Slow play is a particular bugbear of mine. Call me an old curmudgeon but in the 1970s, we had to bowl 18.5 overs an hour in the county championship and any team that did not average this over the season was fined. And believe me, in those pre-Packer days when the pay wasn’t very good, a fine was to be avoided at all costs. I remember Raymond Illingworth, the Leicestershire captain, chiding me for taking too long to take guard. “Soom of oos ‘ave got to get our overs in, soonshine.” There is much about the modern game to be admired but the dilatory over rate in all forms of cricket is not one of them.
Note I said in all forms of cricket, not just the professional game. For nigh on a quarter of a century I was involved in school cricket and the dithering and dawdling during games used to drive me mad. For school matches, we would have neutral (ie association) umpires and I would always encourage them to ensure that the game moved along at slightly more than a funereal pace. Alas, many of them were too near their own funerals to get a move on. The last 20 overs, which you hoped would be completed sometime before supper, would be in danger of falling victim to failing light. Once, when I was umpiring a house match, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Repeatedly annoyed by unnecessary mid-pitch chats by the batsmen (more to do with their social arrangements than about how to play the bowling), I cried “Play!”, the bowler ran up, delivered the ball and hit the stumps while the batsmen were still engaged in conversation. I had no sympathy for the miffed striker and sent him on his way.
Oh, that umpires in the professional game had the same conviction – and the gall – to check time-wasting. Because it is the umpires who are solely responsible for what takes place on the field of play. They could hurry things along, if they had a mind. But too often, they are equally at fault. Recently, I attended the ODI between England and Pakistan at Southampton. It was a blazing hot day, there was a full house and the new ground looked a picture. It was a perfect setting for a game of cricket. Alas, the match did not live up to expectations. That happens. Not all football matches are nail-biters. Not all rugby games are blood and thunder encounters. Not all performances of Hamlet stir the soul. My friend was moved to remark as the game meandered towards a predictable England victory, “Hmm, this game’s dying on its feet.” That may well have been true but there was no excuse for the way both sets of players betrayed a complete lack of urgency as they went about their business. “At this rate, I’m going to miss my last train home,” said another alongside me. It was all I could do to stop myself crying out, “For God’s sake, get a move on!” There was a ‘hydration break’, or more accurately for some of us, a ’dehydration break.’ Fair enough. It was a hot and sultry evening. The drinks break has always been as much a part of the game as the tea break. But at the end of the next over, on trotted two 12th Men (or was one of them a 13th?) to provide drinks, a towel and a change of gloves for the England batsmen. Not to be outdone, on raced the Pakistani supply unit with….well, I have no idea. And what were the umpires doing? Shooing off the unwelcome intruders? Not a bit of it. They strolled towards each other and engaged in desultory conversation while the game stood still. All right, it was a limited overs match, so the paying customer would not be cheated out of his 100 overs of entertainment but it did become an exercise in brinkmanship for many as they toyed with the late night train timetable. Eventually rain, and the Duckworth-Lewis method, put paid to any restlessness. The disgrace of not getting through the allocated 90 overs in a day at a Test match is cheating the paying customer, however, and I wonder how long it will take before the powers-that-be understand that and take action.
During the sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet, when the ‘En garde’ is given, neither hangs about. Their lives are at stake. And none of the groundlings has cause to shout out, “Fie, tarry not!” Come on the ICC – speed up the game.