Monday, March 13, 2006

March 12, 2006: The death of bowling

I witnessed a carnage yesterday, something which is being called the greatest limited-overs match ever. And as the title of the post hints, I was not amused.

I started following cricket when I was seven years old, when Ravi Shastri drove around his Audi at MCG and the Indian team was crowned the 'Champion of Champions'. India at that time had a team very similar to the current ODI team, lots of decent line-and-length bowlers, a good sharp fielding unit and some batting depth with a good mix of correct players and bits-&-pieces limited-overs specialists. However, with the plethora of line-&-length bowlers, we struggled to translate our one-day success into the Test arena, and possibly this is true for the current team too.

Anyways, this era also was seeing the end of a decade when globally, quality bowling, especially of the pace variety, was at its peak. (Remember, Shane Warne resurrected the dying art of leg-spin in the 90s only). While everyone remembers the battery of West Indian fast bolwers, our immediate neighbours had a champion called Imran Khan, a guy who wrecked us on totally flat wickets in Pakistan, and whom I would choose in my all-time Test and maybe even ODI XI. Other teams also had some great to good bowlers - Dennis Lillee for Australia, Richard Hadlee for New Zealand, Bob Willis and a young Ian Botham for England. In fact, India often suffered because apart from Kapil, we had no fast or slow man worth his salt on the international landscape. In such circumstances, teams that made more than 250 had a superb total on board (even in Sharjah where the track was supposed to be the deadest in the world), and I could actually count on my fingers the number of times teams had crossed 300 in a 50-over match.

As I grew, one-day hitting kept getting sophisticated. Martin Crowe is remembered more for a batting career that could have been, and inventing the ever-popular Max version of cricket in his native New Zealand (somehow his invented version never caught on, possibly reflecting the lack of marleting muscle New Zealand carries in the cricketing and non-cricketing world). However, for me, Martin Crowe is the first guy to invent pinch-hitting as a serious phenomena, what with the promotion of a dour Mark Greatbatch as an opener, with great success in the World Cup. Old-timers tell me Lance Cairns was the first pinch-hitter in ODIs, but I would still credit Crowe for making it a more regular occurence on the international stage. There were also players like Srikanth, but he played in the same way in all versions of the game, with mixed success.

Other teams caught on, and from 1994-96, Sachin Tendulkar was the most destructive one-day batsman, getting quick and consistent runs at the top of the order. While Sachin has continued in the same fashion over a long career, he was soon upstaged by new and old pinch-hitters at the top of the order - Jayasuriya a classic case, Afridi a freak one. Bob Woolmer ensured pinch-hitting started spreading down the order, but Lance Klusener in the 1999 World Cup epitomised it at a more conventional lower-order position. There were some innane choices, for instance Srinath at No.3 for India. But ultimately, the guys who had most success were conventional good stroke-makers, either in the ODI or Test arena - Ponting, Hayden, Gilchrist, Lara, Astle, Inzamam, Gibbs, and dare I say Ganguly (who with all his technical deficiencies was a much better ODI than a test player).

The rise in these stroke-makers was coupled with a general decline in fast bowling standards. For me, the 90s produced only four quicks for the ages - Glenn McGrath for Australia, Allan Donald for South Africa (sorry Shaun Pollock) and Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis for Pakistan. In fact, the first two teams actually enjoyed the most success in the test arena.

The era also marked what I call a uniformisation of pitches. The famous bounce at WACA and swing at Headingley became sporadic, almost all the West Indian pitches died down, and only India retained some oriental mystery, but only in the Test arena. With such homogenisation of bowling and pitches around the world, batsmen - of different types and skills - became more daring and adventurous, and possibly less correct.

The average score started picking up, and stiffer chases became easy. India and Australia managed two good ones of 300+ against Pakistan in the late-90s. In the new century, India upstaged England at Lord's by chasing 325. Australia also managed a similar feat against South Africa.

We got the first hint of what happened yesterday in the first ODI of the path-breaking Indian tour to Pakistan in 2004. India, basking in the success of a successful Australian tour, put up 350 on board. Pakistan, at 47-2 in ten odd overs, looked dead and buried before the burly Inzy played a vintage innings. He got out very late in the match, but ultimately, ensured that Pakistan was close enough to lose by only five runs. The defeat came only because of Moin Khan's inability to hit a low full-toss off Nehra for a six, possibly reflecting the difference between him and Miandad.

Anyway, I did not follow yesterday's match in its entirety. I got to know that Australia was hitting awesomely, and instead of switching over from the more mundane India-England match, I decided to give it a miss. The mauling which India got in the 2003 World Cup Final was still fresh in my mind, and I did not want to see the same team do a repeat to a South African team which so far had them really on the run. The series was neatly tied at 2-2, and Australia had come from being 2-0 down, to threaten the world record. In the end, Ponting did an encore of the World Cup Final at the same venue, and Oz broke all records in getting to 434.

The asking rate for the Proteas was 8.70, simply put two fours and a single needed of every over in the match. I went out to the market, losing interest in a match where I thought South Africa would lose badly after competing so hard with the Aussies throughout the series. I should have got the first hint when a friend called me up from Chennai, asking what was happening yaar? I thought the Proteas are collapsing, so didn't bother much as I was driving. Anyway, soon I got a sms from another friend, saying 'What a Match!'. It was then I realised that possibly I am missing something, and I immediately called him back. He told me South Africa were 190 for 2 in 22 overs, and they had just lost their captain Grame Smith. I had thought I will have an early dinner outside, but would not have managed to digest my food in such a scenario.

I rushed back - Gibbs had just completed his 100 and Australia were in their third power-play. On 130, Bracken dropped what was a relatively simple catch, if not a sitter. After that, Gibbs simply went berserk, trying to hit out every ball, and managed to do so also. He finally got out on 175, when I thought he was threatening to break 200. Thus, at least Dhoni's recently-created record of the highest score in an ODI while chasing (183*) was left intact. However, all the other records were definitely under threat. It was a strange sight, a team batting in the 30th over at a run-rate greater than nine, and yet facing a stiff target.

The Proteas look like having lost their when their lower-order big hitter, Kemp, got out to a relatively tame catch at point. However, two guys in the lower order - Van der Warth and Telemachus - played cameos. From a stiff 77 off 42 balls, the target came down to 36 runs required off 22 balls. In the end, Lee had to get two wickets or stop South Africa from getting seven runs, to prevent Australia from facing the ingnomity of losing while defending a score like 434.

The over had everything to remind people of the famous last over bowled by Damien Fleming in the 1999 World Cup semi-final between the two teams. That time, South Africa tied the match and lost a spot in the final only because they couldn't hold their nerves, being branded as chokers forever (another technique of mental disintegration started by Steve Waugh). This time around they held their nerves better, to get to an astonishing 438 off 299 legal deliveries, winning with a wicket and over to spare.

The match was a classic for sure. But what made me weep was the treatment meted out to the bowlers. A guy called Mike Lewis went for 113 in his quota of ten overs, and what was astonishing was that Ponting made him bowl his full quota, when his trump card Lee still had two to go. Agreed that Lee also was very expensive (around 70 in his eight overs), but the tailenders possibly would have struggled to hit Lee for straight sixes the way they picked off Lewis. Being a soft traditionalist, I enjoyed the '99 World Cup sei-final more, mainly because the scores in both the innings combined was less than the one achieved by each of the two teams individually here.

People often talk of flat tracks being the norm for one-dayers, especially as crowds come in to watch batting. However, for me some of the most exciting matches are the low-scoring ones, like the one India played against Pakistan in the 1984 Australasia Cup. Even the Sahara Cup which India won in 1997 against Pakistan was criticised for being on sub-standard pitches. However, the contests in these matches were far more equal and to my mind exicitng. There was always a feeling in even hopeless situations that the other team might collapse, as a good bowler was capable of simply running through the side.

So I would simply like to appeal to administrators to never produce such feather-beds again, lest in future, a Zaheer Khan be the fastest bowler in the world, and India manages to chase down 550 in the 2011 World Cup Final. Like Don Bradman's average, I would be really happy if no team ever posts 400 again, forget losing the same match.

1 comment:

satya said...

Barry Richards was quoted as saying the same, the 'death of bowlers' in a cricinfo story while Steven Waugh held the opinion that it was good for the game and increasing spectators and therefore its commercial benefits. In the end the story gets down to art versus commerce, if you can call test cricket art which many cricket enthusiasts would gladly do. Now I think the intervention here is the degree of commericalisation, that would be the key point. That at a certain level, keep the game as it is and in some formats make such changes amenable to spectators and therefore commerce. But if they debunk test matches, I am gonna revolt and stop watching cricket.