Sunday, December 10, 2006

It's a batsmen's world really, or is it?

Take a tour to Cricket's history. Go around thirty years back in the past. What you'd be in for is a game at furious pace. I don't mean the pace of the game itself, but that of the deliveries. Especially by the West Indian pace battery. Day in and day out of the five-day game, the likes of Garner, Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Griffith, and more recently Walsh and Ambrose would bowl tirelessly at round about the same fiery speeds. Those were the days when the batsmen didn't enjoy the comfort of having a helmet to protect their heads against the short pitched deliveries. Teams getting bundled out for paltry 200 runs was no surprising thing. Unlike today, those were the days when the tele-visionary principles didn't demand a batting wicket.

But as any sport, cricket too swayed to winds of change. The winds of One Day cricket started blowing, which kind of took the orthodox cricketing community by a storm. That added pace to the game, assured a result, and made cricket even more exciting game for the audience. The one day cricket as we know today did start off as a shortened form of the Test cricket, and did not lose its parent technique for quite a while. Even though the field restrictions were added to speed up the scoring rate, teams preferred to conserve their wickets and go all-out towards the end of their stipulated overs. This method did show the due respect to the bowlers. Until the world cup of 1996 began.

The Sri Lankan cricket team had devised a technique of slogging during the first fifteen overs when the fieldsmen were restricted to the boundary of 30-yard circle for the first 15 overs. With only two pairs of legs allowed outside this boundary, batsmen could take maximum benefit by taking aerial route, and even clearing the slip cordon for a lofty six. The world of cricket was in for a surprise. With Jayasuriya's blade blazing and his opening partner Kaluwitharana's willow also adding to the fire, Sri Lanka annihilated teams one by one and won the World cup and unparalleled glory. This reminds us of the carnage at New Delhi, where India were playing the Lankans. Jayasuriya took Manoj Prabhakar early on, blasting 47 runs off his four overs. In the end, Sri Lankan easily overcame the challenge of 272 runs set by India.

For Manoj Prabhakar, as it was to happen, that match ended up being his last international ODI. I would say he was rather unlucky, as for the time to come, many bowlers would be treated ruthlessly with the same technique.

This attacking batting style was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of One Day cricket. A new era had begun in which the bowler did not have much of a role to play.

If one looks at what the audience would like to see, a good, fiery bowling performance would be the last on the list. A five-for, they say, is worth a hundred runs. It may be the case with Test Cricket, but in ODI, a five-for has become a rare feat. Also, bowler's performance is under-appreciated. This may be due to the fact that fans do not like low scoring matches, or for that matter, one-sided low scoring match. Victory in a low scoring contest is not very well taken. The audience of ODI demands expansive stroke play, scoring at a quick rate, aggressive running between the wickets, and it couldn't care less for a back foot defensive push. A very competitive score in the neighbourhood of 300, and equally magnificent chase-down of it would mean that the audience returns home totally satisfied.

In such high scoring encounters, bowlers have little part to play. What makes such a situation possible is a dead track - that has no juice for the bowlers - both fast bowlers and the spinners. At times the wicket may resemble the tar road which is flattened using laser techniques. The weather plays an important role too. In a test match, rain interruptions can add to the excitement, turning the tables suddenly. Nothing like that usually happens in ODI's. With the target gets reset by Duckworth-Lewis method or the whole match may end up abandoned. This is a nightmarish situation as far as the fans go. A washed out match means zero revenues for the television producers. It is truly a lose-lose situation for the players and fans alike.

The batsman domination has continued, especially in the subcontinent where the fan-base is huge in number. Yet, referring to the recently concluded ICC Champions Trophy, this trend seems to have changed somewhat. Most of the matches in the tournament, including the final, turned out to be low scoring affairs. With the dew coming down towards late in the evening, bowling under lights meant difficulty for the spinners, and hence the toss decision would favour bowling as the first priority. The pace bowlers were seen employing the short ball (a rarity in this shortened form of the game). Although the preparation of the wickets maintained its healthy relationships with the batsmen, bowlers were seen to extract the best out of it as they could.

In India's tour to South Africa (where they have been handed a white-wash 4-0 drubbing by the hosts), bowling performances of both the teams has been impressive. Veteran to the game, Shaun Pollock grabbed much attention with his accurate and explosive opening spells, and of course the fast-and-furious Makhaya Ntini continued to clock highest speeds on his deliveries. If anything, the series has turned out to be a marked deviation from the trend of dominance by the batsmen. With the bouncy tracks in South Africa better performance by bowlers is expected in Test Cricket. What should hearten the fans of fast bowling is that the skill is making its return to the One Day version of the game also.

The true cricket fan would vie for a better all-round performance, and not only batting. The days of batsmen's single-sided dominance are over. In past it was perhaps batsmen's world, but the winds are again changing. May the era soon begin when the equality between the bat and the ball is restored. That would be the day any real fan of the game must be looking forward to.

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