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Test Cricket: No longer a three-horse race?

TAGs: alastair cook, Australia, cricket, England, Guest Contributor, Matt Harris

Test Cricket: No longer a three-horse race?England’s defeat to Australia at the Oval represents the ninth test match in succession where Alastair Cook’s men have been involved in a positive result. The April fixture against the West Indies – England’s first of 2015 – produced an outcome which is becoming increasingly rare; the draw.

Facing facts

The TV pundits are saying it and on this occasion at least, the stats are backing them up: The draw is going out of the game. England’s recent win over Australia at Trent Bridge saw Captain Cook regain the Ashes in 14 days of cricket out of a possible 20 and few expected the final game at the Oval to be any different. As it transpired, four days in SE11 produced victory for Australia as this became the first five test series in the history of the game where no cricket was played on a fifth day.

The majority of blame is being placed firmly on the rise of T20 and that seems a fair deduction. The pace of the game has moved on and a test match run rate of 4 per over is just mediocre for 2015. Commentators remarked on the speed of Joe Root’s hundred at Trent Bridge, but a century in 127 balls is, once again, an unremarkable feat these days. A rather more unusual effort was Adam Voges’ unbeaten 51 from 118 deliveries in Australia’s second innings which showed a rare ability for a batsman to occupy the crease.

The days of Geoff Boycott, Chris Tavare and even Jonathan Trott are seemingly gone – for now at least.

A four year shift

The bookmakers have also recognised the shift: Step back in time to 2013 when the same sides were preparing for an Oval test under similar circumstances. Two years ago, the match was a dead rubber as England headed into the game with an unassailable 3-0 lead – a scoreline which could have mirrored 2015’s 3-1 had bad weather not denied the Australians at Old Trafford.

In 2013, the best odds on a draw were listed on the eve of the game at around the 3.80 mark. In 2015, the lead up to the Oval Test saw a best price of 4.50 which slipped out to 5.00 by the morning of the match.  A lengthening by 1.2 points is a relatively significant one and the death of the draw is a factor that bookies are well aware of.

“We’ve been very aware,” said Rupert Adams, Media Relations spokesman for William Hill.

“We’ve always tried to actively get the draw into the book for a number of years now; draws tend to only happen around 20% of the time in test cricket in the last 10 years and the majority of those have been weather related. Add the fact that run rates have dramatically improved since the introduction of Twenty20 as well as attacking captaincy from the likes of Brendon McCullum and the days of short price draw lays are getting reduced.”

Adams also confirmed that Hill’s draw prices have reacted accordingly.

“The average draw price was around 7/4 a few years ago, now it’s out to 5/2, a 75 tick increase.”

 

Radical changes afoot?

Since the occasionally soporific days of timeless tests drew to a welcome close, games of test cricket have been standardized to the current five day limit but could that change in the future? New ECB Chairman Colin Graves revealed that the board was considering whether to push for plans that would see four day games introduced.

“Personally, I think we should look at four-day Test cricket and play 105 overs a day starting at 10.30am in the morning, and finish when you finish as all the grounds now have lights,” Graves stated on the ECB website.

“From a cost point of view, you`d lose that fifth day, which would save a hell of a lot of money from the ground`s point of view and the broadcasters. I would look at that.”

In terms of balls bowled however, the increase to 105 overs a day may negate the loss of a fifth day and the plan has heard plenty of dissenting voices.

“As a purist of the game, I would like to see Test cricket maintain its 5 day status and would be disappointed if they changed to four days,” added Rupert Adams.

“Test cricket is still the pinnacle of the sport, as shown in Ashes Series both past & present.”

Six year stats

India’s second test in Sri Lanka, which ran concurrently with the Oval game but extended into a fifth day, brought an end to the 25th completed test of 2015. Of those 25, only six resulted in draws and that figure includes three rain-ruined games that were deemed worthy of being staged in Bangladesh during the monsoon season.

At the same stage in August 2009, when international T20 cricket was still in its relative infancy, 11 draws had been played out in 28 completed tests. Percentage wise that equates to 24% of drawn games in 2015 as opposed to 39% six years ago.

Clearly if you take out the fixtures in Bangladesh then the difference is even greater and the marked increase in positive results is more emphatic. Remember, the ability to read weather forecasts will find little reward in the markets and ahead of the second test between Bangladesh and South Africa – a game where only one day’s play was possible out of the scheduled five – the best draw odds stood at around a miserly 1.62.

A results business

The pressure on groundsmen to produce result wickets is another potential factor in the demise of the draw. In 2014 during the England – India series, the opening match in Nottingham produced a bore-fest. Tail enders routinely brought up half centuries with the bat as England’s number 11 James Anderson eclipsed his career best with a scarcely believable 81.

In the aftermath, the pitch was rated ‘poor’ by ICC referee David Boon and the possible implications for the host county are huge. Fines could be followed by the loss of a future test match and the vital revenue that comes with it so perhaps it’s no surprise that 2014’s sublime draw was followed by England’s ridiculous win at the same Trent Bridge ground 12 months later.

The case against the draw gathers more evidence with William Hill’s Rupert Adams identifying another issue. With T20 and ODI matches becoming more prevalent, are some countries placing more emphasis on limited overs cricket to the detriment of their test side?

“People will always want to bet on test cricket, whatever the standard.  However for the integrity and standards of the product we need as many countries playing good levels of test cricket and the ICC need to ensure that this happens before countries like Sri Lanka, New Zealand & West Indies concentrate solely on one day cricket.”

Result wickets, a faster paced game and weaker test sides all contribute to the shift. At odds of around 5.00 for a five day match with no anticipated weather issues, the draw might start to look tempting but it seems that modern day test cricket is increasingly becoming a two-horse race.

 Matt Harris is head of sports content at 90Digital.com and a freelance sports writer who contributes regularly to betting.betfair.com

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