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Tuesday, 5 January 2010
It has been a rich decade for batsmen. Not since the heady days of the 1920s have they enjoyed such sweet domination. And in those days the long-suffering flingers could still hope for a wet pitch or a drunken groundsman; an opportunity to wreak havoc, secure a measure of revenge for all those long, hard days spent trying to remove Bill Ponsford.
Once in a while, too, they might get the chance to ruffle feathers and crack bones, because the game did not go into a tizwazz whenever some poor batsman suffered some minor inconvenience. Nowadays batsmen come wrapped in swaddling clothes and suits of armour. Nowadays matches are called off as soon as some benighted willow-wielder gets a bruise.
Stan McCabe told pals to make sure his mum did not run on the pitch to give Harold Larwood a piece of her mind. Now mothers can relax confident that good care is taken of their boys. Great Scott, hardly anyone retires hurt these days. Thank goodness for Kemar Roach. Long may he last.
Of course modern batsmen are sooks. Of course, they run the game. Of course it was ridiculous to cancel the contest in Delhi: 93 for 5 is supposed to be a crisis? In the years of drying pitches, it was a promising position. And in those days batsmen did not wear helmets. For decades they wore spiky little gloves. Garry Sobers did not bother with a thigh pad. Were any groundsmen sacked during the recent run-feast posing as a Test series between India and Sri Lanka? Were those featherbeds okay? The message to curators is clear: prepare shirtfronts or pay the penalty. Protect the batsmen. Frustrate the bowlers. Not that the DDCA has anything to recommend it. By all accounts it's high time the stables were cleaned.
With every passing year the lot of the batsman improves and the task of the bowler becomes harder. With every shortening of the game, every passed rule, the position of the pampered rises. Meanwhile the bowlers are reminded once again that they are mere hewers of wood and turners of sods. Eventually the flingers will rise up and find a Robespierre to lead them on the march to freedom and domination and seaming pitches. Till then they must content themselves with scowls, glares and whispered conversations. Heck, they cannot even raise a stitch or apply a bit of Murray mint without all and sundry getting into a lather. Jack White, of England and Somerset, used to raise the seam so high that fieldsmen often suffered cut fingers. Bowlers had their ways. Now they are the slaves of the game.
Ordinarily this column does not stoop to statistics. Life is too short. Moreover, they are a little too inclined to have views of their own. No sooner has a fellow developed a perfectly good theory than some confounded mathematician demolishes it under a bombardment of numbers whose only merit is that they keep a steady line and length. Once facts are introduced, too, it only tempts critics to produce a few of their own by way of riposte. And then things are inclined to get murky. The battle is not between truth and lies but between truth and half-truth. All the great insights are handed down on tablets. The trick is to recognise them.
On this occasion, though, research supports suspicion and prejudice. Batsmen are indeed running amok. An obliging chap called Ric Finlay down in Tasmania, a man able to scatter to the winds all notions that statisticians are a rum lot obsessed with minutiae, has provided all the evidence anyone could require to back up the argument that cricket has bent over backwards to accommodate batsmen, and that the delicate balance between bat and ball upon which the entire thing depends has been disturbed. And that the position deteriorates with every passing year. Whereas in the 1990s Test wickets fell at an average of 31.64 apiece, now they cost 34.17 each. Furthermore the leading wicket-taker of 2009, Mitchell Johnson, paid nearly 28 runs per scalp, the highest figure for 37 years. Global warming cannot compete with that.
A study of the top batting averages for the decade reinforces the point. In the 1990s only four batsmen averaged over 50 (among those who played over 20 Tests) - Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara and Graham Gooch. The 20th batsman on the list, Allan Border, averaged 43 for the decade. Contrastingly, in the last decade, 20 batsmen averaged more than 50 and the 20th man in the rankings, Younis Khan, scored 50.09 per innings.
Inevitably a toll has been taken on the bowlers. To some extent Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Muttiah Muralitharan camouflaged the problem. Cricket has been lucky that the decade included one of the greatest pace bowlers and two of the finest spinners the game has known. Without these fellows, and Anil Kumble, the position might be even more alarming. As it is the list shows that the 20th-best bowler in the 1990s (among those who bowled at least 350 overs), Paul Reiffel, paid 26.96 apiece for his wickets, while Simon Jones, his compromised counterpart in the last decade, paid 28.23 per wicket.
Not so long ago an average of 50 was regarded as the definition of batting greatness. Only the very finest batsmen the game has known surpassed 50 in Test cricket. Few doubted that the ones who did were the outstanding batsmen of the era, and the only debate concerned their relative merits. Not even wonderful players like Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes made the grade. Indeed, they did not come close. Now batsmen are expected to average 45 and can hope to pass 50.
And yet, how many great batsmen emerged in the noughties? Lara, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, and even Shiv Chanderpaul took guard in the previous decade. Virender Sehwag is the standout, and various other candidates spring to mind as possibilities, including Kumar Sangakkara, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Smith, but at this stage none has been universally acclaimed by the cognoscenti. Among the Australians, cases can be made for several batsmen, not least Matthew Hayden, but locals are not convinced he faced enough imposing new-ball bowling to prove he was a better batsman even than immediate predecessors such as Mark Taylor and Michael Slater.
All sorts of reasons have been advanced for the domination of the batsmen. Most of them have merit. These things seldom have one father.
Shorter boundaries have helped. Nowadays it is more or less compulsory to wear seat belts, swim between the flags, put on helmets to ride bicycles, and bring ropes in a few yards in case a fieldsmen bangs a head on a fence or board, an event that happens once in a blue moon (meanwhile serious carnage continues elsewhere). Hayden relished the shorter boundaries as he pounded Zimbabwean bowlers all around the WACA ground in Perth.
Although their width has not changed, bats have become thicker and meatier. Batsmen no longer worry about breaking a bat, as they have plenty in their bags. Thicker bats began to emerge as power began to replace finesse in the 1970s, a change encouraged by the advent and growing importance of one-day cricket. At first the bats were heavy as well as thick. Now they can be huge and light, a deadly combination as far as bowlers are concerned.
Meanwhile no effort has been made to reduce the size of the ball. If anything, balls swing less than previously, or so it seems. That brings in another significant factor. The ever-more important part played by one-day cricket in the finances of the game and its players means that bowlers concentrate on defensive as opposed to attacking skills. Anxious to reduce their length and avoid wides, bowlers are tempted to bang the ball in short of a length, at least until the ball is older, whereupon reverse-swing may be tried to tight fields.
Spinners have had a mixed time. In some respects, spin has been revived by success in 20-over cricket, where slower bowling has forced batsmen to make the pace and play shots in front of the wicket. On the other hand, spinners rarely encounter dusty tracks and are frustrated by short boundaries. Batsmen with time on their hands can pick them off.
The introduction of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to the Test ranks has allowed batsmen to fill their boots against second-rate attacks.
Meanwhile the strongest countries have also run out of high-class bowling. Not so long ago opening batsmen faced all sort of formidable opponents. Pakistan fielded Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, West Indies had a veritable array of experts, New Zealand were inspired by Richard Hadlee, Australia had plenty of penetration. England was by no means toothless. Now the pace attacks are respectable but they lack venom. Opening batsmen have an easier time. Far more front-foot cricket is played.
But placid pitches are the main problem. Enormous pressure is put on groundsmen to prepare tracks that last five days. The game is fuelled by lucrative television contracts and executives expect to get value for money. Test matches that finish in three days do not serve that purpose. Accordingly the idea of a fresh first-day pitch demanding watchful defence from the top-order batsmen and giving hostile fast bowlers an opportunity to make a mark has mostly been abandoned. Pitch preparation is not an exact science. All sorts of variables are involved. But the aim ought to be clear. Cricket is a battle between bat and ball or it is nothing.
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