The irony could never have been starker than when Jason Holder was told that he would be banned for a Test match because of the West Indies’ slow over-rate during its annihilation of England in the second Test in Antigua. His team had bowled just over 103 overs in the Test and was found to have bowled, after allowances, two overs fewer than it could have in the time.
Two overs, did you say? Two overs in a game that ended inside three days? Two overs that may not have had any impact on the game, considering that England was bowled out twice in the span of the 103.1 overs that were sent down most by Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Holder himself.
Not surprisingly, many of West Indies fans feel hard done by the ICC regulations that have led to Holder’s suspension from the next Test in Gros Islet, starting on 9 February. And equally unsurprisingly, there are a lot of fans and former cricketers who simply tell us that rules are rules and they are the same for everyone.
How could a cold set of rules become a spanner in the works at a time when the West Indies Test team is on comeback trail and is flying high? Should the match referee Jeff Crowe of New Zealand have been so harsh as to impose a stiff penalty on Holder? Is there something that could have been done to ensure that things did not come to such a pass?
Simply stated, Holder and the West Indies team should have been aware of the consequences for not keeping an eye on the clock, especially with the proverbial sword dangling over his neck. Some counter by saying over-rates should have no bearing in a Test. This does not hold much water since the game is emboldened to broadcasters, commercial sponsors and fans – not always in that order.
The discussion should not be reduced to just about Holder sitting out of the third Test. He has had that experience before, in New Zealand in December 2017. The groundswell of sympathy for the likeable skipper seemed to be the consequence of the natural outpouring of the affection for West Indies’ great legacy in the minds of those who have loved and even feared their brand of cricket.
It is not for the first time that such a debate has raged since the ICC code for players allowed the match referee to impose penalties on the side guilty of maintaining a slower over rate than the prescribed 15 an hour. It has tweaked its rules, now bringing a suspension point into play and yet there seems to be something amiss.
India’s MS Dhoni, for example, has been fined at least a dozen times and suspended twice. Other captains like Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Graeme Smith and Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene have been hauled over the coals by match referees tasked with keeping a check on over-rates, among other things.
It is an issue that was thrust upon ICC in the 90s because the West Indies and others relying on a fast bowling quartet slowed down the over-rate so much that a minimum entertainment was not offered to fans through a day. Surely, over the past two decades and a half, ICC’s committees would have engaged in some serious discussion about prescribing a penalty on lax teams.
Yet, if a Test match has produced a result inside five days, the ICC can consider giving the match referee the right to decide whether to impose a penalty on the team and its captain. Only in the event of a draw should over-rates come into the picture automatically. For broadcasters and sponsors should have no complaint with a Test that has produced a result.
If that is not feasible, the least ICC can do is consider doing away with the suspension of the captain. A captain’s ban denies the fans the opportunity of watching the team’s leader because his team had not maintained an over-rate. The skipper is already being penalised twice as much as anyone else in the team. ICC can increase the captain’s fine but must remove the provision to ban.
There has to be something wrong with the way a sport is run if captains have to be asked to cool their heels for a game or two because they did not hurry up proceedings enough to maintain the prescribed over-rate. Precious little can be done to salvage the third Test for Holder but perhaps ICC can be pushed towards removing the ban on a captain for slow over-rate.
The rules governing any sport must be strict, indeed, but when they are accompanied by a human touch as well, it becomes better for everyone concerned. Match referees must have the leeway to show their human side rather than just do a mechanical job of calculating numbers of overs that a side is short at the end of a Test and impose a pre-determined penalty.
After all, the first decade of this regulation to impose a penalty of teams delivering fewer overs than possible saw 219 offences. The decision to extend a larger penalty on the captain – brought in, in 2003 – has seen around 265 such orders by ICC Match Referees. Clearly, that extension has had no impact on how teams approach over-rates. It has been ineffective, to say that least.
Perhaps, ICC can keep the paying fan in mind – and these are not just those in the stadium or a ground but also those who pay to watch broadcasts – and ensure that no team loses its captain henceforth. It must find other logical ways to enforce over rates rather than target the skipper of a side. Will that happen?