Commercialism Strangling What We Love Most About Cricket – A Contest

India vs Australia at Mohali October 19th, 2013

IND 303/9 (50/50) beaten by AUS 304/6 (49.3/50)

Batsmen set up games and bowlers win them. At least that’s how it used to be. The Indian captain MS Dhoni has identified ‘death bowling’ as one of India’s main issues. Who could blame him? Given that an innings’ worth of strangulation imposed on Australia’s batsmen at Mohali came undone when James Faulkner blasted 30 runs off Ishant Sharma in the 48th over to effectively poach the game for the tourists. However it could be argued that it is the death of bowling that is the problem. As apposed to India’s bowling at the death.

James Faulkner explodes in delight as the winning runs are struck with a six

There can be no doubt that the ODI series between India and Australia has been exhilarating, but it has been near totally dominated by batsmen. The world’s number one and two teams have lived up to their billing and the close-knit rivalry implicated by their proximity on the rankings table. However the balance of the battle between bat and ball is decidedly off-kilter. Ian Chappell confirmed as much this week when he wrote, “Bowlers need to be offered a crumb in the shorter forms of the game otherwise they’ll revolt, as they have done in the past, using extreme methods like Bodyline and chucking.” He also put the emphasis on the bigger bats, two new balls, shorter boundaries and fielding limitations all designed to favour six hitting as the culprits. It is difficult to pick holes in Chappell’s logic.

As with so much in the modern world the ruthless pursuit of the dollar is diminishing the soul of its charges. While the vacuum of cash may be helped by the excitement of sixes soaring into the crowd, manufacturing the atmospheric conditions so it rains sixes constantly will kill the thrill in no time. Yes the shorter formats are the pop stars that generate interest and cash flow for test matches, the older heart and soul of the game, but as with all pop culture it can feel very disposable at times. This is mostly because the bowlers have become disposable. The value placed on the Hollywood superficiality of batsmen smashing runs is neglecting the role of the bowler altogether.

The game’s administrators seem to have forgotten that sport is supposed to be a contest between two teams, rather than a few players from each team. What seems to be happening, especially in cricket’s shorter formats, is a contest between the batsmen. It feels a lot like playing a penalty shootout instead of a football match, substituting goals for six hitting naturally. So far in the three ODIs between India and Australia 1864 runs have been belted at 6.35 per over, with only 39 wickets of a potential 60 going down at a cost of 47.7 runs a piece. Ishant Sharma is naturally copping all of the flak, but I have seen worse overs go for less runs. Bowling these days, particularly for fast bowlers, has (in some cases literally) become a back breaking endeavour on unmercifully flat wickets. When did batsmen become the pampered celebrities and the bowlers just cannon fodder? Bowlers cannot bowl too many bouncers in an over. They can’t bowl underarm. They can’t risk going down the leg side or overstep without giving up a punishment free hit or an extra, as if batsmen didn’t have enough of those already. The other level to the problem is that when the bowlers are toothless, almost invariably the whole fielding team become impotent as well. Athleticism in the field could end up suffering a dull and resigned fate if pitches do not offer a little more assistance.

Batsmen, working within the boundary happy commercial engineering of playing conditions, donning protective equipment, tree-sized bats and playing on flat pitches can even switch hit bowlers. Innovation is a good thing but soon we should ostensibly replace bowlers with machines and have six hitting contests. The number of places the ball can go on the pitch without punishment is dropping, while the number of places the ball seems to end up is growing. Slower bouncers, extreme pace, carrom balls and yorkers can only get you so far. Stray but a little and the 20th row in the crowd can await your ball, even if it was a mis-hit, as we have seen on many occasions. The ball used to be a weapon. It is becoming more and more of a formality in the game.

Australia’s bowlers probably felt the sting when India, after chasing 359 to win with one wicket down at Jaipur, boasted that they could chase anything the Aussies could set for them this series. It was a strange statement considering that on a more interesting pitch at Pune India fell apart chasing 304 in the first ODI only a few days earlier. That and having a flat slab of a pitch all but literally paving your way to victory tends to help when hitting seven per over for fifty overs. Maybe Faulkner’s heroic fireworks are a sign of things to come that may force the batting heavy India to eat their words. Becoming part time power hitters will be the only way bowlers can get their revenge in one day and T20 cricket. Snatching totals that seemed unreachable.

The next game will no doubt be interesting. Hopefully the pitch will be too!

James Rowland