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August 19, 1997


Over, and out

Harsha Bhogle

Amidst all the records set in recent times - and they are coming like the rain does during a Test match in Kandy - there is one that will only merit a footnote. And that too, in the most meticulous and complete of scorecards.

But it is symbolic of the state of mind of a cricket team. It is a symptom for what I believe is a raging fever.

During the second Test match at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, India were fined 195 per cent of their match fee for slow over rates. Effectively, it means that the Indians earned nothing out of the two Test match series, and while that might please a few perverse minds, it should sadden India's cricket administrators.

I can visualise the match referee, John Reid, almost lying in wait at the opportunity of exercising his authority once again. He is not the most popular of referees, because a lot of players find him excessively officious - but I believe he got it absolutely right here. Normally, a team gets docked 5 per cent of its match fee per over bowled short, and given that the Indians bowled 22 short, they should have lost 110 per cent.

Clearly, Reid has exercised his discretion by going for 195 per cent and, by leaving a few crumbs behind, he has also displayed a rather wicked sense of humour.

I hope the Indians see it that way, though. In fact, given our terrible over-rates, I hope someone sees it some way. I hope someone sees it. Period.

I believe it is appalling. Cricket is a contest between bat and ball - not an exercise in waiting for a bowler to deliver a ball. Preparing pitches where 15 wickets go down in 5 days is bad enough. Not sending down enough balls is simply unacceptable.

In the odd cricket match, it could be a strategic tool. But India have long lost the right to the benefit of that doubt, because our over-rates have been very lethargic for several years now. It is strange, isn't it? You would expect a side that bowls a lot of spin to catch up with the required rate of 15 overs per hour quite easily. In fact, we do probably bowl our overs quickly enough - the problem is the time in between.

A side that wants to win will want to bowl as many balls as possible on the rather simple, and tested, premise that you need to bowl a ball to get a wicket. Conversely, therefore, a side that does not bowl enough reduces its chances of getting wickets. By bowling 22 overs short, India passed over the option of getting a wicket 132 times. To me, that suggests a side that is desperately defensive, a side that is perfectly happy not winning.

One-day cricket was faced with a similar problem when the law stated that the side batting second would get as many overs as they had bowled. By slowing the game down in the last hour, a bowling side could thus reduce the number of slog overs the batsmen got, and very often, teams only bowled 43 or 44 overs in three and a half hours. Soon, the law was changed. It now says that the team batting second will get only as many overs as it bowls till the scheduled lunch hour, but will then have to go on bowling till 50 overs have been completed. That means you allow the opposition to bat 50 overs, while you only allow yourself a smaller number.

Since then, the problem has vanished. Totally. I think it is a matter of regret that the law had to be introduced, but it showed up how the game was being played.

That moment has now come in Test cricket.

Shane Warne has, in fact recommended that the system of fines be scrapped and run penalties introduced. He recommends a whopping 20 runs per over - which is a bit like calling for a pickpocket to be executed. Closer to 8 runs per over bowled short might be more feasible.

It would make the match referee acquire the powers of a hanging judge, because his discretion would determine what total a side ends up with and, sometimes, he could decide the outcome of a Test match. Admittedly, that is a less than perfect solution, because match referees can sometimes get it terribly wrong, as we saw with the Allan Donald situation in South Africa when Barry Jarman was the referee.

But something tells me that teams would not want to leave it to the referee.

The bottom line is: people pay to see 90 overs a day at 15 overs an hour. You cannot cheat them by giving them less cricket.

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