As David Miller’s breathtaking 79-ball 118 steered South Africa to the second-highest run chase in One-Day International cricket in Durban last week, thoughts went back to 1975 when a certain Sunil Gavaskar sheepishly crawled to a 174-ball 36 in the format’s first ever World Cup fixture. England had set India, what was in those days, a stiff target of 335. Gavaskar’s infamous knock stood as testimony to the tough conditions and aggressive fast bowling that existed almost forty years ago.
It would not be a hyperbole to state that the last three decades of the twentieth century remained defined by a plethora of menacing fast bowlers. Even though the batting prowess of Sir Vivian Richards, Greg Chappell and Gavaskar was constantly applauded, the era is best remembered for the fear conjured up by the likes of fearsome fast bowlers like Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Joel Garner, and later on, Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.
Before Mahendra Singh Dhoni arrived with his “Helicopter Shot” and Tillakaratne Dilshan with his “Dilscoop”, the perfectly executed yorker remained a bowler’s primary weapon in the death overs, while a batsman always had his drives and his pulls when the ball was in his zone. But in short, the game remained enthralling, mainly because it was a contest between bat and ball.
When 400 is a breeze
However, as the millennium turned, the advent of Twenty20 inversely impacted that delicate balance. With growing demands for exciting cricket (which indirectly referred to more sixes), the bowlers started to suffer.
The onus was on the batsmen to attract the dwindling spectators back into the stadiums. With the International Cricket Council focussing on regaining back their loyal fans, the game tilted immensely in favour of those wielding the willow.
The boundary length shortened from 80 metre to a mere 65 metre in most cricket stadiums. Pitches which used to offer assistance to bowlers were tweaked to enable dazzling stroke play. The Western Australian Cricket Association Ground, once considered as the bounciest pitch in the world, is the foremost example.
Sachin Tendulkar’s hard-fought 114 in Perth, in his maiden tour to Australia in 1992, is remembered as a knock which defied the threatening pace of Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes with élan. Fast forward to India’s visit in 2016 where Australia chased down 309 on a flat WACA wicket without much discomfort. The contrast between the two encounters remains a stark reminder of the degradation in the quality of grounds the world over.
Teams have scored above 400 a whopping twenty times in the last ten years. The highest ODI total of 438, recorded by South Africa against Australia in 2006, has been hauled and overhauled four times in the last one year. The highest total in ODI cricket currently stands at 444, which was achieved by England against a hapless Pakistan a month ago.
A double hundred by an individual player in the 50-over format seemed an impossible feat to achieve, with Saeed Anwar’s 194 being the highest individual total in ODI cricket since 1997, before Charles Coventry equalled the score in 2009. Tendulkar, not surprisingly, was the first to scale the double hundred summit in 2010. In the six years since, the once unimaginable figure has been posted six times, with Rohit Sharma’s 264 standing as the highest ODI total by an individual batsman.
Loaded in favour of the batsmen
So what has brought about these insane totals, reducing bowlers to nothing more than bowling machines? A spree of high totals and run chases in the recent past (with the latest being South Africa’s incredible chase of 372 against Australia) have sparked off debates regarding the unfair advantage that continues to be meted out to the batsmen. Helped by the fielding restrictions, where only four fielders were allowed outside the 30 yard circle in an ODI game, and heavy bats that allow better grips that aid shot making, batsmen have been given the liberty to wreck havoc on any given day.
Although the ICC has dissolved the batting Powerplay and allowed five fielders outside the circle after the move sparked much criticism, the usage of two new balls from each end has made things worse for the fast bowlers.
Two new balls ensure that each white ball will not be used for more than 25 overs in an innings. With the average cricket ball normally reverse swinging after 30 overs of regular use, the bowlers have very little assistance in the death overs. The failure of the ICC to regulate the weight of the bat has made it even easier for batsmen to chance their arms, comfortable in the belief that it would come off.
Heavy bats with thick edges have eliminated the concept of a “sweet spot”, so much so, that any area of the bat can be termed as the bat’s sweet spot. Chris Gayle uses a bat which has an edge of around 45 millimetre, while Matthew Hayden’s infamous mongoose bat contained three times more wood at the bottom, which allowed the batsman to hit out, even at yorkers with ease. The result is that even mistimed edges safely reach the boundary ropes, with even a No. 11 not afraid to wield the willow in crunch moments.
The emergence of stronger and fitter players, who believe in increasing their shoulder strength, have meant that the ball is hit with even more power than it ever was. It is not surprising then, that Shahid Afridi managed to hit a six that went beyond 158 metre three years ago. Be it Glenn Maxwell charging down the pitch, David Warner torturing the bowlers mercilessly or AB de Villiers massacring every delivery all over the park, cricket today remains devoid of the charm which Glenn McGrath’s accurate bowling or Shane Warne’s deceptive googlies provided.
But how much is too much?
Looking at the high scores that continue to be notched up in ODI cricket, it can be safely assumed that even the 500 mark will be breached sooner or later. Even though such a thought might seem appealing to an audience that laps up every mishit and boundary with delight, the effect of continual run feasts cannot be good in the long run for the health of the game.
Denying and ignoring the hard work and the efforts of the bowlers by doctoring pitches to suit strokeplay, can cause a dearth of fast bowlers all over. With bowlers becoming irrelevant, each youngster would prefer sharpening his batting skill, drastically reducing the talent pool available at the grass root levels.
Batsmen accustomed to playing in pitches which assist shot-making will remain equipped with several deficiencies and flaws. The bouncy pitches in England or the turning pitches in India will severely test a batsman’s ability to cope in trickier condition. More often than not, an international player, who has gained cult status due to his stupendous cameos in flatter conditions, might not find much success in conditions which test him. An obvious example is Australia’s Glenn Maxwell who, despite his pyrotechnics, has often been described as nothing more than a flat track bully. For similar reasons, old-time watchers of the game often refuse to compare the abilities of Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara with someone like Sir Vivian Richards.
Scores of above 500 in ODI cricket risk an increase in lopsided encounters, putting adequate pressure on the team chasing. Very rarely will a team go on to chase such a mammoth target, reducing the match to a boring one-sided affair, while eradicating the interest generated amongst the spectators as well.
However, contrary to popular belief that it is the run-plundering batsmen that attracts crowds to the stadiums, great spells of bowling such as Wahab Riaz’s fiery display against Shane Watson at the last WC or Ravichandran Ashwin’s continued mastery over Kane Williamson still remain popular. The pool match between New Zealand and Australia in the World Cup last year, where the Kiwis struggled to reach a target of 151, eventually winning by one wicket, remained one of that edition’s most popular matches.
True, aggressive cricket has revamped the way an international cricketer approaches Test cricket, with run-rates rarely falling below three runs an over. However, while cricket has taken rapid strides in the development of the batting styles and techniques, it is the bowlers who continue to remain a victim in this game. The advent of the shorter format has enabled cricket to push its frontiers, but somewhere, the successors of Akram and Kapil Dev continue to dwell deep in their unfair surroundings.
Despite the inventions that the bowlers come up with, cricket continues to remain a batsman’s game. Yet, the beauty of it lies in the fact that it was envisaged as a contest between bat and ball. Perhaps, the officials could ensure that they do more than just pay lip service to this basic tenet.