31. Playing for Lunch, and Tea

Batsmen look to preserve their wickets when a break in play approaches. Is it really effective?

Back when I had a corporate career, one concept from cricket that I happily adopted for my work was the concept of “Playing for Lunch”. If you listen to a lot of commentary while watching cricket, you will know that when lunch, or tea, or any other break is round the corner, batsmen tend to slow down and “play for time”, and just look to survive.

Similarly, when in my corporate jobs, I wouldn’t take up a new task close to lunch, or towards the end of a work day, or on a Friday, or just before a vacation. Instead, on all such occasions, I would look to “play for time”, whiling my time away at my desk “waiting for the bell to ring”. Needless to say, my corporate career wasn’t too successful.

But what about cricket? Do cricketers actually “Play for Lunch” and slow down when a session break is round the corner? And does this vary by what break this is?

I must admit that this post falls under the “keys under lamppost” fallacy - ESPNCricinfo has data on days and sessions for Test matches only for about 500 odd games, all played in the last 14 years. We’ll assume that this is an unbiased data set, and make our analysis based on that.

To start with, here are run rates by session, across all matches over time.

By far, the last day of a Test match is the slowest day. This is not unexpected, for when a Test does go into the last day, it usually does with one team trying to save the game, and bat the test out - “Playing for Lunch” taken to yet another level. It is also interesting to see that the second session of Day2 is the fastest scoring session.

While there is no major difference in the rate of run scoring between Day 1 and Days 2-4 of a Test, the difference in the rate at which wickets fall is stark.

On the first day, bowlers bowl at a strike rate of over 70 balls (12-13 overs) per wicket - even taking into account green pitches and cloudy mornings. This number drops sharply to 60 (10 overs) by the second and third days. It is uncanny how bowler-friendly games seem to become late on the fourth day and then on the fifth.

A couple of weeks back, we saw the increasing importance of the toss in Test cricket. The relative ease of batting on day one must surely have something to do with it?

Put what about “Playing for Lunch”? Do batsmen actually slow down just before breaks, and do more or less wickets fall at such times? For that, we need to dig deeper - though not in the way the Shiv Sena did at the Ferozeshah Kotla before the Pakistan tour in 1999.

Pretty much in all sessions of a Test match, the scoring rate is the highest in the middle of the sessions, with batsmen taking time to speed up at the beginning of a session, and then settling down towards the end of it. And if we look at the curves above (for the technically oriented, they are drawn using loess smoothing, and we have one curve per session), we find that there is a significant dip in the scoring rate towards the end of each session.

The dip, interestingly, is the smallest before Tea on Day Four and before Lunch and Tea on Day Five (when batsmen don’t slow down at all). In other words, apart from towards the end of a game, Test batsmen do Play for Lunch!

But is this batting for lunch effective in stemming the flow of wickets before a session break? If we look at the over-wise bowling strike rates (balls per wicket), and plot curves for each session, this is what it looks like.

Playing for Lunch mostly works - notice that the balls required to take a wicket shoots up towards the end of the first session each day. Playing for Tea works also largely works, though not to the same extent as Playing for Lunch. Playing for Stumps, however, doesn’t work. It might be due to the second new ball at the end of Day One, or tailenders batting at the end of Day Five, or fading light, or simply tiredness, but batsmen slowing down at the end of a day’s play doesn’t necessarily increase their chances of survival.

Now I’m beginning to wonder what lessons for life this dataset holds - maybe when the break is early in your “innings”, playing for the break and looking to “preserve wickets” works, but not later on in your term? Let me know what you think!