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Of lambs and lions


PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: November 17, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Cricket commentary | Sunil Gavaskar | Geoffery Boycott | Ravi Shastri | Sourav Ganguly and Ians - Chappell | Bishop and Botham |

Cricket commentary on television has evolved into a fine art that is as entertaining as it is informative. Former cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar, Geoffery Boycott, Ravi Shastri, Sourav Ganguly and Ians - Chappell, Bishop and Botham sharing the box, the commentary box, with passionate scholars of the game like Harsha Bhogle and Tony Cozier makes for a delightfully enlightening experience for a student of the game. Facts and stats dance with tales and trivia for a whirling ball that seduces no less than the one being chased by the players and the stadium.


Today  while I watched Tino Best and Sheldon Cotterell crank it up to the high 140s against the Indian openers, talk in the box drifted to the heydays of the West Indian pace battery when Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and ‘Big Bird’ Garner had bounced and literally beaten the cricketing world black, blue and into submission for nearly two decades.

Sunil Gavaskar’s punchy eloquence, whether he wields a microphone or the willow,  makes him a star on every pitch in the game. Here he was recounting the time when 6’8” Joel Garner was asked by a lady in Australia if he his gargantuan dimensions were proportionate all over, and to which Big Bird replied that for him to be proportionate all over he’d have to be 8’6” tall. And not only did the original little master pick up hundreds in the Caribbean but also their charming island accent.  He recounted how the fast men usually pitched the ball in only their half of the wicket and there was usually nothing there for the drive… “if you want to drive, buy a car, maan…” they’d say… And while Gavaskar cut and pulled these gems out of his kitbag, I wondered how those legendary fast bowlers who used to strike fear in the hearts of fans and batsmen alike would have fared in the modern game.

The pitches are slower and truer, the protective equipment far better, the bats meatier and the rules, in games both long and short, tilted heavily in favour of the guy with the bat.  I thought of the just concluded ODI series between India and Australia and the batting slugfest that it turned out to be. Could these legends have done any better and walked away from such a series with their heads higher than their bowling average?

Would or could a Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or Glen Maxwell or George Bailey have treated a Malcolm Marshall or Dennis Lillee any differently? Has the game changed yet again to increase the depth and breadth of the yawning chasm between the aristocrats (batsmen) and serfs (bowlers) and establish once and for all that bowlers are meant to be lambs fattened for that run-feast called cricket, and especially limited overs cricket.

My thoughts turned to the words of the victorious yet thoughtful MS Dhoni after the last game who wondered aloud if 300 was the new par for the game, at least on the sub-continental course.  And the underlying question was – Is this new avatar of the game with T20 improving shotmaking, new fielding restrictions liberating big hitting batsmen and pitches with as much life in them as a tombstone good for the future of the game? Will the tribe of bowlers currently reduced to being cannon fodder, like Christians being dragged to the lions in the coliseum in Rome, survive this relentless onslaught? Will they get reduced to or in fact be better off being replaced by bowling machines like Dhoni suggested, only half in jest…

After mulling over the thought for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is excellent for the game.

Here’s why…

• With every bowler getting mauled and runs flowing no matter who is bowling and at what pace or length, it is clear that bowling to save runs is an ineffectual approach for fielding captains and bowlers hoping to win games. Even the most potent bowler in the series, Mitchell Johnson, often bowling at speeds in excess of 150 kmph, went for more than seven runs an over in Nagpur and Jaipur.

• Containment isn’t an option anymore. The only option for the fielding captain is to take wickets. And bowlers who can take wickets, be it those like Mitchell Johnson, Dale Steyn and Lasith Malinga who force their will upon a game with pace and swing or those like Sunil Narine or Ajanta Mendis who use guile and spin or even chess players like Nuwan Kulasekra and Ravindra Jadeja who use unerring accuracy allied with subtle changes of pace and length to out think the batsman, will be the ones who will win matches. Only a bowler who wants to take wickets will survive in this new era of cricket. And so no matter who is batting, with what bat and on what wicket with what rules, attacking bowlers like Roberts and Lillees, and later like Waseeem  and Waqar, and Donald and Mcgrath, and Warne and Murali will always seek wickets, remain a threat, earn respect and spread fear, no matter how many runs they get taken off them.

• The first avatar of the one day game rewarded the dullness of economy over wicket-taking ability. And so the dibbly dobbly gentle medium pacemen who could turn their arms over for ten overs by giving away anything around forty runs and no wickets were valued more than genuine wicket takers whose aggressive intent could lead to them leaking runs on occasions.

•  Efficiency was killing the one day game. Overs twenty to forty, be it Sydney or Sharjah, made for a dreary spectacle. Batsmen scoring ones and twos and bowlers with neither pace nor imagination plugging away at good length without either the desire or the ability to take wickets. Thank God for these new rules and thank ECB marketing man Stuart Robertson for the T20 game , I say…

• Whenever the bat has oppressed the ball for long, there has always been a Prometheus who has emerged to redress the balance. If it was Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine with Bodyline in the 1930s, it was Clive Lloyd and his pack of four in the ‘70s and 80s. The lords at Lords moved in on both occasions to nip the rebellions as best as they could and brought in rules to chain the rebels and so the fast bowlers were defanged by regulating the bouncer and spinners were reined in by covered wickets and the heavy roller. But not to be undone by the rulebook, Imran Khan unleashed his labour of love on unsuspecting batsmen with the craft of swinging the old ball. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis elevated it to even greater heights and pace and yet again the batsmen cried foul. This time the rules were helpless against reverse swing and with no moral (since there was no physical danger to the batsman) or historical foundation for complaint, reverse swing managed to add an arrow in the now rather bare bowler’s quiver.

• Spinners brought in the doosra and the carom-ball and suddenly you had bowlers being the difference between victory and defeat in T20.

• It is only a matter of time before an imaginative captain in tandem with a pair or trio of immensely gifted bowlers comes up with a plan to attack and take out wickets by the bushels in ODIs and begin an era of dominance in the game. Of course wicket taking abilities in ODIs and t20 games is bound to have an impact on the way Tests are played as well, so the series that was bodes well for bowlers in all formats of the game

• However, a little administrative support will go a long way towards re-balancing the game.

• There’s no point complaining about bigger bats and belters but surely the ball could do with some improvements as well. The seam for instance could be a little more pronounced. I remember how in the 90s, a ball manufactured by Readers was introduced into club cricket and it had a slightly more pronounced seam than the conventional Dukes (though still within the seam-height limit prescribed in the rule-book) and it caused a sensation with the extra bounce and seam movement it generated. The squeamish lords at Lords were yet again unwilling to persist with the revolution that threatened equality and went back to the Dukes. But it is only fair that for the game to survive, every improvement in bats or wickets should be followed by a corresponding evolutionary innovation in the design of the ball. Both predator and prey must evolve together. If one outstrips the other by too much too soon, it is the law of nature for both to go extinct.

• Lastly, the rule about new balls and fielding restrictions (which captains should read as more men in catching positions), will eventually force fielding captains to adopt more aggressive tactics. But they would feel truly empowered if they were allowed to bowl bouncers a little more often and with modern protective equipment, it is unlikely to be a life-threatening rule change. And the fielding side should be allowed to manually enhance the ball’s wicket taking properties and restrict ball-tampering laws only to actions that disfigure the shape and nature of the ball. Raising the seam with finger nails or scuffing the ball with the nails (as against rubbing it on the ground or on one’s boots) is akin to taping the bat or adding rubber grips to it. It is only fair that bowlers be allowed to ‘treat’ the ball just the way a batter is allowed to ‘prepare’ the bat.

Mark my words, the next great bowling uprising is just around the corner and cricket, especially limited overs cricket, is about to enter the most exciting phase of its illustrious history.

So hold your breath and don’t you dare blink for the game is moulting before your very eyes.

And when you see the bowlers being put to the sword again, pity them at your own peril, for who would have imagined that the Christians being thrown to the lions for the pleasure of the Roman nobility would one day rule over both Romans and lions…

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017