The bowling has become mediocre

WE have seen some thrilling chases of 300-plus scores in the ODIs during the past few months. All credit to the batsmen for so bravely keeping up the pursuit and finally pulling it off.

However, at the same time, this shows that the quality of bowling has declined quite sharply over the last few years. In contemporary cricket, the great bowlers are becoming fewer and fewer.

I am a believer in the theory that a good Test bowler will do the job in any form of cricket. At the same time, I am baffled at the influx of the so-called ODI bowlers, who have brought down the standards of bowling in limited overs cricket.

There are so many of them - the mediocre Ronnie Iranis and the Paul Collingwoods are prime examples - and what has happened in the process is that the composition of the attack has got diluted in most of the sides, with these 'half bowlers' despite their occasional successes, not helping matters one bit.

In the long run, the side that fields these cricketers is the biggest loser. Cricket is the game of the 'specialists', and even if someone is an all-rounder, he has to be a 'specialist' all-rounder.

In our playing days, a score of 250 often used to be a match-winning score. The standard of batting has not come down since then, the quality of bowling certainly has.

These days, even a total of 300 is not a guarantee for success. With the kind of bowlers we have in world cricket at the moment, these targets are easily attainable.

It is such a sad sight to watch the West Indians struggle with a bunch of mediocre pacemen, who would not have got remotely near the Caribbean sides of the mid-70s and 80s. I had the privilege of playing against the famous Windies pace quartet, and I can tell you it was a different ball game altogether.

Even in one-day cricket, survival was difficult, forget the runs. The Caribbean pace attack in the final of World Cup '83 is a classic example. The Windies had Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall.

All four of them had the ability to bowl their side to a victory on their own. Their basic idea, even in one-day cricket, was to strike, not contain. They were attacking bowlers, with pace, bounce and movement, and it really was a challenge facing them.

These were the kind of pacemen, who could make a target of 150 appear 275 plus, and runs made against them counted for much more. This is not to take the credit away from the present batsmen - they can only score against bowlers offered to them.

That was a time when even someone like Wayne Daniel, a fearsome fast bowler in his prime, had to sit out because there was no place for him in the West Indian side. Daniel would have walked into any international side now.

After the departure of that pace quartet, the West Indians were well served by the two exemplary pacemen, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, continuing in the rich tradition of the Caribbean pace greats.

Both were destructive bowlers, with Ambrose, possessing a vicious yorker, being particularly impressive in ODI cricket. This is not to suggest that Walsh was any less dangerous.

Walsh and Ambrose are no longer around and the Windies are really facing an uphill task with their pacemen. If I have to be brutally honest with you, the present West Indian bowlers are not even a shadow of their illustrious predecessors.

Even the Pakistani attack is not the same without the gifted Wasim Akram, who has the rare ability to make the ball 'talk.' He is about the most difficult bowler I have faced, for he can get the ball to do just about anything.

Darren Gough, a quality paceman, is being bothered by injuries, and this means, yet another top bowler is being forced to miss the action. A side like New Zealand has yet to unearth a world class strike paceman after the great Richard Hadlee bid adieu.

Except for Australia, with Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne in its ranks, South Africa, with Shaun Pollock, a genuine mover of the ball, leading the pack, and a full strength Pakistan side attack, the other bowling sides are barely average.

India, in the ODI series against the West Indies, has really missed Zaheer Khan, who with his movement and a bit of pace, has been in fine form this season. Harbhajan Singh would do well to realise that he is a much better bowler when he flights the ball and allows it to turn and bounce. He is so easily picked for runs, when he operates flat.

I still remember Laxman Sivaramakrishnan being immensely successful in Australia and Sharjah in '85, and the leggie got his wickets by flighting the ball and inviting the batsmen to have a go at him. Harbhajan is an off-spinner, but the same principle applies.

The spinners have a huge role to play in ODI cricket, and if they have the right captain backing them, they can be a weapon of attack, and not defence.

It is my belief that the preparation of placid tracks for one-day cricket, will do more harm than good to cricket in the long run. The role of the bowlers, unless they can rise above the conditions like the West Indian greats or an Ambrose or an Akram, is completely marginalised.

A match completely dominated by the batsmen, on surfaces where it becomes increasingly difficult to defend even a mammoth score, is likely to take the competitive element away from the game, if the outcome becomes so predictable.

The contest between the bat and the ball has to be a fair one. A flurry of boundaries and sixes against the hapless bowlers will no doubt get the crowds excited. However, if the proceedings become too one-sided, they would serve little purpose. In fact, there have been occasions when a low-scoring game has producing stirring fare.

The World Cup '83 final was an ideal example. India pulled off a sensational victory, when few gave the side a chance before the West Indians began the chase. That is the kind of battle that lifts a match in terms of a contest. Runs lose much of their value if they come too easily.

Right now - especially in India - we have a combination that can kill the golden goose that is ODI cricket. Mediocre attacks and placid pitches do not augur well for the game.