Rules July 27, 2012

Cricket rules vs common sense

Balachandhran S
Alook at three new modifications to the rules of the game which seem dubious at best and at odds with the spirit of the game, at worst

By Balachandhran S, India

Not for nothing do we find it hard to explain cricket in its entirety to, say, an American. There are simply too many elements in terms of play as well as rules. And for decades, the rules of the game have not seen many changes - for precisely the reason that if we change it more, quite often we complicate it further.

The last couple of years, though, have been very hectic as far as the rulebook is concerned. More changes have been seen than preceding decades. Some for the better and others not.

The better ones such as the one which ruled a batsman not out if the bat shot up after he grounded it through the crease when the bails are dislodged, deserve due credit. Just as the rule where it is the landing spot of the bowlers' front foot determines the no-ball and not where it ends up after sliding.

For now, let's take a look at three new modifications to the rules of the game which seem dubious at best and at odds with the spirit of the game, at worst.

Spun out: Many a recent obituary has been written about the spinners of our time. That we are not going to see another Muralitharan, another Warne or another Kumble anytime soon. What is sad though is that Harbhajan, who was touted to pick up where Anil Kumble and Muralitharan left off, is nowhere in the sights of the selectors now. His bowling is bereft of the magic it had in the past. Most importantly, his stock ball has lost its bite. To add insult to injury the best attacking spinner in the game - Murali Karthik - does not play for his national side. This leaves only Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal as traditional spinners of note, followed by the modern, multi-faceted spin bowlers such as R. Ashwin and Sunil Narine.

At such a delicate time for spin bowling, we see the ICC introduce a rule whereby the already batsman-harassed lot is left with a mere four fielders on the boundary for the best part of the game in ODIs. Now let's think this through. For an off spinner that means that if he has an off-side sweeper, long-on and a long-off, he is left to choose between a deep square leg and a deep midwicket. The plight is even more dire for a wrist spinner or even a left-arm spinner. They can either cover the squares on both sides with fielders or the straight boundaries. Not both.

We do not need the scientific vision to fully understand Quantum Mechanics to make out that spin bowlers will be increasingly forced to bowl faster and flatter. Dart it in - as a matter of fact.

For those who are unfamiliar with the old rules, after the mandatory Powerplays there used to be the stipulation of having at least four fielders within the circle prior to the rule change. That gave rise to the possibility of having a most of five fielders out on the boundary. Now there may only be four out on the boundary.

Can just one fielder removed from the boundary make a huge difference? Yes indeed. When you consider that the balance between bat and ball was already skewed towards the willow we needed something to even out the other side, but here we have one which furthers the skew. How I wish the law-makers realised that the hard fought less-than-200 runs per innings games make for better viewing than the one sided 400 runs per innings games.

Bowler - Gone are the days when bowlers would positively jump for joy and revel in the camaraderie of their team mates. Now we see a cautious sense of hopeful optimism in the eyes of a bowler - even if he has got the stumps at the batsman's end to tumble. Because - every time a wicket falls, the authorities see it fit to take a couple or so minutes to ensure that the ball was a legal one. That it was not a no-ball.

The dispassionate scientists among us may proclaim that the loss of two minutes is not too much to pay to ensure that the right decision is taken. But then when did sport become science? Sport is all about the immediacy of the moment. Where does the romance of the game go when the batsman stands his ground - waiting for the third umpire's call on the no-ball even when he is bowled out?

Forget the much-maligned bowler. What does it do to the spontaneity and participation of the crowd? The 'salt on the wound' part comes in when you realise that this checking does not go on for every ball - because the game just would not get a move on. This checking is better described as 'Batsman-off-the-hook' check. Because it is primarily done when the poor bowler claims the wicket - seemingly without any doubt.

No ball or Wide - Nobody knows. In simple terms, the rules in ODIs were changed to allow the fast bowlers to bounce a batsman once an over in 1991. Cricket aficionados may note that this rule was briefly modified (presumably by bowler-friendly authorities) in 1994 to allow two bouncers per over. Things came back to normal (read batsman-friendly) again in 2001 limiting the bowlers to one bumper per over. The news though is that this year, in 2012, the bowlers have again been empowered with two bouncers per over.

A completely legal delivery is one which goes under the shoulder of the batsman. Two legal bouncing deliveries are allowed per over which pass over the shoulder but below the head of the batsman. The theory is that if the ball goes above the head of the batsman it is called a wide - notwithstanding the two-bouncer rule. That leaves the bowler an exalted margin - twice in each over, he can get away by bowling the ball so that it crosses the batsman at above the shoulder height but below the head. Any short ball above the head is to be called a wide.

Problem is, in today's cricket, with the shot over third man being favoured by batsmen and instinctive pull and hook shots taking precedence owing to the pressure of producing runs, a batsman cannot always judge whether the ball may have been traveling a few centimetres above his head. If he plays this ball and gets caught, he has no option but to depart. And it does not matter if it is above the head. That sounds a tad unfair.

To all you bowlers shouting - 'Serves them right', well that is not the way to go about it. Fair is fair. A wide is a delivery which is out of reach of the batsman. In all reality, particularly in limited-overs internationals, a short ball a few centimetres over the head is not unreachable. The way the current rule is scripted, the bowler will be penalised only if the batsman does not make contact. If he does and gets out, then the bowler walks away triumphant and smiling. Particularly if he has not used up his quota of two short balls per over. Now we are not even going to get into the technicalities of how exactly the square leg umpire is supposed to rule on the marginal call of whether the ball goes above the shoulder but below the head or completely above the head of the batsman. Today we are talking of a limited-overs game where a high bouncer is preferable to play that lap shot over third man that a Sehwag or a Tendulkar so favours. What if they make contact with a slightly above head high delivery and end up giving a catch at third man? They are out - according to the rules. A wide, to remind the readers, is one where the ball is clearly out of reach of the batsman. Point to ponder - is a ball which is just cresting over the helmet of the batsman out of reach of the batsman? In today's cricket? That too in limited-overs Internationals?