Ed Hawkins asks whether we should be taking on the draw price as England pile on the runs in Port Elizabeth...
"Test match wickets are supposed to be at their best early on. It is another reminder from the past when batsmen could bat time"
Back to the future
Punters could be forgiven for feeling unsure at the dual sight of the scorecard from Port Elizabeth and the Match Odds market. England approaching 400? The draw odds-on? What is going on?
Of course it wasn't so long ago that such a situation was normal. The senses have been dulled somewhat, though, by senseless England batting. Prior to this Test England have passed 400 or more once in the last two years in their first innings. They have been bowled out for under 90 (four times) more often. They have managed more than 300 11 times. The study period is 26 games. They average 264 runs per innings. No wonder we are confused.
We have had recent practice, though. England's one score of 400 came against New Zealand in November in Hamilton. The match ended in stalemate. No doubt this is a significant factor in the stalemate price: if England can bat on it...
In the not-so-distant past, the match situation at St George's Park would be meat and drink to traders. Wait for the partnership (in this instance Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope), the match odds market will overreact to the possibility of a draw and in comes the big lay. It doesn't sound like it when put in such prosaic terms but there was an art to that. Always is. Swimming against the tide can only be done with nerve and technique.
In all Tests around the world in the last two years, it is a strategy that has paid off handsomely. In 21 matches the team batting first has busted 400. Only three ended in draws.
Has that art been lost? Should we all have been smashing into that draw price? We will know in three days' time. Rational observers, who eschew emotion, will be adamant the answer is: yes. It is hard, though, not to be swayed by the ease with which England accumulated runs. Our eyes are not used to such things. They are playing tricks on our minds.
Our brains know that the draw in Test cricket is dying out. It is one of the reasons why the ICC are pushing for a move to four-day matches, to increase the possibility of three results. Pre-toss prices are at record levels. As an example, for the 2013 Ashes series we saw average prices of 2/1 the draw. Last summer it was 6s. Look at how the probability of the stalemate has declined by decade.
Percentage draws by decade
In the 2010s if you laid the draw to £100 level stakes throughout you'd be up £5,421. Port Elizabeth will either start the new decade as a trend buster or a Test which provides good profits for the layers with minimal risk.
Past records at Port Elizabeth suggest this is the most benign track for some time. In the last 10 years there has been only one draw but in the last three Tests (all results), no team busted 300 in the first innings. Persistent reminders from commentators that the track is slow and low will not encourage many to take on the lay.
There is hope, though. In 2013 and 2014, South Africa made 525 and 423 in the first dig against New Zealand and Australia respectively and won both. In both examples the draw price would have been reacting in the same way on days one and two.
No doubt there were complaints about the turgid surface back then. This is as it should be. The wicket that is, not the griping. Test match wickets are supposed to be at their best early on. It is another reminder from the past when batsmen could bat time. They do so - or used to - because they knew that runscoring would become more difficult as, guess what, time went on.
Wood and Bess hold the key
Rarely can you learn much from a day one pitch. Yet it it would still be a surprise if that did not happen at PE because of two clues. The big indicators for that are the balls which dismissed Dominic Sibley and Joe Root. There was bit and lift to Sibley, who was taken by surprise. Root was undone by one that kept low. These days, we can tell precisely how low thanks to the raft of data available. CricViz showed that an identical delivery earlier delivery to Root bounced almost half a meter higher.
Root's perfect riposte to the send off he received from Kagiso Rabada should have been: wouldn't want to bat last on this.
There is also spin. Indeed, an unusual amount of turn. There has never been as much spin (by degrees) on a first day pitch since records began being collated in 2006. It doesn't seem likely that as the
bowlers pound away, the pitch dries out and, maybe, breaks a little, that amount of turn will decrease.
It could be, then, that we should not fret about the pitch at all. The ingredients are there. But do England have the right chefs. They will win this Test if the likes of Mark Wood and Dom Bess can extract the pace and turn respectively that Rabada and Keshav Maharaj have managed. Stuart Broad and Sam Curran may be a little powder puff with swing in short supply.
This is an altogether tougher conundrum. Wood is injury prone and complained of soreness after a spell in the nets. He will have to tear in unencumbered like never before. Bess will have to show patience and guile the like of which few three-Test performers possess. How Wood and Bess manage their inexperience and the pressure which will be brought to bear is key.