January 4, 2014

Bowlers are back in the game

After the runaway batting averages and homogeneous pitches of the 2000s, it appears we may be seeing a welcome correction
19

Whisper it: bowlers aren't all that downtrodden anymore
Whisper it: bowlers aren't all that downtrodden anymore © Getty Images

Test cricket in 2013 ended with South Africa on top, as India's young batsmen failed to negotiate the challenge of Steyn and Co. The result, a home win, was also a send-off for one of the greatest batsmen of all time. Considering what had happened in the previous 12 months, it felt appropriate.

It was the year when the defenders of Test cricket once again complained of strawmen signalling the death of the format, and all of us felt uneasy about the India-Australia ODI series, which danced on the line between spectacle and farce. Yet it was also a year that gave hope for Test cricket and its competitiveness. Sure, South Africa are further away from the rest of the field than they were 12 months ago, but the duel between bat and ball seems to be a contest once again. In terms of batting average the year ranked 35th in the last 50 years, the worst for batsmen since 2000.

It was the continuation of a positive trend that has been relatively underappreciated. Two-thousand and eleven ranks 31st on that table, and 2012 is at No. 18. Considering the decade that just went by, this is the best news that aficionados of the long form could have hoped for. The noughties, after all, were the decade of the batsman. Seven of the eight years from 2003 to 2010 rank in the top 15 of that table - never in modern cricket had the contest been so skewed. But the balance seems to have been redressed. In six of the eight years from 2003 to 2010 the run rate was 3.30 or higher (the exceptions being 2003, with 3.20, and 2008 with 3.23), in each of the last three years it has been under 3.15.

The reasons for this have been commented on. The most obvious, and popular, seems to be that the proliferation of T20 has created a generation of mindless hitters who do not put a price on their wicket (although that wouldn't explain the fall in run rates). If one were to judge batsmen only from the Ashes, that would certainly be the opinion formed. But across the Indian Ocean, some of the South African and Indian batsmen - batsmen far more suited to, and experienced in, the T20 game - showed the sort of application that would have made Geoffrey Boycott proud. This was headlined by an exceptional partnership between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis on a difficult day-five pitch in Johannesburg, certainly not the first such instance.

The truth, I believe, is more complex than just the rise of T20. One of the reasons for the correction has been the passing of an era. A generation of batsmen who grew up in varied conditions and against the difficult bowling of the '90s, feasted in the noughties. They had been raised against the Ws, McGrath and Warne, Ambrose and Walsh, Pollock and Donald, and others. When these batsmen matured, they found pitches were increasingly homogenised - with "true" bounce and little grass. Bowlers became substitutes for bowling machines. And many an op-ed grumbled about the death of swing bowling. That generation has now passed.

The top four run scorers in Test history have all retired in the last 24 months, nearly all of them after periods when they realised that they were unable to play at the extraordinary level that they had made into a routine. Even Jacques Kallis, who retired with a match-winning hundred, ended his final year with his worst calendar-year average since 1997 (only the second time in the last 15 years that he averaged under 44 for a year - a sign of his remarkable consistency). Together with this quartet a great number of high-volume scorers, the likes of VVS Laxman, Matthew Hayden, Mohammad Yousuf and Andrew Strauss, have called it a day in the last five years, most of them after being brought back to mediocrity. Mahela Jayawardene will probably be the next to follow - he has averaged only 31 in the last three years.

But to base the reasons for the trend purely on the state of batsmanship would be incomplete. There is the renaissance in swing bowling to speak of. Dale Steyn and James Anderson remain the benchmark, but the likes of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Junaid Khan and Ryan Harris provide the sort of depth that was missing back when Matthew Hoggard was the only swing bowler of note in world cricket. The spinners, similarly, have become a greater force than they were just five years ago. Sure, one could argue that the success has a lot to do with the new generation of batsmen not learning the lessons that previous generations might have taken for granted, but that undersells the current lot of spinners. Orthodoxy, as shown by Rangana Herath, Graeme Swann and Nathan Lyon, is once again effective. The unorthodox spinner, developed as a reaction to the crash-bang-wallop of modern batting, is showing that he can be effective in the longest version.

The perfect example might be the career of Saeed Ajmal - going to the West Indies in early 2011, he had played nine Tests and averaged over 35 with the ball, unable to bring his short-form effectiveness to "real" cricket, supposedly not suited for the five-day game; someone who had too much variety and too little patience. In his first three years he had spent time behind both Danish Kaneria and Abdur Rehman - orthodox spinners, more suited to the whites. The following three years have seen Ajmal become the best spinner in the world. Ajmal, unlike, say, Ajantha Mendis, has shown that the unorthodox can work in Test cricket, provided that as a spinner you are willing also to learn the orthodox. An offspinner whose greatest weapon is his length isn't really a mystery spinner, as Osman Samiuddin and Jarrod Kimber intimated a year ago.

The most obvious explanation seems to be that the proliferation of T20 has created a generation of mindless hitters who do not put a price on their wicket (although that wouldn't explain the fall in run rates)

Quite simply - and this has happened repeatedly over the past century - as the balance of power in cricket has shifted towards the batsmen, the bowlers have snapped it back. Sometimes this, like with Ajmal's evolution, takes longer than might be ideal, but it is an inevitability, and the reason why cricket remains an enduring sport.

And finally to something that does not come easily to the cricket fan: one must praise the administrators for what has happened in the last three years. Sure, all they have done is rectify some of the damage they inflicted previously, but there has been a realisation that there is no shame attached to exploiting home conditions. The homogenisation of the noughties has been replaced by more result-oriented pitches. Cameron Sutherland, for example, has restored the aura of the WACA, and cricket fans are indebted to him for it. Teams and boards are willing to make pitches that their bowling attacks can thrive on, belatedly realising the veracity of the axiom that your bowlers win you Test matches. Of course, you could say that the quality of bowling attacks all over the world is better than it was five years ago, and thus the backing given to bowlers has been earned.

Only three of the 43 Tests played in 2013 were won by the away team (two in Zimbabwe, and one in the neutral environs of the UAE). It's a development that harks back to the decades of cricket before the noughties - winning away is once again a challenge, regardless of how good you are.

Those that harken back to the '70s and '80s may not realise it, but Test cricket is back to what they get nostalgic about - moustachioed Australian howitzers, Pakistanis of all shapes and sizes, demon Afrikaner pacers, and a spin overdose in India have all brought us back to where we started. It's the way it's supposed to be.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on January 5, 2014, 11:33 GMT

    Really really good article. With one very odd exception, very good batsmen and ordinary batsmen alike inflated their averages throughout the mid 2000s. I personally attribute that to the disappearance of virtually all the great fast bowlers of the 90s. Just easier to face Collymore rather than Ambrose, Shabbir rather than Wasim, Ntini rather than Donald, the list goes on. Cricket has a debt of gratitude to Dale Steyn for being the first herald of a more meaningful cricketing era. PS - I think Tendulkar is terrific but this article really isnt about him :-)

  • on January 4, 2014, 13:31 GMT

    I liked the article as I also got the same kind of feeling about test cricket in last two years. According to me barring Shane Warne, this Australian pace attack is better than McGrath- Bichell-Kasprowitz- Flemming era in 90's. Aussie Batting is obviously weaker than that era. They can now be compared to South African team in the 90's. South Africa on the other hand a very good team and perhaps better than Aussies in 2000s if you compare man to man.( But man, that team had something else! May be some Alien power

  • on January 6, 2014, 8:37 GMT

    Indeed ,good article sir ,infact a well researched article , ckt . is all about pace and bounce ,i mean chin music bounce ,not that ankle high bounce .The best sight in ckt. is to watch a pace bowler throwing grenades and that scary eyes batsmen with a scared look , who can miss that bouncer to the ,world,s greatest batsman after Bradman i,e Sir Brain charles Lara by The fastest bowler of world ,shoiab Akthar . I mean still some speed demons are there in ckt . such as M . Jhonson ,Irfan ,Morkel ,steyn and pattison ,roach and co. Long live speedsters ,cricket is all about speed and skill .

  • on January 6, 2014, 1:22 GMT

    When we have batting line-ups that get all out for 49 runs in a test match, of course, bowlers do look good. Nevertheless, I am an admirer of Styen, Morkel, Philander and M. Johnson. The one question I often ask and yet to get a satisfactory answer is that when a good batsman is expected to score on all kind of pitches why a bowler is not expected to succeed on all kind of pitches given the fact that it takes just one ball for batsman to get out and it could be run-out, a freak hit wicket, a momentary lapse in concentration or anything unrelated to merits of the ball ?

  • McGorium on January 5, 2014, 17:16 GMT

    As a general rule, correlation is not causation. There *may* have been a rise of bowling recently (somehow I doubt that), and there certainly has been a spate of batsman retirements in the last 2 years, but that does not imply causation. All the legendary batsmen retired past the age of 35, which is what you'd expect regardless of bowling. Now back to the original comment about bowling having improved, that's hardly the case: Steyn is the only champion bowler across all teams. Consider the late 1990's-2000's when you had McGrath, Warne, Murali, Kumble, Akram, Donald, against finer batsmen.There's no spinner currently who is of the quality of Warne, Murali, perhaps even Kumble (yes, Ajmal and Swann are good, but not that good.) The point I concede is that swing bowling has made a comeback. On the other hand, Morkel is the only quality representative of the tall, bang-it-in bowler that the WI's and aussies produced regularly in the 70s. And, there's nobody who hits 150+kmph regularly.

  • on January 5, 2014, 16:22 GMT

    Excellent article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • on January 5, 2014, 15:03 GMT

    A very good and well written article. Indian supporters please stop expecting every article to high light your team or your players. every comment regarding "the greatest this or the greatest that" is purely subjective and can only be a personal opinion anyway. It is great to see fast bowlers tearing in, bouncers flying, balls swinging and seaming, its also great to see spin bowlers weaving magical webs of deception. Its not all about batting. Let the good times roll!

  • RB007 on January 5, 2014, 8:24 GMT

    Great news assuming this is not a fad but a trend! On an aside, why did all the commentariat express such concern over the future of ODI cricket following the scores of the India Australia ODI series? Arent they supposed to be better informed? Following the bowling exploits of Steyn and Johnson in the recent Test matches, does anyone care to remember the batting exploits of that series. It would be good to see some of the experts "EAT their Words"!

  • on January 5, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    Great spinner Ajmal is. Always a delight to watch his bowling.

  • on January 5, 2014, 5:16 GMT

    Read the title. It says bowler back in the game not Tendulkar retirement. Kallis is being mentioned as how he was struggling. It's a bowling article. Shows how now the batsman have to apply themselves more then they used to. I love test cricket these days more then anything. The only teams which have minutely challenged anytime at home is with a bowling attack. England vs India was a humbling experience for India. So they decided to further dumb down there batting. Why kallis is the greatest? Why do Indians feel threatened by him? No matter a very nice article. Batting batting batting. Indians when was the last time a bowler for you really turned it on? Johnson did recently. Junaid did it also recently...

  • on January 5, 2014, 11:33 GMT

    Really really good article. With one very odd exception, very good batsmen and ordinary batsmen alike inflated their averages throughout the mid 2000s. I personally attribute that to the disappearance of virtually all the great fast bowlers of the 90s. Just easier to face Collymore rather than Ambrose, Shabbir rather than Wasim, Ntini rather than Donald, the list goes on. Cricket has a debt of gratitude to Dale Steyn for being the first herald of a more meaningful cricketing era. PS - I think Tendulkar is terrific but this article really isnt about him :-)

  • on January 4, 2014, 13:31 GMT

    I liked the article as I also got the same kind of feeling about test cricket in last two years. According to me barring Shane Warne, this Australian pace attack is better than McGrath- Bichell-Kasprowitz- Flemming era in 90's. Aussie Batting is obviously weaker than that era. They can now be compared to South African team in the 90's. South Africa on the other hand a very good team and perhaps better than Aussies in 2000s if you compare man to man.( But man, that team had something else! May be some Alien power

  • on January 6, 2014, 8:37 GMT

    Indeed ,good article sir ,infact a well researched article , ckt . is all about pace and bounce ,i mean chin music bounce ,not that ankle high bounce .The best sight in ckt. is to watch a pace bowler throwing grenades and that scary eyes batsmen with a scared look , who can miss that bouncer to the ,world,s greatest batsman after Bradman i,e Sir Brain charles Lara by The fastest bowler of world ,shoiab Akthar . I mean still some speed demons are there in ckt . such as M . Jhonson ,Irfan ,Morkel ,steyn and pattison ,roach and co. Long live speedsters ,cricket is all about speed and skill .

  • on January 6, 2014, 1:22 GMT

    When we have batting line-ups that get all out for 49 runs in a test match, of course, bowlers do look good. Nevertheless, I am an admirer of Styen, Morkel, Philander and M. Johnson. The one question I often ask and yet to get a satisfactory answer is that when a good batsman is expected to score on all kind of pitches why a bowler is not expected to succeed on all kind of pitches given the fact that it takes just one ball for batsman to get out and it could be run-out, a freak hit wicket, a momentary lapse in concentration or anything unrelated to merits of the ball ?

  • McGorium on January 5, 2014, 17:16 GMT

    As a general rule, correlation is not causation. There *may* have been a rise of bowling recently (somehow I doubt that), and there certainly has been a spate of batsman retirements in the last 2 years, but that does not imply causation. All the legendary batsmen retired past the age of 35, which is what you'd expect regardless of bowling. Now back to the original comment about bowling having improved, that's hardly the case: Steyn is the only champion bowler across all teams. Consider the late 1990's-2000's when you had McGrath, Warne, Murali, Kumble, Akram, Donald, against finer batsmen.There's no spinner currently who is of the quality of Warne, Murali, perhaps even Kumble (yes, Ajmal and Swann are good, but not that good.) The point I concede is that swing bowling has made a comeback. On the other hand, Morkel is the only quality representative of the tall, bang-it-in bowler that the WI's and aussies produced regularly in the 70s. And, there's nobody who hits 150+kmph regularly.

  • on January 5, 2014, 16:22 GMT

    Excellent article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • on January 5, 2014, 15:03 GMT

    A very good and well written article. Indian supporters please stop expecting every article to high light your team or your players. every comment regarding "the greatest this or the greatest that" is purely subjective and can only be a personal opinion anyway. It is great to see fast bowlers tearing in, bouncers flying, balls swinging and seaming, its also great to see spin bowlers weaving magical webs of deception. Its not all about batting. Let the good times roll!

  • RB007 on January 5, 2014, 8:24 GMT

    Great news assuming this is not a fad but a trend! On an aside, why did all the commentariat express such concern over the future of ODI cricket following the scores of the India Australia ODI series? Arent they supposed to be better informed? Following the bowling exploits of Steyn and Johnson in the recent Test matches, does anyone care to remember the batting exploits of that series. It would be good to see some of the experts "EAT their Words"!

  • on January 5, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    Great spinner Ajmal is. Always a delight to watch his bowling.

  • on January 5, 2014, 5:16 GMT

    Read the title. It says bowler back in the game not Tendulkar retirement. Kallis is being mentioned as how he was struggling. It's a bowling article. Shows how now the batsman have to apply themselves more then they used to. I love test cricket these days more then anything. The only teams which have minutely challenged anytime at home is with a bowling attack. England vs India was a humbling experience for India. So they decided to further dumb down there batting. Why kallis is the greatest? Why do Indians feel threatened by him? No matter a very nice article. Batting batting batting. Indians when was the last time a bowler for you really turned it on? Johnson did recently. Junaid did it also recently...

  • Dark.Matter on January 5, 2014, 3:04 GMT

    the writer should have mentioned ishant sherma, ashok dinda, zaheer khan and ravi chandern ashwin

  • Desihungama on January 5, 2014, 0:43 GMT

    I am seeing fans from India complaining of some of their greats not being mentioned in this article. Yes, I know when your team is not winning you are not really enjoying cricket in general/ Bowlers are back in the game. That's the title of this article. Where does India fit into this paradigm? Your greats were and are all batsmen. This is exactly the mindset that will continue to deny India of good bowlers. If you do not appreciate good bowling you will not develop good bowlers of your own. 2013 turned out to be great year for bowlers. Steyn lead the way with Johnson, Irfan, Junaid, Morkel, Philander, Ajmal provided mesmerized performances of their own. So, really in the end it was delightful to watch bowlers making their mark once again.

  • billbowden311 on January 4, 2014, 15:44 GMT

    All Indians claiming that this article is biased, please check your own articles again. I also say this because India has had no bowlers that should be deemed 'impressive'. Ashwin bowled on spinning tracks the whole year, and playqed well, yet when he played in SA, he couldn't pick up one wicket. Ajmal has taken a 10 wicket haul in South Africa.

  • welovepakistan on January 4, 2014, 14:59 GMT

    great article by writer...thanx cricinfo.

  • on January 4, 2014, 14:18 GMT

    Great article, we've indeed had some wonderful test matches last year with good balance between ball and bat!

  • dual.citizen on January 4, 2014, 13:22 GMT

    Good blog. There is no sight better than a spinner planning against the batsmen and ultimately foxing him to get his wicket. I draw much pleasure from a fast bowler intimidating the batsman and forcing him to make the false shot to loose his wicket.

  • Vaughanographic on January 4, 2014, 10:17 GMT

    I disagree- I really like the piece I've also had enough of boring runfests! I'm not fussed that a pakistani writer writes about the best example of an unorthodox spinner adapting to test cricket (Ajmal) and there are some pretty good points- its great to see a moustachioed fast bowler tearing up world cricket.

    Incidentally, the greatest cricketer to have retired this year (Kallis) is mentioned. A comparable batting record to Tendulkar (with about 40 less test matches), oh and with about 250 more wickets :)

    Bring on more demon spinners (Jadeja!) and quickies in 2014!

  • CricIndia208 on January 4, 2014, 9:07 GMT

    Very poor and biased piece. Not a word on the retirement of the greatest cricketer ever, Sachin Tendulkar. And nothing on the wonderful show by Kohli, rahane and pujara in South Africa. But AB and Faf get a mention. Biased!

  • on January 4, 2014, 7:45 GMT

    had enough off batters scoring runs on placid tracks and annoying bowlers hope this year is redemption for bowlers with mitch leading the way

  • on January 4, 2014, 7:45 GMT

    had enough off batters scoring runs on placid tracks and annoying bowlers hope this year is redemption for bowlers with mitch leading the way

  • CricIndia208 on January 4, 2014, 9:07 GMT

    Very poor and biased piece. Not a word on the retirement of the greatest cricketer ever, Sachin Tendulkar. And nothing on the wonderful show by Kohli, rahane and pujara in South Africa. But AB and Faf get a mention. Biased!

  • Vaughanographic on January 4, 2014, 10:17 GMT

    I disagree- I really like the piece I've also had enough of boring runfests! I'm not fussed that a pakistani writer writes about the best example of an unorthodox spinner adapting to test cricket (Ajmal) and there are some pretty good points- its great to see a moustachioed fast bowler tearing up world cricket.

    Incidentally, the greatest cricketer to have retired this year (Kallis) is mentioned. A comparable batting record to Tendulkar (with about 40 less test matches), oh and with about 250 more wickets :)

    Bring on more demon spinners (Jadeja!) and quickies in 2014!

  • dual.citizen on January 4, 2014, 13:22 GMT

    Good blog. There is no sight better than a spinner planning against the batsmen and ultimately foxing him to get his wicket. I draw much pleasure from a fast bowler intimidating the batsman and forcing him to make the false shot to loose his wicket.

  • on January 4, 2014, 14:18 GMT

    Great article, we've indeed had some wonderful test matches last year with good balance between ball and bat!

  • welovepakistan on January 4, 2014, 14:59 GMT

    great article by writer...thanx cricinfo.

  • billbowden311 on January 4, 2014, 15:44 GMT

    All Indians claiming that this article is biased, please check your own articles again. I also say this because India has had no bowlers that should be deemed 'impressive'. Ashwin bowled on spinning tracks the whole year, and playqed well, yet when he played in SA, he couldn't pick up one wicket. Ajmal has taken a 10 wicket haul in South Africa.

  • Desihungama on January 5, 2014, 0:43 GMT

    I am seeing fans from India complaining of some of their greats not being mentioned in this article. Yes, I know when your team is not winning you are not really enjoying cricket in general/ Bowlers are back in the game. That's the title of this article. Where does India fit into this paradigm? Your greats were and are all batsmen. This is exactly the mindset that will continue to deny India of good bowlers. If you do not appreciate good bowling you will not develop good bowlers of your own. 2013 turned out to be great year for bowlers. Steyn lead the way with Johnson, Irfan, Junaid, Morkel, Philander, Ajmal provided mesmerized performances of their own. So, really in the end it was delightful to watch bowlers making their mark once again.

  • Dark.Matter on January 5, 2014, 3:04 GMT

    the writer should have mentioned ishant sherma, ashok dinda, zaheer khan and ravi chandern ashwin

  • on January 5, 2014, 5:16 GMT

    Read the title. It says bowler back in the game not Tendulkar retirement. Kallis is being mentioned as how he was struggling. It's a bowling article. Shows how now the batsman have to apply themselves more then they used to. I love test cricket these days more then anything. The only teams which have minutely challenged anytime at home is with a bowling attack. England vs India was a humbling experience for India. So they decided to further dumb down there batting. Why kallis is the greatest? Why do Indians feel threatened by him? No matter a very nice article. Batting batting batting. Indians when was the last time a bowler for you really turned it on? Johnson did recently. Junaid did it also recently...