The lesser-prized draw

First, a quiz. In 2016, what linked the Tests between England and South Africa in Cape Town, West Indies and Australia in Sydney, England and Sri Lanka at Lord’s, the first between West Indies and India at Sabina Park, the fourth between those same teams at Queen’s Park Oval, South Africa and New Zealand in Durban, and India and England at Rajkot? The answer is so obvious you may have overlooked it: the result. There were 47 Tests in 2016, and those seven were the only ones that were drawn. So few you can list them all in a single paragraph. Only two decades ago, in 1997, almost half of all Tests played ended in a draw, 21 out of 44. Now you can count them on your fingers.

Seven of 47 is just under 15%. It is not quite the smallest such number in the recent history of Test cricket, but is close to it. It was 15% again in 2002. Otherwise you have to go all the way back to 1950, when only nine Tests were played, to find a year in which a smaller percentage of games were drawn. It is no great revelation, rather a commonplace observation, that draws are becoming less common. But in 2016 the drop was so sharp that it demands a double take. Since 2002 the mean average has been 25%. The figure sometimes rose as high as 36%, and only once dropped below 20%. A 2008 study concluded the number of draws had reached a plateau at one quarter. But it has dropped again, to one fifth in 2015, one sixth in 2016.

Of those seven Tests, four were thoroughly washed out. Only 150 overs were possible in Australia’s Test against West Indies at the SCG a year ago. Hurricane Earl stopped play between West Indies and India at Sabina Park, and the fourth Test of that same series was spoiled by an irretrievably sodden outfield, which meant the match ended up as one of the shortest in Test history, only 22 overs long. At Durban similar problems meant only 99 overs were bowled in the match between South Africa and New Zealand. And a fifth, England’s Test against Sri Lanka, was rained off on the fifth day, when Sri Lanka were 78 for 1, chasing a victory target of 362.

So there were only two straightforward draws, matches in which the teams simply ran out of time to reach a result, in the entire year. Both involved England. The first was that Cape Town game in which Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow battered 399 in three sessions and England then spent two-and-a-half days trying to dismiss Hashim Amla. And the other the match at Rajkot, which India finished six wickets down, and everyone was left wondering whether Alastair Cook had again waited too long before making his declaration. Outside of acts of God, inadequate covers, and England, draws really do not seem to exist in Test cricket any more. It is a radical change, one that poses interesting questions about the state of the game. Widespread worries about flat pitches, for instance, suddenly seem misplaced when so many matches are ending inside five days.

The shift is tied to the other major trend in Test cricket in 2016, which was the number of batting collapses. By Cricinfo’s count, there were 29 in the 47 Tests, ranging from Australia’s losing six wickets for 22 against Sri Lanka at Pallekele, to England losing all 10 for 104 against India in Chennai. Altogether there were 11 matches in which teams lost 10 wickets for under 100 runs, and 10 in which they were bowled out for under 125. So, until this December there had been only four Test matches in which a team had lost by an innings after scoring 400 or more in the first innings. Then it happened three times in three weeks, to England in Mumbai and Chennai, and Pakistan in Melbourne.

There are two issues at play here, both surely to do with the influence of Twenty20. One is that many modern batsmen may lack the practice, technique, or temperament to bat out matches. The other is that fielding teams believe more can be achieved in a shorter space of time. All of this is epitomised by Virat Kohli, the very model of a modern batsman, and his remarks both about how slowly his team-mate Cheteshwar Pujara was scoring during India’s tour of the Caribbean and England’s batting when they were trying to save the second Test in Visakhapatnam. Pujara was dropped after scoring 46 from 159 balls. England collapsed after an opening stand of 75 in 50 overs. On both occasions Kohli spoke about a lack of intent. He seems to see slow and steady batting as an anachronism.

If the reasons for the change seem clear, the consequences of it will not be for a while yet. Traditionally, sports economics has been underpinned by something called the uncertainty of outcome principle, set down by Simon Rottenberg in 1956. Rottenberg’s hypothesis was that the harder it is to predict a result, the more likely people are to pay to watch. Fans do not only want to know their team might win, they need to believe there is a chance they might lose too. A draw need not just be the product of a dull pitch. It can be the upshot of a contest between two well-matched teams and a sign that no one can be sure who has the edge, or will likely emerge the winner over the series.

To finish, another quiz. In 2016, what linked the Tests between Australia and New Zealand at Wellington, England and Sri Lanka at Headingley, West Indies and India in Antigua, Zimbabwe and New Zealand in Bulawayo, Australia and South Africa in Hobart, India and England at both Mumbai and Chennai, and Australia and Pakistan at the MCG? The answer is that all were won with an innings to spare. That’s eight altogether, one more than the number of draws. Another seven Tests were won by seven wickets or more, and another 10 by at least 200 runs. That’s an awful lot of lopsided results. Crushing defeats have become a lot more common than close matches.

Quote of the week

“That’s probably the first time I’ve been booed and cheered for blocking a ball in the same over” – Matt Renshaw describes his curious morning opening the batting with David Warner in the third Test between Australia and Pakistan. Warner, clearly still smarting after he was left out of The Spin’s Test team of 2016 fortnight ago, became the fifth batsman in history to hit a century in the first session of a Test match. The others, for those who like to note such things, were Victor Trumper, Charlie Macartney, Don Bradman, and, odd man out, Majid Khan. Warner scored 25 runs from his first 13 balls, as many as Renshaw made in the entirety of his first two hours at the crease. “I was trying not to keep up with him,” Renshaw said. “He keeps telling me that I’m not going to keep up with him too much, and I didn’t try at all today.”

With nine minutes of the session left, Warner was on 94. He took a single off the first ball of what turned out to be the penultimate over. Renshaw was then booed as he spurned the next four deliveries, and cheered when he blocked the fifth, thereby ensuring Warner would be on strike at the beginning of the final over. He duly swatted two through midwicket, and cut three past backward point to bring up his century. He fell soon after for 113 but Renshaw batted on through to stumps, and finished the day on 167. Australia look to have found themselves a quite formidable opening pair. English fans can at least take some consolation in the fact that Renshaw was born in Middlesbrough and raised in Sheffield.

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