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Bash the Bowlers

T20, Modern Bats and Contemporary Cricket

Kaushik Das Gupta (dasguptakaushik.7@gmail.com) is a journalist and editor based in Delhi. 

Today, more than ever before, the balance in the game of cricket is skewed heavily in favour of batsmen. The immense popularity of one-day cricket and, more recently, the T20 format, where batsmen go all out to enthrall the crowds with their batting prowess, has accelerated this development. It is up to bodies like the International Cricket Council and Marylebone Cricket Club to frame rules to redress the bowler-batsman imbalance and restore the spirit of the traditional game.

This is the second article in a web series on the Indian Premier League. Read the first installment of the series here

After the conclusion of the recent cricket World Cup, Michael Holding was asked if the last edition was the best ever. Never one to mince words, the West Indian legend retorted, “How could anyone say that this is the best World Cup ever? There have been maybe four good games in 48”.[i]

The International Cricket Council (ICC), in contrast, patted itself for a job well done. David Richardson, the chief executive officer (CEO) of cricket’s governing body, declared the current World Cup as the “most followed and best attended cricket event in history. All over the world, hundreds of millions of fans have been enthralled by the quality of cricket on show, the exploits of world’s top players and the colour of the festival across both host nations”.[ii]

As it went into a self-congratulatory mode, the ICC marshaled an array of figures. “The pick of the group stage matches from an attendance point of view was the India South Africa game February 22 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at which there were more than 86,000 people cheering their respective teams, a phenomenal result given that neither of the host teams was involved”.[iii] “The crowd of 93,013 at the final match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) has set a new Australian record for one day international (ODI) attendance, surpassing the old record of 87,182 set at the last World Cup Final at the MCG in 1992”.[iv]

There are 10 radio licensees broadcasting the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 matches live into 80 territories and for those following the tournament on new media, the website has attracted 26.25 million unique visitors accumulating an incredible 227 million page views, which is a significant increase on any previous ICC event”, Richardson went on.[v]

On face of it, such numbers suggest that Michael Holding was being unnecessarily harsh. The event has been an unprecedented commercial success by any yardstick. But Holding’s criticism had little to do with commerce. In fact it had, arguably, very little to do with the popularity of the event itself. The West Indian great was pointing to something fundamental: quality of cricket at the World Cup. But if the ICC is to be believed, the quality of the matches too was not bad—granted the final was one- sided. “With two double-centuries, seven scores in excess of 150 and 38 centuries, there has been no shortage of batting prowess….. And 28 four-wicket hauls, including two hat-tricks, mean the bowlers have played their part, too”.[vi]

It would be easy, then, to dismiss Holding’s criticisms as that of a former great unnecessarily nitpicking on the contemporary game. But issues he has raised are far too elementary to be overlooked. Holding’s main grouse is that cricket today is far less of a contest between bat and ball—it has become a contest between batsmen of two teams. And that is the fast bowling great’s main complaint about the recent World Cup.

Always a Batsman’s Game

Holding is not the only former great to criticise the modern game this way. Cricket was always a batsman’s sport. A Don Bradman, a Neil Harvey or Graeme Pollock was arguably always more popular than say a Ray Lindwall, Freddie Trueman or Weslie Hall. It would be safe to say that Sunil Gavaskar and G R Vishwanath had more fans than any of India’s famed spinners. But over the past 30-40 years the balance has tilted heavily in favour of batsmen.

Instant cricket has some role in this. The one-day game was always more of a batsman’s sport and in recent times it has become more so. Holding’s criticisms do have substantial merit then. The West Indian legend has, in the past, been trenchant about the shorter version of instant cricket: Twenty20 (T20). In a June 2010 interview to The Telegraph, Holding described the 20 over game as nothing but entertainment. “Fine we all need entertainment in our lives. But the problem is T20 is taking over”, Holding lamented. “I cannot support it. T20 will destroy the game I love. Where are the youngsters going to come from to play Test cricket. They can’t develop into Test payers if they play T20,” he excoriated. [vii]

On another occasion he told Jamaica Observer, “When you can earn US$ 800,000 for playing six weeks in the IPL, why waste six years trying to earn that sort of money in Test cricket?” [viii]

Two Kinds of Instant Cricket

But it is not just test cricket. When T20 cricket began scaling the popularity charts, some feared for the one-day game as well. At the same time, there were others who saw the future of cricket in the instant variety. The cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle once wrote, “Test cricket would be the top-of-the-line model, while T20 would, like the small car, bring in the numbers and the profits”. In a piece that put in perspective the reason cricket needed the 20 over version, Bhogle wrote,

Only a tiny percentage of viewers…has ever been inside a cricket ground. The majority doesn't know what it looks like, has no idea of what ‘moving long leg a touch finer’ means in relation to its position on a cricket ground, may not even know where backward short leg is. They certainly don't understand Duckworth-Lewis, and are quite baffled by the lbw law….They understand action and that is what they follow. They know runs and they know wickets (and they understand India winning and losing). Reaching out to them is among the big challenges for those who have a stake in cricket. If you keep pushing only Test cricket down their throats, they are going to go away.[ix]

His article is interesting from several counts. For one, he talks of the great mass that sustains cricket and makes it popular. He talks of the viewer whose interest in the sport is founded on a heady concoction of TV and nationalism. Runs matter to such a viewer, how one gets them less so.

It is also interesting that Bhogle rarely mentions one-day cricket in his piece. He does write that he is a fan of all the three formats, but it is Test cricket and T20 cricket that he is most concerned about.

"Just like a small car is the entry point for a long-term car user, so too is T20 cricket increasingly going to become the entry point for potential cricket lovers. If they like what they see, they might stay on and increase the population of Test-cricket enthusiasts," he concludes.[x]

It is perhaps instructive that one-day cricket was just about emerging from what cricket commentators describe as a not so interesting phase when Bhogle wrote this ESPN piece. On one hand, it faced the challenge of T20 cricket and on another hand it was becoming somewhat predictable: If you liked batting, the first 15 overs were eminently watchable, but middle overs were predictable, with batsmen biding time before the slugfest in the last 10 overs. This was too tepid for the viewer clamouring for action.

Between 2005 and 2012 ICC experimented with a series of restrictions ostensibly to make the one-day game more action oriented.[xi] While the new rules opened the floodgates for batsmen, bowlers complained that things—already tough for them—had become far too difficult after the introduction of the new rules. [xii]

Shane Warne suggested a complete jettisoning of fielding restrictions. "It is time to de-regulate one-day cricket," he wrote. "No restrictions with the field, none, place the fielders anywhere you want, this will create so many options and the attacking captains and teams will win. The only law should be that no bowler can bowl more than ten overs," he wrote. [xiii]

With a Willow in his Hands

For ICC, however, making the game more action oriented is almost synonymous with making it more batsman-oriented. It required skills from batsmen but not the kind whose demise Michael Holding had warned. In an interview with the magazine Cricket Monthly, former Australian great Ricky Ponting summed up the difference between instant cricket today with what it was before T20 took sway.

I was into [hitting through] the gap, over the fielders, running hard, and at the end of the innings I could clear the boundary if I really needed to. It is more a power-based game these days, with more T20 cricket being played and guys having no fear and standing up, trying to hit the ball over the fence or even hitting the ball out of the circle.

In the interview, Ponting mentions improved bats but believes the new game is primary about new kinds of batting skills. “You see these guys come in and reverse-sweep and switch-hit and it really does make it difficult to get the fielders in the close areas that you want to protect. You know the laps and the Dilscoops - batters are scoring everywhere”.[xiv]

For Holding, however, the new bats are critical to the turn the game has taken in recent times.

They have limited the width of the bat, but they have never limited the depth. There used to be a sweet spot on the bat years ago…. Now... there is no sweet spot, there is a sweet bat….Once you get a piece of bat on the ball, it disappears. You can see it on the television. There are a lot of slow-motion replays where you see a batsman hitting the ball, you can see the bat actually twisting in their hands. Obviously not hitting the ball well, and the ball disappears nonetheless. That is one aspect that has to be looked into. If the ICC do nothing else, they have to look at that.[xv]

The modern bats have edges that are almost two inches or more, so that even if the ball makes contact with the bat close to its edge, there is still a lot of wood behind the ball, even if it has not hit the core centre of the bat. Holding’s views have been supported by some former batsmen. Former Indian cricket and now TV commentator, Sanjay Manjrekar writes,

In earlier days, when the edges were thinner (about three-quarters of an inch thick), as a batsman you knew you had to hit the ball with the centre of the bat, the sweet spot, or you were in trouble. Even the big guys were conscious of this fact. Now, because there is all that extra wood, spread right across the rear of the bat, the whole face of the bat has become one sweet spot.[xvi]

Contrast this is what Stuart Kranzbuhler, a top executive of the bat manufacturing company Gray-Nicolls has to say about bats in the early 1980s: “the sweet spot was not much wider than the ball and at best 60mm long”.[xvii] It would be wrong, though, to give T20 cricket all credit for modern bats. Indeed the origin of the modern chunky bat predates T20 cricket by a few decades, and it was pioneered by Kranzbuhler’s company, Gray-Nicolls. [xviii]

But as Alex Mace, a top executive of the bat manufacturer Slazenger, told ESPNcricinfo,

It's all about performance and power, and the growth of T20 has aided that… Batsmen want big edges, a light pick-up and a bigger carry.” Neil Lenham, a former Sussex batsman and chief executive of John Newbery, a company which makes handmade cricket bats, says that cricketers today spend a lot time working out in the gym as compared to players of yesteryears. “As a result, the bat speed created is probably greater than it has ever been in the history of the game.[xix]

The batsman today has it good as never before. T20 seems to have been a more than a catalyst in tilting the scales of the contest between bowler and batsman in favour of the latter. There have been some demands in recent times to even out matters such as regulating depth of bats and increasing the length of the boundary. Only time will tell if ICC and Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the body that makes some of cricket’s laws, give into these demands, and if so what will be the effect on instant cricket, and, more significantly, if the acceptance of these demands will make cricket a more interesting game—or at least rectify the bowler-batsman imbalance.

Notes

[i]Please see the interview with Michael Holding “Holding: How could anyone think this is the best World Cup ever?”, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/video_audio/856645.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[ii] “ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 Breaking Records And Capturing Hearts”, International Cricket Council, 28 March 2015, available at http://www.icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup/news/2015/media-releases/87514/icc-cricket-world-cup-2015-breaking-records-and-capturing-hearts, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]Magotra, Ashish (2015):  “Australia's win ends a boring World Cup and don't let ICC tell you otherwise”, Firstpost, March 30, available at http://www.firstpost.com/sports/boring-end-boring-world-cup-dont-let-icc-tell-otherwise-2178871.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[v] “ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 Breaking Records And Capturing Hearts”, , 28 March 2015, International Cricket Council, available at http://www.icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup/news/2015/media-releases/87514/icc-cricket-world-cup-2015-breaking-records-and-capturing-hearts, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[vi] ibid

[vii] White, Jim (2010): “Twenty20 will kill Test cricket within 20 years, says West Indian great Michael Holding”, The Telegraph, 1 June, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/twenty20/7790638/Twenty20-will-kill-Test-cricket-within-20-years-says-West-Indian-great-Michael-Holding.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[viii] “Holding bounces T20 cricket”, Jamaica Observer,  May 21 2010, available at http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/sport/Holding-bounces-T20-cricket_7633730, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[ix] Bhogle, Harsha (2013): “Cricket can't afford to be snobbish about its followers” March 29, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/627128.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[x] ibid.

[xi] “Those new one-day rules explained ... “ ,July 8, 2005, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/natwestchallenge/content/story/213010.html, accessed on 27 April 2015 and “Amended playing conditions to take effect” October29, 2012, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci-icc/content/story/588728.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[xii] “ODI fielding restrictions big test for bowlers – Mills” February 16, 2013, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/new-zealand-v-england-2013/content/story/605096.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[xiii] Gardner, Alan (2013): “Remove fielding restrictions in ODIs”, April 28, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/630749.html

[xiv] Kimber Jarrod (2015): “Modern batting is about scoring 360 degrees” February, The Cricket Monthly, available at http://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/824595/-modern-batting-is-about-scoring-360-degrees

 

[xv] Sidharth Monga (2015) “Restore bat-ball balance in ODIs, says ESPNcricinfo's panel”, March 31, available at, http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/story/857577.html

[xvi] Manjrekar, Sanjay (2014): “Can we do something about monster bats?” 25 April, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/739039.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

[xvii] “The evolution of cricket bats mean now batsmen are carrying a weapon to the crease”, December 23, 2012, news.com.au, available at http://www.news.com.au/sport/cricket/the-evolution-of-cricket-bats-mean-now-batsmen-are-carrying-a-weapon-to-the-crease/story-fndpt0dy-1226542405236

[xviii] ibid

[xix] Edwards, Paul (2013): “The blade maketh the man”, 18 February, ESPNcricinfo, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/605244.html, accessed on 27 April 2015. 

 

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