ODI Rules: The haze around a maze
While the purists love Test cricket and the new converts love Twenty20, the ODI format finds itself at the crossroads, even as a few new rules have been infused to save it from an identity crisis.
Cricket has never caught up with the masses like football has and part of the reason may lie in its complexity. Frequent changes in rules would only make it harder to follow. More importantly, one wonders about the thought process behind these changes. By logic, rules should be changed to preserve the spirit of the game while adapting to modern trends. One-dayers were simple a few years ago, with fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs and only two players allowed outside the circle. In the recent past, however, ODI rule changes somehow seem less technical and more cosmetic.
The concept of Powerplay is still a fresh one and yet, it has already been tinkered around with. The first Powerplay rules were introduced in 2005, when the innings had a 10-over mandatory Powerplay block at the start of the innings followed by two additional periods of five overs each that could be taken anytime during the innings. In 2011, a rule tweak meant that the two five-over blocks had to be used between the 15th and 40th overs. The latest change has done away with the bowling Powerplay altogether. Instead, the new rule states that a maximum of four fielders are allowed outside the circle during the non-Powerplay overs.
Try explaining this to a novice - a maximum of two players outside the 30-yard circle in the mandatory Powerplay, a maximum of three fielders during the batting Powerplay and a maximum of four players outside the 30-yard circle for the rest of the game. Imagine how football fans would react if only four defenders are allowed inside the penalty box when Messi attacks the goal. Imagine how drab a Kobe Bryant spinning lay-up would look if only two opponent players were allowed to stand in the paint. But, perspective is important: This is not a rule that deals with the technicality of the game, per se. It interferes directly with the captains' strategies; as if a cricket captain didn't already have enough on his plate.
Another rule allows bowlers to bowl two bouncers in an over instead of one. Fast bowlers, specially those of Dale Steyn's ilk, would be smacking their lips. This rule is slightly more technical and almost mimics the Test rule, so it is commendable to a certain extent. While the fielding restrictions tend to favour the batsmen, the bouncer rule tends to favour the fast bowler. Can we say, one all?
Two new balls are being used from either end, the intention being that the balls would stay relatively new by the end of the game. However, former England captain Mike Atherton made an interesting observation during an interview with fast bowler James Anderson. The latter felt the introduction of two new balls might not always work in the bowler's favour. He is right. If it is a good pitch and the conditions are bright and sunny, the two new balls could virtually translate into a massacre for the bowlers. Under overcast conditions, the new balls with their distinct seam movement, could give the pacers some genuine swing. But cricket, unlike most other sports, is already heavily dependent on the conditions. The toss is rarely as important in any game as it is in cricket. What was the alternative? A 30-over-old tattered ball reversing sharply, allowing skillful bowlers to conjure magic isn't such a bad option. The previous practice of changing the ball after 33 overs tried to address the fact that some balls go soft and soggy after about 30 overs. This has more to do with the poor quality of the balls than with anything else. Instead of addressing the core issue, the rule would now tinker with the way the game is played, virtually taking reverse swing out of the ODI game.
In cricket, the dimensions of the ground aren't fixed. Some grounds around the world are ridiculously small, with some boundaries just about 60 yards from the pitch. Big bats, fielding restrictions and brand new balls conflate into carnage for the bowlers. Interestingly, most of the new rules seem to say just one thing to the spinner: We don't need you in the ODI game, anymore.
The changes seem to nudge the ODI game towards T20 territory. But the ODI format will lose its identity if you replace strategy and tactics with slam-bang action. If tennis players had to limit their net approach or baseline forehand winners to a particular number every set, would it be any fun? The new rules are confusing in a game that is already befuddling to outsiders.
If there have to be changes, they need to address the quality of the game. For example, a direct hit shouldn't result in overthrows; the ball should be declared dead once it hits the stumps. That will encourage fielders with a good aim, instead of penalising them. A decision should be taken on whether the switch hit is a valid shot. The rule which prevents fielders from moving laterally in anticipation of the batsman's shot at least deserves attention, if not change. These are the nuances which should be addressed, not how many fielders there should be outside the circle. The beauty of the game lies in balance between bat and ball. The recent changes, barring the two bouncer per over rule, are largely playing to the galleries, instead of adding to the quality of the game.
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