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2 July 2011

Slow Play

Tag(s): Sport

This is a great time of year for sports lovers with Wimbledon, golf and international cricket particularly to the fore. I enjoy all of these whether live or more often watching on TV though it can be perverse when the sun is shining and one stays in the dark watching people enjoying themselves in the sun.

What aggravates this is the toxin of slow play that has crept into all of these games and others over the years.

The other night Rafael Nadal, defending champion and No 1 seed at Wimbledon, was warned for his slow play by a Spanish speaking umpire. His response was a tirade of abuse in Spanish. Of course the umpire did not follow up his warning even though Nadal studiously avoided any attempt to speed up his play. Players are allowed 25 seconds between points but Nadal routinely exceeded this by several seconds.  Matches that used to be completed in 2 hours often exceed 4 today even though the tie-break was introduced in 1971 to curtail the first four sets to no more than 13 games.

Golf too suffers from excessively slow play. Players can be warned and even fined but seldom are. 18 hole rounds used to take about 2-3 hours and now usually take 5 or more. Players prowl around the green several times before hitting a putt. As golf is played sequentially with the players following each other round the course a single slow player can hold everyone up. In friendly club play he is expected to wave you through if he is more than one hole behind the match in front. But this rarely happens in championship golf even when balls are lost.

Cricket to the uninitiated may always have seemed slow but actually is a very athletic sport at which only the fittest can succeed. Players have to concentrate for long periods and bowlers run several miles a day in the course of delivering their balls. In test matches 20 overs per hour would be the norm in the post war era and, with six hours of play scheduled, up to 120 overs would be bowled. If three runs per over were scored the crowd had a reasonable expectation of seeing about 360 runs in the day and would also be certain of leaving at close of play at 6.30pm. Step by step that over rate has declined. Today teams are expected to bowl 15 overs per hour, a decline in number of about a third, but they still fall short of that. In the recent series between England and Sri Lanka only about 14 overs per hour were being bowled. Captains were changing their field placings almost every ball. Drinks intervals were being called constantly. So play would be extended into the evening and often then called off for bad light.

In cricket captains can be fined a portion of their match fee for slow play but this rarely happens and never seems to make a difference.  The authorities have discussed bringing in penalties within the game such as a deduction in runs scored for slow play but that would almost certainly bring about even more perverse results as then batting captains would encourage their batsmen to find ways to delay the game, asking for sight screens to be moved; feigning injury; calling for replacement gloves and a myriad of other delaying tactics.

What is going on?

One reason is the increased so-called professionalism in all the sports. Wimbledon was closed to professionals until 1969. Prior to that if you wanted to earn a living from the game you tended to make your reputation in the major tournaments at Wimbledon, Paris, Melbourne and New York and then retire from the amateur game and take your chances on the professional tour in exhibition matches. This is one of the reasons why it is impossible to compare great players of today with those of yester year because today’s players can earn millions playing each other throughout their careers while previously the best players were not actually playing in the best tournaments. Many point to Rod Laver who won Wimbledon in 1961 and 1962, turned professional and only returned to Wimbledon at the beginning of the so-called Open era to win it again. The implication is that he would have won all the intervening tournaments. But it is by no means certain that he would have won in 1961 if his fellow Australians Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall had not already themselves turned professional. Hoad and Rosewall beat Laver in most of his early professional matches with them.

With such huge rewards in tennis all kinds of gamesmanship has slipped into a game that before was largely played for honour and fun. Today’s players are mollycoddled, have vast entourages, massive egos and apparently need to wipe themselves dry after hitting one poor return of service. It all goes to defraud the public of entertainment. The structure of competition at Wimbledon has not changed. The same number of players competes over the same number of days knocking each other out in the same number of rounds until one is declared Champion. But it has been necessary to bring play forward to 1pm and then 12pm on outside courts to fit in all the matches.

Another culprit, perhaps even guiltier, is TV advertising. In the UK Wimbledon is shown by the BBC which does not take advertising breaks but significant revenue comes in from US network television which does. They need all the breaks to show the advertising to pay the fees and make a profit. Thus the players are obliged to sit down for two minutes between every two games to enable American broadcasters to take a commercial break.

Golf has many such breaks naturally and does not need to take them artificially but the same trends have occurred which make me think that some leverage has been brought to bear on players to slow their play and allow more advertising interruptions.

Cricket now is barely shown on BBC television. Most of it is on the commercial satellite channel which abuses its market position by charging high subscriptions and still interrupting entertainment for advertising breaks.

Association Football (Soccer) has never really taken off in America because there is only one major interruption in the game, that of the half time break. That used to be 10 minutes and is now 15, the one concession that football has made to TV but it has formally resisted American pressure to introduce other ad breaks.  Research shows that in football 38% of the time is lost in breaks of play but most of these are brief stoppages when the ball is out of play or a foul has been committed and a free kick given to restart. Goal celebrations, substitutions and feigned injuries compound these but the referee can add on time to compensate for these.

Television has also slowed some of these games in another way; that of the review of the umpire’s decisions. This is justified on the basis that if we can check we should. This seems to me like saying if we can bomb Iraq we should. Competitive sport depends on the concept that the referee’s decision is final and there is no appeal. But television has destroyed that with a consequent deterioration of behaviour. In cricket television technology is not only used to show what has happened but what would have happened! Another rule in sport should be that there is no difference between the game at the top professional level and the ordinary amateur level. The laws and the equipment should be the same. Because we cannot have instant replays in park games which can take several minutes in cricket we should not have them in any matches. Again Football has been right to hold out against this. A few questionable goal line decisions have been used to argue for introducing TV reviews into the game but once the thin end of this wedge is allowed in there will be a clamour to review every possible offside, handball and all the other incidents that television delights in showing from every angle.

But the Daddy of them all is American Football which has allowed itself to become totally distorted by television. The rules of the game call for an hour’s play split into four 15 minute quarters. There is little continuity or spontaneity in American Football. The game is broken up into “plays”. Each play only lasts a few seconds and is then followed by a huddle in which players are informed by their coach what to do next. Even when the players are set to resume the quarterback can wait 30 seconds before starting again. When the game is analysed you will find that much less than 30 minutes of action has taken place. But this will take the best part of four hours to show on TV. If you attend a game in person you will see the players just waiting around for the signal to go from the TV stations to the officials that they can start again. I stopped watching it years ago. And if tennis, golf and yes, even cricket go that way I’ll stop watching them too.




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