By Tony Cozier
From the era when cricket’s first superstar, W.G. Grace, could replace the bails after he had been clearly bowled, tell the umpire “it’s windy today, isn’t it?” while reminding him, at the same time, that the spectators had come to see him play and bat on, bowlers have griped that it’s a batsman’s game.
The advent of limited-overs matches, first 50 an innings, then 20, and the ever changing rules have further convinced them.
They are confined to the number of overs they’re allowed, any delivery they send even minimally outside leg-stump is deemed a wide,
bouncers are rationed and a no-ball penalized with a free-hit to the batsman. Bats now resembling mahogany tree trunks come with an enhanced “sweet spot” and edges as broad as the pitch itself.
Scoring in the series of ODIs (50 overs an innings) between India and Australia that ended yesterday was the most prolific since the game took its first uncertain steps into such territory 41 years ago.
In the five completed matches, there were nine totals over 300, nine individual hundreds and, in all, 312 fours and 107 sixes. The 49 sixes in yesterday’s match that India won to clinch the series 3-2 were the most ever hit in a ODI.
Rohit Sharma extended his second yesterday to a double, 209 that included 16 sixes, joining fellow Indians Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag as the only batsmen to have passed that once unimaginable landmark. Virat Kohli’s 115 in the sixth match took him just 66 balls; Australia’s No.7 James Faulkner needed 73 for his 116 in Australia’s losing cause yesterday.
These are staggering statistics. But were they an aberration, the combination of the regulations, the bats, flat pitches, quality batting and weak bowling?
The evidence is inconclusive.
While batsmen have augmented the advantages of enhanced blades and bowling and fielding restrictions with innovative shots – the reverse sweep, the scoop, the upper cut and so on – the slow bouncer has been the only bowling response; the doosra is not exclusive to the shorter formats.
Yet bowlers have never been so roughly manhandled as they were in India. In the previous 31 major ODIs this year (New Zealand in England, the Champions Trophy, Australia in England, the Tri-Nations and Pakistan in the West Indies, South Africa in Sri Lanka and currently against Pakistan in the UAE, New Zealand in Bangladesh), there were only seven totals over 300 and seven individual hundreds.
While one, probably the main, reason has been more skilful, inventive bowling on less batting friendly pitches, it is doubtful whether the totals would have been appreciably less had bowlers had to contend with the circumstances that faced Australia’s and India’s this past three weeks.
Indeed, the three Indians who have amassed a heap of runs in the shorter formats and a captain from an earlier time with a contemporary view of the game have been openly wary of the effects of a rule change they see as the cause of the series run-glut.
India’s captain M.S.Dhoni, a fierce and feared hitter, and his teammates, Kohli and Suresh Raina, openly stated their concern that an ICC regulation introduced a year ago, reducing the number of fielders outside the 30-yards semi-circles from five to four in the non-Powerplay overs, is making the contest too one-sided.
“With the rule changes and everything, most of the bowlers are getting smashed with the extra fielder inside,” Dhoni said. “Even the best of the bowlers, the fast bowlers, are bowling with third man and fine leg up.
“Is it good in the long run that we are seeing – for seven hours – only fours and sixes?” Dhoni asked, a question more pertinent for Twenty20 where the very purpose is for as many fours and sixes as possible.
Kohli, India’s newest batting star, echoed Dhoni’s opinion with an added consideration: “If bowlers don’t have the confidence, it will be difficult for the captain to contain runs.
In batting-friendly conditions, it’s very hard for the captain to contain runs and, as a result, difficult for the bowlers. Yes, the rule should be looked at in so far as keeping five fielders (inside the circle) is concerned.”
Chappell’s view is similar, if expressed in his familiar forthright manner.
“You can’t blame the bowlers for thinking they are being served up as cannon fodder for the pampered batsmen,” he wrote on his espn cricinfo column. “If sixes become even more prevalent, there’s a danger the spectacle will become monotonous.
“If batting skill is reduced to power-hitting, the bowlers will be less inclined to rely on guile for their wickets. There’s no incentive for the faster bowlers to seek a length where the ball might swing, if sixes are constantly being crashed down the ground. Spinners too will be less inclined to employ flight to deceive batsmen.”
The purpose of the change, and others brought in the past year such as a ball at each end throughout ODIs, was, according to the ICC, to produce “a more attacking game with more boundaries and more wickets”.
It claims they have had a “positive impact”. Dhoni and company argue it’s been far too positive.
Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin is willing to wait and see. His take is that teams will get used to the ICC adjustments “in due course”; they can then determine whether 350 totals become the norm and whether matches will be seven hours of only fours and sixes.
And whether the Fifty50 would become the new Twenty20. Surely that’s not what it needs.