Would we still watch if the game was made more bowler-friendly?
At an odd hour a few nights ago, the internet threw up two videos at me. The first was captioned "Muhammad Asif to Ponting. Out-swinger, then in-swinger in same over. Sent Ponting back to retirement." The second was titled "Records tumble as Kohli, ABdV go berserk."
Here are the facts. The first was from a match played in Test whites in England. The second was in colours, from an IPL match played at night in India. The reaction was: one unfolded like a heist, the other felt both anonymous and noisy.
I find puritanism unsettling - there is too much baggage and violence associated with it - but I can see someone finding that reaction puritanical. That someone might even have been me, given that I have often found myself defending T20 in the debate over whether the format is cricket or not.
Here's the thing. If we zoom out far enough, it feels like many of the arguments against T20s feel generally, and sometimes exactly, similar to the ones made against ODIs when they were first introduced. Those of us who grew up with ODIs never realised the form was a heresy, and you can bet those growing up with T20s now will feel the same.
There is a stinging counter to this argument. If cricket is defined as a game with a balance between bat and ball, then the shortest format seems designed to prevent any notion of balance. Yet if we are at the pointing of picking at scabs, why not point out that cricket has never sought to reach this balance. Bowling is forever viewed with both suspicion and scrutiny. Whenever bowlers innovate, it is always followed not just by laws to outlaw it, but a moral outcry as well (see Swing, Reverse). When batsmen innovate, they find the adulation for them, and the laws changed (see Hit, Switch).
The question I wanted to ask was: what is it about this time we live in that has allowed for such a grotesque imbalance?
Unlike bowling, batting has an unlimited target. Ten wickets in ten balls - that's the best any bowling side can do, no matter how great or mighty. But imagine if every ball bowled in an innings is a no-ball - an infinite innings that can allow the batsmen to reach any total imaginable. And it is imagination that matters - we live in a time where we constantly try and pretend there are no limits, an age where thrift is what you resort to, not what you aspire to.
Consider the innovation that has come through in many of the apps and internet-fuelled entities that seek to "disrupt" the industries around us. I should know, I work with the makers of one such. When we try and think of what to offer our users, we like to imagine limitless possibilities, limitless choices, limitless opportunities. To quote a famous example, Uber, the ride-hailing app, speaks of the "perpetual trip", described as "drivers on a never-ending chain of pick-ups and drop-offs".
Does it not make sense that spectators expect this limitlessness from cricket too - surely they also want to watch each over go for 36, and then see the other team chase the total down? Batting represents possibility, bowling represents finality. To allow batting to prosper is to allow for greater options, greater possibilities, greater freedom, liberty and democracy. To allow bowling to prosper is to let the enemies win.
Cricket writer and blogger Subash Jayaraman once said to me: "Test cricket is not dying, it is being killed." In the hallowed internet tradition of whataboutery, I want to ask him if that isn't happening with bowling. Imagine if AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli had to play one of their several spellbinding innings this IPL with bats from 100 years ago, or 50, or even 30 years ago. Half their shots would have left their bats broken or chipped, with others the ball might have barely cleared the inner circle. It isn't a slight on their abilities but a reflection on the tools they wield. Now consider that the bowlers bowling to them are using a piece of equipment that has changed only its colour in over a century.
Or take another example, one that you've seen many times. It's the death overs and the batsman is wide-eyed and shuffling his feet, exposing his stumps. The bowler, his eyes dead and his face catatonic, doesn't aim for the stumps but fires it at the batsman's feet, and ends up yorking him. The umpire, his face impassive, ignores all the context, stretches his arms and signals a wide. Does the bowler laugh or does he cry?
But here is the question that must be asked of any person proposing a revolution: will we be better off after? To put that in context, if we were to introduce laws and techniques that favour the bowlers, would people still enjoy what they see? Would they still come and watch the game? Those who run and market cricket clearly believe that the answer is no. They feel that audiences want the pursuit of infinity. But even if infinity is theoretically possible, it isn't actually possible, and audiences would soon be bored by any attempt to pursue it.
There was a quote by Kohli a few days ago where he spoke about days when he felt like he could hit a six every ball but consciously chose not to. At the peak of his powers he spoke of the need to respect the game and his own limits. His self-awareness reminded me of the great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus*, who began to weep after leading the destruction of Carthage, Rome's arch-nemesis. At his moment of greatest glory, Scipio realised that the same fate would one day befall his own city, and he wept for it. Maybe Kohli realises the same about batting, which will one day see an end to its current golden age. The question is whether the end of this age would mean the end of cricket as well.
* 02:26:32 GMT, May 26, 2015: Corrected from Scipio Africanus