On Day 2 at the Oval, England bowled 39 overs in three and a half hours according to one estimate. Their overrate was decidedly slow. At first glance, it was clearly below the prescribed 15 overs per hour. Time wasting has already been an issue earlier in the Ashes. David Warner suggested that England wasted time on Day 4 at Old Trafford. After yesterdays play, England's strategy was criticized widely enough to merit its own story apart from the match report. The sticking point is that England bowled 11.5 overs in the hour after tea. Australia scored about 90 runs in that passage of play, a scoring rate which always slows things down.
The suggestion of time wasting invites a lot of scorn, especially from the "give-the-spectators-their-money's-worth" crowd. On the face of it, the argument that a spectator who gets to watch only 87 overs in six and a half hours of gripping cricket as opposed to 100 overs in 6 hours of cricket where the overs are fired in one after another by Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin on a dead pitch, is obviously ridiculous. Are there moments in a day's play when a fielding captain's indecision causes delays? Yes of course. Are there other times when a fielding captain may want to slow down the game to break the momentum of the batting pair? Yes. This is entirely legitimate, as long as the fielding captain makes up for it elsewhere. That is what the rules say, as I will show in a moment. But think about this. If a match got over on the 4th day after 65 overs of play, would the spectators be entitled to 25 overs worth of money back? If Cricket is really a sport, is it really reasonable measure ticket price per over? This is, in my view, an extremely silly argument that bears that lethal combination of righteousness, fairness and moderation.
Even established commentators like Harsha Bhogle appear to think that the ICC's rules require 15 overs to be bowled in every hour. Every time a team slows down the overrate, supporters of the opposition and neutrals. Yet, overrates are, as far as I can tell, one of the few things in the Code of Conduct which are enforced consistently by the Match Referee.
The MCC is still the guardian of the Laws of Cricket. Test Matches are played according to the ICC's amendments to those laws. The laws applicable to Test Cricket are published in the ICC's Playing Handbook. This is an annual publication. The rules about minimum overrate are given under Law 16, which ICC have extended substantially. I have copied the relevant portion at the end of this post.
The ICC requires that the minimum over rate to be achieved in Test Matches will be 15 overs per hour. This does not, however mean that 90 overs have to be bowled in a days play. 2 minutes are deducted for the fall of a wicket, as long as this does not take place off the last ball before an interval, or is the last wicket to fall in an innings. 4 minutes are deducted for the fall of a wicket. So, if 2 wickets and 1 drinks break are taken in a 2 hour session of play, then, assuming that no other delays occur, the over rate of 15 overs per hour will have been achieved if the bowling team delivers 28 overs.
In any event, none of this matters if a team is bowled out in less than three and a half hours. The ICC's overrate formula is designed to account for progress in the game. This is why, the overrate is calculated only at the end of the match. The overrate of a team is also the average rate which is achieved by a fielding team across both of the batting team's innings. So England having 1 slow hour has no relevance because individual hours are not considered separately. As long as England make up time when they bowl again, they should be fine. However, if they don't get a chance to bowl again, then their overrate during Australia's 1st innings will count as their overrate for the match.
Every other matter in the Code of Conduct requires the umpires, the team manager, the CEO of the participating Board, or the ICC Chief Executive, to make a judgment as to whether or not the Code has been breached. In David Richardson's judgment, Darren Lehmann's comments about Broad constituted a breach of clause 2.1.7. The charge was brought, Lehmann pled guilty and the referee fined him 20% of his match fee. This type of judgment is necessarily inconsistent. In an earlier instance, Graeme Swann not only called an opponent a cheat, but said he wanted to "kill" him. The ICC's Chief Executive did not bring a charge, so Swann was not charged. In the case of the overrate, the umpires are required to calculate the actual overrate of each team after a match. So the umpires have clear data based on which to decide whether or not the overrate was slow or not. Compared to judgments of character, overrates are relatively simple to measure.
The overrate rule is well designed in my view. It sets a requirement without being too intrusive. It allows the game to proceed at a pace dictated by the match situation. It gives the fielding captain a wide berth. Only a captain who thoroughly disregards the overrate will get penalized. The overrate rule is effective as well. We have seen Tests in which the fielding captain leaves the spinner on for half an hour longer, conceding 30 or 40 crucial runs (in place of a fast bowler who might have taken wickets), just because his team is behind on the overrate. This way, the overrate law prevents fielding teams from abusing the privilege of being able to set the tempo of the game, while still allowing them some leeway. Jadeja and Ashwin can easily rattle through 18 or 19 overs in the hour. Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma, when bowling together, can probably only manage about 13.
Based on what I have seen, teams that are behind in the game, teams that are conceding runs at a very fast pace, and teams that are waiting for a declaration, tend to fall behind on the overrate. Even Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Stuart MacGill took 45 extra minutes to finish 90 overs on Day 2 at Sydney in 2004. That was the day when Tendulkar and Laxman added 350 or so against them and India batted into the third day.
Like much of the commentary about DRS, the commentary about overrates seems to ignore the facts. Time wasting is allowed in cricket, as long as the fielding team makes up for it at another point in the match. Even here, Law 42.9 provides Umpires with the power to curb time wasting which they don't consider reasonable. But this law has to be enforced on the field. It has nothing to do with the overrate which is only calculated at the end of the match. There is no symmetry between time wasting by bowlers and batsmen, since batsmen cannot start the play. It is a convention in the game that when the bowler is prepared to run up to bowl, the batsman must be ready to face up. Jonathan Trott flouted this convention and was criticized for it. Time wasting is similarly a convention in cricket.
Teams should be criticized when they overstep the rules. But this criticism must obviously take into account the actual rules, not the second hand modified, fictitious rules that are often bandied about on partisan commentary.
ICC's overrate calculation rules below: