In favour of the willow wielders

The debate continues but rights-holding television networks love the sky-scraping sixes and that could influence the batting-friendly rules forever, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Cricket has always been skewed in favour of the batsmen though its most primal sight is the one in which a fast bowler blitzes through and sends the stumps cart wheeling. There is this anecdote about the great W.G. Grace, the game’s first rockstar, who told an umpire — “They came to see me bat, not you umpire” — after being adjudged lbw but the good doctor from Bristol, who scored a whopping 54,211 first-class runs, had his point as it occurred in an exhibition match and the crowd had indeed turned up to witness his exploits.

But it also reflects the sense of entitlement that batsmen tend to have and the tale continues to this day, a 100 years after Grace passed away in 1915. And with the ICC rules getting even more lopsided in favour of the willow wielders, especially in ODIs, the sport which commenced with shepherds thwacking a ball with a clump of wood in England’s hinterland, remains just that, a muscular heave that sends the white ball into the skies while television cameras capture fans screaming, spilling beer and holding placards asking for more big hits!

The recent World Cup, too, was an example of the bowlers club being flogged while batsmen ruled. Chris Gayle (215 vs Zimbabwe) and Martin Guptill (237 not out vs West Indies) clocked double-tons, Kumar Sangakkara slammed four centuries on the trot and Brendon McCullum scattered the England attack with ruthless disdain. Truly the overwhelming picture was one of batting mayhem despite the Indian attack bowling out rivals in seven consecutive games or Aussie left-arm speedster Mitchell Starc walking away with the ‘Player of the Tournament’ award. Yet, when you look back at the tournament, what is the one image that sticks in your mind — isn’t it Grant Elliott clobbering Dale Steyn for the winning six in a razor’s edge quarterfinal?

The pitch was queered when the ICC stipulated that in the non-Powerplay overs, which amount to 35 of the 50, only four fielders can be placed outside the 30-yard circle. The new regulation that was implemented in October, 2012, has hamstrung fielding captains and affected their reliance on spinners and part-timers in the middle overs. The other rule of having two new balls from either end also proved dismal for Asian countries with their accent on spin and it was no surprise that India voiced its concerns.

Recently both Indian captain M. S. Dhoni and his Aussie counterpart Michael Clarke expressed their reservations over the ODI restrictions. And theirs is part of a growing chorus that seeks a level playing field between bat and ball. In fact, a few years ago, Dhoni was even more strident and he had then said: “We need to sit and think about if 350 is the new 280 or 290 or 300. With the rule changes and everything, most of the bowlers are getting smashed with the extra fielder inside. Even the best of the bowlers, the fast bowlers, are bowling with third man and fine leg up. With the extra fielder inside, if you are slightly off target, it goes for a boundary. A few of the bowlers are disappointed, they actually feel it will be better off to put a bowling machine there!”

Some days back, Daniel Vettori, until recently New Zealand’s feel-good veteran and now Royal Challengers Bangalore’s bowling coach, spoke about the constricting rules that dent the spin fraternity.

“Whether it is needed to be amended or not, there’s a place to look into it as all facets of the game need to be addressed. The four fielders rule can at times make the spinners’ job a bit tough. Sometimes, the size of boundaries plays a part because a mis-hit goes for a six, undermining the effort you put in as a spin bowler. If you play at a big ground like the MCG then the spinners will come into play,” the left-arm spin legend said.

But the woes of bowlers isn’t entirely centred on fielding restrictions, if the ICC is to be relied upon, as its chief executive Dave Richardson had suggested that the size of modern bats needs to be evaluated. Richardson made his remarks after South African AB de Villiers hammered the fastest ODI hundred off just 31 balls, but Eoin Morgan was quick to counter. The England ODI captain pointed out that it is the ODI rule-changes that have hastened scoring and he termed the accusatory gaze at the bat as something ridiculous.

The back-and-forth chatter will continue and bowlers, especially spinners and part-timers will wear a bruised look. Ian Chappell, meanwhile, through his Cricinfo column asked captains to stay proactive, take a leaf out of aggressive skippers like Dhoni, McCullum and Clarke and ensure that wickets are taken so that run-scoring is negated.

The debate continues but rights-holding television networks love these sky-scraping sixes and that could influence the batting-friendly rules forever!