Draws in First-Class Cricket

Kissing Your Sister discussed the growing aversion to the draw as an ambiguous result – originally, perhaps, an American phenomenon, but now apparently spreading.

But perhaps that discussion overlooked the one factor that’s particularly relevant to tournament design: Elimination tournaments cannot tolerate draws. And, since the elimination tournament is generally considered the most spectator-friendly, many games themselves have evolved to escape this limitation.

A number of games that once could, and frequently did, end in draws have been changed, at least in part so that they can accommodate the elimination format. They have been altered so that they now always produce a winner. Both this tendency, and some resistance to it, are illustrated by a single game: cricket.

First-class cricket, as perhaps the name implies, is what that some cricket purists will insist is the only true form of the game. It might also be called long-form cricket, as it takes a long time to play. Its loftiest incarnation, test cricket, is first-class cricket played by national sides. The most storied rivalry in cricket is The Ashes – currently a series of five test matches played every other year (or so) between England and Australia.

In modern test cricket, a single match is scheduled for five days of play. Each day has three two-hour play sessions, with another hour devoted to two breaks: 40 minutes for lunch, and another 20 minutes for tea. Play can be somewhat extended if the umpires determine that the players have not been playing fast enough, which these days is the rule rather than the exception. And it can also be extended to some degree to make up for time lost if play is interrupted by rain, or for some other reason.

Thus, a single match is often comprised of thirty hours or more of actual play over five long days. It is fairly common for a match to finish in four days, or even three, but many go the full five days, and even then there isn’t always time to finish the game.

In cricket, a “tie” and a “draw” are two different things. A tie match is one that ends with the scores even. With scores that routinely reach several hundred runs, ties are exceedingly rare – there have only been two tied matches in the 140 years that test cricket has been played.

A draw is the result when, despite extended hours of play (or often the truncation of those hours by bad weather), five days is not enough time to finish the match. If time for the match expires before the last wicket is taken, the match is considered a draw, regardless of the score at the time.

The incidence of draws in test cricket is substantial. But it has been declining since the early 1980’s, when it was about 45%, to the present, when about 25% of all test matches end as draws. This is a cause of concern for some.

Many Americans will wonder how first-class cricket can possibly be appealing as a spectator sport. Perhaps some day I’ll try to explain how it is that, even for this thoroughly American sports fan who was weaned on Bronc Burnett, it can be thrilling to watch than a test match that ends in a draw.

But the powers that be in cricket share, at some level, the concern that cricket is just not watchable enough for many modern fans, and have been busily inventing shorter forms of the game more in synch with limited attention spans. And, while the early efforts to shorten the game did not particularly seek to eliminate the drawn match, recent innovations have all but eliminated the draw from short-form cricket.

These developments will be explained in tomorrow’s post.

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