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November 2, 2013

Is any total safe anymore?

Michael Jeh
Usman Khawaja: the star of Queensland's big chase in the Ryobi Cup final  © Getty Images
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It's clear now that no total is safe in modern ODI cricket. And if Pakistan are batting, no chase is safe either! It's easy enough to heap more insults on the bowlers (and I've done my fair share of that) so let's try and be rational about why scoring runs seems to be so much easier these days.

Both India and Australia have chased down big totals in the last few weeks, some of it at ridiculous run rates. But it's nothing new - it's happening everywhere. In domestic cricket, Queensland chased down 318 in a one-day final on Sunday, albeit at North Sydney Oval, which doubles as a postage stamp on weekdays. We can focus on the stunning chases of course, but let's not forget that in order for these totals to be hunted down, the team batting first also must have scored at a breakneck speed. Clearly 300 is a bare minimum now on good pitches but what has changed from say ten or 20 years ago?

Let's tick off the obvious factors so that we can elevate this discussion to a higher plane without wasting too much time. Better batting pitches, smaller boundaries, faster outfields, and more powerful cricket bats. Two new balls (which can make batting tougher in some parts of the world but not so on the subcontinent, it seems, especially near the end of the innings). Only four fielders outside the circle. Powerplay in the middle of the innings. I'm tempted to add "rubbish bowling", but that is probably unfair, despite the fact that I do genuinely think that bowlers are less adept at executing basic skills. But that's another story and it has already been told.

The surprising thing about these big totals is that scoring at more than six runs per over no longer comes fraught with huge risk and considerable damage. Teams appear to be maintaining these rates for 50 overs without losing too many wickets. In times gone by, the only hope of chasing down a 300-plus score would be if Nos. 9, 10 and 11 contributed lustily towards the death, because the top order would necessarily have perished trying to score at that pace.

That's no longer the case - India's chase a few weeks ago with nine wickets in hand just defies description. The fielding standards are generally higher so more runs are being saved in the field, more direct hits for run-outs and more/better catches are being caught. In that sense, the trend line should be showing more wickets falling. Yet batsmen seem to be able to comfortably play the big shots without perishing. And the hits keep coming…

Can it be video technology reprieving batsmen when they might otherwise have been given out? It's hard to say whether the third umpire is working in favour of batsmen or bowlers. I genuinely cannot take a definitive position on this.

The bowling is certainly a factor but it's too simplistic to blame it on poor skill execution. Bowlers are fitter, stronger, more hydrated and better trained (theoretically). They have detailed bowling plans generated by boffins sitting at computer screens. If it is an arms race between batsmen and bowlers, they should, in theory, be evolving at a similar pace.

It's hard to imagine a batsman in the 1980s who, if he was being truly honest, would have backed himself to take down Curtly Ambrose at the end of an innings

Yet it appears that the batsmen are winning this race handsomely. I keep coming back to my point from a recent piece where I bemoaned the lack of good old-fashioned yorkers, but that tune has been sung. Too much variety perhaps - instead of being obsessed with slower balls, should bowlers just go back to the basics?

If you think back to a few generations ago, some of those medium-pace trundlers should have gone the distance. I'm thinking of bowlers who bowled at the pace of, say, Derek Pringle, Madan Lal, Ravi Ratnayeke, Martin Snedden, Simon O'Donnell, Mudassar Nazar and the like. How come they didn't get pongoed on a regular basis for 15-plus runs per over in the second half of an innings? Leaving aside all the obvious factors (mentioned above), was it just because the batsmen were more fearful?

Which perhaps brings us to the root of the answer then. I'm starting to think it's a batting mindset thing. No target is too high, no boundary too far, no bowler invincible. Most batsmen just back themselves against any bowler, even the genuine quicks. It's hard to imagine a batsman in the 1980s who, deep in his own mind, if he was being truly honest, would have backed himself to take down Curtly Ambrose at the end of an innings.

The West Indian quicks are the first to spring to mind but I'm sure we can also name sundry other great fast bowlers who would feature on that list. Going back a few more years, imagine a batsman fancying taking 18 off Derek Underwood. Or even John Emburey or Saqlain Mushtaq. I hesitate to mention Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan in this conversation only because I've seen it happen to them recently, albeit at the tail end of their stellar careers.

Perhaps the modern batsman is physically stronger these days, thereby clearing boundaries with ease, but more importantly, believing he can do so. Despite the boundaries being brought in, batsmen are still clearing the ropes by a fair margin, so it's obvious that they're hitting them much further these days. That may be T20's great gift to the game - this amazing self-belief in batsmen.

At what point will we get to the sort of score that is beyond even this generation? Will it forever be the sort of conversations we have when we're talking about someone like Usain Bolt? How much faster can a man run before it becomes impossible to run faster?

I don't think that mark will be 450 in an ODI. Will any team ever score 500? It seems far-fetched but so did 400 and not only did Australia get it but South Africa chased it down. One of my favourite quotes comes from that match, where Jacques Kallis is alleged to have said (in the innings break, when the team was sitting in the dressing room, wondering what had just happened): "Right. The bowlers have done their job, now it's up to the batsmen."

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by Faizan_Bahadur on (November 3, 2013, 20:48 GMT)

Whats all this fuss about big scores;fielders restriction and 350 is new 280..Guys just prepare a little better pitches and see the difference.The run feast is over guys..Get back to real cricket now.Australia will find that pretty soon in Ashes and India in South Africa. ThankGod for the UAE series that i m still interested in watching cricket.

Posted by CricCrazyAndy on (November 3, 2013, 16:38 GMT)

Why should any total be considered "Safe"? In same or approximately same conditions, between two evenly matched teams, why should the second team not be able to chase any total that the first team has scored? Think of the 90s Indian team, the chase was lost more in the mind than on the field. Other than "Scoreboard Pressure" what other impediment is there to any team chasing? See the way the teams are mounting the chase today. The attitude is that there is plenty of time in ODIs to catch up, so teams do not even go hammer and tongs during the Initial power play. Its all the attitude and the ability to soak up pressure that is making it possible to chase any total today (as long as same conditions & evenly matched teams).

Posted by ThatsJustCricket on (November 3, 2013, 4:45 GMT)

to be honest, the SA tour of UAE is way more fun than the series in India. If the Ind series is about good batting on flat decks and rubbish bowling to boot, the series in the UAE is littered with awfully comic batting ineptitude by both teams. The way Pak lost the first match chasing 183 is nothing short of top grade comedy. It's funny how the Pak supporters complain about the Ind batters being good only in India. The Pak batters are comically useless almost everywhere in the world.

Posted by Rajesh1968 on (November 3, 2013, 4:41 GMT)

Maybe getting rid of power plays will help to control the number of runs scored. They don't seem to be necessary any more. Fixing the number of fielders (excluding bowler and wicketkeeper) in and out of the 30-yard circle at maybe 4 and 5 respectively may also help.

Posted by   on (November 3, 2013, 4:33 GMT)

I think the conditions getting easier also feeds the batsmen's confidence. They are interrelated and not independent factors. Only four men out on the boundary means more gaps for mishits to sail through. Boundaries brought in means greater chances of these crossing the ropes. Improved bats and absent yorkers don't hurt either. The record for the highest run chase (and also incidentally the highest score by any team batting second in an ODI) was set in 2006, well before the first Twenty20 World Cup but around the time some of those factors I mentioned had already begun to influence the ODI game.

Posted by CricIndia208 on (November 3, 2013, 3:40 GMT)

Indians bowled and batted brilliantly in the champions trophy. Lot of rubbish posted in this thread by the usual suspects, against Indian cricket. India won the most important tournament of 2013 and conquered English conditions in the process. We beat every team in that tournament.

Posted by android_user on (November 3, 2013, 1:53 GMT)

1800 seems to be a safe total. It may ensure that you don't lose if you don't win.

Posted by   on (November 2, 2013, 20:06 GMT)

The pitches these days have made cricket a batsman's game. That and other rules favoring the bats. I believe One-Day Cricket will lose its charm if this keeps going on. No one would want to become a bowler nowadays. We don't have great ODI bowlers like Akram, McGrath, Waqar and Donald anymore. I still remember the time when 280+ was considered a huge score and chasing down a total like that was a remarkable achievement. 350 isn't even safe these days. The pitches in the India-Australia series were simply a disgrace to the game.

Posted by Zahidsaltin on (November 2, 2013, 19:12 GMT)

To answer your headline question, yes no total is secure if you are playing on a highway styled wicket specially in India. India has killed any chance of producing a decent bowler by making such wickets where 300 is to be considered a low score. I don't remember any match in the recent series where both teams didn't score 300+ score. And I don't think that even a single bowler can stand out even not Johnsen WHO bowled at 150 kph. Its nothing unusual that 4 of the top ODI scores in an innings are made by indians on indian wickets. Non of their batsmen including Tandulkar (excluding Dravid and Gavesker) are any exceptional but only one advantage that they make a lot of centuries on these totally dead wickets and that confidence of being in form surely effects their showing on the foriegn soil too. All in all, it is a different cricket than the one all other teams play. Just for contrast look at the SA vs Pak series and the totals there. Now you can't at least judge SA to be a week team.

Posted by Zsam on (November 2, 2013, 14:44 GMT)

@Waqas, Pakistan toured India during the December -Jan season, when the conditions make are more tilted in the bowlers scale more than the batsmen. Nothing to take away from Pakistan, but if you were to look at the season, then generally the summer months are more run feasts in the subcont than winters. Even the friendship series b/n Ind-Pak in 2003 was played in April-May and the ODIs were high scoring ones. Now the question arises about how come the current series which has entered into November is still producing high scoring games. Well my hypothesis is that its still not wintery cold, and the sweaters arent out as yet. Nothing to take away from the self belief inspired from T20s and excellent batting/shielding coverage. But even with all this, you still need loads of talent to consistently score 350plus and win.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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