Cricket administrators have, for long, struggled to find the ideal solution to the vexatious over-rate issue that has been rampant across levels and formats. Financial penalties and the suspension of captains didn’t make too much difference, especially in Test cricket where the over rates have ranged from the middling to the abysmal.
While there is every opportunity to make up for lost time in a five-day game supposed to encompass 450 overs – in any case, most Tests are ending well within the distance – it is hardly edifying when a Twenty20 game, scheduled to last no more than three hours and 10 minutes, the 20-minute break included, drags on for upwards of four hours.
If there is a poor advertisement for the sport, it’s a game starting at 8 pm local time and dragging on to the following day even in the absence of any interruption from the elements. More often than not, the spectators don’t complain because a delayed finish invariably points to a thrilling encounter, but that can’t be the only factor in consideration. It speaks to a certain disrespect for the rules and regulations if players continue to cross the line, secure in the knowledge that whatever fines are slapped on them make nary a difference to their lifestyle.
Seized with the necessity to address this problem, at least in the 20-over format to start with, the International Cricket Council drew on the experiences of the England and Wales Cricket Board to introduce a significant rule-change at the start of the year that brings about instant cricketing punishment for tarrying on the field.
In the inaugural edition of the otherwise unremarkable The Hundred, the ECB came up with the idea of an extra fielder from the deep having to perforce come inside the 30-yard circle for the number of overs that haven’t been completed by the stipulated time after all allowances have been taken into consideration.
The ICC was so taken up by the concept that, in January this year, it immediately embraced it in both men’s and women’s Twenty20 Internationals. Each 20-over innings is due to last 85 minutes, with adequate allowances being made for injuries, the use of DRS following player referrals and umpire referrals for run-outs and stumpings, as well as for any other stoppages such as sight screen malfunction and their ilk.
To try and ensure that teams don’t take things for granted, the ICC said: “A fielding side must be in a position to bowl the first ball of the final over of the innings by the scheduled or rescheduled time for the end of the innings. If they are not in such a position, one fewer fielder will be permitted outside of the 30-yard circle for the remaining overs of the innings.”
This is a rule change that comes with tremendous repercussions, as was witnessed in the Asia Cup in the UAE in August-September. Indeed, India had been the beneficiaries of West Indies’ largesse during the T20I series in the Caribbean and the US in July-August, but it appeared as if they hadn’t paid too much attention to this aspect because in their Asia Cup opener against Pakistan in Dubai on August 28, they were a shocking three overs short, which meant for the last three overs of Pakistan’s innings, they had only four fielders patrolling the boundaries.
India could count themselves lucky that Pakistan were staring down the barrel at that stage, at 114 for six after 17 overs, with all their heavy artillery having already been silenced. To add to India’s good fortune, the dangerous Mohammad Nawaz was dismissed by Arshdeep Singh off the first delivery of the 18th over, but with only the bowlers to contend with, India still conceded 33 runs in the last 17 deliveries of the Pakistani innings when the penalty was in place.
Pakistani eyes too were clearly not on the ball, it seemed, because they were generous in returning the compliment when India set out to hunt down the 148 needed for victory. They too were three overs too slow, which made India’s task of having to score 29 off the last 18 deliveries that much simpler. It still took a six off the fourth ball of the final over from Player of the Match Hardik Pandya to seal the deal, merely reiterating that there might have been a different story to tell if Babar Azam and his men had one eye on the clock.
“We do discuss that (the over rate issue),” senior India paceman Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who took four for 26, acknowledged after the match. “It’s one of those areas because of which you can win or lose the match. Today, we were lucky that Pakistan were short in the last three overs, so it balanced itself out. But we always talk about the over rate because in the final of the Asia Cup or the World Cup, if this happens, we can lose the match and that’s not a nice way to lose the match. This is something that will definitely be addressed in our next meeting.”
If it was addressed, it didn’t make that much of a difference, really, because in their next game against Pakistan a week later, India were again one over short. Even with five fielders in the outfield, it is likely that Arshdeep wouldn’t have been able to defend seven runs off the last over, but why make matters difficult for oneself?
Of course, it is pertinent to keep in mind that conditions in the UAE were oppressive, with temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius at the scheduled 6 pm local starting time. The umpires and the match referees were lenient to the extent possible, which is why for a team to be as many as three overs short is incredible. And no one can claim to be caught cold because from as early as the fourth or fifth over itself, the electronic score board at the ground loudly proclaims to anyone who cares to cast a glance if the bowling team is ahead of, behind or in sync with the over rate.
Now that the precedent has been set and the match officials have shown their hand, there can be no more excuses for sides not sticking to the time limit.
There are three primary reasons a team doesn’t complete its overs in time – a complete disregard for moving swiftly between overs, the pace at which a fast bowler walks back to the top of his bowling mark, and how long drawn out the discussions are between the captain and the bowler with regard to field placements. Most of these transgressions of time occur when the batting side is on top, which is when the discussions become longer, too many people are busy trying to set the field, and there is a certain lethargy and lack of energy amongst the bowlers taking a pounding.
There is no one period where the game can start to meander. Sometimes, when the batting team is lording the Powerplay, the fielding captain makes a deliberate attempt to slow the game down, which is well within his means provided he and his colleagues are on the same page and have the nous and the wherewithal to catch up with the over rate as the innings progresses. That is non-negotiable. To inflict upon oneself the often-decisive penalty of one additional resource lost in the final stages of an innings is unpardonable, no matter how many pacers there might be in a playing XI.
Swiftness between overs and a designated ‘score board observer’ – whose duty it should be to keep a watch on the over rate – who could inform the otherwise already-burdened captain of the need to hurry things up will soon become as much a part of strategy as the match-ups and designated pinch-hitters at various stages of the 20-over bash.
With the World Cup less than five weeks away, the next fortnight which includes two three-match series against Australia and South Africa will give Rohit Sharma’s side the opportunity to iron out the kinks at the dress rehearsal so that they aren’t found muffing their lines when it matters the most. Australia and South Africa generally don’t have issues with the over rate, and they will ensure that any lapse on India’s part will not go unpunished in a grim reminder of what might be in store if India don’t pay heed to the basics.
A little bit of intent – the new mantra of Indian cricket – and common sense is all that is required to stay on the right side of the law. India have already been warned. It will be interesting to see how they respond now, and next month in Australia when they resume their quest for a global title that has remained elusive since 2013.