It is time cricket gave dead rubbers the boot

The fifth Ashes Test starts today – but why is it even being played? It doesn’t matter who wins, or if it’s a draw. The series is over.  It is of no consequence. The result is in. England lost.

It’s time we stopped playing dead rubbers, they’re just cluttering up an already-crowded schedule. In what other sport are games played which cannot affect the result of the match-up? It’s not as if there is a league position to play for. There is no trophy at stake now. Anyway you look at it, it’s surely pointless game.

The fire has gone out, the flame has died, but still everyone has to pretend to care. That’s surely very dispiriting. It seems some shade of phoney and a waste of everyone’s time.

OK you can argue that you’re playing for individual pride, or for the experience and that every game is there to be won, but really, I’m sure everyone would prefer to pack up and move on, because even if England win the last Test, it doesn’t prove much and the feeling would always be that the Aussies have taken their foot off the gas.

Indeed, England’s capacity to win games having lost the series is the stuff of cliche and some derision.

There would be an economic implication for the venues that would have hosted the Tests of course – but I’m sure some system of compensation could be instituted, perhaps ensuring that the cancelled Tests are always the first two of the next series.

It doesn’t seem to have ever been suggested but would it be such a radical idea to abandon a series once a side has an unassailable lead?

These throwaway matches shouldn’t even go down in the record book as ‘proper’ Tests. They need to be itemised differently. You can’t compare the 5th Test of a lost series, to the first when there is all to play for; they’re two totally different beasts.

The runs scored and wickets taken happen in an entirely different context. You might improve your stats by racking up a double century but those runs are essentially meaningless, or at least have far less value than when the series is still competitive.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that they muddy the waters in terms of judging how good a player is or was. There’s some interesting stats on this archived here.

Even as a chance to blood new players, the dead rubber is of limited use. How much do you really learn about a player when they’re playing in a far less pressured game? The intensity of competition just cannot be the same, the psychological challenges far less profound.

Earlier this year Mike Brearley talked of the looming Test cricket crisis, in terms of dwindling audiences, especially in countries like Pakistan, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies, and he made the point that the game has to find a way to make every match matter in order to attract and keep an audience.

“You have to make it so that every game has context, you have to have a Test championship, which could be a celebration of Test cricket every two years say with semi-finals and finals.”

OK, The Ashes is Test cricket’s premium brand and there is still an appetite for it from the public, but that appetite wouldn’t be diminished if dead rubbers were abandoned, rather it would intensify it for the next series. Meaningless games inevitably dilute the spirit of competition.

It’s also worth noting that with the competition for audiences and players from the one-day cricket formats, and also from the various leagues such as the IPL and the Big Bash, fans are being inculcated into expecting exciting and dramatic cricket in matches that actually have meaning in some way. This isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to become more and more the norm.

Given this background, meaningless games seem like a self-indulgence born out of tradition rather than any ongoing dynamic or purpose.

If you give most people a choice between a game which, if won, counts for something, and one that doesn’t, who would take the one that means nothing? No-one. But here we are again, regardless.

Carrying on playing such matches just because they’ve always been played is a recipe for decline and fall of the whole Test cricket format. Any game where there is no consequence, whatever the result, isn’t competitive sport at all. It’s mere exhibition.

By John Nicholson