a go at Indians, because if I had to stump up $44 to sit on a concrete step, I'd probably give it a pass as well (would it kill the Indian stadium owner to put seats all the way round?). But the fact is, put on a Twenty20 match, and the joint will be packed. Put on even a one day game, and the crowds will come. Test cricket? Nah. (And if we are honest you can say the same about Australian test matches - the Ashes excepted - and even our one day crowds aren't that flash.)

And to be honest I don't blame them, because this series has at times been as boring as sitting around waiting for paint to dry by watching the grass grow. (But it has also at times been fantastic viewing).

Both sides have consistently bowled wide of off stump, with at times negative field. And both sides have had absolutely atrocious over rates. Because the match ended in a result, today's over rate won't matter (ie the captain won't be fined), but in the first session of play, India only bowled 21 overs. They're meant to bowl 30. Now because India didn't need to win the match, going slow didn't bother them - it was a 'tactic' - less overs means less balls off of which to score runs. Tactics is one way to describe it; cheating is better

But yesterday Australia was just as bad. When Australia had India in trouble, Ponting brought on his part-time bowlers to helps increase the over-rate to prevent himself from getting banned due to slow play.

It let India off the hook, and serves Ponting right. If he can't get his team to bowl 15 overs an hour, he deserves to gets banned. People don't pay to see 6 hours of cricket; they pay to see 90 overs. If you can't give people their money's worth, go back to grade cricket where you're playing in front of family and bored friends.

But there are more problems than over-rates. Test cricket is bloody old, and not in a good "fine tradition" way. It's old in an "annoying old grandfather who has to get to church 40 minutes early so he can sit in his same place in the pew every week" way.

So much of it could be changed but isn't because... well who knows really.

Look off the top of my head here are a few suggestions:

1. Bowl an average of 30 overs every two hours. 10 run penalty per over under that rate. If the batsmen cause slow play (endless drink breaks etc - 5 runs penalty per over awarded against them). Don't wait till the end of the day.

If this doesn't work, then break it down more - and let the umpires take control. When they're ready, the players should be ready. In tennis, the umpire calls "time" and that means the player has to serve. If the umpire thinks either side is wasting time, then award 5 runs then and there.

2. Ditch the lunch and tea breaks. Two hours and you need a break? Please. Three hours play and then you can have a 30 minute break. Let players use the 12th man more judiciously if need be - heck let the 12th man become a de facto "designated-fielder". I don't care if a bowler goes off for a massage break after bowling 10 overs, if it means he'll go a bit quicker, all the better. A general drinks break every 40 minutes should be enough - depending on the heat - but a break for afternoon tea? What is it, 1890?

3. Ditch the toss. India won the toss 3 out of 4 times this series. Why should that be such an advantage? Have one toss before the series to decide who has first pick, then take it in turns to choose. If there are an odd number of tests, the visitors get the final test. Actually this would be the first thing I would ditch. In baseball they don't have it - the home team always bats second. At the least it would put an end to the "win the toss, win the match" arguments.

4. Day-night test matches. I don't care if it will ruin the purity of the red ball. I don't care if batting at night is not as easy, and so teams will declare at twilight. I don't care if the white ball gets dirty so you have to change it more often. Suck it up princesses. You've been playing day- night one-dayers for 30 years, live with it.

The best reason for day night games? Never again will a game be called because of bad light. Plus the game goes for 5 days, so only 2 at most are on a weekend, there's nothing worse than being at work while the test match is on, with a day-night test at least the working population will get to see a few hours of cricket.

Look there are no doubt a few more things that could be done, but these are all I could think of while watching a replay of Question Time today (quick recap - Rudd dodged the question of whether he leaked the Bush phone call to The Australian, and Julia Gillard absolutely slaughtered Sophie Mirrabella).

I'll do a few more posts on cricket as the season gets closer. But I'll leave with this - I love test cricket. Some of the most enjoyable days of my youth were at the Adelaide Oval watching a day's play. I remember Greg Chappell scoring 61 runs against the West Indies in the 81-82 series, which ended his run of ducks. I was there when Craig McDermott supposedly got caught behind off of Courtney Walsh, meaning Australia lost by 1 run. I saw Mark Waugh and Greg Blewitt score centuries in their maiden tests. Heck I love test cricket even though my teenage years meant going to the cricket at Adelaide Oval and invariably seeing a draw (7 times out of 8 from 1983-1991).

I am bored by one-dayers - always have been. I loathe Twenty20 - it's the only time I've ever been at a cricket match and realised the score was irrelevant. So I don't seek to make test cricket "new" or "groovy", I just want to clear out the dead wood so to speak. They used to have timeless tests. They used to have a rest day. The players used to wear their shirts unbuttoned to their navels.

Test cricket is not unchanging, but it is in trouble.

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