November 2, 2013

Is any total safe anymore?

Scoring at more than six runs per over no longer comes fraught with huge risk and considerable damage

Usman Khawaja: the star of Queensland's big chase in the Ryobi Cup final © Getty Images

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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