Bowlers brandish willows

JASON GILLESPIE'S double hundred as a nightwatchman shows how seriously bowlers are taking batting these days.-AP

The batsmen are more powerful, liberated in spirit by one-day cricket and armed with more potent weapons. And bowlers, instead of quickly disappearing into the dressing room after some hefty swipes, are keen to present a straight bat.

Among cricket's various astonishing records (South Africa chasing 435, someone scoring 42 from one over) Gillespie's double hundred as a nighwatchman will occupy a special place. But when judged dispassionately it is just another instance of modern cricket going crazy as players search for new roles and stretch the boundaries. This feat highlights the trend of everyone wanting to become a batsman, a development, which causes all-round grief.

Batsmen are disturbed by the increased competition. Laxman, for instance, has to worry not only about Raina, Venugopal Rao and Kaif, but must keep both eyes on Irfan Pathan who is aggressively pushing his claim for playing at number three. Agarkar, with a hundred at Lord's, fancies his chances with the bat, tomorrow his example could inspire Harbhajan/Munaf and RP to go up the order and partner Sachin.

Faced with this threat, batsmen are busy reinventing themselves. Orthodox players who thought a pull to square leg was a grave sin now think nothing of playing the reverse sweep. Dhoni has taken the paddle sweep to an unknown degree of difficulty by playing it so fine the umpire is confused whether he got bat on to ball or the 'keeper let one more ball slip through his gloves. Dravid, earlier part-time 'keeper, is now a full-time opener, squirting balls through slip and whipping outswingers pitched on off to the leg side. Time was tailenders (the pinch hitters) were promoted to open the innings, now that role is assigned democratically and equally to all, distributed like diwali mithai to every member of the squad.

The growth of bowlers as batsmen is, at another level, a mixed blessing because there are no easy wickets anymore in Tests. Murali/Ntini or Harbhajan will still come to the middle, take a huge swing, and depart with a smile, but in the modern context they are exceptions. Bowlers are concerned as much about their strike rate with the bat as the economy rate, Shane Warne will frustrate bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar is capable of stubborn resistance, Kumble and Rana Naved attach a high value to their wicket. Teams have no tail, in the future the carefree number eleven could become as difficult to find as the cheetah in the wild.

All this means bowlers have a real challenge on their hands. The batsmen are more powerful, liberated in spirit by one-day cricket and armed with more potent weapons. And bowlers, instead of quickly disappearing into the dressing room after some hefty swipes, are keen to put their head down and present a straight bat.

But the game is far from up for them. Instead they are quietly, and systematically, gearing up to upgrade their skills and induct new weapons of deception in their armoury. As part of this role makeover fast bowlers consider normal swing old-fashioned, what counts is reverse, for which the new ball has to be made old, a feat achieved after three hours of play through careful effort. In the continuing battle between bat and ball, fast bowlers dismiss batsmen not by pace but from slow deliveries. It is not unusual for Brett Lee to run in and hurl a bomb at 150, then follow this up with a soft offbreak, a grenade lobbed at Ramesh Powar's pace.

It is the same need to innovate that encourages Afridi to bowl a faster one that matches the sharpest sent down by Sreesanth. Warne has surprised batsmen with bouncers and while leg-spinners have bowled googlies throughout cricket history it is the off-break bowlers who have stepped up to toss legbreaks (doosras) at unsuspecting batsmen. Not the traditional, clever drifter of Prasanna that crept towards slip but a vicious delivery (bowled from a chest-on action with elbow bent hundreds of degrees) that goes the other way. The game is richer, more exciting by these changes, it shows cricket is moving, wearing new clothes, looking more appealing. In one-day cricket, tactics have changed with teams choosing to attack from the beginning instead of the play-safe-protect-wickets policy of yesterday. Now the instructions are for batsmen to get on with it, 100 from 20 is sedate, teams sprint to more before the power play is over. Sehwag is, in a way, the complete one-day player, with him no ball is good enough. He can slash a short one over the outstretched hand of third man on the boundary or, and this is a bigger insult, pull a similar ball disrespectfully to mid-wicket.

Even Tests, so boring once with teams crawling to 180 in 90 overs, have speeded up. The other day Bangladesh raced to 350 in a day against Australia (but collapsed for much, much less in the second innings!), which shows the game is played at a rapid pace. The days of dour defence, of batsmen playing maidens after maidens (and Bapu Nadkarni operating for two hours without conceding a run) are long gone .

As roles keep getting changed, and reversed as in the stunning case of Gillespie, what will come next? It is difficult to predict the future, we are reminded that cricket is full of some kind of uncertainties, the sport has the knack of disproving everyone. Experts, supposedly knowledgeable, are exposed almost every time they release wisdom about the pitch. Experience shows the game is bigger than the players and all experts put together.

But if one is allowed a guess, the next big move in cricket will be batsmen wanting to become bowlers. Sachin with the new ball instead of Irfan? Who knows?