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

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