November 13, 2013

Why the new fielding restrictions in ODIs are a good idea

Kartikeya Date
Bowlers who err go for boundaries and bowlers who are consistent challenge batsmen to take risks

Clint McKay: one of the few bowlers who forced India's batsmen to take chances in the recent ODI series © BCCI

The scoring rate in Australia's recent series in India set off a debate among serious observers of the game about the impact of the new rules. The Indian captain MS Dhoni has been critical of the rules and observed that we would be better off using bowling machines.

Here at ESPNcricinfo, the matter has been discussed in detail. Michael Jeh wondered whether any total was safe anymore. Jon Hotten observed that the single, once the holy grail of ODI cricket (Bob Simpson built a World Cup-winning strategy around the idea that 100 singles in 50 overs won games), had declined in value. Anantha Narayanan extended Hotten's point with data. Subash Jayaraman was full of empathy for Vinay Kumar. Ian Chappell put the problem down to heavier bats and shorter boundaries. The figures suggest a more complicated picture. S Rajesh showed that the rule changes have not had an effect on run rates. I have shown that it is especially an Indian issue.

For a closer, more nuanced look, I calculated three things. First, the total runs scored with the bat over 300 deliveries (300*[total runs scored] / [total balls faced]) in every host nation in each year. Second, how many of these runs came in boundaries. And third, how many of these runs came in sixes. The geographical distribution suggests that Chappell makes an excellent point about bats and boundaries. Dhoni is only partly right. The significant leap in scoring rates is down to an increase not only in the number of boundary hits, but in the number of sixes hit per 300 balls. The number of non-boundary runs scored with the bat per 300 balls has remained more or less the same over the last 20 years, in the range of 130.

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The first chart above shows the share of boundaries and non-boundaries in runs scored over 300 balls in each calendar year from 1993 to 2013. Data is not available for a few matches in 1996 and 1997, but otherwise, the data, drawn from ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru is complete. As a general trend in ODI cricket, the share of non-boundary runs with the bat has declined from about 65% in 1993 to about 50% in 2013. While more fours have been hit recently, the number of sixes hit has doubled. Here is how the trend breaks down geographically

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Australia has traditionally been the hardest place to hit a six in ODI cricket. In the 1990s, a six in an ODI game in Australia was a rare event. Given the size of the boundaries, batsmen would rarely attempt it. After they started using boundary ropes in Australia, sixes were hit but they were rare. A 50-over innings has seen, on average, two to three sixes in Australia. In the 1990s, 30% or less of the runs in a 300-delivery innings were scored in boundaries, mainly fours. By the mid-2000s, this had grown to 40%. Interestingly, in 2013 we see a significant leap - nearly half the runs have been scored in boundaries, even though the scoring rate has been lower than in previous years. Sixes were still rare events. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in the coming years. It will have implications for Australia's home advantage in the 2015 World Cup.

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England has a reputation of being a friendly place for new-ball bowlers. Of all the countries on the cricketing map, this is where the new stipulation of using a different ball from each end should be most effective. But the facts belie this. England have consistently been among the more profligate teams in ODI bowling. Grounds in England have also been among the higher-scoring venues in the limited-overs game.

The share of non-boundary runs has held steady in England, at least for the last seven to eight years - a period of great upheaval elsewhere. The year 2011, when England hosted India, saw unusually high scoring, but even then, less than 10% of the runs scored were from sixes, and the share of the non-boundary runs held steady.

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India, as I have previously argued, is the hotbed of fast scoring - the team as well as the venues. Sixes are decidedly more common in India than in England or Australia. About half the runs in recent times in India have been scored in boundaries and more than 10% in sixes. In 2013, the majority of ODI runs in India were scored in boundaries and nearly one in six runs came in sixes. The upcoming ODI games against West Indies may change this, but as fast as scoring in 2013 has been, it has not been as fast as in 2008, 2009, and 2010. In these three years an average of about 280 runs were scored every 300 balls. So far in 2013, a six has been hit every seven overs. One of the intriguing things in Rajesh's recent article is the decline in the scoring rate in the first ten overs of ODI innings over the last three years. Some of this is explained by the confidence India (and many visiting teams) have in their ability to clear the boundary later in the match.

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New Zealand
As high-scoring as India is, it is not the easiest place in the world to hit sixes. That (dubious?) distinction goes to New Zealand, where sixes have consistently contributed up to a sixth of totals in ODIs. The number of the non-boundary runs from the bat in New Zealand (as is the case for all the countries discussed so far) has remained constant. The year 2009 was fast- scoring. India toured. They made 392 for 4 in Christchurch, reached 273 for 4 in 38 overs in Napier, and 201 for no loss in 23.3 overs in Hamilton. The 1990s were a low-scoring era in New Zealand. Four runs per over was the norm. This has now extended beyond five per over because batsmen in recent years have cleared the boundary with far greater regularity than before.

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South Africa
South Africa has a peculiar story to tell. In recent years, (2010 is an anomaly, the hosts played only Zimbabwe that year and outclassed them), while scoring rates have remained steady, the share of the boundary hits was shrinking back towards 40%. In 2013, that has changed. Teams playing in South Africa have hit more of their runs in boundaries than at any time since 2006. While the share of runs from boundaries has declined, sixes have been hit at a consistent rate. Unlike in India, where the run share of the boundaries in 2013 has neared the 50% mark, the scoring rate has not been significantly different from recent years. In fact, it has been lower than in 2012. This suggests that ODI games in South Africa and Australia in 2013 have seen more boundaries and more scoreless deliveries, arguably thanks to the change in fielding restrictions since October 30, 2012.

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Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka gives the lie to the stereotype about the subcontinent being an easy part of the world when it comes to batting. Scoring has been difficult here, especially since ODI cricket moved to new venues in Dambulla and Hambantota. Sri Lanka has also been, along with Australia, the most difficult place in the ODI world to hit sixes. Running well between the wickets matters on these new grounds that have longer boundaries than the grounds in Colombo.

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United Arab Emirates: Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi
ODI cricket in the Emirates has followed the global trend of fast scoring. The share of boundaries has changed less dramatically here than elsewhere. The rate at which sixes have been hit has remained the same, possibly because India have not played there since 2006. ODI cricket in the Emirates is rather old-fashioned. Since Pakistan are invariably one of the teams in any contest there, their excellent bowling attack may have something to do with the scoring trends. The emergence of Junaid Khan, Mohammad Irfan, and most crucially Saeed Ajmal, allied with the canny offbreaks of Mohammad Hafeez, gives Pakistan depth and control, which Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz and a slew of pacemen couldn't manage five years ago.

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West Indies
Boundary hitting seems to have taken off in the West Indies in 2012 and 2013, though run scoring is not faster now than it has been in recent years. Sixes have consistently made up more than a tenth of the runs scored in 300 deliveries for the past seven years or so. This could simply be due to the presence of Chris Gayle, but as prolific as he is, Gayle has not been at his best in the Caribbean, even though he has scored faster there. He has averaged more than one six per innings there. While West Indies show an increase in boundary-hitting and six-hitting, the record in these respects is similar to the overall trend.

This geographic breakdown of scoring rates and methods shows that within the general trend towards more boundary hits and more sixes, ODI cricket produces a different type of contest in different types of arenas. Dhoni is right, partly, when he says that rule changes favour boundary-hitting, but as the numbers from South Africa and Australia show, this shouldn't necessarily result in bigger totals.

The new fielding restrictions are on balance a good idea because they penalise bad bowling more. Bowlers who err in line and length now go for boundaries more often than they used to. Bowlers who bowl a consistent line and length can be challenged by the top batsmen who are willing to take risks, especially on good pitches.

Clint McKay, a bowler with excellent control of basic line and length and variations, forced Indian batsmen like Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma to take chances against him in the recent series. They responded by, after every two or three well-pitched deliveries, stepping out or stepping away, and successfully hitting him over cover or straight down the ground. They made this look easy, but on wickets with a little bit more pace, each of them could easily have come undone taking these risks.

Two things work against the ICC's field restrictions - the ever-improving quality of cricket bats and the tendency to prepare flat wickets. Given how commercially minded the top cricket boards - India, England and Australia - are, I wouldn't at all be surprised if top board officials now expect curators to prepare flat pitches for ODI games. When a wicket has a little bit of life, like the one at the new stadium in Pune did during the first ODI of the recent series, the difference in the quality of bowling has been evident from the scorecard. Mitchell Johnson's extra pace was effective, as was McKay's accuracy. In contrast, the top four Australian wickets fell to spinners. Later in the series, this difference was blunted by flatter wickets.

It will be interesting to see if the present trend in ODI cricket of more boundaries and more scoreless deliveries continues, especially in places where the wickets are livelier than they are in India (or wherever India play). It makes for better cricket because it hurts bad bowling and rewards accurate bowlers. It should also reward technically superior batsmen.

This shift will set the stage for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. I hope the rule for fielding restrictions remains. I also hope that the ICC figures out a way to regulate cricket bats. While watching Dhoni with his 2kg bat is quite a sight, it is perhaps not entirely fair to bowlers, who don't have the option of choosing a heavier ball.

The new fielding-restriction rule will also draw out the geographical differences in the ODI contest. The ODI contest is long enough to force batsmen to play innings, and not just 20-ball cameos. Preventing a stalemate is perhaps the best thing that could happen to the game. With regard to the recent rule changes, I wish they would try the following:

1. Start with one new ball. After 20 overs, introduce a second new ball from one end. Thus, we will end with one ball used for 35 overs, another for 15.
2. Regulate cricket bats by introducing a maximum weight (just as the maximum weight of a cricket ball is specified).
3. Abolish the requirement for catching fielders.
4. Persist with the fielding-restriction rule. Only four fielders beyond the 30-yard circle in all non Powerplay overs.